With a stellar turn in For Colored Girls and a highly anticipated book coming out in early 2011, the multitalented Janet Jackson takes a breather to talk about getting a handle on the pandemic
by Dann Dulin, with Chael Needle
As part of a rainbow of characters in Tyler Perry’s new movie For Colored Girls, Janet Jackson wears red. It’s a familiar color for her. Her wardrobe has included AIDS awareness ribbons for decades now.
“Sadness, deep, deep heartbreak…and hope,” Janet responds when asked what comes to mind when she thinks of AIDS.
She recalls the early nineties: “I had heard about it, but I really didn’t pay that much attention to it until I lost a dear friend, and learned of Magic’s announcement.” What impact has the epidemic had on her? “A major impact! I lost quite a few friends to AIDS, and it’s really affecting our youth. They don’t even realize how serious it is.”
Her most well-known contribution to the fight against AIDS is arguably her 1998 number-one song, “Together Again.” Originally a ballad, the AIDS anthem about reuniting with a lost loved one was turned into a dance number for the album, The Velvet Rope, and became an international hit. Slow or uptempo, “Together Again” was sure to connect: “Everywhere I go/Every smile I see/I know you are there/Smilin’ back at me.” The inspiration for the song is usually credited to her friend, makeup artist Jose Louis, who died of AIDS-related complications, but Janet amends the story: “No, ‘Together Again’ wasn’t just about Jose. It was about all of my friends that I had lost up to that point. I have lost more friends since then.”
Janet donated a portion of the proceeds earned from “Together Again” to amfAR, an organization to which she has kept close ties. “I can’t remember what initially pulled me toward amfAR, except for the wonderful work that they do,” she says, when asked. “I am currently in talks with them about how I might be able to support the organization in the future. I am so inspired by people who participate in these events and have supported those who are committed to raising much needed funding. Last year, I was honored to chair the inaugural Milan Fashion Week event for amfAR where we raised over $1 million to fight this pandemic.”
World traveler that she is, Janet has seen the devastation that AIDS has caused on a global level. “I visited South Africa many years ago where I was able to spend time at an orphanage. It was very moving, and I fell in love with the children so much that I am going back,” promises Janet. “This pandemic only continues to destroy lives, but when I look at these children I see so much hope for the future.”
Her words echo her earlier manifesto for youth, Rhythm Nation 1814. Who could forget the title track of 1990’s best-selling album, “Rhythm Nation,” and that eerie black & white video shot in a dilapidated factory—Janet and her army of dancers moving in military-synchronized steps to industrial music?! The album is a mix of social consciousness and pop music, threaded with a faith that we can make a positive difference in the world.
On the album, she says we’re in “a race between education and catastrophe” and it might be an apt description for the AIDS crisis. Responding to the uptick in rates of HIV among youth, Janet advocates for an uptick in outreach. “The kids need to hear more about HIV. The schools should take it further than they do. Kids should learn about each and every stage of the progression of the disease; what it means to live with it and that it is still possibly fatal. It’s like the show, Scared Straight,” she says, referring to the seventies documentary. “When the kids were exposed to prison life, many of them changed.”
Janet adds: “And we should also feel comfortable talking about the disease at home and in our community. It is important that we tell our kids to love themselves enough to protect themselves. It’s all our responsibility.”
Janet practices what she preaches. Asked if she tests regularly for HIV, she matter-of-factly replies, “Yes I do, and I suggest that everyone who is sexually active do it, too.” And broaching the topic of HIV serostatus should come early. “I feel that it is vital for anyone who is sexually active to discuss the subject of STDs, including HIV, before getting into the act.” Has she ever dated anyone who was HIV-positive? “To my knowledge, I have never dated anyone who was HIV-positive.”
