In 2003, when i first started working at POZ, I immediately knew that I had found a very special place. I’d worked at several other publications—but none could compare to POZ. The POZ staff has the unique challenge of creating a magazine for a widely diverse group of people linked only by a virus. But I quickly discovered that our readers share much more than HIV—they also share the will to survive and thrive.
Since the magazine’s launch in 1994, the staff has also shared a common bond—a passion and a committment to doing everything we can in the fight against HIV/AIDS. As with any company, we’ve had our ups and downs, moments of unbridled laughter as well as occasional tears. But we always unite in our mission of trying to empower, educate and inspire our readers.
Here, we take a peek inside the daily life of the magazine that many (at least in the publishing industry) were shocked to see hit the stands. Undoubtedly, in this recap we missed many important milestones. So we’d like to invite those of you who have worked at, contributed to, appeared in or read the magazine to share your memories with us by adding a comment below. Please help us fill in any gaps and tell us why POZ is special to you. Because we think you’ll agree that there’s no place like POZ.
January–March – Sean Strub conceived POZ in 1993; the first issue of the magazine was created in Strub’s West Village loft. It was edited by Richard Perez-Feria and designed by J.C. Suares. It featured mostly Strub’s friends and people he knew through his activism. Strub and his then-partner Xavier Morales lived in one part of the loft; the POZ office was in the other. (Shortly before the first issue premiered, the POZ offices moved to the second floor of the same building.) Strub and Morales often answered the POZ phone off-hours—sometimes in the middle of the night—to take subscription requests, answer questions or help someone who was newly diagnosed overcome his or her fears.
April/May – The magazine’s first issue featured Ty Ross, the gay, HIV-positive grandson of conservative political icon Barry Goldwater. Fashion/celebrity photographer Greg Gorman took the photos of Ross, and Vanity Fair journalist Kevin Sessums interviewed him. The Associated Press covered POZ’s premier issue by reporting that Goldwater’s grandson “posed nude for a gay magazine.” Not exactly the press we were looking for.
August – New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote an editorial that captured what we were really about—saving the lives of people with HIV.
January – POZ’s printer refused to print the February/March issue because it contained an image of former Playgirl model Thom Collins that they deemed “pornographic.” Our editors had to quickly redesign the page with a less “offensive” image. (Ironically, the same printer also printed Playboy; POZ soon switched to a less hypocritical printer.)
February – Adweek included POZ on its list of hip magazines that had, according to them, “larger-than-life influence.” (Other publications included: Ray Gun, Nickelodeon, Might and Lingua Franca.)
April – Activist Larry Kramer made his POZ cover debut on our first anniversary issue and was interviewed by Andrew Sullivan. Two years later, the tables were turned when Sullivan appeared on the April 1997 cover—interviewed by Kramer. Both were shot by photographer Albert Watson, whose studio and home were a few steps from the POZ office.
June/July – POZ published “A Polka-dot Dilly,” a children’s story written back in the ’60s by Strub’s Aunt Kitty and illustrated by his mother, Janey, about a little boy who is covered head to toe with mysterious spots. Strub remembered the story because he was covered with spots of his own in the form of AIDS-related KS lesions.
February – The late, great treatment activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya smoked a joint at his cover photo shoot. Let’s hope he had a prescription.
April – David Drake (writer/star of the hit play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which Strub produced) was hired as editor-in-chief.
June – The first POZ Life Expo, a consumer trade show for people with HIV, was held in New York City and attracted more than 7,000 people over two days. It hit the road the following year traveling to cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Houston.
July – Art Bar, Tortilla Flats and Baby Buddha were local staff hangouts, but the “company cafeteria” became Florent, the restaurant owned by HIV-positive Florent Morellet, who was profiled in our second issue. Many of his customers were aware of his status because he posted his CD4 counts on the restaurant’s menu board.
November – Sean Strub’s dog, Willy, and Stephen Gendin’s Jack Russell terrier, Zoom, had free reign over the POZ offices. They even made the masthead—as “office security.”
March – Dick Scanlan became the acting editor-in-chief (he and David Drake were listed on the masthead as editors-at-large). Scanlan had starred with Drake in Pageant and had written a critically acclaimed novel titled Does Freddy Dance. He was later nominated for a Tony Award for the book of the Broadway show Thoroughly Modern Millie.
April – POZ was a finalist in the General Excellence category of the National Magazine Awards.
