Raise Your Voice
Author, fitness guru & Athlete Ally Ambassador Amazin LeThi uses the universal language of sports to change the attitudes about HIV/AIDS in the Asian community and around the world
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
“You gotta give them hope,” Harvey Milk once said. His words have inspired generations, and resonated with many individuals over the decades. One of these individuals is Athlete Ally Ambassador and Vietnam Relief Services Ambassador Amazin LeThi, a Vietnamese fitness guru, author, and actor. She appeared in movies like Bridget Jones Diary 2, and TV shows like The Closer. LeThi (spelled Lê Thi in Vietnamese) is also the founder of the Amazin LeThi Foundation, a charity through which she helps raise awareness about the devastations caused by the AIDS pandemic in the Asian community and shows people how they can help.
I caught up with LeThi in New York City, prior to her trip to Washington, D.C., where she was to attend the first ever White House Forum on Global LGBT Human Rights. Chaired by Ambassador Susan Rice, the event brought together activists like Stuart Milk, Harvey Milk’s nephew and the co-founder of Harvey Milk Foundation. Milk is also a collaborative partner of LeThi’s foundation, and he invited her to accompany him, to further engage her in supporting LGBT rights in Vietnam.
“It’s an incredible opportunity,” she comments on the event. “I would have loved to meet Harvey Milk,” she adds, “but I’ve met Stuart. Through Stuart Milk you see the spirit of Harvey Milk. And Stuart said, you got to think globally in any advocacy work. And you must remember the us-es, because you can amplify their voices.”
And LeThi takes his advice to heart, maybe because there was a time when she was one of the “us-es,” desperately needing the hope that Harvey Milk talked about. A Vietnam War orphan, LeThi grew up in Australia with her adoptive parents, and then started traveling the world, as a young adult. She was one of the few lucky orphans who had their original documents. She knows the name of her biological mother, and hopes that, one day, she will find her biological family. She tries to think that they would have heard about her, as she is well known within the Vietnamese community, just not realize that she’s their daughter.
Being a trans-racial adoptee brought up in a white community, LeThi was bullied a lot in school, especially during her teenage years. She never fit anywhere, and, growing up, couldn’t find any Asian role model to look up to. Therefore, she became determined to create her own possibilities, and define her own space. Soon, she realized that she could achieve her goal through sports.
Amazin LeThi started bodybuilding at the age of six. Her mother would drop her off at the gym, and, in time, the gym became her babysitter. While others at the gym thought she was only a kid killing time, she got to try out different sports, and became obsessed with bodybuilding while flipping through fitness magazines. Bodybuilding gave her the edge she needed to define her space, stand up to her bullies, and even plant the seeds for a future career path. It also offered her the role model she’d been seeking for so long.
“Arnold Schwarzenegger, however silly, became this role model for me,” LeThi says. “Because he was this person from a little village in Austria, with a strange accent and a name that people couldn’t pronounce, and he [made it in] America.”
Today, LeThi is the first bodybuilder who has crossed over into the entertainment industry, internationally. It was during her work in the entertainment industry that she came face to face with AIDS.
She recalls attending a meeting, when she found out that a person in that meeting had HIV. She had heard about HIV as a teenager, but didn’t really know anything about it. “I was ignorant,” she confesses. “I knew I didn’t want to meet anyone who had it, because I might catch it.” So, at the meeting, she tried to sit as far away from the HIV-positive person as she could, but ended up sitting right next to him. “And I just remember, as I sat down, and I’m so ashamed thinking about it now, but I got my chair and moved it right across,” LeThi explains, turning her body to demonstrate the move. “He came to me and said ‘Hi.’ I said ‘Hi,’ and from that point on I pretended he did not exist.” Her eyes widen as she continues. “He didn’t flinch. And I thought he must get this all the time. He’s not even bothered by the mere fact that I discriminated against him….That stuck in my mind when I started to do charity work.”
LeThi has always wanted to give back to the community, not just the Vietnamese, but the Asian, community, too. “I wanted to make an impact, but I didn’t know what that meant then,” she comments. “But I’ve always thought that sport was going to be a part of it.”
