Ange(RED) over the state of AIDS, Bobby Shriver gets revved up with A&U’s Dann Dulin about irrational mindsets, selling products as a form of fundraising, and what he learned from this very interview
by Dann Dulin
Photography by Tim Courtney
What do Dakota Fanning, Mary J. Blige, Apolo Anton Ohno, Penelope Cruz, Chris Rock, and Steven Spielberg have in common? They all have been models for famed photographer Annie Leibovitz to lend their support to (PRODUCT) RED.
(RED) is a new economic initiative established by Bobby Shriver and Bono that was launched in the United Kingdom in March of 2006, and here in October. (RED) engages businesses to sell their product with a percentage of that sale going toward the Global Fund in its battle against AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis in Africa. The Fund represents a novel approach to international health financing. In a nutshell, it purchases medicines and then distributes them to the poor.
After opening the door to the (RED) offices located in a West Los Angeles high-rise early one morning, I immediately spot Bobby Shriver in his tiny cubicle, already conducting business on the phone. Greeted by several friendly assistants who offer me a beverage, I am seated on a black vinyl sofa. The lobby area is dripping with (RED) ads, life-size posters, and products. Magazines, such as Dazed and Harper’s with (RED) ads and articles inside, are scattered on the reception table, and there are even several bouquets of fresh long-stemmed red roses. The small makeshift “suite” is industrial-style, complete with cement floors. The atmosphere is informal, yet diligent. It’s definitely a working environment.
After a brief wait, a tall figure swaggers toward me, extends his hand, and flashes a familiar full-tooth hearty grin, “Hi, I’m Bobby. It’s nice to meet you.” I’ve seen that smile before. I grew up with it. He is part of an American dynasty—the Kennedy clan. Eldest of five children, his mother is Eunice Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics and sister to President John F. Kennedy. Bobby’s father is Robert Sargent Shriver (Bobby is named after him), former Ambassador to France who ran for the Vice Presidency in 1972. And of course his sis, Maria Shriver, is a noted journalist and the wife of California’s governor. Though Bobby has a strong family foundation, he is his own man.
Today, he sports casual, hip jeans, black, comfy, somewhat preppy shoes, and an eggshell-colored, bulky hooded sweatshirt zipped halfway that reveals a tight, white V-neck T-shirt. Around his neck dangles a lengthy (PRODUCT) RED scarf. Right away, I sense a lighthearted and outgoing individual. Along with his affable assistant, Julie Cordua, we convene in one of the larger offices. Throughout the interview, Bobby, who is fifty-two and resembles a young collegiate, is playful, upbeat, with a fun sense of humor—and on occasion, a little whacky. I feel a camaraderie with him, possibly because of similar personalities, but also because we are both of the same generation. He sits in a simple office chair with roller wheels, legs stretched out in front of him, and briefly flips through an old issue of A&U while tapping his foot.
I note his Gap scarf. He instantly replies, “It’s made in South Africa by people with HIV.” (Other items of (PRODUCT) RED include sunglasses, wallets, shoes, iPods, and phones that are manufactured by companies that have joined (RED)—The Gap, Converse, Emporio Armani, Motorola, and Apple.) “And though this scarf is red, not all the products are red,” Bobby points out, explaining that the color red was chosen because it symbolizes a state of emergency and because blood is red which is the principal route for HIV to enter the body.
“Red is a state of mind, not just a color,” Shriver clarifies, in his husky, raspy voice. “There are (RED) people in the world and these people don’t just wear the color red. They have a social consciousness and understand that shopping is a form of power. When they shop they exercise that power by reaching into their pockets. Then there are others who aren’t (RED) people. They might like to wear the color red, and god bless them, they don’t yet understand that some portion of their money can buy influence.” He further explains, “(RED) kind of works in a manner similar to how American Express works. They go to merchants and say, ‘Look, we’re gonna charge you more than Visa.’ The companies ask, ‘Why would I accept that?’ They respond, ‘Because our card members spend a lot of money and you want them as your customers.’ Then the merchant concludes, ‘Well, in that case, I’m gonna accept American Express cards even though it costs me more.’ In a funny way, that’s what we’re trying to do.” He chuckles to himself. “We’re trying to say, ‘We’re gonna assemble (RED) people and they’re gonna shop based on that symbol.’”
