As Dr. Mathilde Krim "a.k.a. the Mother of AIDS advocacy" passes the amfAR torch to classy designer
Kenneth Cole, her once-great institution may claim it's not losing a legend but gaining a brand name. But can its new leader see past the bottom line to make amfAR not only fashionable but relevant again?
years ago, in the depths of AIDS stigma, Dr. Mathilde Krim left the lab
to devote her extraordinary energies and A-list access to raising money
for the disease—particularly the pioneering research of colleague Dr.
Joseph Sonnabend. Her matronly accent-and-bun performances launched
what became the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). Well
into the ’90s, with assists from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and
Sharon Stone, amfAR remained the beacon for finding and funding
neglected HIV research. Then, under intense activist pressure, the feds
and big pharma got into the game, committing megabucks to drug development. Little amfAR began to flounder. The org leaned on
marketing über-whiz and longtime board member Kenneth Cole. He and wife
Maria Cuomo (former New York governor Mario’s daughter) crafted bold,
splashy appeals. The progressive power couple kept the cred and cash
coming, even as the cause fell out of fashion. AmfAR’s crafty,
crusading advocacy in DC won kudos, too. Still, it increasingly had a
mission in name only.
Now, six months after Cole stepped into
Krim’s well-worn chairman-of-the-board shoes, POZ asked contributing
writer Michael Musto to drop by Cole’s design firm for a chat. La
Musto, himself a veteran AIDS activist, toasted Krim and Cole’s
contribution, swapped war stories—and then got down to business. Armed
with an informal POZ poll of fellow activists that gives the org
poorreviews in recent years, he presented the activists’ own immodest
proposal: By flexing its strongest muscles—advocacy with awesome
attitude—amfAR can reclaim its once-critical mission. But it must meet
an urgent new need: funding research into condom-based prevention,
decimated by a Bush administration assault. The new leader’s answer?
POZ: Dr. Krim, what’s going on with this change of personnel? Krim:
Passing the baton to somebody who’s young, energetic and compassionate
is ideal for this position. I hope I will have a little more free time.
POZ: What do you miss doing the most? Krim: I don’t even know what I miss because I’ve not done it for a number of years! [She laughs.]
Cole: I don’t believe she’ll be able to stray far. As often as she might try, I think she’ll find herself back by my side.
POZ: With a whip? Anyway, Kenneth, should amfAR be doing more advocacy in DC? Cole:
The advocacy is important, but we have to be realistic. At the end of
the day, it’s going to be an encumbrance rather than a mechanism to
move forward. We’re a public-health organization, and we need to focus
on our mission. My goal is to energize and invigorate a very able
organization. It’s an opportunity to seek innovative approaches to
traditional problems, which is what I do for a living.
POZ: Is that harder than ever in Bush’s second term, when the anti-sex, anti-condoms and anti-science agenda has set everything back? Cole:
I don’t want to be quoted saying that, because I believe that with the
right intention, there are ways of working together. We have three and
a half more years [of Bush] and we [must] move forward. Rather than
deal with why we’re not, I’d rather deal with how we’re going to. You
can’t plant yourself on a pedestal and speak down. You have to speak
eye to eye and be realistic.
POZ: Are Bush’s policies all bad? Krim:
The government supports faith-based organizations, and they can do a
lot of good. A gay friend of mine in Florida has an interest in AIDS
and wanted to help his community, so he hooked up with the local
religious organization. They get money from the government; he gets part of it; and he uses it. There are ways around things sometimes!
POZ: I bet a lot of AIDS activists are suddenly going to pretend to be very religious. Krim: Yes!
POZ: Do you think the condom and clean-needle messages are getting through? Krim: They should. Fortunately, people don’t listen too much yet to the anti-sex. Cole: There
is factual, documented evidence that clean needles work. Some people
think that promotes drug use, but it doesn’t. And condoms do curb the
spread of HIV. They do not, in fact, promote intercourse.
Well, another reality is that POZ could find no one to say a bad word
about either of you, unfortunately. [Both laugh.] But some AIDS
activists do say amfAR hasn’t funded enough experimental,
out-of-the-box projects, just a lot of things the NIH also funded. Krim: We
have tried to avoid that. But it's not always possible. Sometimes to
confirm a result or deny what somebody else has said is useful, too. A
little repetition is good.
POZ: What’s been amfAR’s biggest triumph? Krim:
A woman had an idea to try prevention of transmission from a pregnant
animal to the baby with AZT. Nobody wanted to fund her. She came to us,
and we gave her $50,000. In ’96, it first became applicable to humans,
and that saved the lives of thousands of kids.
POZ: Regrets? Krim: When
we see something deserving and we don’t have the money, that breaks my
heart. That’s one reason why the involvement of Kenneth is wonderful.
He can communicate and knows the right people. He talks to his peers
when he fundraises. I don’t. I talk like a nice little scientist. Cole: Dr. Krim is colorful, unique. There’s nothing contrived, and she says what she feels.
POZ: And now she’s blushing! Cole:
She’s inspired me overup a fatigue. AIDS just goes on and on. You say
to yourself, “Why doesn’t this get better? Why can’t we communicate
this to our fellow human beings, who are supposedly a higher species?”
POZ: I’ve heard amfAR has had an easier time raising money from the European species. Cole: No. The world of not-for-profit is not a functioning element in most European countries. The processes don’t encourage it. You don’t get the tax benefits.
POZ: To help you make more money, who will be the new face of amfAR? Beyoncé? Lindsay Lohan? Me? Cole: We’ll find extraordinary messengers. I don’t know if it needs to be a specific individual. Krim:
Elizabeth Taylor was ideal in the early ’80s to speak to the
middle-class white community. Elizabeth spoke of compassion, and she
did it on a grand scale. Sharon Stone was the right person to talk
about youth. Sharon can be a clown sometimes. She’s terrific as an
auctioneer and spokesperson. the years. But you build Krim: We
have tried to avoid that, but it’s not always nd Harry Belafonte just
joined our board.
At the beginning, did amfAR exaggerate statistics andsay AIDS was more
of a heterosexual threat in order to get people to fork over money? Krim:
No! I was accused of that. But I said it was a heterosexual threat
because viruses don’t choose their victims. It can be anybody. I even
said it was going to become a female disease, which has happened
POZ: What have you learned, Dr. Krim? Krim:
I knew nothing about the gay community in 1981. Dr. Joseph Sonnabend
sent me his patients, including Michael Callen, who told me what gay
life was. That was quite an education! I was disgusted by the way
society accused gay men of having created something terrible. When you
think of it, the promiscuous life was caused by society—it didn’t allow
gay men to get married or to have honest relationships. They had to
POZ: That’s too complex for most homophobes to grasp. What’s your main genius, Kenneth: designing, leading or advertising? Cole:
You’re leading the witness, your honor. I think I’m sometimes blinded
by ambition. My goal is to cure AIDS. I’m focused on looking at the
finishing line and going in that direction.