Power & Light
As an Advocate & One of UNAIDS’ Newest Voices, Actress Jenna Ortega Plugs into the Fight Against Bullying and Ignorance
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
I have to break up a giddy mutual admiration society meeting between Jenna Ortega and Jenna Vargas [see sidebar] because I really want to know what it takes for a young teen actress with a career on the rise to speak out about HIV/AIDS.
Jenna Ortega smiles and says confidently, “my grandfather.”
Everything Jenna knows about her grandfather, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1992, twenty years before she was born, she learned from her mom, Natalie. It was a different time, Natalie reminds me.
“People were dying quickly and there was no medication,” Natalie says. Her parents had been divorced for several years when her father came out as gay, but Natalie often spent weekends with him.
“We were watching TV and saw Rock Hudson had AIDS, this was 1985, and I asked him, ‘do you have that?’ He was honest with us and he said he was positive but didn’t have AIDS yet.”
The memory of that awful time, passed down by her mother, informs Jenna Ortega’s view of HIV and people who have it. Her message is: don’t get HIV, but if you do, don’t suffer from stigma the way my grandfather did.
“My mom has always told us how amazing her dad was and I’m sad we never got to meet him,” Jenna says. “He was also an entertainer. He was very expressive, and sang and danced, so I feel like I have a bit of him in me.”
“So many people are embarrassed about HIV even today,” Jenna continues. “I want people to know it’s okay and nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not an illness that affects who you are. It’s the personality that matters. You can’t judge someone just from what they’re dealing with in life.”
Standing firm in a crazy business
There is word that comes to me again and again as I speak to Jenna: empowerment. Whether it’s helping empower people with HIV to shed the stigma and fear, or flexing her muscle to carve out a career in a chaotic industry—at fourteen years old—Jenna is all about exercising power.
The fourth out of six kids, Jenna began going to auditions at age eight, after she begged her mom to buy her a book of monologues.
Natalie interjects that she really, really hoped Jenna’s attraction to show biz would pass.
“I wasn’t the most encouraging because I heard horror stories about the business.” The fact that they live about two hours from Los Angeles, in the Coachella Valley east of the city, added to Natalie’s reluctance.
“I said, ‘Are you sure you want to spend all that time in a car when it’s so competitive and the odds aren’t in your favor?’ I told her she would have to give up parties and sports. She told me she didn’t mind.” Natalie, an ER nurse with a hectic schedule without spending four-plus hours heading to an audition that might not pay off, strongly urged her daughter to wait a few years, hoping the acting bug would be shed by then.
Jenna smiles and nods at this, but she tells me she was pretty confident about her ability to get work. It turns out she was right. She signed with an agency and started booking gigs after a few months, though only commercials for the first year.
After a while, small TV roles came Jenna’s way. She rose to prominence for her recurring role as the younger Jane on Jane the Virgin. She also appeared in the FOX series Rake and the comedy series Richie Rich. Right now she’s playing Harley Diaz in Stuck in the Middle, on the Disney Channel. Harley, the middle child of nine, narrates the wacky experiences of her family in the suburbs of Massachusetts.
Jenna is also the voice of Princess Isabel in the animated series Elena of Avalor, also on the Disney Channel. Along with Jane the Virgin, that makes three series Jenna is juggling at the moment.
When I ask about how she manages her acting work while keeping her grades up—she has a 4.0—and also having, you know, a life, Jenna says it’s not as difficult as it sounds, at least not yet.
“On set, every day they set aside a certain amount of time for me to do school work. I get everything I need to get done.”
Even with her schedule she makes sure to have breakfast with her brothers and sisters and can’t wait for them to come home.
She adds that the bigger worry right now is not managing her time, but building a lasting career in entertainment as a young woman of color.
“There are not a lot of roles for Latinas my age out there, and most of the roles are small.”
Which is why she’s thinking of adding directing to her wheelhouse.
“As an actress you don’t have as much control as what you do behind the camera. I want more options.”
And, as it turns out, she’s already displayed some vision behind the camera.
“We’ll be stuck on the set for thirty minutes, and the director and cameraman will be discussing how to shoot a scene, and sometimes I make little suggestions. And they’ll actually consider and use my ideas.”
