Christian Mitchell was fresh out of the Fashion Institute of Technology when he first got a very coveted job working for MAC Cosmetics. In fact, before his employment, he was something of a regular at the Christopher Street location — stopping by for products or touch-ups to perfect his outlandish looks before turning it out on the dance floor at the legendary Limelight Disco.
But, shortly after his very first months as a bona-fide MAC Pro, tending to all the denizens of New York’s West Village in the ‘90s (“On Saturdays and Sundays, we’d actually have a line of people waiting to get in,” he says. “Lady Bunny would do the door!”), he felt his career had reached a major peak. “Queen Mother” RuPaul descended onto the store to celebrate a newly-launched initiative by the makeup company’s founders, Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan. It was called the Viva Glam Techno Rave Tour.
Viva Glam was launched in 1994, right in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “It was a purpose-driven, emotional community outreach program to help people in and around the industry,” explains John Demsey, Executive Group President of the Estée Lauder Companies, which now owns MAC. “They created a 100% giving model where every single cent of the Viva Glam product proceeds went to those efforts. This was unprecedented at the time.”
As a result, MAC, which — thanks to Angelo and Toskan’s vision — was already a staple of the creative and LGBTQ+ community, cemented its place in advocacy, far before it was in vogue to do so. Throughout the United States, images of RuPaul in full, glorious drag, decked out in red boots and a corset top, hit billboards and magazine pages, all in the name of fighting HIV/AIDS, reducing stigma, and encouraging prevention.
This year, Viva Glam hits its 25th anniversary — but that’s not necessarily something that Nancy Mahon, the executive director of the Viva Glam Foundation (previously known as the MAC AIDS Fund) is celebrating. “It’s fair to say that 25 years ago, those of us who were involved in this project thought we would have gone out of business by now,” she says. “Sadly, we haven’t.”
All things considered, the landscape is in a drastically better place than it was a quarter of a century ago. As Mahon explains it, there is now treatment and testing to suppress the virus and make it virtually impossible to transmit. Not to mention, there’s the advent of the pre-prophylactic drug PrEP which is taken by over 380,000 people around the world.
Nonetheless, Viva Glam is still going strong, and has become a major pillar of MAC’s mission. Mahon cites sales of Viva Glam products (usually lipsticks or lip glosses) at anywhere from 10 to 43 million units per flight. That puts MAC’s total fundraising efforts over the past 25 years at a whopping $500 million. “Half a billion dollars is so much money,” Mahon says, nonplussed. “And you know what? It was never enough.”
With major fundraising behind her, Mahon is now repositioning Viva Glam’s work to more broadly assess the holistic impact of HIV/AIDS. “If we keep funding the way we’ve been funding, we’re not ending the epidemic,” she insists. And while the hallmarks of Viva Glam’s charitable contributions — AIDS walks, small service grants, supporting iconic and historic groups like Bailey House and God’s Love We Deliver — will remain intact, for her next act, she’s steering the foundation into unchartered territory.
“Unless we really focus on stigma, gender inequity, access to healthcare services, and equality for women and girls, we’re not getting anywhere,” Mahon says. “Because no matter how many advances we have, if we continue to have this incredible stigmatization of LGBTQ+ people — and in particular, trans people — as well as a lack of care, then not all of us are going to enjoy the advances of the past 25 years.”
This is a stark reality that’s important to acknowledge and address among our Pride celebrations this year. Now 50 years after Stonewall, we are still leaving trans and queer people of color behind — even in the fight against HIV/AIDS. A 2019 review estimated that 14% of trans women in the United States are living with HIV. Black and Latinx gay men account for the largest number of new HIV diagnoses, with rates increasing from 2012 to 2016 for Latinx men and remaining stable for Black men in the United States. All the while, the rates decreased by a whopping 14% for their white counterparts. In the year 2017, Southern states accounted for more than half of all new HIV diagnoses. And in sub-Saharan Africa, women and girls remain disproportionately at risk: Most of the 180,000 children infected with HIV in 2017 lived in the region, and contracted the disease from HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
In other words, something still isn’t working — and Mahon is aiming for the various roots of the issue. “The major lessons from HIV/AIDS activism are around equal opportunity and equal rights, and ending racial-, gender-, and sexual-based stigma. And to be true to that, we can no longer just fund HIV prevention. We need to re-envision prevention so that it not only includes the actual operation of handing out condoms in baths or programs, but also addresses what it is about your life that is moving you to either use or not use a condom.”
Mahon’s newfound directive for the Viva Glam Foundation is meeting people where they’re at by mainstreaming and integrating HIV into conversations around medicine and equality across the board. As such, the foundation recently gave a $1 million grant to the New York City Department of Health, designed to help clients sign up for and navigate the healthcare system, on top of learning about HIV testing, treatment, and prevention. They’ve also funded a South African nonprofit called Caprisa that works specifically to scale up sexual and reproductive health services in “rural, high burden areas.” And for many years, the foundation has supported Planned Parenthood, but a recent initiative focused on making the answers of the nonprofit’s text-chat program more LGBTQ-inclusive, which also included answers about HIV.
Other institutional goals for the Viva Glam Foundation will focus on how to improve the quality of care for trans women, and to make sure that service providers receiving money are sensitive to and inclusive of trans people. Mahon has also set her eyes on how to appropriately fund LGBTQ+ interests and initiatives in the Caribbean, where stigma and violence still prevail, and where access to care is often withheld.
Even though the visuals for this year’s Viva Glam campaign — supermodel Winnie Harlow decked out in a red get-up, an homage to the first spokesperson, RuPaul Charles — feel like a nod to the past, Mahon and the Foundation she leads are already in the future. “We don’t want to be overly nostalgic about this,” she says. “We cannot rest on our laurels. One thing that’s always been really clear for us? Standing in place is not an option.”
This article appears in Out's June/July 2019 issue celebrating Stonewall 50. The three covers feature the complicated candidacy of presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the enduring legacy of activist Sylvia Rivera, and the triumphant star power of actress Mj Rodriguez. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or (newly) Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.