Dick Donato: Cover Story

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Big F*cking Deal
After Living Outside of the Limelight for Three Years, Big Brother Champion “Evel Dick” Donato returned to Reality TV in Couples Therapy on One Condition—He Could Disclose His Positive Status to Educate About AIDS
by Dann Dulin

Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black

Evel Dick is a spark plug.

When he speaks, his entire being ignites into a single revved moment. Meeting with him recently in my Los Angeles home, I witnessed the glowing embers. At one point, Dick picked up my tiny digital recorder to use as a prop to emphasize a point, then set it back down. Slightly concerned, but so engrossed in his tale, I didn’t bother to check the recorder. At the end of three engrossing hours, however, I discover that only eleven minutes of our talk had been recorded. Dick had accidentally pushed the “stop” button!

 

Dick was deeply apologetic when I phoned him and he responded, “Well, when can we do it again?!” A real trouper, he agreed to repeat the interview on the phone from his home in Orlando in a few days. Even during that session we got disconnected! He called back and we finally completed our talk. This story almost never happened. What follows is a combination of our two encounters.

Before he arrived at my home, I didn’t know what to expect. My research uncovered what others have said about him, “He’s an asshole,” “You want him to be your friend, not your enemy,” and “He goes after what he wants and will mow everyone down who’s in his way.”

Dick casually enters sipping a can of Coke and dressed like a blue-collar worker, sporting a short-sleeve powder blue collar shirt, a white Tank undershirt, scruffy blue jeans, and black hiking boots with white socks. He has extreme tatts, piercings, along with his three trademarks: two day’s growth of beard, ebony-colored painted nails, and speckled neon shocking maroon highlights amid his dark brown spiky hair.

Once in his seismic presence, all preconceived notions dissipate. This guy, whose Twitter following is over 130K, is at once disarming and gracious, and from time to time acts younger than his years, yet sustains the sage of his chronological age. Evel is a badass alpha cat, who in the end, snuggles up in your lap.

Dick is here today to discuss his recent major life change. On VH1’s Couples Therapy, which aired this fall, he revealed that he has been HIV-positive since 2011, and part of the reason he had to depart Big Brother 13. He came to town to speak at the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles AIDS Walk and then joined other participants on the walk.

First off, he wasn’t born with the name Evel Dick. It was created when he was pondering an e-mail address for himself. He liked the daredevil Evel Knievel and the song “Evil Dick” by Ice-T’s band Body Count, but “Evil” was already taken and so he chose “Evel Dick” instead.

A former club manager and concert promoter, Dick was raised in Long Beach, California. One summer, nearly a decade ago, he was hired to be Keith Richards’ stand-in on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. But Evel Dick’s claim to fame is being Big Brother’s highest paid winner, and its oldest winner, forty-four at the time. He brought in the highest ratings in 2007 on Big Brother 8 when he appeared as a contestant, unaware that his daughter, Daniele, (Dick also has a son) with whom he had not spoken for two years, would also be a houseguest. “The audience could see how hard I tried to mend that relationship. Her being there showed my softer side, which I think endeared me to the hearts of the viewing audience,” he notes, adding that many viewers later told him he inspired them to heal their own relationships.

In 2011, the producers invited Dick and Daniele back as a team for Big Brother 13. Their protocol is for cast members to have their blood tested. Six shows in they asked him to report to the house doctor, which is highly unusual during filming. They escorted him across the CBS Studio Center lot to the Big Brother green room. “We got one negative and one positive result on the HIV test we did with you,” the doctor explained, requesting more blood. Over the next four hours, they extracted Dick’s blood three times for testing. The wait was extremely discomforting. The doctor told him that had they known he was HIV-positive, he would never have been allowed in the house. The final results arrived—positive.

“My first and foremost concern was for my girlfriend, Stephanie—way up and beyond myself,” pronounces Donato, of his initial reaction to the diagnosis. Dick had previously been tested several times, but the last time was for Big Brother 8 in 2007. “I didn’t cheat on my relationship with Stephanie,” he tells me, “so I must have been infected before that, probably in 2008 or 2009, with a stripper in Vegas.”

The production company sent a car to take him to his mother’s house in Long Beach. He spent the night and they talked about his diagnosis. “These were the most surreal moments of my life. It was like walking through a dream, a cloud. Nothing was really clear; I had no sense of direction,” Dick winces, with a whimsical air. He crisscrosses his ankles and leans back into the living room chair. “Anyone else who is diagnosed is usually set up with a doctor’s appointment, given information and counseling. With the show doctor, the only thing he said to me was, ‘Well, you know it’s not a death-sentence anymore and you know there’s plenty of treatments….’ and so on. ‘If you need any help just give the producers a call.’”

The next day, he made a statement at his mother’s house before a CBS camera crew: “There are some things more important than a television show. I’m

leaving the show because of a friend.” (CBS wasn’t happy about what he said.) He also posted his statement on his Web site. “It wasn’t the truth, but it wasn’t a lie,” he clarifies. The ‘friend’ was his girlfriend. Evel was terrified that she might also be infected.

