Frankie Grande Redefines Normal By Searing Through AIDS Apathy, Establishing a Nonprofit, Building Schools In Africa & Making Strides With an HIV-Positive Girl
by Dann Dulin
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
Frankie Grande is boisterous, spoiled, and egocentric. This was my assumption. Then I met him.
Frankie agreed that my assessment of him is not uncommon. The Triple Threat’s (dancer, singer, actor) mission is to eradicate people’s preconceptions. In the current climate of recriminations and bullying, his mission is timely. “Does my mascara make me any less intelligent? Does my eyeliner make me any less credible as an expert?” Frankie loves glitter and sparkle (a word he uses to describe himself).
“I want kids to know that it’s okay to be whoever they are! I’ll fight their battles,” he says. “I am a nonconformist and if you don’t like it, go fuck yourself. I take the road less traveled so it’s easier for others. As Madonna says, ‘I’m an unapologetic bitch.’”
Frankie is also thoughtful, mature, engaging…and even spiritual.
Arriving at his mother’s home off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles where he occupies an apartment, I was jolted by booming rock music. I rang the doorbell and Joan, his mother, appeared. This gracious lady immediately offered me a beverage, suggesting iced tea; I requested water. Mrs. Grande preceded to lead me downstairs, past an inviting outdoor pool. We moved directly toward the deafening noise. She rapped on the door. Frankie greeted me dressed in workout gear and perspiring from lifting weights. He turned down the music then offered a warm welcoming embrace.
“So glad we could finally meet!” Frank James Michael Grande Marchione (his birth name) coos with rueful gusto. He was across the pond appearing in Celebrity Big Brother 18 just outside London. Then Amazon snatched him up for the co-host of Style Code Live, an interactive show, offering beauty tips and celebrity fashion trends. (His favorite beauty tip? “Highlighter, highlighter, highlighter.”
Frankie and I meander to the living room, which is adjacent to his workout space. The mammoth room could be a sound stage for Dancing with the Stars, with shiny wood floors, cathedral ceiling, a loft, and a grand piano. The space is saturated in warm light that bounces off the eggshell-colored walls. The sun’s rays radiate through the floor-to-ceiling picture windows, framing a drop-dead view of the San Fernando Valley. Nearly two dozen candles on the fireplace mantel add a subtle devotional quality to the surroundings. The candles bear frequent use.
Frankie, barefooted, sits cross-legged on an elongated leather tufted footstool. “The pandemic is being ignored because people believe that HIV is curable and fixable. The continuing threat is glossed over.” Frankie sips on a post-workout drink. “AIDS has become a dark, hidden secret again,” he says forcefully. “That’s the problem.”
“I spoke to some kids who said to me, ‘Oh, HIV is not a thing anymore.’” Frankie replied to them shrieking, “‘Yes, it is!’ It’s like, ‘Who told you that?!’”
Friends who performed with Frankie have died of AIDS-related causes. “Soooo…heartbreaking,” he says. “I remember crying, crying, crying over my friend Larry, with his dad. Today, kids don’t have a complete perspective.” He takes a beat, deep in thought. “It’s like they say, ‘No one knows the pain of losing a child until it happens to you.’ Kids can’t grasp the danger.”
Frankie has long advocated safer sex, faithfully wearing the red ribbon. “The more people talk about HIV the less it becomes a passé subject.” He mentions the PSAs that RuPaul’s Drag Race aired on nearly every commercial break. “God knows they scared the fuck outta me!” He pauses, briefly looking down at his sparkly silver-painted nails. “It was not a scare tactic; it was a public awareness tactic. That’s important.”
Frankie suggests that more films should incorporate the issue in their stories, and that the CDC should post infection stats more prominently. “Make it a Big Deal…because it is a Big Deal!”
He goes on. “The straight community is largely unaware of PrEP! I tell my girlfriends, ‘Girl! You are a very, very promiscuous woman and you have no idea if that man puts a condom on. You need to get on PrEP. Do it.’ They ask, ‘Can I?’ ‘Yes…you…can!’” he yells to them.
Growing up, Frankie experienced the epidemic in a personal way. “Mom lost all her friends!” he protests, bristling. His beaming brown eyes emit affliction. “I knew these men. They helped raise me….then they just stopped showing up. I didn’t realize until later in my life that they had passed away from AIDS.”
Forever burned on Frankie’s memory, his grief made him keenly aware of the dangers. Indeed, he abstained from sex with guys until he was twenty, though he did lose his virginity to a girl when he was sixteen. At twenty, he partnered into a three-year monogamous relationship with a man. “I’ve always played safe,” he offers. “Many guys were infected because they are fucked up on drugs or alcohol. I abstain from all that so it makes it easier [to be safe].”
