Actor and celebrity host Ron B. talks about her show, No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal, and becoming an LGBTQ and HIV advocate
Text & Photos by Alina Oswald
There are no boundaries to what you can achieve in life!” celebrity host Ron B. says, looking into the main camera, at the end of each taping of her show, No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal. Ron B. is a trans actor who has appeared in shows like Law & Order and Shaft. A Tina Turner impersonator, she’s also the executive producer and celebrity host of No Boundaries, as well as a lifelong LGBTQ and HIV advocate.
Although No Boundaries has been running for over ten years, the concept for the show can be traced back to 1996, in New York City, at Manhattan Neighborhood Network [MNN] studios, where the show is still being taped today. “The purpose of the show is to be a vehicle for well-known, as well as everyday people [whose journeys and contributions to the community] should be acknowledged and recognized,” Ron B. explains, when I recently catch up with her at MNN.
As we chat, No Boundaries (technical) director, Gloria Messer, shows up. She’s also director and producer of other shows, like the MNN series, Access for All.
The two have been friends since 1996, when they met right there, at MNN. They both recall that day, just like it was yesterday, and they laugh and joke about it, finishing each other’s thoughts, as lifelong, good friends do.
“I was here, in the studio, doing Tina,” Ron B. says, recalling how she met Messer. “At the time, I had two Chippendale guys as background dancers,” she laughs, “and I’ll never forget that distinctive voice [coming from] the control room.” Then she adds, in a slightly higher pitch voice, trying to imitate Messer’s voice, “‘I’m trying to do the lighting,’” and then to me, “she was speaking to the producer, not to me, but that voice resonated in my ear.”
Over the past twenty years, Ron B. and Gloria Messer have become best friends. Messer says, “Directing Ron B.’s TV show, No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal, at Manhattan Neighborhood Network TV station, has been an ultimate pleasure and exhilarating experience for me. I love watching [her] perform, impersonating Tina Turner. Ron [B.] is a fabulous performer. She has worked with Gale Brewer, 27th Manhattan Borough President, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio [and many others], helping to educate the public and advocating for the LGBTQ community.”
Over the years, Ron B. has become a mother figure for many who’re underprivileged as well as for up-and-coming artists and performers. A very young performing and recording artist, himself an LGBTQ ally and HIV advocate, Cody Bondra (of Cody Bondra and the Contraband) describes Ron B. as “one of the most honest and caring people I have ever met. Without her guidance I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Ron B. has been an advocate for most of her life. Her “activism awakening” happened in 2004, after she was attacked, while working in a casting office. When she wanted to go to the police and report the attack, “people looked at me like I had three heads,” she says, because she was one of the first trans individuals to take that kind of action. She still remembers every detail of the attack—being knocked down from behind, threatened, the police arriving, the ambulance taking her to the hospital…. “I was fighting for my life,” Ron B. recalls. “And when you’re in such a situation, you can either freeze out of fear or try to fight back.” And she decided to fight back—for herself, and afterwards, for others. “And so from there, my anger and frustration fueled my activism,” she says, reminding that not long after her attack, fashion designer and nightclub personality Kevin Aviance was attacked and that made the headlines.
The 2004 experience has also changed the dimension of her show. No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal is not about the glitz and glamour, but about being human, and understanding one another. Sometimes sharing one’s story doesn’t come easy, especially when surrounded by TV cameras. And yet, as the host, Ron B. makes it easy. Through her candor and laughter, talking about her own experiences, she makes her guests feel at home while on the set and comfortable enough to share their own stories. (I myself have been a guest on the show, speaking about my journey as an AIDS advocate and editor for A&U.)
Through No Boundaries, Ron B. has started much-needed conversations surrounding LGBTQ rights, women empowerment or HIV awareness, to mention only a few. Over the years, she has also helped raise HIV awareness through her performances and appearances.
In 2003 she was asked to do an event at a camp for children living with HIV. “I went to this camp and I performed,” she says. “These were children, most of them born with HIV, two- and three-year-old and up to fourteen-year-old [children.] One was sixteen months old. That affected me.”
The 2003 and 2004 experiences brought Ron B. closer to her niece, who was in her late thirties and was living with HIV. “She was a strong person,” Ron B. recalls. “She had a son. Seeing her in the hospital [brought me even] closer to her, because I thought, here’s another person who needs help.”
It was not the eighties, it was just over a decade ago, but getting closer to her niece offered Ron B. an up close and personal look at what it really meant to live with the virus. Having that one-on-one contact was a game changer in her own understanding of HIV, as well as in her efforts to raise HIV awareness.
