Carrying the Torch
Elizabeth Taylor’s passion for HIV/AIDS advocacy lives on through her grandchildren, including Laela Wilding & Naomi deLuce Wilding
by Larry Buhl
Photographed Exclusively for A&U by Sean Black
On Easter Monday of 1992, Elizabeth Taylor [A&U, February 2003] took the stage at Wembley Stadium in London to give a brief public service message at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness. She pointed a regal finger at the crowd and gave a passionate speech about safe sex. “In just two short weeks there will be as many new infections as there are people here tonight,” she said to the crowd of about 70,000.
“Protect yourselves, love yourselves, respect yourselves, because I will keep on telling you until you do,” she said. “I won’t give in and I won’t give up because the world needs you to live. We really love you. We really care.”
One of Taylor’s granddaughters, Naomi deLuce Wilding, was in the audience, and she told me it was a pivotal moment in her life. A few weeks earlier Taylor had called deLuce Wilding’s boss at her part-time job at a High Street clothing store in Aberystwyth, Wales, and asked if Naomi could get time off to come to London to see the concert.
“I knew that she was sort of a spokesperson for HIV and AIDS at the time, but I grew up in Wales, and [AIDS] was not in the news quite as much,” Naomi said. “The reaction of the crowd in Wembley Stadium was really a kind of a turning point for me of understanding how beloved she was in that community. The things she said, the reaction that she got, the cheers, there’s no way of describing that surge of support and emotion and togetherness.”
Flash forward twenty-six years. The glamorous, trailblazing superstar and business mogul has been gone for seven years. The number of new infections is down, and HIV/AIDS has highly effective treatment and prevention regimens, but still no cure and no universal access. And Naomi, the daughter of Michael Howard Wilding—Taylor’s son with the second of her seven husbands, Michael Wilding, is one of seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild (Finn McMurray), carrying on Taylor’s fight to spread HIV/AIDS awareness.
Taylor, who earned Oscars for her roles in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Butterfield 8, was described in the press for her beauty, her eyes, her glamour, and, when the reporters wanted to get nasty, her changing husbands and her changing figure. She was less well known for her activism around HIV/AIDS education and treatment, though many say one of her greatest roles was as an activist and humanitarian working to end the stigma surrounding the disease.
Except for the Wembly concert, Naomi had only seen her grandmother on the holidays. But in 1999, she was working as a fashion designer in a job she hated, just for the green card. Just before Christmas burglars took everything in her small Manhattan apartment, leaving her bereft and penniless. When she told her grandmother about it, she immediately invited Naomi to come to her Bel Air home to stay. Or more like insisted.
“She said, ‘I’ll get you a lawyer, we’ll get you a green card, and everything will be okay.’ I came to stay with her and I never left [California]. I lived with her on and off for about two years. You know, I had to go back to the UK when my visas would come to an end. It was very stressful, but it was also amazing to spend that time with her.”
Right now Naomi runs the Wilding Cran Gallery in downtown L.A. with her husband Anthony Cran, and she suggests that, even now, if her grandmother were alive, she would find a way to help out in some way.
“She rose to crisis. She loved to be needed.”
In the 1980s Taylor found an enormous crisis, and stepped right up.
In 1985 HIV/AIDS was spoken of in hushed tones or derisive shouts, if spoken of at all, but Elizabeth Taylor had been speaking up and reaching out, even before her great friend Rock Hudson died that October from AIDS-related causes. That year she raised an $1 million for AIDS Project Los Angeles, an unprecedented amount for an AIDS fundraiser, and co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), now called the Foundation for AIDS Research. For the rest of her life she spoke out for people who she felt were being discriminated against. She testified before Congress, three times, for the Ryan White CARE Act, and publicly excoriated President Reagan for not saying the word “AIDS.” And she raised money—nearly $300 million for HIV/AIDS causes.
In 1991 she launched The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (ETAF), using money she earned from photos magazines which paid for her wedding to Larry Fortensky. ETAF has, among its many initiatives, provided grants to organizations offering care to people living with HIV and AIDS, and has advocated for needle exchange programs, LGBTQ healthcare in the South, funding cancer screenings for HIV-positive parents in Haiti, and most recently, for reforming HIV criminal laws.
Taylor set up the foundation so that it would continue without her if need be, until there was a cure. While Taylor was living, it was a very small group of people, with Liz running the show. When she died, it was, in one sense, an opportunity for her grandchildren. They had been looking for a way to help out more through ETAF. Now they had a chance to do so.
As ETAF Ambassadors, they’re making sure that issues around HIV/AIDS are not lost in the 24-7 media noise. And they are quick to point out that every dollar the organization takes in still goes directly toward outreach, not overhead. Operating expenses are covered in perpetuity by Taylor’s trust. Did I mention that Taylor was a savvy businesswoman?
Taylor didn’t outright ask her grandchildren to take their place on the stage to spread HIV/AIDS awareness after her death. Several grandchildren were already waiting in the wings.
“Even though some of us family members were interested in helping in any way we could, in the work and advocacy, she didn’t need our help while she was alive, because she was pretty much a one-person show” said Laela Wilding, Naomi’s older sister and fellow ETAF Ambassador.
A Family Affair
Laela and Naomi explained that ETAF is unique in that family members who want to participate are invested in the foundation. “We are determined to support the legacy of our grandmother and let the world know the foundation is thriving, and is still working to help people living with HIV in education advocacy, and supporting people living with HIV around the world,” Laela said.
