After Being Diagnosed with HIV, Cover Girl Rebekka Armstrong Became Self-Destructive but Soon Discovered How to Turn Panic Into Passion
by Dann Dulin
Marvel’s film, Avengers: Endgame, reigns weak on adrenaline rush and nail-biting drama when compared to Rebekka Armstrong!
Raised in Ridgecrest, California, in the Mojave Desert, Rebekka acquired HIV at sixteen, and two years later she was Miss September 1986, gracing the cover of Playboy magazine—a lifelong dream. She became a successful model and actor and then battled drug and alcohol addiction. Rebekka also came out as bisexual. In 1989 she was diagnosed with HIV, and in 1994 she went public with the news. She revealed herself about the same time as Magic Johnson did. For the mainstream, these celebrities gave AIDS a human face.
Tormented by her diagnosis, enduring mental anguish as she visited dying friends in hospitals and attended funerals, then suffering numerous AIDS-related opportunistic infections (one time so gravely that her father flew to her side to bid goodbye), Rebekka numbed herself with drugs and drink. She partied for five years trying to kill the pain, hankering to go out in a blaze! In those years, an AIDS diagnosis frequently meant death. However, she wanted to choose when she would leave this earth, and not permit some virus to make that decision for her. She also couldn’t bear losing her independence by relying on caregivers. It was a bleak forecast.
One day, Rebekka emptied her medicine cabinet, took a swig of tequila, and washed it down along with various pills. Then she deliberately rammed her car, full throttle, into a wall. At the hospital, she lay in a coma for several days. Once Rebekka awoke, she pleaded to the medical staff, “Please let me die. Please let me die.”
She was taken to a psychiatric hospital to heal. When she was discharged, she bunked in the home of married friends sleeping on their garage floor. Eventually, Rebekka became too sick to work. Her car was repossessed, and finally she was homeless.
Back to superhero movies. There’s always the usual conflict and resolution. In Ms. Armstrong’s case there’s a similar story arc. After she learned how to properly care for herself through diet and exercise, and even branching out into competitive bodybuilding, Rebekka became a hero—Armstrong Activist. Revving her strength with gut-punching action, she kicked AIDS’ ass! Like many of her fellow heroes, Rebekka evolved from her challenging past to become a powerhouse—as an AIDS advocate. And unlike many of her protégés, Rebekka…is…mortal!
Now a sizzling fifty-two years young, Rebekka has devoted most of her life to ending the epidemic. With a passing resemblance to the headstrong Rita Madsen (a character from the Danish TV show, Rita, played by Mille Dinesen), then hurl a chunk of Michelle Pfeiffer’s sultry burn, and you have the enchanting unconventional appeal of Rebekka Armstrong.
After the Proactive Playmate came out as HIV-positive in the early nineties, Hugh Hefner (iconic creator and publisher of Playboy) helped finance and plan a college speaking tour for Rebekka so that she could educate students about the disease.
She participated in AIDS Walks, marathons (even the Camp Pendleton Mud Run), the Boston and Los Angeles Needle Exchange Program, and fundraisers and events at various national AIDS organizations in Key West, Alaska, Seattle, and San Francisco. Rebekka has joined in street protests, posed for AIDS awareness campaigns, and still carries on her HIV prevention lectures across the globe.
The former tomboy has also co-facilitated women’s groups, helped to establish CABs (Consumer Advisory Boards), and has spoken before emergency medical teams in rural areas.
The entrepreneur has also developed a Cannabis Beauty Line (CBL). Cannabis?? You mean pot? Yes! Cannabis contains a compound, Cannabidiol, that has significant medicinal benefits, which is in Rebekka’s CBL. (It does not make you feel stoned.) HIV can cause inflammation in the body, so she developed “Buddha Trees,” which is under the umbrella of “Pride Wellness”—a line of products she created (balms to apply externally or a tincture to take sublingually) that can help with various afflictions, including stress and anxiety. [Visit www.buddhatrees.com for more information.]
Possessing a burning penchant to change the outcome of the scourge, Rebekka experienced a personal change in June 2012. She married Mr. Anthony Dispirito and they live in Reseda, California, the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Today, Rebekka is a certified personal trainer and a certified sports and physical therapy aid. In addition to working with HIV and AIDS clients, she lends her healing talents to individuals who have experienced stroke, polio, cancer, and cerebral palsy, too. She also works with a geriatric population, her eldest client being ninety-eight. Having five to seven clients a day, three to four times a week, Rebekka is often accompanied by her canine assistant, Surya, a beagle!
