All Over the Mapa
A New Parent, Comedian And Actor Alec Mapa Teaches A&U’s Dann Dulin About The Art Of Giving, How To Comfort Yourself Through Life’s Lows, And Reveals A Solution To Lower HIV Infection Rates In The Younger Gay Community
“I’m like horseshit. I’m all over the place,” declares a playful Alec Mapa when pressed to comment on his constant involvement with charitable causes.
For the past decade or more, Alec has been a regular participant at numerous fundraisers for gay causes or for AIDS charities. And the self-proclaimed “America’s Gaysian Sweetheart,” hosts many of these benefits and will travel all over the country to do so. Since he and his producer husband, Jamie Hebert, recently adopted a five-year-old son, Zion, where in the world does this man find the time to get involved and why does he choose to do so?
He answers while stirring simmering butternut squash soup, which he’s making from scratch in the kitchen of his modest Eagle Rock home in suburban Los Angeles. “It’s what I owe to the community. When I first started doing standup, I wasn’t getting any work, but the gays were the most open, loving, and supportive,” he says, dressed in cuffed blue jeans, grey T-shirt, and dark blue Docker boat shoes. “Now many of these people are dead. They were the ones who looked at me and said ‘Don’t change a thing.’ I worried so much about what coming out would do to my career, and the truth is, I didn’t have a career until I did come out! It was the most authentic thing I had to offer and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
For fifteen years, Alec struggled with his career, but the past five years have brought an abundance of work for him, especially on such high-caliber TV shows as Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives. Last year, he made a splash on The View, proving that he could be as sassy as the show’s regular divas. Do they need a replacement?! If you want a daily fix of this quick-witted comic tune in to LOGO’s The Gossip Queens, or add to your Netflix queue some of Alec’s films, such as Marley and Me, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, and Connie and Carla.
Although Alec is outrageous in his laugh-a-riot, high-energy standup concerts, at home he’s reserved and confesses that he’s bashful, socially awkward, and a homebody. Today Alec is simply “Daddy” prepping for supper while his son, Zion, is at school. Meanwhile, Jamie is picking up Ozzie, their Cairn terrier, from the groomers, and the housekeeper is vacuuming. This scene could be right out of an episode of Happy Days. Even the interior decor resembles the Cunninghams’—a healthy slice of cozy, homey, eclectic Americana. It appears Alec has a healthy balance of family and career. He’s worked hard for it.
Currently, bliss permeates the home since the recent adoption of Zion. He’s lived with Alec and Jamie for many months, but the adoption just became legal.
After calling up pics of Zion on his iPhone, Alec proudly hands it to me. Then he escorts me into the living room to show me a framed school picture of Zion hanging on the wall. Next to it are Jamie’s and Alec’s elementary school photographs, as well!
Alec came of age in the early eighties when AIDS was known as GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). At sixteen, he waited tables at a Pacific Heights restaurant in San Francisco, his hometown. Many of the waiters were gay. “Dann, these guys were my mentors; guys from the late seventies, early eighties who were a whole other breed!,” he shouts with emphasis as his Chihuahua, Sweet Pea, jumps onto my lap as I sit at the kitchen table. “Growing up in a conservative, very religious household, [I was reserved until] these guys told me it was safe to be myself. The biggest lesson I learned from them was that you can come out and live your life without being punished or losing your family and friends,” recounts Alec. “When I went away to college and returned home, most of those guys had died of AIDS.” These times are catalogued in his one man show, I Remember Mapa.
At eighteen, Alec moved to New York and was cast in Broadway’s Tony-winning drama, M Butterfly. While in production, he became a part of the original Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS organization. “At least three friends from that crew, who I saw every day, are dead. And they were young, young men. It just breaks my heart…,” he sighs. “Back then it was commonplace to attend a funeral or memorial once a month for chorus boys, directors, or friends. We knew what AIDS looked like back then. You wouldn’t see somebody for a month and then you’d see them again and they’d be a skeleton.”
Last year Alec performed in a staged reading alongside Lisa Kudrow, David Eigenberg, and other actors for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Larry Kramer’s classic drama, The Normal Heart. Joel Grey directed the reading. “This play examines the beginning of AIDS, a time when The New York Times wouldn’t even mention the word,” he points out, then excuses himself and turns the blender briefly on to puree more squash. He picks up right where he left off.