As ETAF Ambassadors, Taylor’s grandchildren participate in AIDSWatch, America’s largest annual HIV/AIDS advocacy event (ETAF is the title sponsor and AIDS United is the Lead Organizer). This past March, Laela and Naomi used the event, held in Washington, D.C., to meet Congressional staffers to push for the end to HIV criminal laws.
Naomi told me these laws “are essentially a way of enacting our discrimination because they are completely outdated and many of them were never appropriate in the first place. To criminalize spitting for a person who is HIV-positive, you can’t spread HIV that way.”
Naomi believes the meetings were successful. “Almost everybody that we spoke to didn’t know about [criminal laws]. There was light in their eye and they were like, ‘Wow, this is really interesting. Let me see what we can do about this.’”
Laela’s passion is sex education as it pertains to harm reduction.
“A lot of schools only teach abstinence-only,” she said. “But that is linked to [a greater number of] teen pregnancies, not fewer, and [a greater number of] STDs, not fewer. Comprehensive sex ed can include abstinence, but also should talk about ways to have safe sex and why. And it should include those with different gender expression and experience. Let’s educate young people with the truth but it also needs to be up to date. It’s not about morals. It’s about making an educated decision.”
In addition to meeting with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) [A&U, October 2012] while in D.C.—mainly to thank Lee for her work in spearheading the Real Education for Youth Act to promote fact-based sex education across the nation—Laela Wilding has written an op-ed and led a panel on ETAF’s work with the Malawi-based Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance at the International AIDS Conference.
There are many aspects of the HIV/AIDS crisis, and ETAF’s breadth of advocacy is broad. The Foundation has worked with PEPFAR (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) as well as with GAIA (Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance) in Malawi. Since 2008, nearly a million patients have been treated at GAIA/Elizabeth Taylor Mobile Health Clinics. Consistent with UNAIDS goals, the foundation is also committed to helping people living with HIV to know their status, and to helping people diagnosed with HIV access sustained antiretroviral therapy.
Laela and Naomi told me that, as Ambassadors, grandchildren can use their own perspectives, experience and passion to focus on one or more aspect of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
“We’re close as a family but we’re raised quite far apart and we have different family experiences and I think that that’s what makes us quite effective as a group,” Naomi said. “When we’re able to go into a room together, we seem to all have different strengths and I think that that’s quite a wonderful thing.”
Movie star, activist, grandma
“[Our grandmother] was very proud of the way she became a voice for people who weren’t being heard, early on in the HIV fight,” Naomi said. “She was proud that she made people listen, of the effect that she had on President Reagan. She felt that she really had made a difference personally.”
Naomi and Laela admit that even though they couldn’t, say, scold a stadium full of people into using condoms, while being cheered—who else could pull that off, really?—they are still inspired by their grandmother’s determination and compassion.
Naomi said she’s connecting to her grandmother’s message of service and compassion to help others beyond ETAF. She has been involved with GettLove, an organization launched by her aunt, Aileen Getty [A&U, December 2015], which provides services to the homeless community in Los Angeles. Working with GettLove might mean turning up on the street and serving out food, and coffee, and socks, she said.
Her grandmother would approve. She was all about eliminating stigma of those who are marginalized, no matter who it was.
“My grandmother’s message was, ‘I’m using my celebrity to be of service to this community,’” Naomi said. “But we can all use something in our lives to be of service in some way. For some people that means writing an annual check to an organization that they believe in. For others, it means showing up and giving out a sandwich every day. Or it can simply mean that when you’re walking in L.A., connecting with the humanity in somebody else. I just recognized that we can all use something in our lives to help somebody else’s life.”
Neither Laela nor Naomi experienced Elizabeth Taylor primarily as a public health advocate, or even a movie star. She was first and foremost, family. And they say she liked to help out, even when she wasn’t asked to, for advice on wardrobe, styling, and boys. On boys, her dating advice sometimes went south, Naomi admitted, mostly because her grandmother was “an eternal romantic.”
“She was such an optimist that the rest of us might see a bad date, but my grandmother wanted to see love in every opportunity,” Naomi said.
“She liked cutting people’s hair,” Laela recalled. “She would look at you with a sidelong glance and say, ‘Oh honey get me the scissors.’ And she would start with a little snip here a little snip there. She was very artistic. She had a great eye.” Taylor also gave her female grandchildren suggestions on makeup—she favored the smoky-eye look—as well as wardrobe, where she urged her female grandkids to, well, accentuate their female assets, the sisters said. “She once said to me, ‘If you’ve got it, flaunt it,’” Laela said.
Growing up in northern California and the Pacific Northwest—she’s a graphic designer in Portland, Oregon, now—Laela was closer in proximity to her grandmother than Naomi, and visited nearly every holiday, and some Sundays. Taylor didn’t play favorites, they said. Every child from every branch of the family tree was welcome at her Bel Air house, even for an informal Sunday hangout by the pool.
“She was very open-minded and open-hearted,” Laela said. “She extended her home, treated people equally with open arms. She wanted to draw people together.”
Naomi theorized that the career Taylor is best known for might not have been the career she wanted. “She was very outspoken, she had a keen sense for justice, she would’ve been a really good lawyer or politician. Being an actor kind of came to her. And sometimes I think she was very ambivalent about it. But at the same time I can’t imagine her not being in the public eye.”
For more information about The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, visit: www.etaf.org.
Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.