Soon to be a grandmother to her stepson’s child, Rebekka now takes pleasure these days in other forms of addictions: reading before bedtime and watching Game of Thrones!
Dann Dulin: Just what drives you to continue your work in the AIDS community?
Rebekka Armstrong: Every…two…minutes…a…teenager…is…infected. [She urgently underscores each word and then halts.]
AIDS is no longer a death sentence for most people, but for some it still is. Lack of treatment, prevention and awareness is a death sentence. The current Washington administration wants to cut $800,000,000 from AIDS service organizations. It infuriates me!
I know. Nuts. When you first heard about the epidemic what were your thoughts?
The news reported that it was a “gay cancer.” One of my first thoughts was whether or not my uncle was okay. We had lost touch with him a few years back. I wasn’t concerned for myself.
So what prompted you to take an HIV test?
It was the late eighties, I was tired all the time, and had an all-over feeling of, “I just don’t feel well.” Granted I was modeling all around the country and making public appearances in conjunction with the issue of Playboy. I just chalked up most of what I was feeling to the hectic schedule, and possibly to my vegan diet, meaning that perhaps I was missing some vital nutrients.
My body became covered in bruises, and then I thought I had figured out the culprit; that I was lacking in iron and perhaps B12. I began making meals that contained foods rich in iron, lots of greens, and began taking supplements. It didn’t help. [She tosses her head swiftly back and forth.] I originally went into the doctors to see if I was pregnant. At the last minute I asked to take the HIV test, not even thinking I’d be positive.
That’s paralyzing! What was your immediate reaction to the diagnosis?
Completely devastated! Scared… to… death! [She exhales intensely recalling the intense moment.]
Tell me more.
I remember as if it were yesterday, Dann. I received the news over the phone. I felt my body had betrayed me in a way I have never felt before. My legs gave out from under me, I felt as if I couldn’t breath.
My God, what thoughts raced through your mind?
My immediate thoughts were: Oh my god…I’m dying. Then…Who else have I accidentally exposed?! How did I become infected? Maybe the test was wrong….
Sounds like normal reactions. [Rebekka shrugs.] What happened then?
I felt isolated. [She inhales deeply then sighs.] My little brother, Dan, moved to L.A. to take care of me. He stood by me the whole time. [Dan is Rebekka’s only sibling and they still have a rock-solid bond.] But it was more like partying with me and consoling me. I figured that since I was dying I had better enjoy the time I had left. But then I would get really depressed and sick from HIV by partying too much. Thank heaven my brother was there. [Rebekka looks away in contemplation, stamping it with a reverent glance.]
How sweet your brother is. I guess you were self-medicating to dull the mental pain. [Rebekka nods.] Since you were diagnosed before the cocktail, the only available drug was the toxic AZT. How did you fare on that?
Not long after I began AZT I started becoming very ill: nausea, vomiting, and constant headaches. I couldn’t keep much down and didn’t have an appetite. Bouts of diarrhea kept me bedridden and I had an all over feeling of malaise. I just felt yucky. I thought it was the HIV.
How did you deal with this “yucky” feeling?
Well, someone in my doctor’s waiting room told me I should go to this park and meet this person to get marijuana to help with the side effects of the medication. Side effects?! I was blown away that it was the meds making me that ill and not the HIV.
I explained to this guy in the waiting room that I didn’t have very much money but thanked him anyway. He immediately informed me that I didn’t need money to get access to the pot, just a need to fight.
Did you take him up on his advice?
I didn’t go right away because I was so nervous about meeting someone I didn’t know [in order] to make a drug deal, and supposedly it was going to be free, but I had my doubts. I did finally go to the park after the neuropathy was becoming really painful and I was throwing up everything I ate.
Oh God, how awful for you.
Sure enough the guy was there! He asked me if I wanted to smoke it or have some brownies? I wasn’t sure, I just wanted to make it [the pain] stop. He gave me both, no charge, and gave me a marijuana card and told me of another place to access weed.
I went home and tried it. My nausea was gone!…and I became hungry!
Was this your first experience with pot?
I tried it as a teen, but it wasn’t my thing. From then on, I used it like medicine to treat the side effects of the AZT!
At one point, you went from hospital to homelessness. What pivotal point turned you around?
