Heart to Heart
A&U‘s John Francis Leonard Talks to U.K. Advocate Stephen Hart About His HIV-Centric YouTube Channel, the NHS & Treading the Boards
A person’s story is powerful. It can really make a difference in the lives of those you share it with. London actor Stephen Hart has a particularly compelling one that he’s shared on the New York stage and in his current project, a YouTube talk show eponymously titled Hart Talks. It’s great viewing, with compelling interviews with HIV advocates and activists, artists, house music divas, as well as glimpses into Stephen’s life and personal story.
A troubled childhood in Scotland didn’t hold Stephen back. He educated himself and became a nurse for four years, but long dreamed of becoming an actor, a dream he fulfilled. He was a successful working actor for years and plans to make his return to the stage soon. He shares his story with us here and gives us a great example of what it means to live successfully with HIV.
I recently had a chance to have a heart-to-heart with Stephen Hart
John Francis Leonard: Give me a brief biographical sketch of your background and life growing up.
Stephen Hart: So, I grew up in a household that was very dysfunctional. First I all, I had been adopted. My adopted mother had schizophrenia and manic depression, so her journey in life was a really tough one. I grew up in a home that was full of different kinds of abuse, physical, mental, and sexual. I remember thinking many times that I wouldn’t survive, but I did.
By the time I was six months from my sixteenth birthday, I had been kicked out of my home and was living rough on the streets of Glasgow. Then I went into the care system, which was another six months of wondering if I’d survive. By the time I was sixteen, I had my first apartment and a year later, started my training to become a nurse. But what I really dreamed of was becoming an actor. I nursed for four years and in that time came out as gay, traced and found my birth mother who did not want contact with me at all, and realized that, although I loved nursing, I had to follow my dream of becoming an actor.
You’ve had quite a career, especially on stage. Tell me about your acting career.
In my search for my birth mother, I found out that she was white, but that my father had been Puerto Rican. This explained my olive complexion. I worked for many years playing leads in musicals and pantos [pantomimes] as well as bit parts in television series. Glasgow back then didn’t offer the opportunities I was looking for, this mixed-race guy with dark wavy hair and a Scottish accent just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere. So by the time I was in my late twenties, I knew it was time to make the big move from Scotland to London.
London was big and scary, but I went to open calls and gave my headshot to everyone I could find. I just happened to write a letter, in the days when people still did that, to a casting director after reading an article about a musical they were then casting with mixed-race, the term they then used, as they couldn’t get enough Indian actors for the full Indian cast it was written for. I had been cast as so many races over the years that I thought, why not? A few weeks later I had the understudy role for one of the main parts in the West End production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, Bombay Dreams. I had the role of Sweetie, the eunuch, and my dreams really were coming true. After Bombay Dreams, I headed across the miles to New York City to tell my story in my one-man show, Shadowed Dreamer. It was time to tell my own story and give it all that I could.
I’d love to hear all about your journey with HIV. I am poz myself, and am particularly interested in the details leading to your initial diagnosis and treatment. Tell me how important the NHS was in this process and where you think it can improve.
One cold October night a few months after I left Bombay Dreams, I was out to meet a close friend for a drink at a local bar. I had split up with my long-term boyfriend just a few days earlier, so we talked about what was going on with that, but then he received a call that he had to leave and I stayed on. Not long after my friend left, I remember feeling really drowsy and heavy-headed. I remember a guy’s voice asking if I needed some fresh air. I said yes, but couldn’t lift my head to see his face. Many hours later, I was awoken by the sun on my face, but it felt like only seconds had passed since that really nice guy had helped me outside.
I tried to stand, but felt slapped in the face by dizziness. I managed to drag myself home and into the bathroom and was now able to stand with support. As I undressed for the shower, it became clear from all the blood that I had been raped. I got into the shower and scrubbed at my skin until it bled, knowing what they said about preserving evidence after a rape, but only wanting to wash what happened down the drain. A few months later, I found out that I was HIV-positive as a result of the rape.
I educated myself with the help of the NHS and services like the Terrence Higgins Trust. I have a great HIV doctor named Rachael who told me about U=U and I was gobsmacked. I was undetectable and unable to transmit the virus.