Frankie and his first boyfriend got tested together. “It was terrifying waiting for the results. I felt that if I were positive I might as well just die. That’s the only thing I knew from.” With every boyfriend from thereon, Frankie made it a ritual to get tested jointly. “It’s a good feeling doing it together….” When a relationship moves toward physical intimacy, Frankie introduces the subject of STIs. “I just ask them, ‘What’s your status?’” A low warbling succession of tones breaks the moment. It’s the house phone. Frankie ignores it.
“Also I ask, ‘Are you negative?’ Or sometimes I’ll say, ‘Do you have anything you’d like to disclose to me at this particular moment before we head into the bedroom? This is your chance to come clean.’”
Frankie gets tested every three months. He’s been on PrEP for a year. “I take it not because I’m very sexually active but because it’s available,” he clarifies. “PrEP can save your life—Amen!”
Single for six years now, family and career come first. “I’ve grown spiritually and financially over these past years,” he explains shifting, dressed in loose Copenhagen blue tie-dyed Capri pants and sky blue tank top that exposes his many tattoos. Half of Frankie’s hair is his trademark bubble gum pink. “I need to be selfish at the moment. Not selfish for myself, but selfish to give to others. I need to draw from the light in order to give it to my fans.”
Frankie partakes in many fundraisers, including LifeBall, Project Angel Food, GMHC, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. The exhibitionist he is, last year, Frankie gladly exposed his nearly naked body in Jerry Mitchell’s Broadway Bares, which benefits Broadway Cares. (They raised nearly $1,5000,000. Frankie also hails Mitchell as a hero in the pandemic.)
“Why do you think I was in there working out when you arrived?!” he brags with a giggle. I’m hoping to do it again this year and want to look good!” His slight body is already toned and Frankie misses no opportunity to show it off. He bared his derrière in Celebrity Big Brother and attended a fundraiser shirtless, decorated in painted tuxedo body art. At thirty-four, he looks a decade younger.
In 2009, Frankie and three friends founded Broadway in South Africa to teach performance arts to underprivileged kids in Africa. Usually each class has two teachers from different areas of the performing arts. Three or four groups of kids rotate through each class. Sometimes the founding members perform for the students, and at the end of a workshop, students perform for their friends and family.
“In the first years we didn’t know what we were doing,” he admits. When they first arrived, they couldn’t get a taxi to drive them into some townships, because they were too dangerous and so they had to hire a car. “We were knowledge-less people, but we learned so much the first year. In six years, our organization changed hundreds of children’s lives.”
Frankie has made many visits to South Africa and taught in townships in and around Durban, Johannesburg, and Cape Town, as well as in such remote townships as Guguletu, KwaThema, and Khayelitsha. These villages left him horror-struck, as they are fraught with disease, poverty, hunger, and death.
“The country is in trouble,” he declares first and foremost. “The economic disparity is so baffling. Mansions stand next to tin shacks. Why don’t the privileged help the others—at all?!” His mouth gapes. “Everyone hates everyone. I’ve never seen such disharmony…,” he briskly halts. “Except for America right now.” As he pauses, a distant plane appears out of the picturesque window, just over Frankie’s shoulder, leaving a contrail high above the San Fernando Valley as it lazily disappears out of range.
“In Africa, it’s tribe against tribe. Even within the black community there are tribes that hate each other,” he scoffs. “It’s truly strange and you can’t understand it unless you are there. Apartheid was legal some twenty-odd years ago. I mean it’s crazy to be in a culture where America’s equivalent to segregation was actually legal within our lifetime. “WHAAAAAT?!” he bellows with forceful passion. “THIS IS NUTS!”
On one of their trips, they visited Diepsloot, located just north of Johannesburg. (Diepsloot is Afrikaan that means, “deep ditch.”) One of the students in the five-day workshop that Frankie and his crew were conducting was a thirteen year-old who intrigued him. “At first, I thought this person was a boy, until I saw her name tag—‘Wendy.’ She seemed gender neutral in her posture, but she was wearing orange girly slipper/shoes. Frankie shoes! I complimented her on them.”
Wendy was extremely shy, sitting in the back of the room, rather dejected. Frankie learned that she was living with HIV, on treatment, and that the meds made her moody. “My heart went out to her,” he says, enraptured with Wendy and yearning to shatter the protective walls. Wendy became a fun challenge.
Over the next few days and through various exercises, Wendy began to slowly open up. One exercise included watching Katy Perry’s Firework video, illustrating that no matter how awful life circumstance may seem, one can pull from their inner “spark.” Afterwards, Frankie dissected the video with his class, discussing the various characters, and then taught them an empowering dance that matched the video.
