In 1994, the founders of MAC Cosmetics, Frank Angelo and Frank Toskan, had a simple idea to raise money to help people living with HIV and AIDS. That idea was Viva Glam lipstick.
Today, more than $13.8 million lipsticks later, the company has raised $202 million to support HIV and AIDS programs around the world through the MAC AIDS Fund. The funding and programs it supports have grown substantially. Originally focused on food assistance for people located in the United States, the MAC AIDS Fund now supports outreach in 74 countries and includes funding for housing programs and prevention programs.
"The original funding went to food for people living with AIDS," said Nancy Mahon, global executive director of MAC AIDS Fund and senior vice president of MAC Cosmetics. "We added housing about four years ago because we found the rates of homelessness were going up and that more and more of the disease was shifting to poor people. Those are the folks that had the least resources to get the food that they needed to take the drug. We have always had a strong commitment to understanding the link between HIV and poverty."
The key to the MAC AIDS Fund's success is two pronged. First, it revolves around the commitment by company leaders and by its make-up artists, and second, it depends upon the bold choice in spokespeople and their individual commitment to seeing HIV and AIDS cases plummet.
When the idea for Viva Glam originated, the fashion and make-up industries were being dramatically affected by HIV and AIDS, and the disease was still largely stigmatized as a "gay disease." Angelo and Toskan decided to take a bold stand against HIV and AIDS. The name Viva Glam reflected the company's optimistic, life-affirming approach, even in a time of devastating losses.
"The idea of the campaign was that we could be glamorous, fun, open and a cosmetic company and also raise money for a very serious issue," said Mahon.
To be effective, the campaign needed a larger-than-life personality to help draw attention to the product and raise awareness about what MAC was trying to accomplish. The company could not have chosen a better celebrity at the time than RuPaul, who served as the original spokesperson and is well remembered for the original campaign.
"Who better to kind of shake up the world and who better to be glamorous?" asked Mahon. "It was a defining moment of the sort of gutsy-ness, the joyousness and the acceptance; the sort of broad armed loving diversity of the company."
The company has continued to choose bold, glamorous celebrities with a personal commitment to HIV and AIDS in all of its campaigns, most recently, Cyndi Lauper and Lady Gaga. Nineteen celebrities over the past 17 years have served as spokespeople for the campaign.
"There are two things that they need to have, a passion for the issue and an ability to help us sell the product," Mahon said.
Explaining some of the organization's choices, Mahon said, "I mean Eve was terrific as an African American woman, as a rock star, as someone who is focused very openly about boyfriends and can really speak to young people in a very persuasive way.
"We are seeing an increasing number of HIV in folks who are 40 or older and we do quite a bit of funding around that, so Deborah Harry and Cyndi Lauper have both been able to speak to that, and they are also both, honestly, gay icons so they can speak to both older women and to gay men.
"Each year we try and focus on different issues and take a look at the epidemic. What issues can they speak to, where are they willing to go and honestly, can they help us sell lipstick?"
Mahon pointed out, "In the first five years of the fund, 1994-1999, we raised $8 million dollars. Over the last 18 months, we've raised $55 million." She credits Lady Gaga's celebrity with having a significant impact on the past 18 months.
In the end though, success is about impact. Today, MAC is proud to say that it is still just as focused on funding HIV and AIDS programs as it was in the beginning. Currently, the fund gives away $18 million annually.
One of their most recent efforts is funding for the Female Condom Project, a project focused on providing training to health educators around the new female condom.
"Female condoms are an important option for reducing a persons risk for HIV and STIs," said Jessica Terlikowski, co-founder of the Chicago Female Condom Campaign. "It's for women and men, for gay men, for trans women. Female condoms are an important option for everybody and [ people should ] not to be dissuaded by the name.
"It's an option that a woman or a man, the receptive partner, can initiate. That ability and that power is not something that can be underestimated, and is incredibly important as the options for receptive partner prevention tools is limited."
MAC has invested nationally in the Female Condom Project by providing funding through the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, to create the Female Condom Access Working Group, which is a collaboration of Female Condom Project programs in Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City, New York State, San Francisco and Houston.
The decision to fund the Female Condom Project reflects a return to prevention funding as well as acknowledges a shift in the communities affected by HIV and AIDS.
Early on, MAC was involved in prevention funding and worked specifically with Elton John in this area. "We made the decision that there were a lot of other organizations that we could fund that could do that better, but over the last five years we've come to believe that because there was, politically over a period of time, a clamp down of funds in regard to HIV prevention, prevention funds were needed. Also, a global fund exists which funds HIV treatment, but there is no global fund for prevention."
Another change has been an increase in HIV and AIDS cases among women and an increase in cases of gay men becoming infected.
As a result, MAC has worked with the U.S. government agcnies to determine funding actions with the opportunity for the greatest impact. The result is an increased focus on couples intervention, both heterosexual and gay male couples, and a focus on receptive partner protection and empowerment.
Globally, in 2012, the Fund plans to focus particularly on Trinidad and Latin America.
"Our upcoming spokesmodels are Nicki Minaj and Ricki Martin," Mahon said. "Nicki Minaj will be doing a lot of work in Trinidad, which we are very excited about and is very needed. The Caribbean is a land of many, many nude beaches; it is also a land, sadly, of extreme poverty. Not surprising, the tourism industry does not want to throw a spotlight on HIV. There is also a lot of sex tourism and, unfortunately, the result is a lot of HIV. Nicki Minaj is from Trinidad and is going to go to the Caribbean and speak.
"Ricky Martin is from Puerto Rico and he is going to speak more broadly to our Latin American audience. Only one out of every two women who are HIV-positive and pregnant have access to HIV meds in Latin America, and that's an area we are going to be focusing on."
The MAC AIDS Fund was a simple idea to help make the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS better; today it has become a vital organization for many grassroots programs around the world.
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.