[dropcap]D[/dropcap]on’t forget to grab your complimentary chocolate chip cookies!” urges the concierge as I leave the check-in counter at the Tropicana Hotel Las Vegas. Hmm, that’s what I like, the elegant details.
Yep, I’m back in the desert city to attend an event at the smashing Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN), and…just for fun, feed a couple of slots.
Settling into my large corner suite that sports extravagant views of The Strip, I kick back and call an old chum who’s also visiting from Los Angeles—Emerson Collins. Now, c’mon, that name needs to have a “Lord” precede it: Lord Emerson Collins! He’s told me that many people think he’s named after Ralph Waldo Emerson or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but in fact, it’s a family name.
At thirty-one, Mr. Emerson is quite an accomplished guy: producer, actor, director, singer, dancer, writer, and host. Did I leave anything out?! Raised in the Texas Bible belt, at sixteen he moved to
Singapore. Currently he’s on season three of Bravo’s reality show, The People’s Couch, and he’s co-host of The Del & Emerson Show, which airs on UBN Radio. His acting break came with the TV show, Sordid Lives: The Series, followed by Del Shores’ film, Southern Baptist Sissies. His résumé includes a bunch of stage work; his last stint was appearing in Jonathan Tolins’ one-man show, Buyer & Cellar (about Barbra Streisand) in Palm Springs last year, receiving rave reviews. This month, he reprises the demanding role at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, California.
On his weekly radio show they discuss LGBT issues and feature HIV and AIDS news as well. Emerson has long participated in fundraisers, events, and campaigns such as APLA, HIV Equal, We Are All Clean, and he keeps active in social media awareness also.
Emerson and I meet at the trendy Asian fusion eatery, Shibuya, across the street from The Trop. The décor is organic cascades of entangled wood that resembles curtains of seaweed. The ambient music is a collage of Zen and jazz. Ryan, a long-time employee, graciously serves us. We begin with two types of tea, Gyokura Asahi and Sencha Fukuiyu.
Ruby Comer: I’m groovin’ on this Sencha, Emerson. Tasty. I know you love Asian food! What was it like for you, at sixteen, to move to Singapore?
Emerson Collins: The culture shock from suburban Houston was powerful! However, it provided me with an incredible opportunity to understand the diversity of people. It had an enormous impact, Ruby. I was extremely fortunate to travel a great deal throughout Asia during that time and those experiences still impact me today.
Unquestionably. You participate frequently for causes…. [He cracks a giant grin, beams his pearly whites, and interrupts.]
You know, Ruby, those things you’re supposed to feel after exercising, “endorphins?” Well, mine are broken. I’ve never been a walk-ride-bike-muscleman-marathon-triathlon cause person. I’m more of a donate-showup-talk-discuss contributor.
I like that! That seems to suit you well. So what motivates you?
It’s the human condition that we’re all in this together. At times, all of us need help and others are there to offer. It’s easy to say “yes” and contribute to the work of others.
I know when you first came to L.A. the epidemic personally touched you, by a friend who was diagnosed HIV. How did that affect you?
Through his journey I learned a great deal about what it means to be HIV-positive in our community, and to live with the fear and social stigma.
To be sure, my friend…and that’s a tough one. [We split a Kendo Roll then Emerson takes a sip of his Kyoto Miso soup.]
Though I am not HIV-positive, I can certainly address the issue of stigma. My friend helped me understand this. [He takes a sip of tea.] Like so many living with HIV, my friend is living a great life while managing HIV with his health professionals.
Good to hear. Since you’re single, dating can be brutal. How do you handle the prickly scene about STDs?
I usually discuss the topic of STDs early on with a frank conversation. As I’ve grown more comfortable with myself, I have begun to use a humorous approach. If there’s a potential relationship, I say, “I don’t know how to not make this awkward, but I’m going to get tested and I’ll share my results with you.”
When did you first hear about the disease?
It was through Pedro Zamora who was on The Real World. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church in Houston, so most of the people in my world were cut from a very similar cloth. Television was my first exposure to people whose life experiences were different from my own.
[His sizeable browns glisten, as they beeline into mine.] I remember it so vividly because I was just beginning to discover things about my own sexuality. Pedro was a handsome, charming, and articulate man who talked easily about being gay and living with HIV. I found his comfort with himself inspiring because it was so far from where I was in my own life.
Another epic awareness moment for me was the musical Rent. As a kid who loved musical theater it was first and foremost a theater piece that made musicals seem cool, but it also had powerful social commentary. That was revelatory for me in many ways, including how important art can be to social change.
Oh yes, indeed. Indeed! [I chow down on my light veggie tempura.] Since HIV is skyrocketing in our youth population, what do you think is pressing in the gay community as well as any community?
We need to continue to introduce each new generation to the tools necessary to avoid STDs. At the same time, Ruby, we have to continue to reduce the social stigma associated with the disease.
[Ryan brings dessert, banana choux and lychee yogurt parfait. We each take a spoonful.] Oh-my-gosh, Emerson. This is utterly scrumptious! Okay, back to our conversation. As to education, what do you think is the best way to do this?
[He ponders briefly.] Scare tactics are not successful, nor is any one particular safer sex practice universally successful. Continuing to have honest dialogue about the options—from PrEP and condoms to PEP availability, along with testing and the risks and benefits associated with them—is the greatest key to every sexually active individual.
And addressing stigma…MY! [I ferociously shake my head.]
Yes! There’s an undeniable stigma that keeps some positive people in a second closet and inhibits others from getting tested. If we talk openly about the prejudices that contribute to the stigma, we remove some of the barriers. Like many gay men, I’ve been on a long journey of understanding about how this epidemic impacts individuals in our community. [Emerson pauses, inhales, then sweeps his sexy, floppy brown seventies-style hair back off his forehead.] Ruby, there are currently amazing examples of HIV-positive leaders, advocates, and just regular people living long and fruitful lives who represent our community. I want that to continue.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].