amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Joan Rivers: An Early AIDS Activist

joan rivers 1993Joan Rivers addresses the crowd at amfAR’s 1993 Boathouse Rocks fundraising event in New York City.Joan Rivers, who passed away on September 4 in New York City, will be remembered for her sharp-tongued, unapologetic comic style, which redefined the role of women in comedy. Yet to many in the AIDS community, Rivers will also be remembered as a devoted activist who stood by them before (and after) it was fashionable to do so.

As one of the first celebrity advocates for people with HIV/AIDS, Rivers helped destigmatize AIDS in the early days of the epidemic. Harley Hackett, one of amfAR’s founding board members, recounts the beginning of the Foundation’s nearly 30-year relationship with Rivers in a story that underscores the importance of her leadership:

Joan Rivers 2002Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, pose on the red carpet at Cinema Against AIDS 2002 in Cannes, France.In early 1985, the AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF), amfAR's predecessor, was trying to do a fundraiser involving the entertainment community. I was treasurer of AMF at the time and since this was the first big event we were doing on our own, I insisted that we have underwriting pledges before committing ourselves to anything. David Geffen was very helpful in gathering pledges from a dozen different sources to cover costs. The Schubert Organization and Joseph Papp volunteered to produce the benefit, with the Schubert Theatre provided at no cost. Unions donated services and Lorne Michaels was set to direct, yet we had difficulty getting anyone to agree to headline … until we asked Joan Rivers.

She said yes immediately and from that point on all of our difficulties disappeared. Comedy duo Mike Nichols and Elaine May reunited (after 25 years) to perform some of their classic sketches, Steve Martin did a soft shoe with Gregory Hines, magicians Penn & Teller presented highlights from their act, and the Boys Choir of Harlem performed, to name just a few of the acts. They gave us a show that Clive Barnes reviewed in The New York Post as “everything one could hope for in a benefit performance.”

Because of Joan Rivers, leading off with her comedy act and keeping the show moving as emcee, our benefit was an unqualified success, raising more than $500,000. So many celebrities offered their services that we could not fit them all in. The proceeds from the show provided the funds for our first cycle of peer-reviewed grants in June 1985 and stimulated the Broadway community to form Broadway Cares, which would partner with amfAR for years to come. 

Joan Rivers assured celebrities that they had nothing to fear from being associated with AIDS. After she led the way, we never had any more problems securing support from those in the top echelons of the entertainment world.