For 20 years, MAC has helped the fight against HIV. This World Aids Day, the make-up brand’s new film shines a light on the human face of the disease, says Rebecca Gonsalves  

There’s no denying the power of a lipstick – the right shade can change your look, elevate your mood and maybe even help the fight against HIV and Aids.

The latter is the domain of MAC, a make-up brand best known for celebrating individuality, self-expression and dramatic flair. In 1994, MAC co-founders Frank Toskan and Frank Angelo decided to financially support organisations and charities that were responding to the Aids epidemic which held so many lives in its grip.

Hence, Viva Glam was born. Since its launch, donating the total selling price of each and every Viva Glam lipstick (minus VAT in the UK) has raised over £218m, making the brand the largest non-pharmaceutical giver in the HIV/Aids arena.

Thanks to celebrity ambassadors such as RuPaul, Debbie Harry, Linda Evangelista and Rihanna, the Viva Glam message has long been about fostering positive attitudes and outlooks and celebrating difference.

“London is such an important place for us in terms of the Viva Glam work,” says Nancy Mahon, the senior vice-president of MAC and global executive director of the MAC Aids Fund. “Sales here since inception have raised over £10m – that’s a lot of lipstick.”

Singer Rihanna poses MAC Viva Glam collection

While fundraising is a key part of the battle against the virus, Mahon believes that tackling the stigma that so many HIV-positive people experience is key to eradicating the disease. To this end, MAC has teamed up with acclaimed filmmaker Andrew Jenks to create It’s Not Over, a documentary that chronicles the lives of three young people whose lives are impacted by HIV, which goes live on Netflix today, to coincide with World Aids Day.

“Making this film is a big new adventure for us as a cosmetics company,” says Mahon, a lawyer by training. “What we’re trying to do through storytelling is really show the human face of HIV. Young people, particularly under 18, don’t know the information. They don’t understand that HIV is still relevant. Young people don’t listen to finger-wagging. We have to bring the conversation to them.”

Statistics indicate that this is an uphill struggle: one in three UK teens do not know that HIV is an STD and during the year that the documentary was filmed there were 2.3 million new infections globally. While prevention is a key part of the message, Mahon is eager to highlight that thanks to medical progress the virus is no longer a death sentence.

 “Our campaign is about reasons to be alive, instead of death and doom. We don’t put Aids stories all over a lipstick; instead we pick celebrity spokesmodels like Miley Cyrus or Rihanna because it’s fun and sexy. Being HIV-positive doesn’t mean you can’t be sexual, it just means you have to be careful.”

Rihanna, the current face of Viva Glam agrees: “I think it’s important that young people know there’s nothing wrong with having fun, nobody is telling us to be boring, but we have to be safe. We can’t think of HIV/Aids as being somebody else’s story. It could be any of ours.”

One of the people Jenks documents in the film is Lucky Mfundisi, who is part of a MAC-funded organisation called Grassroots Soccer, which works with young people in the South African township of Khayelitsha, an area with a particularly high HIV-positive population. Although HIV negative himself, Mfundisi has seen first-hand how a positive status can affect a person’s emotional well-being as well as physical health. In the film he introduces Jenks and some of the young people he mentors to the only HIV-positive person in the township who was happy to be filmed.

“When days are dark, friends are few,” says the man, who wishes to be identified as X, as he describes the fear and stigma that he has faced since his diagnosis.

“Lucky’s like an older brother and the soccer is so brilliant because the kids go and have fun,” says Mahon. “If you look globally, a lot of times when kids get in trouble is those after school hours. But if they’re at Grassroots Soccer they’re having fun learning about HIV.”

“As much as young people have been told, they don’t understand,” says Mfundisi of the difficulty he faces. “There’s a difference between hearing, knowing and understanding with HIV. Those who have HIV are afraid of what is going to be said or done to them after they disclose. A friend of mine made a T-shirt that says ‘I’m HIV+… so what?’

“Such a slogan is a challenge to societal attitudes towards the virus, but also a statement of the wearer’s courage and attitude towards their life,” says Lucky. “If you are one of those numbers, so what? You’re still a person; you’re still living with us.” The two other people in Jenks’ film are Paige, an American college student who has been HIV-positive from birth, and Sarang, an Indian dramatist who is openly gay in a country that recently outlawed homosexuality.

Miley Cyrus poses for MAC Viva Glam

Mahon hopes that the film will encourage more people of all ages to share their stories: “As far into this epidemic as we are, with such great medical advances, the stigma seems to be much worse. It’s almost as if it’s ‘your own fault’ or ‘you should have known better’.

“The truth though is that no one likes condoms but we’ve spent years pushing them. Now we have medication that people can take before they’re exposed so that they don’t contract HIV. We need to have a more honest conversation about what sex people really have – and how we can help them out.”

Having worked in the field since 1991 as a lawyer, advocate and non-profit founder, Mahon is an expert on what she calls a “disease of self-esteem and privilege, a great friend of poverty and stigma”.

And although she is concerned that young people don’t understand the risks, Mahon is cheered by the way that a younger generation is taking companies to task over their ethics. “It makes a big difference. It’s an incredible form of commercial activism.

When I first started my non-profit [and MAC wanted to work with me] I was like, ‘Make-up?! I mean come on!’ But many make-up companies have actually been pretty good at taking on rough issues. We would love to have the MAC Aids Fund out of business but until then, every day is World Aids Day.”