Miss Jackson-if-you’re-nasty has been in the public eye ever since she landed on stage at the age of seven with her brothers, The Jackson Five. In the seventies and eighties she was a cast member on both TV’s Good Times and Fame. Then in 1986 came her breakthrough album, Control, which included such hits as “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” “Nasty,” “When I Think Of You,” and “Control.” The album went multiplatinum, selling over fourteen million copies (and that may be a low estimate)! For over two decades, Janet has redefined and reshaped the scope of popular music. This past year, a video of her American Idol performance of her song, “Nothing,” went to number-one on iTunes and, as the song was cowritten by Janet for the movie Why Did I Get Married Too?, it is garnering Oscar buzz. (“Nothing” appears on Icon: Number Ones, an abbreviated repackaging of her best-of collection released last year, as well as on the movie’s soundtrack.) Janet has been nominated for an Academy Award before, for “Again,” which appeared in her first film, Poetic Justice, in which she starred with Tupac Shakur.
She has recently returned to acting, starring in a trio of Tyler Perry movies: Why Did I Get Married?, Why Did I Get Married Too?, and now For Colored Girls. As part of the stellar ensemble cast in Perry’s updating of Ntozake Shange’s seventies Broadway play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf, Janet more than holds her own as perhaps the least likable character, Jo. [SPOILER: read no further if you have not yet seen For Colored Girls.] In the course of a film that involves different women confronting different issues, Janet inadvertently reconnects with AIDS awareness. Her character contracts HIV from her husband, who has been stepping out on her. “I tried very hard to meet with a few women who had contracted the disease from their husbands being on the DL, while shooting the film, but unfortunately our schedules didn’t permit that to happen,” she responds to being asked about what she drew on to play these tense and tearful scenes. “I was bummed. I really wanted to talk to them, just to understand how they feel and to learn about the pain they are going through.
“Jo was angry, hurt, and still able to have compassion for what her husband was going through. The disease is going to continue to grow as long as people are ashamed of having it.”
Janet continues: “I recently wrote a book entitled True You. It’s about my experiences internalizing everything, holding everything in, feeling inadequacy and shame. How I was able to begin to achieve happiness was by having that [one particular] person to open up to.” Coming in early 2011 from Karen Hunter Publishing, the self-help book deals with diet, exercise, self-esteem, and Janet’s lifelong struggles with weight.
Currently, the newly coiffed Janet, who sports stylishly short hair, is being tugged in many directions with appearances on late-night talk shows, early morning gab fests, as well as interviews with sharply inquisitive journalists. The media buzz around the Grammy-winner is almost deafening.
It’s easy to forget that Janet has been quietly adding pages of public service to her résumé. Janet is a dedicated human rights activist and has long been an AIDS advocate for safer sex. She’s committed herself to organizations like The Starlight Foundation, Make-A-Wish Foundation, and SOS Children’s Villages in South Africa. She sponsored an airlift of food and medical supplies to Rwanda, established the Rhythm Nation Scholarship with the UNCF, traveled to Abu Dhabi to support fresh2O, and has helped many students meet their educational goals. Her work has earned her the NAACP Chairman’s Award, the Congress for Racial Equality Humanitarian Award, and APLA’s Commitment to Life Award. She counts Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John among her heroes in the fight against AIDS.
I ask her why she cares. “I want to help! This is a horrible disease that affects us all. It doesn’t discriminate. I want to do my part.” She concludes: “I think it’s important for all of us to get involved. This is the only way that we are going to get a hold of this disease, especially with the youth, and in third-world countries. All of us need to help….”
Take control and click on www.JanetJackson.com.
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
Anyplace where there is warm weather, a beautiful beach, and palm trees.
What’s your favorite city in the whole world?
I don’t have just one. Paris, Rome, Tokyo…There are so many!
Finish this sentence. The one thing about fame I don’t like is…
…lack of privacy.
What do you think happens after we die?
I don’t think we die, just the shell does. The spirit lives on.
Name your favorite film of all time!
Raging Bull, The Last Emperor, Scarface with Al Pacino, The Godfather I & II, Amélie….There are so many.
Do you look up to anyone as a role model?
Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, just to name two.
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you, influenced you, or inspired you the most?
It was a true honor meeting Mandela and spending time with him at his home.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t yet?
Jesus. There are so many questions I want answers [to].
WHEN I THINK OF YOU
Janet gives a one word reaction to these people who’ve touched her life.
One word to describe yourself.
Dann Dulin, Senior Editor of A&U, interviewed Regina King for the October cover story. Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.