It’s a frigid November night on Wall Street. The wind slices through the darkened New York skyscrapers, threatening to peel off the shards of clothing the young glitterati are (almost) wearing. And yet they pose on the red carpet, oblivious to the elements, focused instead on joining the maelstrom of celebrity, wealth and power gathering over cocktails inside Cipriani’s exquisite ballroom.
This throng has answered the call of the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). They have come to be wined, dined, entertained (by Duran Duran) and, if amfAR’s fund-raiser extraordinaire Sharon Stone has her way (which she often does when it comes to inspiring people, particularly men, to hand over large sums of money), to support those living with HIV/AIDS. Because when Sharon Stone hosts a charity auction, wallets open fast and wide. At an amfAR benefit in Cannes, France, last summer, Stone helped rake in $7 million in two hours. Forget the sad pictures of African AIDS orphans with flies crawling across their faces. Forget the heart-wrenching testimonials of people living with HIV. Forget whatever you thought about what most compels people to ante up for AIDS. Because Sharon’s figured it out. And it’s a pretty basic instinct. Little plies the heartstrings of a would-be-donor-to-AIDS better than Stone herself, dressed head-to-toe in skin-skimming gold beads. At 49, she wields her beauty, her figure and her Hollywood persona to maximum effect. The mix is made all the more powerful by an ingredient especially compelling in a big blonde: big brains.
Twelve years into her official service as an AIDS activist, Stone’s resolve to help those living with HIV has only deepened. When asked whether enough is being done to fight the epidemic, she says, “One child is dying every minute of AIDS. How can we possibly be doing enough?”
After drinks and dinner, while the crowd swallows silver spoonfuls of chocolate, Stone takes the stage to hawk a lineup of lavish goods. She stalks back and forth, auctioning such items as a Fender Stratocaster guitar—cooing, convincing, cajoling and coercing people to pledge money to help those living with HIV. When the bids climb into the five figures for the guitar—held in the arms of a nubile model—she says, only half teasing, “Remember, you only get the guitar, not the girl.”
For the evening’s final item—a private screening of her film Bobby—she opens the bidding at $25,000. The lucky winner will watch the film alone with Sharon. Dim lights and maybe some popcorn. Hands fly up as she leaves the stage and sidles up to bidders. Bids jump in $10,000, then $20,000, increments. At just under $100,000, two competitors remain: Revlon magnate Ron Perelman and an Italian man named Luigi. The room is silent as she beckons—dares—either man to top the bid. She walks over to Luigi. Runs her hands slowly through his thick tousled hair. Then she approaches Perelman. Puts a hand on his shoulder, another on her hip. She saunters back to the stage, where Harvey Weinstein is standing. He whispers into her ear: Split the bid; let them both come. She looks at Weinstein. Then at Luigi. Then at Perelman. Then at the crowd. She husks into the microphone: “Harvey, do you not think I’m worth a hundred thousand dollars a night? Boys?” Perelman goes for it. She will host him—for a hundred grand. And the search for the cure for AIDS goes on.
I am sitting three tables back from the stage. Close enough to feel Stone’s eyes scan my section of the crowd. When she speaks, with force, about how we haven’t done nearly enough to fight AIDS, I sense she is not acting. This professional Woman Who Won’t Take No for an Answer—witness her Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct and her Ginger McKenna in Casino—she has repurposed her technique tonight. Her ferocity is real and she drives people to give and give because she knows money is critical to ending AIDS. Watching Stone brandish her sex appeal to procure funds to thwart AIDS may seem ironic to some. But for Stone, it’s a calculated choice. Isn’t it right to embrace sex, her approach seems to suggest, when fighting AIDS? After all, it was our unwillingness to talk openly about sex that got us into this mess in the first place.
Later, when I ask Stone how she feels while leading the charge at a charity ball, she skirts the issue of her methodology, focusing on the reason for it. Suddenly, the sexy glam and glitter are muted by the stark truth of her words. She says to me, knowing full well that I am HIV positive, “Right now, AIDS is not a survivable illness. I wish that it were a survivable illness. It is sometimes manageable, it is always painful, it is always difficult. Everyone with AIDS will die from AIDS and it will never be easy. I’ve spent too much time in hospitals and hospices and orphanages around the globe to pretend differently. People can live longer and more hopeful lives, but it is a death and it is a bad death. And I want people to understand that, because I want people to be more careful and more thoughtful, and I want people to work harder toward [finding] a cure and a vaccine.” She reminds me that even when the numbers dip, they are misleading. “There were 40 million people with AIDS. Now, there are only 39.5 million people with AIDS,” she says. “And that’s not because they’re getting better or getting cured; it’s because they’re dead.”