I spent the next two years just surviving. I worked then came home, drank too much, listened to Whitney Houston, watched YouTube videos, and cried a lot. I was educated about HIV, but like many, I thought my life was over, cut short by a deadly disease.
Two years passed and I realized that I wasn’t going to die anytime soon. I educated myself with the help of the NHS and services like the Terrence Higgins Trust. I have a great HIV doctor named Rachael who told me about U=U and I was gobsmacked. I was undetectable and unable to transmit the virus.
It is was in my third year of living with HIV (2009) that I started writing my one-man show, Shadowed Dreamer. I wrote it for myself, but it was also time to start telling my story to others. I also really wrote it for my friends. They had known me for so many years, but never really knew my story. I hoped that my story would reach just one person, then it would have been worth it.
Shadowed Dreamer hit New York in 2009. There were only six people in my first audience and I asked myself, “What the hell are you doing?” Almost a year later, my show closed off-Broadway having been seen by thousands. Although it hadn’t been easy going out there time after time and telling my story, I reached a lot more than just the one person I had hoped to.
The NHS and the people who work there are amazing, but in desperate need of funding and support in all areas. The people who work there are so overworked and underpaid that it just can’t continue as it is. Our government needs to view the NHS as a necessity. Without the National Health Service, I would have died many years ago and the fact that I am here now is due to some of the best doctors and nurses in the world.
PrEP is now covered by the National Health Service. What is your perspective on how that is working and what remains to be done?
PrEP is now covered by the NHS due to the hard work of campaigns like the I Want PrEP Now project and the Terrence Higgins Trust. My thoughts on PrEP are that it’s another amazing advancement in helping people to prevent themselves from getting HIV/AIDS. If I weren’t already positive, I’m sure that PrEP would be part of my routine.
I’ve been binge-watching your YouTube show, Hart Talks, it’s very well done. What inspired you to create the show and what were your goals when you did. What are your goals for it going forward? Who, so far, has been your favorite guest and who is your dream guest?
After the run of my one-man show, I kept getting messages from people wondering what was next. After doing something that had such an effect on me and on so many people who had watched it, I needed time to reflect on it all. YouTube kept popping up in my thoughts. It was something I had thought about for a few years, but due to being in my Forties, not feeling well a lot of the time, and my life not being that exciting, I wondered if there was enough to keep people entertained. On vacation in Brazil, it hit me that it was now or never. If I had begun telling my story in Shadowed Dreamer, Hart Talks would be about my continuing to tell my story, but allow others to tell their stories too. I feel that the more exposure we have to people of different backgrounds or lives that may not be looked upon as the norm, the more understanding and accepting we can be, and that was the goal for Hart Talks.
Going forward, I would love to be cast in a dream project, but I just hope that my channel continues to grow. My channel has been a slow burner with subscriptions and views because I am not your typical YouTube personality with content and in age. But my thoughts always go back to if a story helps just one person. I have two favorite guests, to be honest. The first is Scott Alan, the American musical theater songwriter. I am a huge fan of many years and have seen him in concert loads of times so I spent the whole time with him swooning. My second was Nello, who was ninety-three, lived in San Francisco, and had lost many friends and lovers in the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties. Hearing him tell his and their stories was really powerful. My dream guest would be Barbra Streisand. Well if you’re going to dream, why not dream big!
What is your biggest source of strength?
Despite the sadness in my life, there has been lots of happiness, too. I have had people placed into my world who have been amazing inspirations to me. So much of what I have done and who I am is because of them. My friends are my family, my cats Gracie and Gus—my children—and a night out seeing a good musical is my non-guilty pleasure. Besides that, I just keep smiling as often as I can. Because who doesn’t love a cheeky grin?
Check out Stephen Hart’s YouTube channel here: https://www.youtube.com/StephenHartHartTalks.
John Francis Leonard interviewed actor Lou Liberatore for the September 2020 issue. He writes the Bright Lights, Small City column for A&U. Follow him on Twitter @JohnFrancisleo2.