Interestingly enough, one of the reasons that (RED) developed was Shriver’s discomfort with asking people for money. “I grew up in a political family where that was common,” he says. “My mom ran the Special Olympics and she would have dinners to ask people for money. I always hated that. So I thought I needed to do something else. I wanted to make some product that I could sell to people.” In the mid-eighties, Shriver began producing the pop culture album series entitled A Very Special Christmas, with the proceeds benefiting Special Olympics. He met Bono some twenty years ago during his work on that album. “The records sold like crazy, and that was so much nicer than asking people for money!” Bobby says, with a tone of relief in his voice. In 2002, he started working politically with Bono by cofounding DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa), an NGO that strengthens equality and justice for the African people.
(RED) initially began in Shriver’s living room and developed over a period of time. “We knew we needed a symbol, sort of like the Nike Swoosh that people could see and think, ‘That’s me. I’m fast. I’m sexy.’ I know when I buy something I want some of the money of my purchase to go for something good,” remarks Bobby, thinking. “The idea of (RED) is sort of ripping off Paul Newman’s idea a little bit. People buy his dog food, popcorn, cookies, salad dressing and almost nobody can tell you where the money goes. Interesting. Do you know where the money goes?” he asks rhetorically, “But you buy the stuff anyway.” I respond that I buy because I trust Paul Newman. Shriver adds, “And the products are good!” We briefly discuss Newman’s organization, The Hole in the Wall Gang, a camp for terminally ill kids. “The point is that the consumer doesn’t need to know exactly where the money is going,” Shriver emphasizes. “They just need to trust the seller and the products need to be good.”
Here in America, (RED) is nearly six months-old. How is it doing? “In sales, we’ve been told that we’ve earned about twenty-five million bucks in three months. The Global Fund had received four to five million dollars in the previous five years—total. So in terms of private-sector money, there’s been a five hundred percent increase,” he exclaims excitedly. “People have bought a lot of stuff and that is great. But it makes me nervous because it was [only] the launch. (RED) went public on shows like Oprah, Larry King, and Martha Stewart. We aren’t feeling successful yet. We feel that sustainability is the big game. Although, ya know, we’re working away at it. We’re going to do another Oprah in October in what she calls the “What Did You Do With The Money?” show. Bobby laughs, exhibiting a slightly apprehensive look.
(RED) presently promotes products that people don’t buy with great frequency, like cell phones, and so they are now working toward more daily-use items such as salad dressing, cookies, toothpaste, cosmetics, and lipsticks. “We don’t yet have the capacity, as you can see by this little office, to deal with a lot of niche kinds of companies,” he says. “Our focus right now is on large companies that can potentially keep money flowing into the Global Fund. This will then encourage governments, who are putting billions of dollars into that entity, feel, ‘Okay, there is some private-sector money coming into the Global Fund.’ So then the Fund will be a real public/private partnership.”
(RED) also creates AIDS awareness, thus helping to eliminate the stigma, I say to Bobby. He’s interested and asks, “Why do you think so?” I answer, “Because it’s like what we were just talking about with Paul Newman. People trust you and Bono—two straight men.” “I never thought of that! That we’re straight,” he says, giggling, yet engaged and curious. “I honestly never thought of that. I wonder if that’s true? People look at us and say, ‘There’s two straight men.’ You think that’s the thing?” Indeed. Most Americans still view AIDS as a gay disease. (RED) is pop culture and the Gap is certainly a symbol of middle-class America. What Bobby and Bono have done is truly reach into the core of society, enabling them not only to be educated—the number one tool to fight AIDS—but to globally help others in need. “Usually I don’t learn anything [in interviews],” says Bobby in amazement, “but I learned two things today: I’m straight, and Gap is America.” We all have a jovial laugh.