That has boosted her confidence that she might have a future in directing. She’s considering studying cinematography at NYU or USC, but she admits she has a few years to decide.
Role models (aside from her mother)? Gina Rodriguez and Emma Stone. Jenna says that Stone, in La La Land, really captured the struggles of auditions, from an actress’ point of view. “The business is hard.”
Standing up to cyberbullying
Being in the public eye can be a double-edged sword, Jenna admits.
“People can be very judgy now and it’s easier to do that with social media,” Jenna tells me. She’s referring to Internet trolls who, as trolls will do, lash out online, sometimes at her. It’s the biggest downside of being an actress, she admits. But even so, Jenna admits that she’s become philosophical about digital harassment, and she’s developed a thicker skin.
Natalie elaborates. “When Jenna first started getting mean comments, it really hurt her feelings. If I saw the comments first, I would delete them so she would not get hurt. I just wanted to protect her.”
But about a year ago Jenna noticed that some mean comments had been removed from one of her photos, and her mom admits that she had been removing them.
“She was so mad at me,” Natalie recalls. “She asked me not to remove the comments because she wants other kids to see that she gets bullied too. She wants them to know that just because she is on TV that does not make her more special than anyone else.”
Natalie adds that her daughter sees that not shirking from negativity and nastiness as a way to teach her peers that they too can rise above bullying, “As hard as it is for me as a mother to read mean things about my child, I could not argue with her reasoning.”
According to the site nobullying.com, one in ten teens drops out of school due to repeated bullying. That’s something that Jenna Ortega finds appalling. She says it’s one thing to leave negative comments about you online, but someone like Jenna Vargas, who ran headlong into bullies by revealing her HIV status, is another level of powerful.
I don’t hear her say this to Vargas, but I can imagine Vargas blushing if she heard it.
Vargas is Jenna Ortega’s first friend with HIV, but maybe won’t be the only one. This year Ortega participated in the Los Angeles AIDS Walk, and she tells me she’ll do it again. She says she’s glad to have the platform to give people, especially her peers, a more accurate perspective on HIV/AIDS, and help educate them to prevent new infections from happening.
She is also taking on a growing advocacy role with UNAIDS this year, with an emphasis, she says, on how the epidemic is affecting young people and how to empower themselves to be a force for change.
“I want to spread awareness,” Jenna says. “What my mom had to go through, if I can help prevent anyone from going through the same kind of struggle I’m going to do it.”
Makeup by Anton Khachaturian for Exclusive Artists Management using M•A•C Cosmetics (www.EAMGMT.com/anton; Instagram: @antonmakeup).
Hair by Gilbert Muniz @hairbygilbert with Cloutier Remix Agency.
Stylist: Enrique Melendez.
Styling Assistant: Roxy Flores.
Photographer’s assistant: Valerie Mercado.
Studio: Apex Photo Studios (apexphotostudios.com).
Sean Black photographed Kate Shindle for the April cover story. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seanblackphoto.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. He interviewed actress Kate Shindle for the April cover story. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.
Living Out Loud
At twelve, Jenna Vargas fights to destigmatize HIV
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
As I’m speaking with Jenna Vargas and her mother, Jill, I notice that Jenna keeps glancing toward the door. We’ve been expecting Jenna Ortega for a dual photo shoot. Jenna Vargas hasn’t met the actress, but she said she’s a big fan, and she admits she’s a little distracted knowing Ms. Ortega is on her way.
Vargas and Ortega have some things in common. Their birthdays are three days apart—different years—and they have the same first name, natch, and both are Latina teens.
They’re also outspoken advocates for HIV awareness. The difference is, Jenna Vargas is living with HIV, and has since birth.
Jenna Vargas had led a low-key normal life of a girl, albeit with more doctor visits and medications, and textbook knowledge of T cells. For eleven years she was mum about her status, at least around her school. But in late 2015, she was offered the opportunity to ride on the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) float in the 2016 New Year’s Day Rose Parade. After discussing it with her mother she decided to go for it. First, she came out to her class as HIV-positive, just before Christmas break. They were supportive, or at least not hostile, at first.
