Beauty in La La Land (and Beyond)

Gearing Up for This Year’s National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, Celebrity Hair & Makeup Stylist Eric Leonardos Creates Glam Magic for Women in His Community

Text and photos by Sean Black

Alliance for Housing and Healing Day of Beauty participants

Whether cis or trans, young or old, women can often tap into a level of nurturing, compassion and selflessness that makes our chaotic world a safer and happier place. They soften sharp edges, emote kindly, gently uplift, and patiently wait and sacrifice. Rarely do women think of themselves; they forget about their own self-care tending to the needs of others first. Noting this, celebrity stylist Eric Leonardos, winner of LogoTV’s gay-themed bachelor quest Finding Prince Charming, was inspired to help women living with HIV get a boost by organizing and donating his time and talents to an inaugural Beauty Day.

Last Monday, February 27, a freshly made-up woman smiling behind electric pink lipstick,

Hair and makeup stylist Eric Leonardos

who I will call Audra, made a pinky-swear with me just before I took her portrait. Feeling good about herself under newly woven braids she agreed to adhere to her antiretroviral regimen if I adhered to mine after disclosing to each other our CD4 counts and viral loads. Audra is undetectable with a T-cell count above 700, which gave us both cause for celebration and some imagined dancing in the streets.

Every day, however is not a blockbuster musical for most, especially if you are one of the estimated 230,000 women living with diagnosed HIV in the U.S. (according to 2013 data). Managing life with HIV and achieving better health outcomes is possible, but there is still work to be done. Though concerted efforts to increase access to HIV testing, prevention, and treatment have led to a forty percent decline in new diagnoses over the past decade, 8,300 women were newly diagnosed with HIV in the U.S. in 2014.

Realizing and living up to our best selves takes a lot of effort. It’s an arduous chore but Leonardos, who is also positive, was confident he could help. “I believe beauty is truly within,” he attests. “The inner beauty of these women shined even brighter than their makeovers. I am not sure who benefited more—these women or me.”

Audra was just one of twelve formerly homeless clients of Los Angeles’ Alliance for Housing and Healing (AHH) who are living with HIV and benefitting from some TLC and pampering, including hair and makeup transformations arranged by Leonardos at his Public Service Salon, part of an upscale West Hollywood beauty enclave owned and operated by Chris Bair of Shorty’s Barbershop.

Public service coincidentally is what Leonardos is all about today. “Seeing the reaction of these women when they saw their final looks was priceless. I am so grateful for this opportunity to share this experience with these extraordinary women who have overcome so much adversity.”

Left to right: Stylists Miles Smith, Robert Rhea, Robert Fraire (seated), and Eric Leonardos, with Jack Lorenz, Director of Development and Communications at AHH

Data continues to show that low rates of ARV adherence among HIV-positive individuals indicate significant risk for HIV transmission, resistances to treatments over poor adherence and coinfection with other viral strains. Stable housing and integrated care through agencies such as AHH are critically important to ensuring positive health outcomes for the infected as well as for those who are vulnerable within at-risk communities. Furthermore, data suggests that PrEP and other HIV prevention services are poorly accessed among the homeless population. Stable housing intervention like that provided by Alliance for Housing and Healing dramatically improves the health of formerly homeless HIV-positive people.

Alliance for Housing and Healing was formed when Aids for AIDS (AFA), founded in 1983, and The Serra Project, founded in 1987, merged in 2009 to create one entity that provides a full continuum of care for men, women, children, and families living with HIV/AIDS. The Serra Project began under the sponsorship of seven major Los Angeles County hospitals and the Catholic Archdiocese in response to the growing number of people left homeless by their battle with acute HIV and AIDS.

The MAC Cosmetics Team of course brought along plenty of Viva Glam, the lipstick that supports the MAC AIDS Fund

Drawing on the decades of experience from AFA and Serra, the unified non-profit, AHH has an annual budget of $10 million and is the leading provider of housing and directly related support services for people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County.

Jack Lorenz and Desiree Whitney

“I cannot tell you how much this event means to our clients,” said Terry Goddard II, Executive Director of Alliance for Housing and Healing. “Their joy and gratitude are immeasurable. This kind of activity helps to build self-esteem and pride. When our clients look in the mirror they see themselves in a whole new and wonderful light. We are grateful to Eric, Public Service Salon and MAC Cosmetics for providing our clients with their services and instilling happiness back into their lives.”

Beaming through her joy on that day is Desiree Whitney, another one of the eleven women plus one man.

“After three and a half years of being homeless, literally living on the streets of Hollywood, I was depressed, exhausted, disillusioned and hopeless. I am fifty-seven but felt eighty. Through Alliance for Housing and Healing and Hollywood Community Housing I finally moved into a wonderful apartment in October 2016. Two weeks ago, Jack Lorenz, Director of Development and Communications for Alliance for Housing and Healing, invited me to be a part of ‘a day of beauty’ held at Public Service Salon. That’s where the magic happened for me. Eric Leonardos and his team performed miracles. My hair and make-up were expertly and lovingly done and the transformation is amazing! I look better than I have in many years, but what they did for my soul was truly a miracle. I feel forty, excited about my new life and BEAUTIFUL inside and out.”

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Sean Black is Senior Editor of A&U.