Hair stylist and makeup artist Eric Leonardos uses his reality-show celebrity to give back
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
When Eric Leonardos casually asks me where I go to get my haircut, I freeze. I’m sitting in his mid-century inspired living room in West Hollywood, expecting him to throw shade when I confess. Supercuts. Every month. I prepare to explain that haircuts are a transactional thing with me, and I don’t like to make appointments and curly hair is pretty goof-proof, isn’t it?
I assume saying this to a hair and make up artist, one who retains some celebrity clients as well, would be sacrilege. But Leonardos simply smiles and reassures me that my approach to hair is fine for me. Still, I’m missing out, he adds.
“Some people want to come back to the same stylist not only for their skill but for their experience and the connection with that person,” Leonardos says. “I get to know them and they get to know me and we share things about our lives.”
Leonardos wasn’t asking me about my hair habits to shame me. He was making a larger point about human connection and how the quest for beauty should be more than running away from ugliness, which ties into his initiative, Beauty Allies.
But before I get to Beauty Allies, it’s important to understand how Leonardos gained a national platform to talk about these things. It all started with that prototypical “meet a stranger, get a gig on a reality show, come out as HIV-positive to the world” Hollywood fairytale.
Prince Charming, found and lost
In early 2016 the casting people behind the LOGO TV series Finding Prince Charming reached out to Leonardos via Facebook. One of the casting editors had met him at a party a month earlier.
“Just before I was contacted by the show I had just made a decision to focus more on helping people in the HIV community,” Leonardos says. And, thanks to Shonda Rhimes, who wrote the best-selling book, Year of Yes, he designated 2016 as his year of saying yes.
It wasn’t until a subsequent Skype interview with the casting director that Leonardos figured that being on the show, if he were cast, could be a springboard to doing more regarding HIV. But he would have to make it through the interview process, and, ironically, disclosing his HIV-positive status could kill his chances to be on the show.
“HIV is an important issue in dating,” Leonardos tells me. “If I’m going to be intimate I’m going to talk about it with someone I’m dating. I decided if I go on this show I would be honest about it.”
As it turned out HIV wasn’t an issue to the producers, and in June Leonardos was boarding a black SUV and driving to an undisclosed location to be sequestered in a house with thirteen other guys vying for the affection of an Atlanta-based interior designer, Robert Sepulveda, Jr., a man of chiseled cheekbones and salt-and-pepper scruff who claimed to be looking for his own “white picket fence dream.”
If you’re not familiar with Finding Prince Charming, think of it as the gay male answer to The Bachelor and The Bachelorette. There are some differences between the shows, in addition to sexual orientation. At the end of each forty-five-minute episode of Finding Prince Charming, instead of a “rose ceremony,” there was a black-tie event. This involved Sepulveda asking a finalist to remove his tie—he always gave a reason—before gently and diplomatically ejecting him from the show.
In an emotional scene in the last of nine episodes Sepulveda told Leonardos he would keep his tie, saying, “I think that our lives crossed for a reason.”
That was several episodes after Leonardos came out to him—and the viewing audience and the world—as HIV-positive. This was episode five, at a masquerade party where contestants were asked to take off their self-made masks and reveal a secret. Eric was last to remove his mask and he took a deep breath before confessing.
“Ten years ago I found out that I was HIV-positive,” he told Sepulveda. “I’ve learned to love who I am today. I share this with you because I have to. It’s a part of me. It’s a small part of me‚ it’s only a part of me—there’s much more to me than that.”
“Hey, there’s nothing you could say that would scare me away from you,” Sepulveda said, before running his hand through Eric’s hair and kissing him. Leonardos affirms to me that such moments are completely unscripted.
“I knew the weight of what I was going to do,” Leonardos recalls. “I didn’t know that I would do it then, not until that day. The production staff did say I would know when the right time to talk about [HIV] would be. It had to be the right time. It’s much like real life in that way.”