She was working with Starlight Foundation for a hepatitis C campaign, when she was made aware that there were no Asian celebrities or public figures to represent the Asian community. That got her thinking about launching a charity and becoming the voice the Asian community needed.
The idea of an AIDS foundation came only after her meeting a Vietnamese woman at the UN Volunteer Office in Hanoi, Vietnam. Pham Thi Hue had contracted HIV while in her early twenties, from her husband who was a drug user. She found out about her status only after giving birth to her child. In the hospital, because of her diagnosis, doctors put her in quarantine. After returning home to Haiphong, she and her family were shunned from their community and lost their jobs. When things hit rock bottom, Pham Thi Hue bought poison…but ended up not using it. Instead, she joined an HIV support group to learn more about the disease and went public with her story, to help people understand that anyone can get infected with HIV, not only sex workers and drug users, but also a tailor like herself. Today, she is the founder of Red Flamboyant Group, a Vietnamese AIDS group helping people living with HIV/AIDS, and the 2004 recipient of Time magazine’s Asian Hero of the Year.
“I’ll always remember the moment she grabbed my hand and said, ‘Will you come back and help the three hundred Vietnamese children [living with HIV] that I’m working with?’” LeThi says, and shakes her head. “I [couldn’t] say no to that. [So] this is my life’s commitment, to raise my voice about how HIV impacts the Asian community.”
In the Asian community, as in many communities, HIV/AIDS is more than a medical condition. HIV/AIDS is a social disease, defined by shame…and also risk stereotypes like IV drug use and “dirty” needles, lack of doctor-patient confidentiality laws, and unwillingness (for various reasons) of getting tested. Nobody speaks about the virus from fear of losing their families, being kicked out of their homes, communities, schools or jobs.
When people look at Asia, they usually see countries like Japan or China, not the poor Asian countries. They may not be aware that Asia has over two million orphans or that poor families often have to choose between sending their children to school and feeding them, and more often than not, they choose the latter. “No mother should be [put] in a position to make that kind of basic human rights choice,” LeThi comments, visibly shaken.
So, LeThi decided to change the AIDS conversation in the Asian community, and use the universal language of sports, to create this change. She believes that storytelling has an important role in capturing a more…whole story of AIDS, as told by different people, from different parts of the world. She starts with Asia, and her country of Vietnam.
LeThi also strongly believes that companies have a responsibility to give back to the community. Her partner, Minor Hotel Groups, based in Thailand, has taken on this responsibility, in order to create that much needed change.
She also admires the work of Kenneth Cole [A&U, November 2011], who uses fashion to design unique HIV awareness campaigns, and also TOMS Shoes, which matches every pair of shoes purchased with a new pair of shoes donated to a child in need, giving the phrase “walking in someone else’s shoes” a brand new meaning. After all, not being able to afford shoes or clothes, having to walk barefoot, represents a health concern, which is often worsened by an HIV diagnosis.
LeThi has long-term future plans for her foundation, and also for those she helps through the Amazin LeThi Foundation—that is, children living with HIV/AIDS and homeless LGBTQI youth. That’s because she looks at the young children she helps today, and sees the successful adults they will become one day, in part because of her foundation, whose mission is to offer them “career development opportunities through sports, and create educational programs, while raising awareness to end social stigma and discrimination.”
Also, LeThi always thinks of ways to give back to the community. In 2015, her charity will be launching the first Vietnamese sports camp for children living with HIV/AIDS. The camp would offer HIV-positive and negative children, ages eight to fifteen, a space where they can play together, have fun, learn new sports, and, with that, new life skills.
And while HIV is a very heavy conversation topic, she hopes to engage the help of professional athletes to jumpstart the AIDS conversation using sports. It is important to get involved in the conversation about AIDS, and necessary to change the attitude toward the pandemic. Storytelling helps. “It [shows children] that it can be better,” LeThi says. “It gives them hope, and hope is important….I look at it, and this is what I would have wanted.”
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.