Bobby is delighted to talk about (RED). His enthusiasm and fervor are infectious. But how has AIDS personally affected him? He points to a poster-size sepia photograph of a regal African woman alone in the desert landscape leaning against the wall next to me. “Herb was my best friend,” he replies softly with a trace of sadness, referring to Herb Ritts, the legendary photographer who died of AIDS in 2002. The photograph is a cover shot of Ritts’s book, Africa. Through the years, Shriver has witnessed the deaths of many others who have “brutally suffered and died of AIDS,” but Ritts’s death impacted him the most. “Herb and I would go out four nights a week with each other. We traveled the world together. When I came to L.A., I was single and a lot of my friends had already gotten married. Since Herb was gay and not involved with anyone, he was available. Having gay guy friends is a very good thing because they’re always available!” joyfully laughs Shriver, tilting back and clasping his hands behind his head. I indicate that there still seems to be some question circulating about Ritts’s cause of death. Shriver hesitates a moment, not quite understanding, then it registers. He relates that initially there was a hush about his death because his mother didn’t know. “Hard to believe, but she had not been told,” he notes.
Growing up in a political household, Shriver has been a longtime activist, following in the Kennedy legacy. The Yale-educated lawyer currently serves on the Santa Monica City Council, where he resides, and he has been highly instrumental in reducing homelessness in that city. In 2000, then-Governor Gray Davis appointed him to the California State Parks and Recreation Commission. Last year, after he was reappointed by his brother-in-law, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, his fellow commissioners elected him as chair. As I sit in front of this yoga-practicing dynamo today, I’m aware of how much his life has been devoted to public service. Though he comes from privilege, his heart lies with Everyman. Shriver certainly incorporates his uncle, President Kennedy’s wise philosophy stated in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
Indeed, Shriver could have rebelled and taken a totally different path. What keeps him motivated? “It makes me mad!” he shouts emphatically. I bait, “What do you care?” “I don’t care. I’m just pissed. I don’t really see it as injustice. I don’t know. It just pisses me off! It’s like homelessness. You walk around Santa Monica and you see these people who are clearly severely mentally ill and some are veterans. And up here in Westwood at the V.A. hospital there are empty buildings. Why is that?” he asks vehemently, barely taking a breath to continue. “And it pisses me off to see people dying of AIDS when you can just hand them a little pill. It pissesmeoff.” He says this as if the sentiment were a one-word mantra.
Two years ago, something else pissed Shriver off that changed the direction of his life. What got him stirred up occurred a couple days before Thanksgiving. He and other neighbors were issued a criminal infraction notice from Santa Monica City Hall to enforce a 1948 ordinance, demanding that his hedges be cut by the following Monday. He was able to get the city to withdraw the notice, but in April he was served with civil compliance orders. If he didn’t cut the hedges in a month, he would be charged a $25,000 per-day fine. Their attitude got to Shriver. “The mindset! The mindset of the city was, ‘Fuck You,’” he says fervently, visually upset, stumbling on his words. He shakes his head, throwing his thick, bouncy, salt and pepper hair into a slight tizzy, tossing bangs over his otherwise clean forehead. “That’s the same mindset as the issue of homelessness and AIDS. [It’s like someone irrationally demanding] ‘You don’t need the pill!’” At age fifty, this encounter propelled him to run for the City Council.