A media frenzy ensued and rumors flurried. “The funniest one was when someone swore that their brother worked in an emergency room in some Orange County hospital and my brother was admitted because he was in a horrific car accident. “I don’t even have a brother!” expounds Dick, with a laugh that morphs into a hacky cough. “It was inane. People just made up stories!”

But one story stuck. That Dick’s drug test had come back dirty. “I’m assuming because of the whole rocker image and the fact that I had been with my best friend, Mike, in San Francisco in 2003 when I found him dead of a heroin overdose. My typical reply was: You don’t know shit! It’s the truth. Nobody knew,” attests Dick. “Not one rumor even came close to the truth. His on-line fans asked, “Why did you leave?” Initially, his response was flip, “I left bacon on the stove” or “I forgot to milk the goat.” If they pressed, he would reply, “Listen, my life is not a reality show. I have a personal life and I’m keeping it that way.”

After the visit with his mom, Evel Dick was eager to return to Denver, where he resided with his girlfriend. LAX was swarming with paparazzi and so CBS flew him out of Orange County’s John Wayne airport. As he waited for his flight, he received a call from Big Brother’s executive producer. He asked Dick to write a letter to the remaining players encouraging them to stay on the show. Dick replied, “Are you for real?! Really? You want me to write a letter to your cast? I think you should take care of your own cast,” he proclaimed in a sarcastic tone. “I have enough on my plate…”

On landing in Denver, he called Stephanie, who was shocked to hear from him. Being on Big Brother meant the cast was not allowed any communication with the outside world. Dick disclosed that he left the house and was on his way home.

“Not one to play out scenarios in my head, I thought that she would break up with me once I told her,” he says, cracking his knuckles, whirlygigging side to side. “That was without a doubt one of the toughest talks I had in my life.” However, Stephanie was supportive and told him that if she were infected, they would deal with it together. Stephanie’s subsequent test was negative.

“And this is where I do thank CBS,” Dick states with hardy punctuation. “If it wasn’t for their testing protocol, the probability of her being infected…,” he halts, then proceeds with a strained gaze, “I don’t even know why she wasn’t infected. I thank them for keeping their mouths shut and letting me deal with it on my own.” Crossing his leg then twirling his bootlace with his thumb and finger, he contemplates. “I also thank CBS for keeping a tight lid on it. Whether they did it out of concern for me or for themselves because of legalities,” he stutters a few chuckles, “I have no idea. I’m sure they were covering their ass. It’s a network!”

Evel’s foray into the HIV/AIDS community began at Denver’s Planned Parenthood who provided him with a full packet of HIV information. He found an HIV center and set up an appointment. When he arrived at the center, he found a massive green awning and over the entrance in bold letters, “HIV/AIDS.” He was apprehensive because he was still dodging the media. “Someone’s going to click a picture and I’m fucked,” recalls Dick. But he entered and spoke with a social worker who referred him to the University of Colorado’s infectious disease unit. (“They are on top of their game there and on the cutting edge.”)

Donato’s first doctor told him his viral load and his CD 4 count. “He could have been reading a Chinese restaurant menu in Chinese!” blurts Dick. “It was a lot to take in. The doctor discussed treatment options with him, remarking, “Once you start you’ll have to take them for the rest of your life.” Dick asked for her opinion and she advised in favor of drug treatment. He did. Currently, Dick takes one pill a day, Atripla, and the virus was undetectable after three months of treatment. It still is.

 

“When I first started taking the meds I was strung out, couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat and I had these vivid dreams. It felt like I was on a bad bender,” grimaces Evel, flashing a mug, as though he had tasted curdled milk. “These drugs are strong. You have to give yourself time to adjust.”

Fast-forward three years, to early 2014. A producer from VH1’s Couples Therapy reached out several times to Dick, who was now living in Swords, Ireland, a suburb of Dublin. (An avid traveler, at twenty-nine he lived in Paphos, Cyprus, for two years.) He wanted Dick and Stephanie to be guests. However, they had broken up ten months earlier. Donato turned down the offer. “I had never heard of the show and wasn’t really interested. Even after I watched an episode, I turned them down. When they offered more money, I reconsidered.”

Living with a secret can be painful and after three years, Dick was ready to go public. He revealed his plan to the show’s casting director who responded that he did not have to do this in order to be on the show. “I’m gay,” said the casting director, “and in my world this is not really a big deal.” Evel responded, “Well in my world this is a Big Fuckin’ Deal.”

Dick spoke with the show’s producers. “They were good with my plan,” he says, veering forward placing his elbows on his knees, exposing a box of Marlboros in his shirt pocket. “Then they wanted to know if I would take $10,000 less! I said, ‘Listen… I know that you guys want to look at the show and say that this is life-changing and all of that bullshit. For some of the people who go on, it might be. For more than a lot of the people, it’s face time on television and a paycheck—and you know it. For me, it’s going to be…life-changing. Once this is aired, my life will never be the same. So fuck you, I’m not taking a dime less.’” The producers withdrew the lower offer. “I decided that if they wouldn’t let me reveal my HIV status then I would not do the show.”

