On Monday, Paris Jackson, daughter of the late Michael Jackson and a rising star in her own right, announced that she will be The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation's latest ambassador at Global Citizen Live! celebration (part of Global Citizen Week). Here, she talks to InStyle about her activism and a recent, moving trip to Malawi with the foundation.
What does it mean to you to be an ambassador for your godmother's foundation?
I’m ecstatic to be an ambassador for my godmother Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS Foundation. She was a real badass, and I admire what she's created. I think it's beautiful. But, for me, it's more the cause that I really care about, not just the name attached to it. And I want to carry my dedication to eradicating AIDS with me throughout my entire career. I’m just starting out, still green and learning a lot. But I know that if I get bigger, my voice gets bigger, and the more people will listen to me about the important things—and educating people about AIDS is important.
Thirty-five million people have died of related causes since the AIDS epidemic started in the '80s. Yet, a lot of people are still afraid to talk about it because of the stigma attached. People don't even want to be near someone that has HIV, even if that person has the medications required to prevent transmissions. Obviously, you can't be infected by breathing the same air as someone with HIV, and medicating HIV dramatically reduces the chances of infecting someone else—but here we are.
What was your trip to Malawi like?
I kind of knew what I was getting into when I went to Malawi last month with ETAF to visit some of the people most affected by HIV and AIDS. It was my first time there, but I wasn’t afraid. Everyone in the villages was so welcoming, especially the kids. We saw a lot of joy despite all of the health issues, which was beautiful.
We spent most of our time in the Mulanje district meeting the people that work there day-to-day for the essential programs funded by ETAF like GAIA. That’s an organization dedicated to helping Malawi reach the 90-90-90 UNAIDS goal [90 percent of people with HIV will know they have it, 90 percent of people diagnosed with HIV will receive sustained antiretroviral therapy, and 90 percent of those people will have viral suppression by 2020].
Did you meet any locals who were affected by the epidemic while there?
The most heartbreaking moment of all this for me was when I met a 20-year-old mother affected by HIV who was in the mothers2mothers support program. If she had gotten medication sooner, she wouldn't have passed HIV on to her child. When she talked about it, I could see in her eyes that she was expecting death. Here, with the medical advances that we have, there's still a chance—however many pills you have to take a day, you can have a normal life expectancy living until you're 50, 60, 70 years old and way beyond. But when you get diagnosed with HIV out there, you get it and you think you're a goner.
No mother should have to go through what that 20-year-old mother has been through. It doesn’t have to be this way. These mothers can still live very long, fulfilled lives. That's why ETAF's mobile clinics are working hard to make sure mothers and families get the care they need.
In your new role, what is the message about HIV and AIDS that you want to spread?
I want people to know that it’s important to get tested for HIV and know your status no matter where you live. And many LGBTQ clinics offer free testing, which is why, considering the current powers that be in America right now, people need to fight for their LGBTQ clinics.
But in Malawi especially, it's a lot more difficult to get to a clinic. Sometimes the village is too far away. Other times people are too afraid or too embarrassed to get tested. That's why these mobile clinics are making such a big impact. They move every single day to different areas bringing HIV testing and medication to those who need it. Now, thanks to the foundation, 87 percent of the 700,000 people in the area are within an hour's walk to healthcare.
Are you and the foundation working toward a specific benchmark?
I think if we could reach our goal of eradicating new infections by 2020 so that the next few generations don't have to worry about HIV or AIDS, then there would be pure happiness in those villages. It’s as simple as giving these pills to the women who need it. Right there, that breaks the chain. And these programs like mothers2mothers, GAIA, and ETAF’s mobile health clinics are doing a lot to help make that happen.
For more information on The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, visit elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org.