Stone has been involved in amfAR since 1995. This September, Kenneth Cole, amfAR’s Chairman of the Board, named Stone amfAR’s Global Fundraising Chairman. Cole says: “Sharon Stone’s new title reflects both her successful fund-raising efforts and amfAR’s growth as a global entity. She has worked tirelessly and relentlessly to eradicate AIDS in our lifetime, and I am proud to call her a friend.” With Stone’s help, amfAR has raised more than $29 million since 1993 at its annual Cinema Against AIDS galas. Kevin Frost, CEO of amfAR says, “Since Sharon joined amfAR as chairman of the Campaign for AIDS Research in 1995, we couldn’t have wished for a more persuasive advocate for AIDS research. As amfAR moves more aggressively to confront the global challenges of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, having Sharon at the forefront of our now global fund-raising efforts will mean that we can...continue to make a difference in the lives of people with HIV/AIDS.”
All told, since 1995, amfAR has invested $260 million in AIDS research programs and awarded grants to more than 2,000 research teams worldwide. Of all the AIDS organizations providing funding and services to people living with HIV, amfAR is one of the largest pursuing the science that may someday help cure AIDS.
The recent exponential increase in the expansion of AIDS across the world has many activists double-timing their efforts. Many experts believe that containing AIDS is already beyond our grip unless we apply equal pressure (and funding) to the prevention and treatment fronts simultaneously. And while AIDS is certainly a global problem, many are looking to the wealthiest countries, like America, and AIDS organizations, like amfAR, to fund the solution. Though Stone’s focus is international, she is also redoubling her efforts on raising awareness for AIDS stateside—especially at this pivotal time in American AIDS activism, when a change in the administration might mean a change in AIDS policy.
Stone became an AIDS activist by accident. Years ago, she met a young woman with AIDS whose two dying wishes were to return for a final time to one of Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall summer camps (for children with serious illnesses) and to go to a fancy party. The girl was too ill to travel without oxygen, so Stone called her friends at Hollywood studios to get a corporate jet to fly her to one of Newman’s camps. When told that all the jets were occupied, Stone asked the Teamsters to rig an 18-wheeler with a mobile medical unit. The girl made it to the camp, but not home. It was one of many times that Stone vowed to ensure that others with AIDS would live long enough to realize their life dreams.
“I think I may be born to this kind of work,” Stone says. “My mother has always been active in her community; she’s always been very clear that you have to notice the person next to you. Ever since we were kids, we’ve taken care of our neighbors. If we don’t notice the people next to us, the world will never change. That’s the essential thing I was taught as a child, and I was taught to do it on a daily basis.
“My father had a really good motto. He said, ‘A family is like a hand, and if you cut one finger, the whole hand bleeds.’ I believe that nations are like that and the world is like that. I think it’s a good way to look at our planet,” she says.
Sharon and her sister Kelly Stone founded a nonprofit called Planet Hope. Since 1992, at its annual summer camp, it has offered free medical and dental care, new clothes for kids, counseling and image makeovers for homeless women and women who have been victims of domestic violence. Recently, it expanded its operations to Lafayette, Louisiana, to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina. This year, Stone also asked companies from Timberland to Burlington Coat Factory to Jockey to give clothes to kids who are dropping out of school, some of them in their last year, because they have no winter coat or boots. “Kids were trying to go to school in snow up to their waist in a summer dress or a T-shirt,” Stone says.
She balances her determination to help the public with caring for her three adopted sons, ages 1½, 2½ and 7. She says, “My children are very, very important to me. But their safety and their future are enormously important to me. The way [AIDS] is spreading frightens me. I want to make the world a safer place for my sons.”
Reflecting on the need for people to address AIDS, Stone says, “The spread of AIDS began because people compartmentalized other people and said, ‘Oh, that group doesn’t count.’ Even now, when AIDS is the leading killer of black women ages 25 to 34 in America, people want to say, ‘Oh, you know, in Africa....’ Of course in Africa! And in India, and in China people need our help. But we can’t forget that that ‘gay disease’ is now killing women. The compartmentalization of people just turns around and bites you in the ass. It will come home to you.”