In May, they flew Dick and Stephanie to Los Angeles for a seventeen-day shoot on Couples Therapy. The night before shooting, he decided to come clean with Stephanie. “I brought her into the show so I felt myself somewhat responsible. Since they were staying in separate hotels, he called Stephanie and told her his plan.

“NO!” she yelled. “You can’t do this to me. This isn’t fair.” Stephanie was adamant. “It went on and on and on and we spoke for over three hours, but I talked her off the ledge,” recounts Dick.

During filming, he met privately with Dr. Jenn, the psychotherapist on the show. He explained that he was HIV-positive. During another session/episode Dick and Stephanie were both in Dr. Jenn’s office. At one point, Dr. Jenn asked the crew to leave. The three discussed the situation. “Stephanie was only concerned about how it made her look,” Dick insists. Dr. Jenn told her, “Listen, this is Dick’s disease. If he wants to talk about it, it is his choice. If you’re not comfortable, we can send you home right now.” Dick sums up, “That put Stephanie back on her heels. From that point on, it was a bit smoother for me.”

The revelatory Couples Therapy episode aired and it was an instant media bombshell. The news was reported on local television, CNN, and People magazine. Even the Elton John AIDS Foundation posted the news on its Web site. Dick learned that every cast member of Big Brother 13 had been contacted by CBS, informing them that CBS had not told anyone back in 2011 because there was no chance that anyone could have been infected. “They were covering their own ass,” declares Evel. “Why are they calling them now?! I didn’t fuck anybody the first time. I didn’t fuck anybody the second time. I was there to win money!”

The next day, Evel received a call from a Big Brother producer. Dick dons a high register using a cautious tone, mimicking the female producer, “‘Hi Dick….You know…you’re part of the Big Brother family and I just wanted to see how you’re doing.’ I said, ‘Cut the shit. I haven’t heard from you in three years! ‘Big Brother family,’ my ass.”

Undeniably, Donato’s announcement was the buzz; however, some did not want to talk about it. VH1 reached out to CBS’s afternoon show, The Talk, co-hosted by Julie Chen, the Big Brother host and wife of CBS’s president, Les Moonves. “The Talk would be a perfect forum to be a guest and talk about being HIV-positive,” remarks Dick.

CBS turned them down. “CBS remembers [those days on Big Brother] one way and I remember it another way. They were concerned about certain statements I had made after I left the show. They also released a statement back then claiming that leaving the show was my choice. That’s a lie. I was never given the option to stay. They’re also afraid that I might sue them for discrimination,” Dick contends. “That isn’t even on my radar. I just want to…live my life.”

Going public has been such a great experience for me. Negative shit-talkers are just a minute percentage. It’s not worth even mentioning

Just then, a muffled sound can be heard somewhere on Evel’s person. Listening closer, well, there’s only one way to say it, there’s a series of farts. He comments flatly, “That’s not me. That’s my cell’s notification.” He reaches in his pants pocket, retrieves his phone, and turns it off. Quickly his attention returns to our topic.

“Going public has been such a great experience for me. Negative shit-talkers are just a minute percentage. It’s not worth even mentioning,” he says.

“Look, I’m an open, straightforward, everything-on-the-table kind of guy. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to go public. HIV is a…disease….” Dick presses on, firmly. “This is not a gay disease; it’s not a straight disease; it’s just a fucking disease!”

Dick’s future plans are uncertain. Currently residing in Orlando, Dick wants to return to Swords, Ireland. “The encouraging factor that helped push me to move to Dublin was their socialized health care. All my medication is free, all of my appointments are free,” he states proudly. “When you’re diagnosed [in the United States], if you don’t have insurance, you’re fucked. Granted, there are some governmental programs like ADAP that one can qualify for. I had money, but I was totally wiped out. That was also tough on my relationship with Stephanie.”

Before he returned to the United States in May to film Couples Therapy, he went to Dublin’s St. James Hospital, his HIV facility. He informed them that he would be gone for several months and they asked him how much meds he had left. “I told them about two weeks worth. In the States, they act like these meds are crack and you’re going to sell them on the street. It’s so weird. They won’t give you a refill until you’re down to four or five pills,” he points out. “They asked if two month’s supply of meds would be enough to hold me over and I said, ‘Yes.’ Then they said, ‘Well, let’s give you three month’s supply just to make sure.’ Awesome. This would never, ever happen in the States.”

Since Dick’s revelation, there’s talk of him doing a PSA and he’s been invited to speak on the college lecture circuit. What would be his focus?

“Testing!” he announces with urgency. “Forty percent of the people who are carrying this disease don’t even know they are carrying it!” He shakes his head. “And they’re passing it on and passing it on. In the United States alone one in 300 people are infected. Those are crazy fucking numbers. 45,000 people a day on this planet are being infected. Whaaat?!”

Dick sits quietly for a moment. Then, a solemn stare comes over his face and there’s a glitter in his golden-brown eyes. “This speaking gig is so right down my alley, you know. Speaking in public doesn’t make me nervous. It would be so nice to leave this part of my life behind and move on to something that really, really matters.” He pauses and in his typical devil-may-care attitude, Evel Dick concludes, “I can help others instead of just talking about a stupid fucking television show.”

Gratitude to Traci Daniel-Batalon for her guidance.

Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U.