With reports that HIV/AIDS infection rates among African Americans, especially Black women, may be higher than originally believed, Magic and Cookie Johnson are taking a stand, vowing to reduce AIDS by 50 percent. Magic and Cookie sat down with ESSENCE
ESSENCE: Why did you start the "I Stand with Magic" campaign last year?
Magic Johnson: When I looked at the numbers at that time, I realized I couldn't be everywhere all the time. I was going to 200 churches, high schools and universities speaking across the country. But we needed a place people could go to and find information about HIV/AIDS that they needed. Now you can log on to istandwithmagic.com to get involved. 70,000 people have already signed up.
ESSENCE: What makes your campaign different from the others that are out there?
MJ: We have to remember that there are a lot of programs and organizations out there doing great work but what we are trying to do is drive people to them. A lot of them can't draw the attention like we can. For example, last year, LA County had a big AIDS day testing and tested maybe 20 people. When we did our testing, the first day we had 500 people. So when you ask what's the difference, that's it. We can test 500 people everyday, which is unheard of and we also have staff on board so if you find out you are HIV you can talk to a doctor right away. We work with different organizations across the country, who look to us for help in spreading their message. And now I have wife working with me. She's a great woman of God and this is totally her thing. I didn't ask her to help. She wanted to be a part of this.
ESSENCE: Cookie, you've lived with HIV just as long as Magic has. Why are you taking on this new role now?
CJ: About a year ago when we were on The Oprah show for World AIDS Day launching this campaign, Oprah had a group of minority women who had HIV or AIDS. She asked them all how they got it and when they got it. One young lady was 18 years old when she was diagnosed. She said she was so sick and didn't know what was going on. She went to the doctor and the doctor told her she had AIDS. She looked him in the face and asked, ‘What is that?' When I heard that, it hurt my heart. I couldn't believe it. I'm thinking in this day and age, how could she not know? Young people are not paying attention; they're taking on this attitude that it can't happen to me.
ESSENCE: So what are you planning to do?
CJ: My goal is to go across the country, speak to thousands of women to educate and empower them. There are three things that I want them to know. First, get out and get tested. As women we are so busy taking care of everyone else, we leave ourselves last. It's so important to get tested so that we can be around to take care of our family. Secondly, women have to empower themselves by insisting that their partner goes out and gets tested. Third, women have to take the leadership role in the bedroom and insist on protection. Hopefully, if we do that we can start taking some of those numbers down and women wont have to worry about getting this disease.
ESSENCE: Was it a difficult for you to come out and speak about AIDS awareness after living with a partner who has been HIV positive for the last 16 years?
CJ: When I met that girl on Oprah for me that was the straw that broke the camel's back. She's such a vibrant woman and I thought there are so many other women out there like that. I have to do what I can to stop this.
ESSENCE: What do you plan to do to enlist the Black church to get involved?
MJ: We're already doing it. I've been speaking at more than 200 churches already. We say, look it's up to you how you want to be involved. So if that's talking to their congregation, bringing them to get tested, feeding people who have HIV/AIDS, whatever role you want to take in this fight, we will accept it. Every individual pastor has to decide how he or she wants to be involved. We also invite other pastors to come and hear my message and allow them to join right then. When I first announced 16 years ago that I was HIV-positive, you couldn't get any churches to talk about this, but today things have gotten better and we're happy with the progress that we're making.
ESSENCE: What do you say to the rumors that you are no longer HIV positive or you're on this expensive drug that only rich people can afford?
MJ: I think I've been both a blessing and a curse at the same time. The blessing has been that I'm doing well because I take my medicine, I work out and Cookie makes sure that I eat right. I get my rest, but at the same time, because I'm doing so well everyone thinks if they get it they will be like Magic. But as we all know, more than 2 million people just died and that's just this year alone. First of all it's not true that I don't have the virus anymore. I have been living with HIV for 16 years and will continue to do so. The second is that I'm on some magical drug that no one else can get. The same 26 drugs that are available to everyone else are available to me. I'm on two of those drugs. I have dealt with this disease mentally and physically. I continue to take my meds and I'm hoping that those who are living with the virus continue to do the same.
ESSENCE: What other famous friends have you invited to get involved?
MJ: Russell Simmons is already doing it with his Hip Hop Summits, which has a message about HIV/AIDS, so that was natural for us. Common is a conscious guy and always wants to help. Ludacris has the power of young people to change their mindset. We also have Monique, Shaun Robinson, Holly Robinson Peete, Anthony Hamilton, Chaka Khan and my good friend, Steve Harvey. This is our team that can go out and help us win this battle.
ESSENCE: Your goal is to lower the HIV/AIDS cases in the US by half over the next five years. Do you really think that's possible?
MJ: I think so because when people are dying, people will react, and Black people are dying. If we work had enough, I think it can happen for sure. Even if it drops 10-20 percent, we're doing better than where we were.
ESSENCE: What do you think is the biggest misconception having and living with HIV/AIDS?
MJ: That you can't have a full life. We have so much fun. We vacation, we date, and we have a great marriage and great kids.
CJ: We have a normal life.
MJ: For us (African Americans), we're so scared. We don't want our friends or family to know. But you're going to need that support system. I've been blessed not just with Cookie and my immediate family but my mother and my six sisters and three brothers so I have a great support system. You need to tell people when you just need someone to talk to. That's something we're addressing as well. Go out and get tested, get your results and stop living in denial. We've made some strides but we still have a long way to go.
Photo Credit: Johnny Nunez