Stone disputes the widespread perception that AIDS is now manageable in America. “We need to bring AIDS home,” she says. “The fact that one out of every four Americans [living with HIV] doesn’t know that they’re infected is so relevant. We need to start looking at the fact that we don’t look at ourselves and we don’t look at the person standing next to us compassionately. Everyone wants to say, ‘Africa, Africa, Africa,’ and that’s lovely and important, but that’s just another way of not saying, ‘I mean mine.’ Nobody wants to say, ‘[AIDS] is happening in my community.’ Africa doesn’t want to say, ‘It’s happening in my community.’ America doesn’t want to say, ‘It’s happening in my community.’ It’s very easy to be helpful far and away when you’re not being helpful to yourself right here and now. Talking about AIDS as an African problem is just another way of talking about AIDS as a ‘gay-related immune-deficiency disease.’”
Sharon Stone has pulled off a Los Angeles freeway to talk to me from her car. Soon into our conversation, she rolls down the window of her car. A driver has stopped to make sure she hasn’t broken down. “I’m OK, thank you,” she tells him, adding, “I’m just doing an interview for an AIDS magazine.”
I picture the man’s face at having discovered Stone roadside. I remembered how I felt the first time I saw her. Her carriage suggests the powerful beauties of the 1940s silver screen who melted men’s hearts, made them holster their guns and leave their wives. Even as a woman, when standing in front of Sharon Stone you feel a little, well, helpless.
Stone’s star power is intense. Today more than ever, celebrities are in a critical position when it comes to delivering much-needed messages about issues that affect us most, from the health of the planet to our health.
Stone has always used her celebrity clout to make it count. In 1999, shortly after the advent of protease inhibitors, when folks were proclaiming the “end of AIDS,” Stone appeared with other stars on the cover of Esquire to highlight the fact that AIDS was not over. Esquire apologized for gratuitously using celebrities to grab the attention of the public that was dangerously complacent on the subject of HIV. “A cause sans célèbre is no cause at all,” the magazine claimed.
What was true in 1999 about America’s attitude toward AIDS is, dangerously, even more true today. People are continuing to become infected at an alarming rate, even as resources and awareness and acceptance of the disease continue to decline. There have never been more people living with HIV in America (and the world), and there has never been as much apathy toward prevention. The notion that one in four Americans who is living with HIV does not know their status and are likely contributing to the rapid spread of the disease disturbs Stone. When asked what can we say to Americans to encourage them to get tested for HIV, Stone says: “Be kind to yourself. Be gracious to yourself. Discipline is freedom. Dignity and spiritual elegance are the graciousness of life.” Talking to Stone can be like going on a spiritual retreat.
Stone is talking about being a good global citizen; she suddenly waxes poetic on the subject of being kind to our neighbors: “We have to let people [pull] out [in front of us] in traffic. Maybe they need to get somewhere,” she says. “We have to pick up the bottles on the street and not let them roll into the gutter of our communal water system. We need to pick up the stuff off the sidewalk and put it in the trash. That trash is our trash. We have to be gracious. We have to be thoughtful. We have to not scream at each other out the car window. We have to be in control of ourselves and not respond to each thing in anger but stop and think for a minute, ‘Could I respond in a different way? Could I wait until tomorrow to respond?’ The most important thing is, don’t be bitter, don’t feel resentful, never feel guilty or shamed, but be wise, be thoughtful and, most of all, be giving.”
While she’s on a roll, I share with her my guilt for surviving (so far) HIV when so many others have not and will not. I hope she will impart some wisdom on this front. “Guilt is a waste of time and energy,” she says. “It’s an ego trip to have guilt. You gotta let that go because it takes away from your power to be shameless and courageous. Shame is not an asset. That’s a bullshit game. To be shameless is part of courage. In our society, we teach shame as a good quality, but it is not a good quality. Shamelessness is a part of dignity and elegance. To be able to stand shameless so you can be courageous allows you to float to your path, to your purpose. If HIV is a part of your purpose, you have to use that with a great deal of dignity.”
I ask her how she has come to this understanding. “I watched so many people die, and what’s the fucking point?” she says. “I have seen the greats, and you know what they do? They become great by doing repetitive acts of graciousness, generosity and kindness. That’s the only way. And eventually they just become great. It’s the discipline of doing repetitive acts of graciousness, generosity, kindness and humility. It’s bending down and picking the shit up off the street. I don’t always want to pick it up, but I pick it up and I look for the trash can. I’m in a hurry, I don’t always want to let the person out, but I let them out. This humbling and disciplining of myself, and apologizing when I don’t do the right thing, this behaving and retraining of my own arrogance is refining me. It’s the polishing of the uncut stone.”
When she’s not polishing her uncut Stone, Sharon travels to the Middle East, as she did last summer to speak with Israeli President (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Shimon Peres about the importance of peace. Stone talks with equal aplomb about picking trash off the street, world peace and the impact of AIDS on the global economy. It is often referenced that her IQ is 154.
