Barbara Brighton: Advocate

Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Barbara Brighton

Photo courtesy B. Brighton

Las Vegas. The city conjures up visions of racy nightlife, fortunes won and lost, and boulevards of dazzling neon. There’s glitz, glamour, and gams.

Unfortunately, it also includes many seniors who are living with HIV. Indeed, Baby Boomers are rising in the stats. Barbara Brighton (AKA “BB”)—Ruby calls her “Ms. Las Vegas”—knows all too well. A dear friend of hers (we’ll call her Julie) was recently diagnosed with HIV.

The news left BB stunned. Once Barbara caught her breath, she Googled for guidance, and also sought out help from Aid for AIDS of Nevada (AFAN). Smart cookie. The comedienne, singer, impersonator, actress, and TV host then became a support system for Julie. She actively listened to her friend, accompanied Julie to medical appointments, and even sat in on group therapy sessions with her.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year there will be an estimated seventy percent of people living with HIV who are over age fifty.

Back to BB, the bubbly lady was raised in Boston, and has a younger sis. She’s been

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

entertaining audiences for several decades. Ms. Brighton has played the iconic lounges in The Desert Inn and Caesar’s Palace, performed in numerous stage musicals, including portraying Molly in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and she’s best known for impersonating Joan Rivers [A&U, October 1996]. Can we talk?!

Barbara loves to create and will practically perform anywhere——from cruise ships to Bar Mitzvahs, and from commercials to taking her act across the globe. To think that BB started out on the soaper, General Hospital!

Not only is Ms. Brighton active in AIDS fundraisers (she’s participated in AIDS Walks and AFAN events), and has donated many a performance to NGOs, Barbara is also involved in other charities as well, one of them being Habitat for Humanity. And she proudly states staunchly, “Any cancer cause!”

On a gloomy wintry day in the desert, I rendezvous with Barbara at Grand Lux Café in the bravura Venetian Hotel. I have a cuppa’ cappucino and she has an appletini.

Ruby Comer: What’s an appletini, my dear?!
Barbara Brighton: Vodka with apple juice.

Never heard of it. Babs, why do you think Baby Boomers are acquiring HIV now?
Ruby, it’s a combination of reasons. The two main ones are, plain ignorance and no protection. I mean, some think, “It will never happen to me.” Others are just tired of using protection! [She takes a sip of her cocktail.] Boomers were here when AIDS first hit. They saw the devastation. They lived it. They lost friends and dear ones.

Absolutely. I get the frustration and the trauma, above all. When I mention AIDS, what calls to mind?
Oh, Ruby. The first thing I remember is that I was terrified of getting it.

I recall that terror, Missy. When did you first hear about the epidemic?
I was living in Los Angeles. It was broadcast on TV news.

Tell me about a friend you lost during the first years of AIDS?
It was in Harvey Lembeck’s Improv Workshop in L.A. and several of his students were friends of mine. One of them became sick, very sick. He died from complications of AIDS. [She grimaces then looks off, brushing aside her champagne-colored locks.] This guy stood out! I will never forget him, Ruby. His name was Steve Tracy.

Photo courtesy B. Brighton

Losing someone is not easy. How do you deal with the grief?
Fortunately, I have not been affected by the loss of someone close from this horrid disease. [She puts her hands in pray mode, her face beaming with gratitude, raising her eyebrows.]

Just then Penn, from Penn and Teller passes by and greets BB with a kiss on the cheek, then quickly exits. Bab’s keen hazel eyes glint.

Wow, that’s lovely. [We both take a minute.]
He’s a great guy…and quite charitable too.

Barbara, what motivates you to give back? Why do you care?
I’m a human being who has compassion for others, especially those who are struck down with incurable diseases. My mom and dad instilled that value in me.

Good parents, huh?! Okay. Now, say you are addressing a room full of your peers; what would you say to them about HIV?
As far as Senior Sex, I would urge anyone to think [her expressive eyes enlarge and her mouth gapes open] about THEMSELVES [she takes a beat] first, before having sex. Respect yourself by protecting yourself!

[She ponders a moment, as a bombshell-looking drag queen passes.] I think prevention campaigns need to be stronger and directed toward elders, too. The media needs to promote this as well. They should expose the stats and the (prevention) data so that men and women will be more thoughtful.

You could do a PSA, Babs!
Maybe I should become the spokesperson for Elder AIDS Prevention!

Photo courtesy B. Brighton

Why not, sister?! [Barbara tilts her head, taking the suggestion seriously.]
All this will pass. One day, Ruby, this disease will be gone.

You are my fave Las Vegas entertainer, BB. Who’s yours?
Awww, thanks my darling. I love Clint Holmes.

Oh I’ve seen his show. He is handsome! Name an item on your bucket list.
Traveling to Europe again, and being in Paris.

Oh, a natural wonder! Name a couple of your role models.
Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama.

Good choices. Who would you like to come face-to-face with?
[Barbara quickly responds.] George Clooney!

Me first. Me first! [We both have a hearty laugh.] Barbara, do tell your secret of staying vibrant, energetic, and youthful.
Thanks for the compliment, Ruby. I go out every night to see my friends, and if they are performing, I support them. I also try to think positive. I said ….try!

I get it. What makes you rise in the morning?
Well, curiosity, really. I want to get up and see what the day holds. It’s like a fresh start. I have places to go, and I have people I can help. All this makes me feel….[she softly elongates the word] goooood.

Brighten up your day at!

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].