“I remember [my niece] saying, ‘if anything happens to me, would you look after my son,’” Ron B. recalls. Then, one day, “her son, who was a teenager at the time, called me and said, ‘something is wrong with my mother.’ And I rushed to her house.”
Her niece had a heart attack and she died. It was Labor Day, 2006. “You never know how long a person has here [on Earth,] so love them as long as they are here,” Ron B. advises.
After her niece’s passing, Ron B. decided to devote a lot of herself to raising HIV awareness. She began to get more involved, more “up close and personal,” with people living with HIV. She started doing a lot of appearances at places like Hearts & Voices and Rivington House, and got to meet “a circumference of people, from eighteen-year-old people to those who could have been my grandmother, and who were living with HIV.” She distinctly remembers individuals who had to be tied to their wheelchairs, so that they would not fall. Some had chalkboards to write on, to be able to communicate. “I remember one woman who had a portable oxygen tank on her, and she also had a chalkboard,” Ron B. recalls, getting emotional. “And I wrote on her chalkboard ‘I love you.’”
Listening to Ron B. sharing her own encounter with the AIDS epidemic through her niece’s story and through her advocacy work, I remember that she has also appeared in HBO’s Angels in America. With the Broadway revival of Angels in mind, I have to know more about her own experience being part of one of my favorite movies.
“Mike Nichols was the director,” Ron B. reminds. “The casting people said [to me], ‘we saw your picture and you’re coming in for an audition,’” she recalls. She had to go all the way to Kaufman Astoria Studios. “We were all in one room, and then they asked me to get dressed. So I got dressed and I guess my look was what they wanted.” And so, she was cast in Angels in America.
At the time, Ron B. wasn’t too familiar with the success of the play that was being brought to film. Also, it was only when they started shooting that she found out about the all-star cast—Al Pacino portraying Roy Cohn, Jeffrey Wright (with whom she had worked in Shaft) portraying the nurse, as well as Emma Thomson and Meryl Streep, among others.
Ron B. ended up appearing in several scenes in Angels in America. “There was a funeral scene,” she recalls. “I got my high heels stuck in the mud,” she adds, laughing. “Then we got to shoot the church scene. In the movie, there was a drag queen that had died. You never saw her, but the casket was there. And that’s when I came together with all of the top female impersonators—of Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross” and “one with short white hair” that appeared in The Birdcage with Robin Williams.
To this day, Ron B. doesn’t miss a chance to talk about HIV, to raise awareness. It’s important to keep having that conversation, because, she comments, many people still think that HIV cannot happen to them or that if it does, it’s no big deal because they “can just take a pill and everything will be ok.”
She shakes her head, almost in disbelief. “No, that’s not so!” She goes on, “I have seen the other side of [the epidemic]. I’ve seen a lot of people who had AIDS, and it was very scary, because they were walking around like human skeletons. [We don’t want to go back there,] and that’s another reason why I bring [HIV] up in the community.”
Her show, No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal, is a “catalyst” that brings people together and allows them to have honest, open-minded conversations, including conversations about HIV and AIDS, oftentimes touching on related stigma, alienation, depression, and also PrEP, prevention and much more.
“It has kept me very weary and educated,” Ron B. says, commenting on her ongoing conversation about HIV and AIDS. She makes a point to mention HIV in the transgender community. “Because they can’t get jobs, many people in the transgender community, as well as in the gay community, put themselves in risky situations having [unprotected] sex [for money] with people who might have HIV.”
She also emphasizes the importance of addressing HIV among seniors. “I think the most important part is trying to help those seniors,” Ron B. comments. They are more likely to go back into the closet when they lose a partner, and even more if they happen to test positive for HIV. And that kind of HIV test result is possible among seniors, now more than ever. “There is a point where seniors just want to be loved, and forget all the cautionary lessons that they’ve learned,” Ron B. explains. “I think that we need to step up the HIV education, and also talk about PrEP [among the elderly as well as the youth].” Because young or old, “You have to educate yourself!”
Ron B.’s show No Boundaries–Up Close and Personal is taped once a month in studio at Manhattan Neighborhood Network (www.mnn.org). It is available online, on Vimeo and YouTube, as well as on local Verizon Spectrum TV. Connect with the show on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ronbnoboundaries.
Learn more about Gloria Messer’s work at https://vimeo.com/glovideo and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXiMIkz4vYaigmjy3jUqK4Q. Learn more about Cody Bondra’s music by visiting online at https://www.contrabandct.com/the-contraband.
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor, is a writer, photographer and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography. Visit her online at alinaoswald.com.