Soraya Liza Lanyri: Advocate

Ruby’s Rap by Ruby Comer

Soraya Liza Lanyri

He-man hunk Rock Hudson shocked the world when he tragically died of AIDS-related causes in 1985. The dreamy movie star was only fifty-nine years young. If any one celebrity can take credit for drastically spreading the word of this appalling disease globally, it was Mr. Hudson. His death certainly enlightened the straight world, including my actor friend, Soraya Liza Lanyri.

Like many of us, Soraya lost friends to AIDS. She confronted the pain by being involved with APLA, amfAR, Project Angel Food (PAF), and others. Soraya participated in AIDS walks, fundraisers, dance events, and other charity affairs. By helping others she took care of herself!

At fifty-six, Soraya, is currently a Palm Springs resident—one of my beloved places on earth! Oh, those warm wispy desert summer evenings are ethereal. She was born in Quebec City to two European immigrants, her Dutch mother and her Moroccan father, though raised in Los Angeles. French is her first language.

Soraya studied at the Los Angles Theatre Academy and graduated from California State University Los Angeles (CSLA), receiving a BA in Theatre Arts. This gifted woman is a triple threat: singer, dancer, actor…and was a member of San Francisco’s Mime Troupe, and has played piano for several jazz bands.

On Hollywood Hills, overlooking Tinseltown

Classically trained, Soraya has performed in Shakespearian plays, frolicked in musicals such as playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and played in serious dramas like Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding. Soraya was also a dancer in Madonna’s “Deeper and Deeper” music vid, from the diva’s Erotica album.

Several years ago, the talented Ms. Lanyri transported her craft from the City of Angels to Palm Springs, starring in Imaginary Cuckold by Molière, Damm Yankees (playing the Gwen Verdon role), and Murder at Howard Johnson’s. Who’s the thespian’s inspiration? The ol’ famous redhead herself (though her flaming one-of-a-kind iconic color was actually a henna dye)—Lucille Ball. “She was such a great comedian and such a great business woman. Lucy was a trendsetter, a forerunner, and a pioneer in the women’s movement.”

In 1994, AIDS hit home for Soraya when her dear friend, Ben, died. She was shattered.

Illustration by Davidd Batalon

Seeing him emaciated and witnessing Ben’s demise was a pivotal life-altering junction for her.

As Ben lay dying, he was completely convinced that the drug AZT , a toxic and controversial antiretroviral drug that went on the market in March 1987, was taking his life.
Soraya and yours truly meet up in semi-lockdown environment in Palm Springs at the lively colorful Lulu’s restaurant on Palm Canyon Drive, sitting outside amidst the swamp coolers and misters. Our masks dangling from one ear.

Ruby Comer: Oh geez, let’s put these darn masks away. Tired…tired…just tired. Hey a wee bit of levity for the first Q: Who was your first celebrity teenage crush?
Soraya Liza Lanyri: Oh! [Soraya squeals.] David Cassidy [A&U, December 1999] from The Partridge Family. Oh I loved him! [Soraya starts singing his number-one hit, “I Think I Love You.”]

Me too, me too [keyed up like a tweengirl, I scream as well]. Oh that Rolling Stone cover of him nearly naked….Yumm.
[She nods.] Oh Ruby, I even had the Partridge Family lunchbox too.

[We joyfully rib each other.] Those were the days. And speaking about the past…
So it was Rock who first brought AIDS awareness to you…
Yes ma’am! I was stunned to see him withering away, from how he used to look in all those old classic films. [She lowers her head, shaking it back and forth.] Almost as soon as Rock announced he had AIDS, he quickly died.

I’ll never forget that show he was on with Doris Day; some animal show she hosted. The picture of the two of them was splattered all over the supermarket magazines.
I was in Europe at the time when I heard about it. [Pausing, she sips her merlot.] I felt sad about his death, and angry about how he was hounded by the press, not treating him with the dignity and respect that he deserved.

Indeed, yes. Let’s get personal. Tell me about your sexual awakening.
In 1981, when I was in high school, I was already going to mixed gay dance clubs. A lot of guys there were bisexual. Then when I was twenty-two, I was in the underground club scene that was really a mixed crowd. At that time I was fully aware about the dangers of HIV. It made me more watchful and careful—and it truly put a dampener on things. I couldn’t be free like I wanted. I was filled with so much fear. I mean, I could die from this disease!

1990s headshot

Soraya, when and why did you first get tested? How old were you?
Well, I was twenty-two, and had been with some guys without a condom and I started to get concerned about it. So I went to Planned Parenthood for a test. In those days you had to come back days later to obtain the results. It was such an anxious time waiting! I started to think of worst-case scenarios…but thankfully it was negative. And, Ruby, I made a promise to myself to always use condoms. I did not want to go through that fear and anxiety again.