From Frankie’s blog, ShineBrightByFrankie.com: “On the last day of class, all groups [sixty kids] were brought together. Chris [one of the organization’s instructors] split the group in two, half the group sitting in a circle with their heads down [I was in this group] and the other half standing inside the circle. He asked the students standing in the center to pat someone sitting on the outside of the circle on the head of one who had really helped them that week. Children immediately surrounded me, patting my head and messing up my hair, showing me so much love. I began to sob tears of joy into the carpet with my head down.
“Then Chris gave the next prompt to the kids in the center of the circle: now go and pat someone on the head who you did not know before this camp, but you think you will keep in touch with forever, cause you have made a life-long friend. I stared at the carpet, still blinking out tears, when I felt a hand on my head. I kept my head down but opened my eyes wide. There, right in front of me, was a pair of metallic sliver slippers with sparkle bows. It was Wendy. My tears flowed freely. In that moment, I knew she had heard me. I knew we had made a connection that would last for years and years to come. I lifted my head, looked into her eyes, and she gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen on her face. I returned the massive smile and without saying anything, she hugged me.”
After six years, one of Broadway South Africa’s founders decided to pursue a career outside the USA. The remaining three couldn’t continue without him, as their organization had no staff. They were filing, doing paper work, fundraising, flying to Africa, performing—doing it all themselves. They decided to merge Broadway in South Africa with Build On, an international nonprofit that addresses poverty and illiteracy by providing service learning programs and also building schools. Frankie donated the $500,000 he won on Celebrity Big Brother to Build On, which provided funds to build another school in Africa. In 2014, Build On honored Frankie with their Global Impact Award.
“Build On is not about a cross-cultural exchange [like Broadway South Africa],” he notes. “When I built a school in Malawi in my grandfather’s name [in 2015], I also had them singing,” he effuses with effervescent exhilaration, calling to mind Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music where her character, Maria, teaches the seven von Trapp children to sing.
Camaraderie and affection are not foreign to Frankie, as he has a strong family bond. “I was raised to always appreciate the blessings I have in life,” he specifies with a serious look. “I have the utmost respect for my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather—god rest his soul. These people made me who I am and I am indebted to them.”
Grande has a close relationship with his mother, a CEO of a telecommunications company. “She is the smartest businesswoman I know and I won’t sign a contract until she looks at it. Ever!” he asserts.
Frankie was born in New York City and raised in Englewood, New Jersey. At age ten, Frankie and his family moved to Boca Raton, Florida. Majoring in biology, theater, and dance at Pennsylvania’s Muhlenberg College, he graduated in 2005. Two years later he began his performing career, landing a role in Broadway’s Mamma Mia, and later he joined the cast of Rock of Ages.
Broadway afforded a training ground for Frankie and he went on to produce shows on and off Broadway with Jim Belushi, Jude Law, Brooke Shields, and David Hyde Pierce. The entertainer performed in cabarets, as well, and created his own autobiographical show called, Livin’ la Vida Grande. Last year, Frankie was nominated for a People’s Choice Award.
His loving family supported him when he came out to them. Later in college he joined a mostly straight fraternity that accepted his sexuality. “They had my back…” he says, stressing that he learned so much from being a part of a fraternity.
Life’s road was smooth for Frankie until he entered show business! Social media exploded when he came out on Big Brother 16. “I was bullied and harassed because of my sexuality. Homophobic people were coming at me left, right, up, down, and center and I had to learn coping skills very quickly and relatively late in life.” He freezes, slightly turning his head away. “I wasn’t ready for that…”
All over social media Frankie received muck. People wrote, “Get AIDS and die!” on his photographs and then posted their comments on the Internet. With feet on the floor, he crosses one leg, rests one hand atop knee, and props his elbow on that hand, cupping his chin. Frankie is immersed in a fixed stare. In a wistful voice, he concludes, “ …..I pity the haters.”
Through the ups and downs, Grande’s family is there for him. They are his rock. In fact, tonight he’s off to Anaheim’s Honda Center to support his half-sister, Ariana Grande, in concert.
By the time this story is published, Frankie’s first single, “Queen,” will be out and he’ll be living back in Manhattan, appearing regularly on Style Code Live. “It’s never easy to leave this house,” he admits with a bit of sadness. “It’s a sanctuary. I have my bike upstairs…but…I don’t get to be here very much.”
When he works, Frankie is surrounded by a busload of people. He maintains a rigorous schedule, winging it at least once a month for business-related travel. It appears to be an overpowering challenge, but he wouldn’t have it any other way. Frankie likes pushing limits.
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.