Stone points out that AIDS is a humanitarian crisis that will strike us in our pocketbooks as well as in our hearts. She points out that when the workforces of developing nations (like China, India, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) are depleted, the manufacturing and distribution of products and services will be affected around the world. And that that will have an impact on global economic stability. “Every time we lose a worker,” she says, “the cultural impact is enormous because half the people in the factory go to that funeral. People are dying left and right. So you’ve got factories falling apart. I don’t care if you have an Italian dress—your zipper is from India or China; your buttons are from Africa. If you don’t treat your workers with care, you’re not going to have any resilience in your business.”
Stone says she sometimes feels like former Vice President Al Gore in the days when the truths he preached about impending environmental woes were too inconvenient to be heeded. “I had this discussion [about the impact of AIDS on the worldwide economy] with world business leaders a decade ago at the United Nations, and they looked at me like I had three heads,” she says. “They thought I was rude and annoying. Yeah, I do feel like sometimes you try to tell people something, and just because it’s inconvenient they don’t want to hear you.”
But despite her disdain for the current administration and how it’s handled AIDS domestically, when I ask her who she admires most, she says, “Today, I admired the person I like the least: our current president.” She is referring to October 16, 2007 when George W. Bush became the first sitting U.S. president to appear in public with the Dalai Lama. President Bush attended a ceremony in which the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal and hosted him at his White House residence. The Chinese government, perturbed at the notion of the U.S. honoring a man they deem a separatist, said Bush’s actions would “damage U.S./China relations.”
Of Bush, Stone says, “I don’t like him, and I don’t like his policies, and I don’t like his war, and I don’t like his smart-ass behavior, but today I admired him. Because he stood up for what was right when he was in a very difficult position. When I thought he would fold, compromise and shuck and jive he didn’t. He walked in there and was The Man. It taught me that there’s greatness in everyone, that there’s dignity in everyone and that there’s courage in everyone to do the right thing, and I saw him feel great about himself. I saw him feel proud and brave. I saw him be really good in the presence of someone really good.”
I ask her if she thinks we’ll find a cure for AIDS soon. She returns to the Tibet of her mind. “I absolutely believe that there will be a scientist who will find a vaccine,” she says. “We have gotten the money, we have given the grants, and we have found the drugs to allow people to live longer lives. That’s a start. But we have to treat each other compassionately. We have to treat our planet compassionately. We have to be thoughtful. And then we can turn this around. There was a time when the flu was a plague, when polio was a plague. We’ve addressed these issues carefully, and we’ve taken care of each other. We can do this. It’s not impossible or implausible. It just takes focus, care, consideration, dignity, decency and the spiritual elegance to notice the person next to you.”
I wonder how she feels about helping to save millions of people’s lives. Her tone softens and she says, “I think you’re only the second person that’s ever said that to me. I think that only one other person has said that out loud to me. I don’t think about it ever. Where we are now isn’t my goal. I don’t have time to think about that, because 39.5 million people are dying.”
It’s another bitingly cold winter night at another amfAR event at the other Cipriani in New York City—this one in midtown Manhattan. This red carpet features Donna Karan and Beyoncé and Milla Jovovich and Natasha Richardson and Richard Gere. Tonight, Stone is not here to get, but to receive. The Foundation has given her its Roy London Award (named after her beloved acting coach who died of complications of AIDS). She takes the stage again, this time to thank all who have supported the cause and her work.
As she grips the podium, she relays stories of how AIDS intersected her life, like the one about the little girl whom she helped get to camp but who died before she had a chance to go to a party. It occurs to me that the majority of people Stone is saving will never see her—and she will never see them. For the price of a single place at a table at one of these benefits, someone could have a month’s worth of medicine. In another country, it would be several years’ worth. I realize that nights like this are part of the mosaic of AIDS activism. They are as important as activists mock-dying in the streets, chaining themselves to the White House gates or handing out clean needles and free condoms.
After her speech, she returns to her table. As I move toward the door, I find myself face-to-face once again with Sharon Stone. I say, “I just want you to know that you may not have been able to save that little girl’s life long enough for her to go to a fancy party, but because of you, this little girl got to grow up and come to a great party. And thanks to you, many more people will get to live their dreams.”
She steps away from her bodyguards and wraps her arms around me, crying on my neck. It is surreal to be offered this peek inside the stratosphere of AIDS fund-raising. Though I am out of place among the celebrities, I feel somehow safer knowing they—especially Sharon Stone—are on our side.
I want to tell her that. But by the time I get outside, Sharon Stone’s bodyguards have tucked her into her limousine—and she has disappeared into the glittering night.