By Tamara E. Holmes
The third in a series of profiles about the 15th Anniversary Black AIDS Institute Heroes in the Struggle Gala Reception and Awards Presentation honorees.
For the last 20 years, Mo’Nique has taken on stand-up, film, television and literature. But behind the glare of the cameras, she’s also taken on a greater cause: raising awareness about HIV/AIDS.
For Mo’Nique, HIV/AIDS is personal. After helplessly watching her best friend, Charisse, die of AIDS in 2002, Mo’Nique decided that she could make a difference for other PLWHA by using her power as an entertainer to educate others about the disease. “I watched my friend really suffer in silence,” she says. While people with other illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease, feel free to discuss their health status without judgment, people like Charisse often feel that they must keep their illness a secret, Mo’Nique says.
That element of secrecy also played out in Mo’Nique’s own family when her uncle died of AIDS, though some relatives publicly stated that he died of kidney failure. “There is no other disease that we treat that way,” she says. Though it’s been 12 years since Charisse died, “It’s still looked upon like it’s a sin, so a lot of our brothers and sisters die in silence.”
Lifting the Shroud of Secrecy
To help shatter that silence, Mo’Nique has appeared in public service announcement campaigns, donated proceeds from performances to AIDS organizations and partnered with The Black AIDS Institute as well as media organizations such as Essence magazine and Viacom to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS. She has shared her personal story and also told how those she loved lived and died with the disease. She’s also contributed to the book Not in My Family: AIDS in the African-American Community, a collection of personal essays about how the disease has ravaged the Black community.
As Mo’Nique’s celebrity has grown, so has her impact. Since taking the stage as a stand-up comedienne in her hometown of Baltimore, she’s appeared on such shows as HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, Apollo Comedy Hour and BET’s Comic View. She won the starring role in the television series The Parkers and hosted Showtime at the Apollo while also making appearances in such shows as Ugly Betty, The View and The Game.
She’s also made a name on the big screen in such movies as The Queens of Comedy, Baby Boy, and Two Can Play That Game. It was her portrayal of Mary Jones in the movie Precious, however, that earned her not only an Academy Award and the Special Jury Prize for Acting at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival but also Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, British Academy of Film and Television and NAACP Image Awards.
While Mo’Nique has been garnering success, she’s taken on issues such as body image and personal acceptance. She created Mo’Nique’s F.A.T. Chance, a reality miniseries and beauty pageant for full-figured women, and co-wrote The New York Times best-seller Skinny Women Are Evil and a follow-up, Skinny Cooks Can’t Be Trusted.
Telling It Like It Is
Throughout her career, Mo’Nique has never been afraid to say what’s on her mind through venues such as her own late-night talk show, which aired on BET. Her willingness to be direct has helped her talk about a topic that so many in the Black community have shied away from.
“We have this mentality that what happens in the house stays in the house,” she says. “A lot of us walk around in silent pain. I’m grateful I can call it what it is and not be afraid to say it.”
The way she sees it, the best way the Black community can help end the HIV/AIDS epidemic is to speak up about the reality of the disease and ways to prevent it.
“The reason it’s still spreading is because so many of us are hurting and wanting to be loved and not thinking, ‘Let me make sure I’m protecting myself,'” she says.
There’s no need to wait for a community forum to have a discussion about HIV/AIDS; it can be as easy as two people having a conversation. “If it’s one sister talking to another sister in the bathroom at work, and that sister goes home and talks about the conversation with her daughter. And that daughter shares the conversation with her friend in gym class,” Mo’Nique says.
Self-empowerment and personal improvement are a big part of Mo’Nique’s brand. From her website, she and her husband, Sidney Hicks, offer webcasts and other multimedia programming to inspire people to get physically and emotionally healthy.
Truth and honesty are key to health and will ultimately do more to raise the awareness of HIV/AIDS than public campaigns and celebrity interviews, Mo’Nique believes. But she’ll continue to lend her voice to the cause: “The best thing we can do to combat stigma is speak up about it and try to take away the shame.”
The 15th Anniversary Black AIDS Institute Heroes in the Struggle Gala and Awards Presentation will be held on Tuesday, May 20th, 2014 at 7 p.m. at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. To purchase tickets click here.
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.