1. Was there a single event, newspaper article or breaking news story that prompted you to establish The DIVA Foundation?
Dreamgirls was the best and worst of all times for me as a young woman. I was the belle of the ball on Broadway and right in the middle of it, my friends just started dropping dead of a mystery disease, GRID (Gay Related Imuno-Deficiency). That disease became AIDS. What I saw, heard and experienced during those early days, changed me forever and I created The DIVA – Divinely Inspired Victoriously Aware – Foundation to always raise AIDS awareness.
2. Your choice to employ the arts to deliver the Foundation’s message is extremely effective. Why is that?The arts can be transformational. When The DIVA Foundation presents Divas Simply Singing! every year and this year is year 28, each Diva raises her voice in song and commitment to fight AIDS. Divas Simply Singing! is the longest consecutive-running musical benefit of its kind in the country.My one-woman show, Sometimes I Cry, is a collection of 30 monologues written about real women’s real HIV/AIDS struggles that moves audiences to laughter, tears, and cheers. We make people rethink what they thought about the disease. When I do speaking engagements, I share with people what I saw and how the fight is far from over. I speak truth to power. Through this work, I know the arts are transformational.
3. You were awarded the first Red Ribbon Award at the UN for your unique use of the arts in HIV/AIDS activism. What was it like to be so highly praised by a room filled with world leaders? It was daunting, because I knew that it was just the beginning of a very long road in the fight against AIDS.
4. In the work of Driving Infectious Viruses Away, your foundation focuses on HIV/AIDS awareness, testing and the lowering of the HIV infection rate, especially as it pertains to women, girls and young people. That approach is revolutionary. Can you speak to its success?
When I wrote Sometimes I Cry, I was shocked at how many women and girls reached out to have me perform in their church, their school, their homes. Men wanted to hear the stories, too. I also created Red Ribbon DIVA t-shirts, with the red ribbon emblazoned in crystals on the shirt. Women and girls struggling with the disease were empowered when wearing those glamorous shirts. They also brought new awareness to the significance of the Red Ribbon and how it was created to bring us together in the fight against AIDS. I am very proud of the impact we made with those t-shirts around the world. To this day young women connect with me on social media to tell me about how I helped them when they were younger.
5. You have also received Doctorates in Humane Letters from Tougaloo College and Huston-Tillotson University in recognition of your AIDS activism. When you speak to thousands of college graduates during your commencement addresses, what is your message to these brilliant minds and future leaders blessed with good health?
Health is your greatest wealth and most people don’t appreciate it until it’s gone. Will you sample it away? Drink it away? Eat it away? Will you use a condom each and every time you have sex? Will you care for yourself in stressful times, paying attention to yourself? Self-care is so simple, it’s complicated.
6. Where do you find the time to change the world?
My father always told me, “There is always time to do what you really want to do.” Am I really changing the world, though?