Madonna's AIDS stories -- Despite her denials, rumors persist that she is HIV-positive

Bob Merlis, vice president and national director of publicity for Warner Bros. Records, knew something was up when ABC News called to ask about Madonna’s press conference. ”I thought, ‘She’s having a press conference? On what topic?”’ Merlis, based in Los Angeles, quickly called Warner offices in New York. ”I said, ‘What’s the deal with the Madonna press conference?’ And they said, ‘You too?’ Whoever cooked up this rumor has really done it quite artfully and plausibly.”

That word ”plausibly” lies at the very heart of the Madonna stories. For weeks, media offices around the country had been tipped off to sensational news: Madonna had tested HIV-positive, the story went, and was about to tell the world all about it. So many news organizations called Warner that Madonna’s official spokeswoman at the label, vice president of publicity Liz Rosenberg, issued a statement that read, in part, ”These rumors are completely unfounded and untrue. Madonna’s management is investigating the origins of these rumors, and it is preparing to take appropriate legal action.” Adds Merlis, ”We tried to implore any legitimate media people who called that this is clearly the working of some devious person who just wanted to cause trouble, and did.”

To many in the business, the fact that such rumors exist about Madonna is not surprising. ”Given her penchant for scandal, she’s a lightning rod for this sort of untruth,” says Christopher Andersen, author of Madonna Unauthorized, one of three recently published biographies of the singer. Andersen should know: A possible — and commonly cited — source of the AIDS stories is his own book, published in October by Simon & Schuster. Months before its publication, a catalog blurb for the book promised that Madonna Unauthorized would reveal ”the tragic reasons for Madonna’s very personal campaign to find a cure for AIDS.” That seemed a tease open to almost any reading, including the one that she herself had the disease. But Andersen’s book never says Madonna has tested HIV-positive, and he insists no such reference was ever there. ”I encountered those rumors,” he says, but tracking them down was ”like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.” The catalog line, he adds, ”refers to all the people she’s known and loved who’ve died of AIDS.”

That includes a lot of people, a fact that has added to the plausibility of the rumors. Two of Madonna’s good friends, artist Keith Haring and her ballet teacher and mentor, Christopher Flynn, died of AIDS in 1990. And anyone inclined to link AIDS to Madonna could easily find other ways to do so. Andersen’s book claims Madonna used to troll the East Village for young Hispanic men in the early ’80s, and Andersen writes, ”It was anybody’s guess whether any of them were carrying the AIDS virus or had been intravenous drug users.”

Madonna, reports Rosenberg, is ”angry and upset, and who wouldn’t be? She can’t understand it, but she feels there may be some kind of strange conspiracy behind it.” Rosenberg won’t disclose specifics about the investigation by Madonna’s lawyers, and the singer herself, now working on a new album with dance producer-remixer Shep Pettibone, has not been available for comment. However, she was planning to attend the Dec. 10 American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) benefit in Los Angeles and speak about the rumors, the fear of AIDS, and ”AIDS terrorists,” people who try to undermine AIDS activists by implying that they are carrying the disease.

Could the stories have started with someone eager to sabotage the singer’s in-the-works contract with Warner Bros., estimated to be worth $100 million? Probably not. While Time Warner executives won’t comment, entertainment lawyer Donald Passman says that since ”a health clause is mandatory in most big contracts, we can assume no label would negotiate with her unless they knew she was in good health.”

Many in the gay community feel that the root of the stories is deeper and more insidious than any attempt to subvert a business deal. ”I think this particular rumor is entirely AIDS-phobic and homophobic,” says Richard Rouilard, editor of the gay newspaper The Advocate. ”It’s a backlash at Madonna for being so actively involved in AIDS and championing gay people, both in her movies and in her interviews. This is a straight backlash.” Howard Bragman, president of Bragman & Co., a Los Angeles publicity firm that represents AIDS organizations as well as celebrities, notes that such rumors can be ”very, very destructive. They can discourage people who are truly HIV-positive from coming forth, and that’s a tragedy.”

No matter what its source, the rumor puts an old question about Madonna in a new light: When a celebrity claims to reveal all about herself, how much privacy is she entitled to? ”People call me and ask, ‘How do you know the rumors aren’t true?”’ says Warner’s Merlis. ”But Madonna isn’t running for office. She’s not going to pull your teeth or do surgery on you. She’s entitled to her private life, and I don’t think there’s any rule that says your favorite celebrity has to show they’re HIV-positive or negative. It’s incredible the things people expect. I mean, what does she owe people?” Perhaps nothing but the acknowledgment that, for all her publicity mongering, even Madonna can be the furthest thing from a lucky star.

David Browne, Dave DiMartino, Tina Jordan, and Gregg Kilday