Leonardos adds that throughout the episodes—the stilted mixers, the group dates, the “tell me about yourself in a hashtag” game—he tried to present himself as he really was. Which was not easy, given the unreality of the reality show format.
“I went on the show to be myself and talk about HIV, even though I didn’t know how I was going to talk about it if I had the opportunity to represent myself and community and anyone living with HIV in the best way I could.”
Leonardos estimates that over the course of the show he saw Sepulveda in total maybe twenty hours (real time not air time), including four dates with him—two alone and several group dates—just enough time to decide you would like to keep getting to know someone.
As the “winner,” Leonardos joined Sepulveda and walked off into the sunset to see if things would work out in real life. Ultimately they didn’t work and Leonardos doesn’t go into specifics of why, just that the connection he thought they shared just wasn’t there when the cameras were off. “We’re still friends,” Leonardos tells me, adding that the surreal way they were introduced may have hindered, rather than encouraged, a stronger bond.
“The idea was, whoever he had the strongest connection with, he would choose, but it’s hard to believe two people could get married out of that situation.”
A new platform
Though neither man found that white picket fence, at least not with each other, Leonardos, at the end of the show, has something even more valuable.
“If I hadn’t made it to the top three in the run-off, the show might have been just a blip in my life. Now I will forever be the winner of an all-gay dating show,” he says. “I can’t erase it even if I wanted to. So I can either run with it or hide from it.”
Running and hiding was not an option, he admits, and he was still in his year of saying yes. With three million viewers who had followed him for nine weeks, plus stories in US Weekly and Access Hollywood, as well as many Instagram followers, he had a platform, and a chance to use his fame to help others.
“When I was younger I watched celebrities on TV and I thought if I were them I would use that fame for good.”
At his home, the thirty-six-year-old Leonardos shows me his vision board, and he’s so excited about his many projects that I have a hard time following everything. So I ask him about Beauty Allies, something that he’s been thinking about for years.
He explains that beauty should be an “inside job.” I’m intrigued. He continues.
“Our society is obsessed with outer beauty, but I believe there must be balance in beauty.” To clarify, he reads to me from his notebook (he says he writes in his notebook daily):
“What makes something beautiful is not about fitting into a perfect mold. A majority of our society has decided on what’s beautiful for the human being and people are trying to fit into that mold. When there is an imbalance, when the thought is negative, then the ritual of putting on make up is about saying ‘I’m not good enough.’ If people have that thought then that will create an unhappy, dissatisfied person.
“We can approach beauty from a more balanced place and see a lot less of these people obsessed with perfection on the outside and call on them to focus on beauty on the inside,” he concludes, beaming. I’m still self-conscious about my Supercuts revelation, and I’m not exactly clear how his vision relates to philanthropy.
He explains by offering the mission statement of Beauty Allies: It’s a national network of beauty professionals that will highlight noble causes and “promote balance to an outer-beauty obsessed society.”
I’m still looking for the bottom line, so Leonardos shares what he’s already accomplished vis-à-vis Beauty Allies.
Beauty, inside out
In February, Leonardos and his salon at the time, Public Service Salon, launched an Alliance Beauty Day, a makeover campaign in conjunction with the Alliance for Housing and Healing (AHH), a Los Angeles-based group that provides the basic necessities to those struggling with HIV/AIDS and poverty. Twelve formerly homeless clients—eleven women and one man—got the full salon treatment from Leonardos and other stylists at the salon. An ally, M•A•C Cosmetics, provided cosmetics and a makeup consultant.
Leonardos said it was about giving a new sense of self-worth.
“Some were getting back into the workforce. Some experienced a lot of trauma. They shared their stories with me and I listened. What I got back was the experience of watching these women see their outsides begin to match their beautiful insides.”
A&U highlighted the event in an online feature in March. Desiree Whitney had nothing but praise for Leonardos and his crew as well as AHH and its development director Jack Lorenz.