“Communities that were afflicted were largely left on their own. Nobody was coming to help. The play shows how people in power back then really felt about the gay community and the people who were sick.”
Alec counts Larry Kramer as a hero in the war on AIDS, as well as Louise Hay [A&U, April 2010] and his high school sweetheart, Dawn Adams. Dawn contracted HIV through a shared needle while shooting heroin. She had a child and after nursing it, not knowing that she was infected, also infected the child, who soon died. After that she volunteered visiting schools to share her story with teens. “She didn’t want anyone else to go through what she had and she wanted her life to mean something. She died in 1993,” Alec states, admitting he still dreams of her. “She was a great friend and my biggest hero because she was of service up until she was too sick to do so.”
This also seems to be Alec’s modus operandi—to help others as much as he can. But Alec is no Pollyanna when it comes to promiscuity and is very open about his “colorful” past. “I was sexually active as a teen and I partied very, very hard, so I’ve been to paradise,” he winks then adds, “but I wasn’t always safe. The only reason I’m alive and negative is luck.” Eight years ago when Alec and Jamie started dating, they got tested many times up until they decided to fully commit to each other. “We decided that neither one of us are evolved enough to have an open relationship, though it probably would be a good idea to get tested again,” he says with a giggle from the stove, while above him on the wall is a photo of a smiling Ghandi.
The housekeeper waves from the dining room as she heads to the front door. Alec yells, “Adios, Nora. Muchas gracias.”
Now that he has a child, how will he handle informing Zion about HIV? “We talk about age-appropriate things and we don’t tip-toe around anything,” Alec quickly responds. “The dialogue began early with Zion, and as he gets older we will incorporate more.” He goes to the fridge, which is plentifully decorated with personal paraphernalia, for some butter. “I didn’t grow up around any of that. Nothing was told to me. I learned it in the schoolyard.”
Alec’s early life was difficult, even though he was raised in a large cosmopolitan city. His family, staunch Catholics, lived right across the street from the church they attended daily. When Alec came out, his mom handled it well, but his dad was a little rougher. “My mom was a big fag hag in the Philippines. She was ahead of her time in the fifties. All her best friends were gay. My father is very macho and now lives in Las Vegas and has remarried. He’s proud of me, but he’s had his own process of acceptance, and I haven’t always been respectful and patient about it,” he notes thoughtfully. A couple of years ago, Alec’s father attended Alec’s wedding, and he has met Zion. On the wall just above where I sit hangs a wedding invitation. It’s composed of photo cutouts of he and Jamie. On the card is printed, “We’ve only just begun…,” from the famed Carpenters song, which was also performed at their backyard ceremony.
In 1992, Alec’s world disintegrated. His mother died; his best friend ripped him off of money that Alec had earned on tour; and then, his boyfriend dumped him. Not long after that his friend Dawn died. Alec plunged into a deep depression and one of the things that saved him was his humor. “The universe just handed me all my lessons on a single platter,” he bemoans lightly. “I always said that I could have handled it if these were things that happened over a number of years…,” he pauses a beat, “…to somebody else!”
What kept Alec from giving up was his sister, Monica, to whom he’s always been close and who also happens to be gay. He knew that she would likely blame herself for his death. “I didn’t want to burden her for the rest of her life with that,” he reflects with sadness in his voice, adding, “I’m alive today because of her. She’s my role model.” Alec got himself in therapy and realized that he had people in his life who really cared about him. “It was time to just concentrate on this. That’s when the healing started. You self-soothe…,” he instructs, then catches himself. “That’s very therapy talk, huh? But it’s true. I mean, my journey as a gay man has been all about re-parenting myself.
“The greatest thing we can teach our kids is the skill of self-soothing. It’s our job to do that for Zion; to have him grow up to be a happy, healthy person and to feel safe. This is what children need; it’s what all of us need.”
He pours some soup in a bowl and places it in front of me. I notice the sparkling wedding band on his finger. He asks, “Let me know if it’s okay or if it needs something.” I taste it and suggest that it needs more spice, possibly nutmeg. He agrees.
