by Ruby Comer
Russell Thomas Grieve
My head is still reeling from the emotional charge of the Pompeii exhibit that I attended at L.A.’s California Science Center. What a fascinating account of the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. that buried for nearly two millennia the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The next day I begin a new adventure aboard The Quest for a rapturous Azamara Club Cruise through Mexico and Central America. The morning I leave for the Port of Los Angeles, the shuttle glides through the 405 traffic past LAX. What a joyful relief not to endure the hassle-laden security and the inevitable overstuffed jet. A comfy stateroom awaits my arrival!
The Quest, a mid-size ship, offers many unusual accoutrements that you won’t find on most cruise liners: binoculars in your cabin, free self-service laundry, and free daily bottled water. Ruby loathes gussying up—her usual attire is Bermuda shorts and a wind-blown braless T-shirt—so this reporter was delighted to find out that there would be no “formal nights” and open seating at all meals.
The Quest’s evenings are embellished with super talent, like piano man, Max DiFaz, and guitarist, Simon Belair, in club lounges. On the main Cabaret Stage, the accomplished Azamara singers and dancers—some nights joined by visiting acts such as the soulful Bruce Parker—provide Goosebumpy entertainment. Oh, those gifted voices!
After a few days at sea, I’m absolutely charmed by The Quest’s exceptional cruise director, Russell Thomas Grieve (his father was Scottish). A warm and friendly presence day and night, he tends to the passengers’ needs with gusto and passion. How does he maintain such an arduous schedule?! At one port of call, I espy him from my cabin balcony extending his hand to an elderly person navigating the ship’s ramp. He cares.
At every breakfast, the handsome and affable staffer, Andrea (from Croatia), greets me with my daily preordered veggie/fruit shake. One morning, gazing out at Cabo San Lucas, I glimpse Russ in the corner of my eye. Interrupting his stride, I inquire when he might have time for a little chat. We agree to meet the next afternoon following lunch at Discoveries restaurant.
Raised near San Francisco, this musical theatre talent and voice actor has traveled the globe. As a teen, he performed in the show Up With People, in productions at Disney World and Epcot Center, and has performed on other cruise liners, as well. Recently, he ended a seven-year run as an original cast member of the Las Vegas company of Broadway’s Mamma Mia! While there, he was active with the desert city’s AIDS organization, Golden Rainbow. Russ also works with St. Jude’s Children’s Charity and supports the Susan J. Komen Race For The Cure Foundation. (His mother died of breast cancer.) Mr. Grieve currently calls Sin City home—and he’s still active with local charities.
When I arrive the next day at Discoveries, Russ is already seated in the bar area. Typically surrounded by hoards of guests or performing an activity, he seems a bit out of place in the empty bar.
Ruby Comer: It’s so nice to see you in quietude, Russ! [He smiles, nodding.] It seems you go beyond the call of duty. You dressed up in gold lamé ABBA gear for the ABBA Dance Party one night, with platform shoes to boot—an outrageous outfit. And I might add, looking very sexy, even showing off solid pecs—“aza-mazing” as you and your crew has taught the passengers to say! You perform your one-man musical show, “For Once In My Life,” in the theater and you even slip into a fat-dress as Edna Turnblad for a Hairspray number with the other cast members. Divine! What do you most enjoy about your job?
Russell Thomas Grieve: Vacation time! [He chuckles.] No, seriously, I enjoy meeting wonderful people who travel the world with me. In life, I feel everyone is a teacher and I enjoy learning from the guest’s life experiences—and hopefully they learn a little from me too.
I certainly understand how it could become staggering. Yeesh! Out of the many people you’ve met, is there one who stands out?
One man changed my life. When I was thirty-eight, I met a facilitator during a Personal Development & Leadership workshop. He made me aware of my own empowerment. Until then, I couldn’t see it. He taught me to believe in myself, and he gave me the tools I needed to be who I am today. Because of him, I’ve been able to lead a very powerful, authentic, and purposeful life.
What a lovely gift. Mr. Cruise Director, when did you first hear about HIV/AIDS?
Back in 1982, my partner at the time had a close friend who had AIDS. I was unfamiliar with the disease until I talked to him. I was living in San Francisco at the time and there were stirrings of this new disease which was affecting the gay community.
Have you lost anyone to this venomous virus?
Oh, yes, a friend of mine who worked for a major airline. In 1988, he and his partner, along with my partner and I, would double date quite often when we weren’t travelling. He was very outgoing and had the gift of gab. We always enjoyed spending time as a group. He actually didn’t tell me; my partner told me after he had told him.
My friend fell ill very quickly, and then he passed. His death was a shock, even though I knew he had been suffering in silence. Though my partner and I were monogamous, we decided to get tested. [Russ crosses his legs.] My friend had everything going for him—great job, great partner, great life. Why was he taken so unexpectedly? [Russ releases a heavy sigh.]
Awww, the eternal question, huh?! Have you ever dated an HIV-positive guy?
It’s interesting. After that long-term relationship, nearly twelve years, I met this guy who also was named Russ. There was something very charming about him. We had many connections. Within ten minutes of our first meeting, he said to me, “I want to be up front from the beginning. I want you to know that I’m HIV-positive.” For one millisecond, I was taken aback. Then I relaxed into the moment, because it wasn’t about the disease. It was about the person.
Without a doubt, Russell. Were there any challenges?
If having sex with a condom is a challenge, then that’s what it was. I wasn’t nervous, because Russ put me at ease, and we allowed the moments to happen. I felt safe in his arms. This was all back in 1994, so I was already aware of the risks. We weren’t together that long.
Did you get tested after the relationship?
Yes and it was just as nerve-wracking as the first time. The wait! [His mouth gapes as he dramatically tilts his head back for effect.] It’s horrible. I knew in my heart that everything was going to be fine because we had been careful, but there’s always that doubt in the back of your mind. The last time I got tested was for my recent medical exam which is required by the [Azamara] company. Even though I am HIV-negative, when I’m active, I get tested on a regular basis.
You give of yourself….[playfully, he shoots me a sidelong glance and arches an eyebrow] I mean, you like to be of service to others. It’s evident through your job and your volunteer efforts. What drives you?
Why not? It’s just who I am. Also because I have so many friends in the business who have been affected by HIV much more than I have. I support them through these efforts.
I don’t think you have to be touched personally by the disease. I think every human being should care, whether it’s diabetes, AIDS, or cancer. I grew up receiving love, which I think is the basis of my motivation to care for others.
You were around in the early days of the epidemic. Has the atmosphere changed today?
I lived in the age of “free love.” People would walk down the street, meet someone, engage in conversation, and then end up in bed. Living in San Francisco, you could walk down to the Castro—the gay Mecca in those days—and have your choice of so many men, or go to a bathhouse and not even think twice about safety.
Today, you can’t do that. There’s always that voice in your head that says, “Be safe.” But sometimes alcohol or drugs can diminish that voice. Movies such as Dallas Buyers Club, Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, and Angels in America are the best vehicles for young people today to get the message. Sexual education and free access to protection is essential. Sex can be fun…but there needs to be caution.
Yep, yep, yep. How do you think the AIDS crisis will play out?
I find it interesting that Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which was an AIDS-related play back in the 1980s, just made it to the screen earlier this year. It’s surprising that it has taken so long to receive mainstream exposure. The AIDS crisis will be with us for some time, but I truly believe it will continue to be a manageable disease—as we continue to heighten public awareness.
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]