Bobby wants to squarely address an issue. “I think sometimes people feel like, ‘Hey, wait a minute. How come you aren’t working on HIV in America? Kids are getting infected here, too.’” Bobby is somber. “The way people live in these poor countries, and these are the poorest countries in the world, is really unimaginable to Americans.” As he continues talking, to make his point, he rolls toward me, taps my knee then rolls back. “In the U.S. every street corner has a Sav-On, a CVS, or a Walgreens, right? That doesn’t exist in these countries. No such thing as a pharmacy. People say, ‘What do you mean there are no pharmacies?’ There’s no pharmacy,” he repeats sternly. “And there’s no hospital. Therefore, even though there are serious problems in America, like the absence of universal health insurance, the situation over there is really beyond that,” sighs Bobby, his hands in a prayer-like fashion over his heart. “The HIV community in America has a big opportunity to lead world opinion by saying, ‘Look, we’re HIV-positive here. It costs us nine hundred bucks a month for our meds. We don’t like it. But guess what? We figured out how to get the money for them.’ But what can we do for those who are also battling HIV overseas? That’s why we’re buying these meds; that’s why we’re writing about the problem. We understand that the issue of HIV
in the poor nations of the world represents a very different set of problems, but we can contribute to
“We’re trying to make (RED) not fun, but easy, adventurous, smart, and empowering. We don’t want to heavy people up with guilt. It’s not smart. People want to feel powerful,” Shriver explains. “They see an image of a woman dying in bed with her two kids also dying and she doesn’t have twenty cents. They think that’s wrong. Ya know, we’re Americans. We’re not going to put up with that. What we used to say to people was, ‘Write a letter to the President or to your Senator.’ Most people don’t want to do that. But [instead] if you say, ‘Buy that T-shirt and with that T-shirt you can buy [a PWA] a week’s worth of treatment,’ then they ask, ‘Really?!’” He leans forward, looks me in the eye, keenly, and hollers passionately, “So, get out there and save lives—shop!” Bobby then flashes another one of those famous inspi(RED) smiles.
Thank you to Sherri Lewis (aka “Schmata Girl”), and Rob Novickas for their valuable input.
Dann Dulin interviewed Queen Latifah and Andrea Williams for the February issue.
What happens after we die?
We go to heaven, of course.
Name your favorite sitcom of all time.
Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
I haven’t been on vacation for so long, I don’t remember, honestly. When I was a kid I would go to the Cape.
Who do you want next in the White House?
What is your favorite movie of all time?
It’s a Wonderful Life. Oh, when he toasts his brother [Jimmy Stewart], with all his friends around and says, ‘To the richest man in town’ and the guy’s broke, that’s a big deal. I love that idea–‘the richest man in town’–because that’s the real idea of the world. In contemporary culture, people think the richest man in the world is Bill Gates. God bless him. We work with him, and he’s a nice fellow. But people’s concept of wealth is in terms of just money. That’s not wealth. [He pauses, looks upward.] Yes, that’s one part in the film that makes me cry even though I’ve seen it many times.
What city in the world do you like to visit the most?
Paris, because I lived there and went to school when I was a kid.
Who were your role models?
Who do you look up to now?
I think Oprah is amazing. I’ve known her a long time–before she was living in Baltimore. How she grinds that sucker out everyday for twenty years…. Paul Newman is a pretty amazing character. He’s done amazing things. These people are workers. I like people who work!
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?
Who would you like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Complete this sentence. “The one thing I don’t like about growing up in a famous family is…..
My parents weren’t around. They were always working….” [He laughs.]
If you could have a dinner date with anyone from history, who would it be and why?
Jesus, because he’s got the answer to a big question.
Bobby gives a brief answer to some of the people who have touched his life
Al Gore: Musician.
Caroline Kennedy: Water skiing.
Julie Andrews: The Sound of Music.
Arnold Schwarzenegger: Fun.
Chris Rock: [He lets out a hearty laugh] Married.
Ashley Judd: Star.
Madonna: Herb [Ritts]. I think of them together. She’s very disciplined.
John F. Kennedy Jr.: [He gives a half-grin] New York City. He was a real New Yorker.
Jamie Lee Curtis: Hot!
Jacqueline Kennedy: Voice.
Bruce Springsteen: Young. He makes me feel youthful. “…Tie your hair back in a long white bow; meet me in the fields out behind the dynamo…They made their choices and they’ll never know, what it means to steal, to cheat, to lie…” That’s youth music. You don’t say this when you’re a grown up! [from Prove It All Night]
Mary J. Blige: Ghetto fabulous.
Maria Shriver: A worker. She’s a mule.
Bobby names one word to describe himself: Worker.