Back at the countertop, he continues. “If you grow up feeling good about yourself you’re less able to act in a self destructive way. It’s a self-esteem issue. That’s why I think there’s such a resurgence of HIV in the younger gay community. It’s indicative of how a particular segment of the community feels about themselves,” observes this petite dynamo, intently looking through his stylish, rather large lapis blue glasses. “That was certainly my journey. I was not raised to feel good about myself and the price of that was a lot of self-destructive behavior at a very young age. The bottom line is if you feel really good about yourself you’re not going to behave in a self destructive way. The first thing we have to instill in our gay youth is that there is nothing wrong with them.”
Alec gives me some more soup with the added nutmeg. It’s yummy. All of a sudden, Ozzie, the terrier, bursts into the kitchen, fresh from the groomers, his tail wagging wildly. Alec is excited over the dog’s new ’do. Jamie follows, and Alec introduces us. Jamie is tall, slender, and charming. He departs and Alec puts a lid on the soup. The cook has finished.
Alec then invites me to watch a short video that a friend shot of the actual adoption proceedings. We sit on a neon pink couch—a piece of furniture you might find in Pee Wee’s Playhouse—and, throughout the viewing, the proud papa watches eagerly and tears up occasionally.
We each gather our things and Alec accompanies me outside. He’s heading to yet another meeting for an upcoming event. It’s for APAIT (Asian Pacific AIDS Intervention Team), an organization close to his heart. “APAIT is very important to me because during the height of the AIDS crisis none of the AIDS education was being made available to Asian people in their own language —nothing in Mandarin, Vietnamese, or Tagalog, what my people speak,” he explains, standing in his front yard. “All of these people were at risk strictly because the information was not available in their language. APAIT was at the forefront of getting that language put into the safe sex guidelines. Then they passed it out in the bars and other venues.”
Then, with an embrace, the tireless advocate is off, backing his car out of the driveway to lend a hand with determination and humor. Smart Alec.
Where is your favorite place to disappear to?
Home. I’m a homebody. I don’t have to be ‘on.’ I also go to San Francisco a lot.
Finish this sentence. The one thing about fame I don’t like is ….
(He giggles.) What I like is that it’s forced me to be more social than I would be naturally. I’m a very socially awkward person; my natural default position is bashful. And because I work at so many events and am ‘on,’ it’s forced me to grow as a person. What I dislike about fame, I don’t know. (He thinks.) I’ve been in L.A. since 1991 and about fifteen of those years I struggled. Things have only been great for the past 5 years.
What do you believe happens after we die?
That’s a really good question. I’ve thought about that a lot ever since I had many friends die, including my mother. I don’t know what I believe in anymore but I dream of them. When I dream of my mother those dreams are very specific, like before we adopted Zion. She said, “Your life is about to change. Don’t worry about anything. It’s going to work out.” I do believe that who we are to people and what we’ve meant to them enters a different realm of consciousness; we become a different part of consciousness. If you’ve lived a loving life and you’ve meant something to the people around you that’s what’s important. Then you pass that on and they pass it on to their kids. So raising Zion I feel like my mother is very much apart of it. There’s a definite sense of continuance.
Name your favorite TV sitcom of all time!
(He instantly replies) I Love Lucy.
Do you look up to anyone as a role model?
Amy Hill. She played Margaret Cho’s mother in All American Girl. Also my sister Monica because she’s very successful in terms that she’s with someone she loves and she has a lot of friends. Monica made me really define what success meant to me. My husband is a role model, too, because he’s so balanced. My emotions are so…. I fly off the handle.
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?
My sister Monica. I’m alive today because of her.
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
I want to meet Michael Jackson but it’s a little too late for that. Oh, Dolly Parton! (he screams with gusto.) I would lose my mind if I met Dolly Parton…
What will the title be of your autobiography?
I Remember Mapa.
And whom do you want to play you in the film I Remember Mapa?
Hugh Jackman! (He laughs.)
Alec gives a one word reaction to these people he knows.
Delightful. (Then he adds) She’s ‘Miss Prolonged Eye Contact!’
He gives one word to describe himself.
Thanks to Kelly and Mark for their contributions.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.