Summer – POZ en Español (with all original content) was launched with Gonzalo Aburto as its editor. Despite being well-received, the magazine folded in 2003 because of lack of advertising support for the Latino content.
August – Elizabeth Taylor agreed to an interview with POZ, and she became the first HIV-negative person on the cover. British writer (and porn star) Aiden Shaw was invited to guest edit the issue that focused on AIDS in the United Kingdom. Taylor’s interview, conducted by Kevin Sessums, was one of the first she gave after recovering from brain surgery. Taylor’s close friend Roddy McDowall photographed her exclusively for POZ in exchange for a modest fee and a listing as a contributing photographer on the masthead.
December – Writer Mark O’Donnell penned his final AIDS Zen column for the magazine. The column had been a regular staple in POZ since the very first issue. O’Donnell went on to win (with Thomas Meehan) the Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical for Hairspray. The duo also wrote the 2007 film.
March –Walter Armstrong was named editor-in-chief.
May – Renowned artist John Dugdale photographed his friend, performance artist John Kelly, for the cover. Dugdale, a former commercial photographer with clients such as Ralph Lauren, had lost much of his sight to AIDS-related CMV retinitis.
June – Rebekka Armstrong, a former Playboy Playmate (September 1986), became a POZ cover and centerfold. POZ later put Jeffrey Jenest, the HIV- positive executive vice president of Playboy Entertainment, on its June 2007 cover.
July – Joseph Sonnabend, Strub’s personal physician, became the first (and only) doctor featured on a POZ cover. The interview was the first (and only) cover story written by Strub.
September – POZ published an issue on youth and HIV and enclosed a free condom in each copy. Barnes & Noble threatened to stop carrying POZ and pulled the back-to-school issue from its shelves. After a few days of bad press, B&N CEO Leonard Riggio met with Strub and Gendin; he agreed to continue stocking the magazine.
October – POZ received Crain’s New York third annual Small Business Award.
March – Olympic diver Greg Louganis became the first professional swimmer on our cover. The second was Jack Mackenroth (April 2008) of Project Runway fame. POZ has also featured a pro basketball player (Magic Johnson, June/July 1996) and two professional boxers (Lamar Parks, June/July 1995, and Tommy Morrison, July 1997). Today, Morrison claims that his original HIV test was a false positive; there is still some question as to whether he is, in fact, living with HIV.
July – Phill Wilson (executive director of the Black AIDS Institute) guest edited an issue focused on Africa. Only two other issues have had guest editors: the British issue in 1997, edited by aforementioned writer/adult film actor Aiden Shaw, and a special edition called Pandemic in 2003 edited by documentarian Rory Kennedy and book publisher Nan Richardson. That issue featured Kennedy’s award-winning HBO film, Pandemic: Facing AIDS.
May – HIV denialists from ACT UP San Francisco protested at the POZ office, attacking with Silly String and tossing flyers around the reception desk. POZ’s alleged offense? Allowing ourselves to be influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Guess ACT UP missed our April issue, which was entirely devoted to alternative therapies.
July – Stephen Gendin, POZ cofounder, contributing editor, AIDS activist, friend, hero and mentor, suddenly died. The staff gathered together and shared recollections of Stephen; soon “WWSD” (for “What Would Stephen Do?”) became a mantra at POZ when facing a difficult decision. His memorial was held at the LGBT Community Center on Little West 12th Street. POZ published a special issue about Gendin and his legacy with four different covers: one with a picture of Gendin the activist, another with Gendin and his beloved Zoom, one of Gendin naked on a beach and one of Gendin’s body, cold and still, at the morgue.
April – A lull in the drug development pipeline coupled with a decline of HIV-product marketing led to diminished ad revenues, which resulted in significant layoffs at POZ. Our survivor instinct kicked in as the remaining editors pulled together to produce the magazine and worked with the sales team to develop new and unique educational products. ComboCards anyone?
April – The POZ Life Expos evolved into a multicity tour of educational seminars called the POZ Life Forums. The Forums featured a game show based on the popular TV program Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.
August – POZ moved to less expensive digs in the heart of the Meatpacking District on Little West 12th Street.
September – POZ gave death its due by dedicating the entire September issue to the topic. The cover featured the art of Barton Bene, who often worked with the ashes of people who had been cremated. Unfortunately, just as the magazine was arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were hit in the 9/11 terrorist attack. From our office rooftop, POZ staffers watched the towers fall.