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— by Jennifer Vineyard

Erasure's Andy Bell was one of the first pop stars to come out as being gay. And now the singer, perhaps best known as the voice behind the band's 1988 hit "Chains of Love," has become one of the first pop stars to come out as being HIV positive. Bell has known his status since June 1998, when he came down with a case of pneumonia, and was quite happy keeping the news to himself. But when speculation started last winter about his health — especially surrounding his recent double hip replacement (which wasn't related to the virus, but had required a lot of medical care) — Bell thought he'd set the record straight and try to erase some of the stigma at the same time.

MTV: You made a big announcement in December, but it wasn't an announcement you were ready to make.

Andy Bell: I told my family already, about two years before. And on the last tour, we had some shows that were canceled or postponed because I had bronchitis. But then this Web site called Popbitch started spreading rumors, asking all kinds of things. It was like a little cloud hanging over your head, so I just wanted to get it out of the way and just be open about it and come back with a vengeance. I'm not good at keeping personal secrets. I can keep other people's secrets, but not my own.

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MTV: How did people react?

Bell: It's all been pretty good. If fans meet me one on one, they'll tell me about their status and how it affects them and [ask] whether they should tell their family. I didn't have trouble telling my family at all, but it's almost like a second coming out, [like] saying you're gay in the first place. So depending on how your family dealt with that, it's almost a similar circumstance. And it can be quite tricky if you have been disowned, or didn't have anything more to do with your family. If that's the case, you'd be with your friends anyway; that would be your new family.

MTV: Sometimes people don't get tested because they're scared to know.

Bell: I was only tested by default, really. I had one when I had my appendix out, and that was fine. And [I was tested] the second time when I had pneumonia, so it was a bit obvious then. I kind of knew. You just know.

MTV: You just get sick very easily.

Bell: Over and over. And I don't know if I would get tested if I hadn't, because it's your responsibility to be safe anyway, whether you're positive or negative. I don't know if knowing you are positive gives you any kind of assurance.

MTV: But if you can get the course of treatment ...

Bell: For those reasons, then yes, get tested. If you haven't got the drugs, it's a disaster.

MTV: When you first found out, was it daunting to learn about all the antiretroviral drugs you're going to have to take?

Bell: No, it was just there. It was just medicine. First was a triple combination therapy, three pills. Never AZT. One was Stavudine, which they took me off because it causes lipodystrophy, which is like fat displacement in your cheeks or anywhere in your body. Then they moved me on to Abacavir. And now I'm on a two-pill combination. (Click here for more information on antiretroviral medication.)

It just depends on your own makeup, really. Some people have to go through a variety of combinations before they can find the right solution for them, and that can be panicky as your options go down. I was lucky. I had tingling fingers for a while, but that's nothing. It's gone almost overnight. Once you've been taking them for a month, you feel completely normal.

MTV: So it wasn't hard for you: You weren't having trouble adjusting; you weren't having major side effects — was there anything negative about it?

Bell: Nothing negative whatsoever, but I wouldn't be here if I wasn't taking [antiretroviral drugs].

But I wouldn't have come out about it 10 years ago, because then, there was this AIDS educational film on the TV all the time [that was] very scary — gravestones crashing down — and it kind of scared people into having safe sex. It made it look like a death sentence, in a way. I suppose once that was taken away, I don't feel like that anymore.

MTV: Do those scare tactics really work?

Bell: Going out to clubs now, you have free condoms given away to people, but does that create a sexual free-for-all as well, where you think you can do anything and one time without condoms will be all right? You never know. It's really hard to get the balance, and it's important, definitely for young people. I don't think young people are paying enough attention to it. There's 19-year-olds coming down as HIV-positive, and that's really awful.

MTV: If you were in a position to change that, what would you say needs to be done?

Bell: I'm not a sex-education minister; I'm just me. But you'd have to have very open sex education in school. Start at the age people start experimenting with sex, which is about 13, and explore all the realms of sexual possibility. You can't just say abstinence is the only way to go. Children don't listen to that. If you tell them "No," children are going to do the exact opposite. What's unfortunate is that when you're a teenager, you want to experiment, you want to try everything. If you tell them, "No, you have to use a condom," it's really hard for them to learn. It really has to be drummed in.

MTV: You've been doing benefits for AIDS education and research. Do you consider yourself more of a spokesperson or an activist now?

Bell: I just did one in Hamburg, [Germany], but I don't think it was directed towards young people but more towards gay men. I don't always ask what the specific area is; I just do them. We shouldn't think, "It's not affecting me; I can't be bothered." I know that's human nature, but it's really heartbreaking when you read the figures of, say, people infected in Africa, and that 98 percent of them don't have access to the drugs because of poverty and politics. It feels like pushing a pea up a hill. You're talking about changing government policy completely; it's a bit deep for me.

MTV: People have this preconception, this stigma, that if you're HIV-positive, you're sick, you're weak, you're having trouble doing things. But Erasure recorded a new album, Nightbird, and launched a 20th anniversary tour. What does it take to prepare for that? Does your HIV-positive status affect any of that, besides having higher insurance costs?

Bell: I just went and got my legs fixed, went into rehab for physiotherapy, went to the gym for six weeks, and that was it! Not that much at all.

MTV: Has it made you more reflective? Changed your music in any way? Make you feel more grounded?

Bell: I think that has more to do with turning 40 than anything else! I'm happy to be alive, happy for the day and happy for the moment — and that's it.

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