December 1, 2006
I am lingering in the bathroom with French vanilla coffee in my “Black Is Beautiful” mug when a pair of boots leaves Marvelyn Brown’s bedroom and hits the hallway floor. “Which ones should I wear?” my amazingly awake 22-year-old Tennesseean roommate asks me.
I suggest the short black suede ones and, after a lot of adjustments and delays, we’re out the door of our Harlem apartment into the drizzly rain, on our way to catch the No. 1 train to Times Square.
Running late is the norm for us, but today is no ordinary day—it’s World AIDS Day, practically the AIDS Super Bowl. And Marvelyn is booked for the day with TV appearances and miscellaneous schmoozing.
I’ve heard the stories about Marvelyn’s charismatic public sway: the college students that her speeches coax into getting HIV tests for the first time ever, the constant marriage proposals. But I have yet to witness it with my own eyes.
When we’re together, we usually keep it pretty light. We bowl, shop for jeans, cook soul food on Sundays. Sometimes it’s not till she has to take her meds that I’m reminded she is living with HIV.
Shawn Decker and Gwenn Barrringer, two HIV educators who happen to be married, are making a World AIDS Day appearance on a bed in the window of the Kenneth Cole store at Grand Central Station. They’re in their pajamas and—in the spirit of John and Yoko—are using their bed-in to promote AIDS awareness. He’s positive, and she’s negative, and their pillowcases say so. People from amfAR are handing out red ribbons in the street.
Marvelyn makes a beeline for Kenneth Cole inside the store. I watch her whisper to him and then they laugh and she leans into his shoulder while they pose for pictures. It’s enough to make a politician blush.
Now she’s off to the back of the store to try on a huge pair of Jackie O sunglasses. She models them in a mirror. But Marvelous Marvelyn has somewhere to be. “The lady at the M.A.C. counter told me she’d do my makeup,” she tells me.
After her lipstick pit stop, Marvelyn rides the elevator with me to the POZ magazine office. Across from the Public Library on 42nd Street, it’s HQ for both of us. (I’m an editor, and Marvelyn is “ambassador and community outreach coordinator.”)
The first thing we hear on our way to our desks is Marvelyn’s TV voice in one of the offices, where a small crowd is watching a DVD of one of the PSAs that have been running all morning on MTV. Then they spot us. “Marv, those are great!” someone tells her. “I love your hair like that,” says someone else.
Marvelyn lights up. “Thank you, thank you,” she says. Then she’s at her computer blogging on POZ.com, getting prepped by her perky publicist and changing into a crisp white button-down, a black tube vest and slim black slacks in one of the bathroom stalls down the hall.
It’s 67 degrees in Times Square (this is December?), and we’re sweaty by the time we get past the tourists to the Viacom building on Broadway and 44th. Marvelyn has been invited to take part in a panel to address what media giant Viacom (owner of MTV, BET and Logo) could be doing better to build HIV/AIDS awareness through PSAs and cable programming.
A couple hundred Viacom employees are already seated in the auditorium when we get there, many of them fidgeting visibly with the tutti-frutti MTV condoms left on their seats. Onstage, Marvelyn takes a seat alongside some heavy hitters in leather chairs: Sonya Lockett, vice president of public affairs for BET and overseer of the Rap-It-Up campaign; Kim Nichols, co-executive director of the African Services Committee; Dali Mpofu, chair of the Global Media AIDS Initiative (GMAI) leadership committee; Bill Roedy, president of MTV International; and Regan Hofmann, editor-in-chief of POZ.
Marvelyn more than holds her own, delivering a youthful, Southern-style perspective on pop culture and HIV. She charms the audience—even when things get tense. Like when someone complains that programming on shows like Real World gives young women mixed messages about sex and self-worth, and Marvelyn decides to tell Bill Roedy that she auditioned for the current season of the show.
“The producers told me I was too mature,” she tells him. “So I didn’t get picked.”
There is a slightly awkward silence. But then both of them smile. “That was definitely our loss,” says Roedy.
I’m just as surprised as he. “Wow,” I think to myself. Marvelyn could have been a Pedro Zamora for her generation. Maybe next year?
Talk about teenybopper TV. Marvelyn’s next stop is BET’s musical countdown show, 106 & Park! A sleek black car takes us to the live taping of the show’s World AIDS Day special. Security is tight because of all the R&B and hip-hop stars showing up to talk about HIV, but we finally get inside and Marvelyn finally gets into outfit number two: a gold off-the-shoulder Baby Phat shirt and skinny jeans with high-heeled boots.
“I am really nervous. Everybody watches this show,” she tells me. And you can see it on her face. This is young people—and talking to them makes her even more nervous than talking to Oprah.
The audience—about 100 teenage girls with red ribbons pinned to their shirts—are seated in rows on a bank of bleachers. Before the show starts, I wander over and chat with New York native Camille Norgbey. “My uncle died of AIDS in 1992,” she tells me, “and I have a couple of family members living with the virus. That’s why I wanted to come.”
But now the show is starting and here comes actress, rap star and M.A.C. Viva Glam spokesperson Eve! Camille and all the other teens are out of their seats, jumping up and down and shrieking. Eve sits down with Rocsi, the show’s host, and talks about educating young girls about HIV.
Some HIV experts are on next, a doctor performs a live HIV test, Alicia Keys calls in to talk about her Keep a Child Alive campaign and then the crowd gets loud again. American Idol Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino is strutting out in brown python stilettos and an asymetrical golden bob, and the girls can’t contain themselves. She talks about her struggles as a teen mother and the importance of waiting to have sex and protecting yourself.
Then it’s Marvelyn’s turn. When she tells her story, I’m standing backstage next to Fantasia, and we’re both watching Marvelyn on a giant TV screen.
“How old was she when she was diagnosed?” Fantasia asks me.
“19,” I answer.
“How old is she now?”
We sit down on a nearby couch, and she asks me if Marvelyn has a boyfriend. “Not right now,” I tell her.
“You tell her that God is going to send her a man who is going to love her for her and have her back,” she says. “She is a special girl. See, that’s why I am here today, to tell these young girls we gotta be strong, we gotta be wise, we gotta wrap it up.”
The show wraps, and I head out to get reactions from some of the girls. Sherie Dixon says, “I learned from Marvelyn that this could really happen, even if you’re not promiscuous.” Christina Drysdale liked hearing Marvelyn even more than the celebs because, she says, “she was like a real person.”
“That’s the appeal to Marvelyn,” Sonya Lockett tells me. “They see themselves in her. She is a regular black girl who was in this relationship thinking the guy was special and trusted him not to use condoms. Her story is real, with real emotion.”
I wake up on the couch at home to find the TV blaring.
“Can you turn that down?” I ask my roommate.
“My name is Marvelyn Brown, and I’m HIV positive,” says the TV. It’s an MTV PSA, and it’s still World AIDS Day.
I love Marvelyn, but I am so sick of hearing her voice. Time for bed.
On the Town With Marvelyn Brown: A World AIDS Day Diary
December 1, 2006