Tell me about one of the early AIDS events you attended.
There was an AIDS awareness dance event at the Santa Monica Hangar in 1991. There were naked men and women dancing in cages. Some guys were chained to walls and there was lots of booze. During the course of the evening, there was quite a bit of commotion in one of the darkened rooms. It started out with a few men and it turned into at least fifty. Men were having sex everywhere. I remember thinking, I thought this was supposed to be an AIDS awareness night, but they were passing out plenty of condoms!

Oh, shoot, I missed that fun one! Okay…I wanna hear about Ben.
I miss him. [Soraya glances out, just feet away, to the passers-by on the main drag. At that moment, a mime street performer walks by and presents her with a white rose then instantly disappears.] Hmmmm, er, that’s timely, Ruby…
Maybe sent from Ben?!
Well…I’m speechless. [She recomposes herself.] Ben and I met at the Mondrian Hotel [on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles] where we worked together in the summer of 1994. He was a bartender and I was a cocktail server at the pool. I had just graduated university with a degree in theater.

Soraya as Sally Bowles in CABARET. Photo courtesy S. Lanyri

Of course you did! [I beam at her. Soraya continues.]
At times the pool was dead, so we got to know each other quite well. By the fall he was getting skinnier and weaker. I was concerned about his change in appearance, so I brought it up. He confided that he had AIDS, and that he needed to get treatment. [Soraya halts briefly.] I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what to say. I felt sad, but I tried not to show it. I just wanted to comfort him and uplift his spirits, and encourage him to not give up. I became his cheerleader from that day on.

We started to have really in-depth honest talks about death. I remember asking him how he thought he contracted the virus. He told me about when he was a kid “fresh off the boat,” he’d say, from Wisconsin and moved to Manhattan. He began clubbing for the first time and plunged into having lots of sexual fun. He’d also go to bathhouses and stick his dick in a hole. You know what I mean….

[I chuckle a bit.] Oh, yes, glory holes. They were a very popular activity!
[Soraya chuckles too.] Yes, yes, and I was surprised when he told me that, as he seemed so, well, proper and innocent! [She purses her lips, and arches her eyebrows in a comic gesture, which I can see her doing on stage.] As Ben started to get sicker and weaker our talks became even more intimate. We knew we didn’t have much time left together. I asked him one day what his greatest regret in life was. He told me, “The sex wasn’t worth it, Soraya.” That statement was a really poignant moment in my life, Ruby. It became my constant reminder and mantra in life: to always stay safe and protect myself.

The divine signs along the way that appear for each of us along our life journey. Love it. You learned early on how to care. How brilliant.
When Ben couldn’t work anymore I organized a party for him at Tex Mex [West Hollywood restaurant] with our fellow work buddies. When he arrived he looked so gaunt and skinny. He was over six foot and probably weighed around 130 pounds. Our friends were shocked because they hadn’t seen him since he had left work. I was so happy that the waiter and everyone were so kind and considerate towards him. In those days you didn’t know how people would react, since there was so much fear and controversy over the disease.

Very, very true.
We had a lovely reunion where love and laughter was shared. [Just then Arial Trampway [A&U, May 2018] makes a grand entrance into Lou Lou’s. Soraya and I turn and watch the local humanitarian drag queen for a moment as she sits in an inside booth.] She is fab! [I nod ardently as Soraya goes on about Ben.] As he became sicker and bedridden, I would go to him and hold his fragile little hand. But he was strong-willed as ever. He felt AZT was killing him. I told him to stop taking it if he felt that way. But unfortunately the disease was too far advanced.

So many people went this way…heartbreaking and catastrophic.
Ben soon ended up in hospice in Echo Park [Los Angeles]. It was a comfortable place and the staff tried to make it as homey as possible. [She lightly clears her throat.] I felt so sad for the men who where there, that didn’t have any visitors. It was very tough mentally and emotionally to see, but…imagine how they felt. I always tried to hide my sadness from Ben, as I was there to support and uplift him. He died soon after entering hospice.

I appreciate all my gay brothers that I’ve known, still love, and have such fond memories. My life would not have been as joyful if it weren’t for them My god, we had so much fun together clubbing in the eighties and nineties….

Oh Soraya…
When he died I had a dream about him, Ruby. He looked just like he did before he got sick, happy and smiling. I asked him, “Where are you now? How is it?” He said that the place he was in was just like where I was, just a different dimension. It made me feel better to see him happy and well.

Photo courtesy S. Lanyri

Smashing. Lovely touching story, Soraya. How on this green earth did you confront the grief, not only of Ben’s death but the many others you lost?
By becoming more grateful, Ruby. It showed me that my supposed problems were nothing compared to those of my friends who had died of HIV. I was/am grateful to be alive. Their deaths urged me to give back to the community so I began volunteering.

I appreciate all my gay brothers that I’ve known, still love, and have such fond memories. My life would not have been as joyful if it weren’t for them My god, we had so much fun together clubbing in the eighties and nineties….

My lordy I do remember those days well. But for me, since I’m a bit older, those times extend back to the disco seventies and Studio 54! Soraya, what makes you get up outta bed in the morning?
Ruby, every day is a new day to uplift and be of service!

Skip over to Soraya’s Instagram @Soraya.l111.

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].