Facing down bullies
The parade happened and Jenna was exhilarated. She was even interviewed by an L.A. TV station, and she got nothing but kudos for being so brave. She thought she was out of the woods, that she had put the stigma of HIV behind her.
A few days later, after returning to school from winter break, things went sideways. Elementary school and middle school can be brutal, but for someone with a virus that’s still misunderstood, there’s a whole other layer of awful. And at her public elementary school in Los Angeles, Jenna faced daily harassment from classmates and what she describes as indifference from faculty and administration.
“My friends would wipe their hands off after touching me and they spread rumors I was skinny because of HIV, rumors that weren’t true,” Jenna recalls.
Jenna had suffered from migraines for years, but the bullying made them worse and more frequent. This continued until she graduated from elementary school in June. Though she considered staying and fighting the bullying, she and her mom made a strategic decision to cut and run. Enough was enough.
“The day of my graduation, I got my certificate, I walked out of there and didn’t look back,” Jenna said.
Now Jenna is being homeschooled, and she plans to keep that up for another year before enrolling in a charter high school. Now more than halfway through seventh grade, she says her migraines have subsided. Her anxiety is way down and her grades are way up.
Jenna says she doesn’t hold any ill will against her former classmates. “They didn’t know any better,” she says. “I think they were insecure.”
But she admits dismay that they didn’t even try to understand HIV. “I told them, ‘If you have any questions, ask me.’ But they didn’t. They just made this assumption they could get HIV from casual contact which is not true.”
Her mom, Jill, holds some bitterness about her daughter’s treatment and about the teachers who were unwilling to intervene.
“There was a knot in my stomach every time I dropped her off at school,” Jill says. “It kept getting worse. There is a saying ignorance is bliss. No, ignorance is just sad.”
Jenna admits she knew the risks of coming out so publicly as HIV-positive. But despite the grief she suffered, she hasn’t regretted her decision to go public.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” Jenna tells me. “I knew the possibilities of disclosing. I was tired of hiding my status.”
Her mom agrees that coming out positive in a big way was the right decision to make.
“She is a different girl now,” Jill says. “It’s like she has a weight lifted off her shoulders.”
The next step in coming out is telling the rest of her family. Jill says she and her ex-husband, who is not HIV-positive, have discussed how to break the news to his family. Jill says in some ways it’s trickier coming out with HIV to a Latino family than to sixth graders, or, in Jenna’s case, on national television.
“There’s a little more shame about having HIV in Latin cultures,” Jill says.
In the spirit of not looking back, Jenna is already considering careers. She’s interested in being a surgeon, or infectious disease specialist—or both—and she says that interest is driven by her love of the TV show, Grey’s Anatomy.
Jenna also plans to start a foundation to raise money for pediatric AIDS. She even has a logo for it, and her mom has promised to help her with licensing. The foundation will be a vehicle for spreading awareness and understanding, Jenna says. “I want people to be aware that HIV isn’t a bad thing. It doesn’t define who you are. It’s just one thing.”
Though Jenna is a bit more isolated now that she’s out of the public school system, she’s formed strong friendships through the Pediatric AIDS Coalition (PAC), which she’s been involved with for five years. She’s attended PAC’s Camp Kindle, a summer camp for kids infected with or affected by HIV. And she’s a regular at the annual PAC dance marathon fundraiser at UCLA.
Her mom says through these activities Jenna has made friends and reinforced the idea that HIV doesn’t have to define you. “They let her be a kid. You know, I can think of so many things other than HIV to say about her. She’s smart, pretty, brave, a good community advocate.”
Jenna does admit to one vice, if you can call it that: binge-watching TV. Especially Stuck in the Middle, which, coincidentally, stars Jenna Ortega.
I’m just about to ask Jenna more about her participation in an experimental medical program at UCLA, when Jenna Ortega walks in. I see Jenna Vargas light up, and I figure I’ve got enough information.
The girls introduce themselves, and hug. Jenna Ortega says, “You have an awesome name!”
Jenna Vargas replies giddily. “So do you!”
Clothing: Jenna Ortega’s two-piece varsity suit by Tommy Hilfiger