After my suicide attempt I went to a weekend women’s conference put on by Shanti [an organization that aids people with life-threatening diseases in health and well being]. It was for women infected and affected by the virus. I met more than fifty women from many different backgrounds. This was a life-changing weekend for me.
How so, Rebekka?
It gave me a feeling of not being alone and that there may be something good I could do with the time I had left. I felt like kicking butt! The disease affected one of the women I met, as it had taken the lives of many people she loved. She was a performance artist and lived with another woman in Hollywood. Every Wednesday night a group of sober women would meet at her apartment to watch 90210 and converse and eat. At times, I would stay to clean up and often spend the night. I was not open about my HIV status but continued to attend, hang out, eat, and maybe sleep on the couch. It was a really good feeling to be accepted and trusted.
It seems you got back on your feet….
Thanks much to Buck. I met him at these gatherings. I found it odd that a man would be there, but he was cool. Not long after attending, Buck approached me and rather than tell me that he knew I was homeless, he said, “I live alone and have three dogs. I could really use your help taking care of them and walking them.” He also told me that he worked all day and could really use some help cooking and cleaning if I would be willing to move in. He made me feel needed and important! [Rebekka sparkles with gratitude, her searing azure-grey eyes beaming.] Buck gave me a purpose. I moved in and we became a family. The girls would call him “Daddy,” but that didn’t feel right to me, so I just called him Dad. We adopted each other! He saved my life….
Before you went public about your HIV status, you told Playboy. What was your motivation?
I was losing my mind. I couldn’t contain the secret any longer! I was tired of lying, lying, lying. I was in the HIV closet. I mean, I had lost my home and car, I didn’t have anything to eat. I had the reputation of not showing up for modeling gigs ….[but it was] because I was sick. I was terrified that someone would find out I was HIV-positive. People thought I was strung out on drugs. That was not the reason. I had to explain why I was unreliable!
Completely understand the closet torment. How were you chosen Ms. September?
I reached out to a family friend on my eighteenth birthday. After he shot photos and a video of me, he handed them to Marilyn Grabovski, the Playboy editor. I was called in to do a test shoot…and accepted!
Well, that’s magical. When did you meet Hugh Hefner?
I met Hef at the mansion while I was shooting for Playboy.
How did being a centerfold change your life?
It kickstarted my career! It helped my self-esteem and offered me an opportunity to be exposed to many different people and cultures with worldwide travel. Most importantly, it provided a platform to fight AIDS! I became the “Playmate with AIDS” and I am totally okay with that. [She then repeats in a boastful tone] “I’m Rebekka Armstrong and I have AIDS.” That was empowering for me to say those words.
How’s your health today?
It’s great! [She snaps her fingers in an upbeat sway.] I recently had shoulder surgery so I’m not lifting weights for upper body, but now I’m really into spinning. I love pushing myself. It’s a rush—and an antidepressant. Woo-hoo! [Rebekka’s currently taking Descovy and Viramune.]
Do tell about being ….married.
[She tenderly offers, with bubbly coolness] I am very happy. For the first time in my life as a woman with HIV, I do not feel ashamed or dirty. I feel safe, secure, and loved. I know where I stand with him and how much I am appreciated. It’s a wonderful and ever evolving relationship.
I’m thrilled for you, Rebekka. In what positive way has the virus changed your life?
HIV led me to a greater appreciation for life. It has forced me to look within and realize that I want to be the best person that I can be. It has taught me compassion for people in all walks of life. And I am a sober woman today as a direct result of HIV…however this did not happen right away.
You educate others to keep from getting positive, and you do it with a positive attitude! Where does that come from?
I love life! It’s a gift. I am grateful to be here to partake in all of its wonderfulness and all the cruddy stuff too. [Rebekka hesitates a thoughtful moment.] I want to help make a difference in someone else’s life. I believe that you get back what you put out there. Good energy begets good energy!
Such an active life you lead. What do you do for down time?
Gardening. [She looms in closer, her full being in upright elation, and with gusto Ms. Armstrong gushes] I love to feel the earth in my hands and between my toes. [She takes a beat.] I like watching things grow!
…and it’s been inspirational hearing about your growth. Describe yourself in one word Rebekka Armstrong.
Resilient. And, compassionate. Oops, that’s two words. [She eases back, subtly arches her brow, winces apologetically then dazzles me with her centerfold smile.]
Dann Dulin is one of A&U’s Senior Editors.