“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.…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.”
It’s the inside-and-out beauty that Leonardos was promoting, he tells me.
“[The AHH makeover day] was aligned with the mission of Beauty Allies because we were promoting beauty in a balanced way. We did not bring in [the clients] to point out things wrong with them. The goal was to make them feel great.”
The AHH event inspired him to do more. In May Leonardos organized another free salon day, this time giving makeovers—bringing out the inner beauty, not fixing problems, he insists—to longtime volunteers of Project Angel Food, an L.A.-based nonprofit that has brought meals to people with HIV/AIDS since 1989.
“I told [Project Angel Food] let’s reward some of your best volunteers and showcase and expose with the resources we have,” he says.
He also uses social media to get peoples’ attention and drive them to the Beauty Allies website.
You can be a beauty ally in many ways. You can give to the organization, so we can do more work like this. We may donate cosmetics, so if you have unopened cosmetics unexpired, maybe we will use it.
“You can be a beauty ally in many ways. You can give to the organization, so we can do more work like this. We may donate cosmetics, so if you have unopened cosmetics unexpired, maybe we will use it.” He’s active on Twitter, promoting his beauty days and reminding people of National HIV Testing Day, as well as promoting speeches he’s given for HIV/AIDS Services in North Texas and for the HIV/AIDS group Thrive Tribe.
Beauty Allies is in the early stages of getting a 501(c)3 designation, but Leonardos is being an ally outside the fledgling organization. When we last spoke, he was organizing a Trans Lounge, under the auspices of the Los Angeles LGBTQ Center, to help trans women in the early stages of their transition deal with new ways of doing hair and makeup. And he’s getting settled in his new salon, the U.S. flagship store of Paris-based franchise Mod’s Hair.
And he’s continuing to balance his salon and charity work with freelancing for celebrities. He’s not a union stylist, he emphasizes. That means he can’t work on the set. But if an actor leaves the set to do some press for a TV show, the network will contract with him, and SAG/AFTRA sets the rate and the duties, protecting him from saying “yes” to an unreasonable actor’s demands. Although the actors he works with, including Betsy Brandt of Breaking Bad and Life in Pieces, are very reasonable and respectful of his time.
“Unions protect us. People may not value our time the way we do. Sometimes we will go above and beyond because of our passion for what we do. Over time that’s exhausting. You want regulations to protect you.”
On being out about HIV
Having this much attention as an out and proud man with HIV was unlikely just two years ago, and nearly inconceivable back in 2006, when Leonardos was living in Austin, Texas and learned his status. Initially he didn’t want to tell anyone and didn’t want to date out of fear of rejection. It wasn’t until a friend from Los Angeles encouraged him to visit, saying that people were more hip to what the virus was and what it wasn’t. Leonardos says that assessment is generally true, although he still experiences some micro-rejections and the icky but well-intentioned sympathetic responses. But none of those responses are reason to clam up about his status. In fact, he feels a duty to speak out about the issues faced by people living with HIV.
“For one thing, I think we can agree that people with HIV should not be homeless,” he tells me. “We can agree that people with HIV shouldn’t be rejected.”
His advocacy has resonated with others. Says Joel Goldman [A&U, June 2016], managing director of The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF): “When Eric disclosed his HIV status on Finding Prince Charming I saw a giant chunk of stigma chipped away. Then when he was chosen as the winner, the stigma that surrounds people living with HIV was chipped away even more. As soon as that moment happened, I knew that he would be a great member of our ETAF Ambassador team. He joined ETAF at AIDSWatch in D.C. and I was impressed with his commitment to be a champion for many HIV/AIDS organizations.”
Well into year two of his year of saying yes, Leonardos says he’s still looking for ways of giving back to the community, and he’s open to ideas.
For more information about Beauty Allies, log on to: www.ericleonardos.com.
Larry Buhl is a radio news reporter, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. He interviewed advocate Chandi Moore for the June cover story. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.