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After the curtain: Behind the scenes of an AIDS activist's life

Hydeia Broadbent found that being the face of AIDS awareness is inspiring — and intense. Then there’s her life behind the scenes.

IT MATTERED LITTLE that the boisterous audience could hardly see the tiny girl in the black skirt as she stood behind the gigantic podium on that vast stage. Her on-stage companion, a beautiful blonde with a huge, sequined red ribbon pinned to her dress, offered a few words before ceding the microphone, but history would barely remember them.

Instead, it was the soft but insistent voice of petite Hydeia Broadbent, then 12 and weighing less than 50 pounds, that brought the 1996 Republican National Convention to a tearful standstill. With a preternatural composure, Hydeia read the 106-word message she dictated to her mother the day before on the flight from Las Vegas to San Diego.

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“I am the future, and I have AIDS,” began Hydeia, a startling declaration aimed at asking the GOP to pause their culture war long enough to recognize that HIV was wreaking havoc on more than just gay men and drug addicts. Continuing on with her tight-knotted braids pinned away from her cherubic face sporting a daring clip-on nose ring, she told them: “I am Hydeia L. Broadbent. I can do anything I put my mind to. I am the next doctor. I am the next lawyer. I am the next Maya Angelou. I might even be the first woman president. I am the future, and I have AIDS. … You can’t crush my dream. I am the future, and I have AIDS.”

With that, a star was born. Oprah called. So did “20/20” and People. Hydeia appeared on the covers of countless magazines, received honors in the next decade from a litany of AIDS and African-American organizations for her awareness activism, became pals with Janet Jackson and was offered modeling contracts and speaking gigs across the country and overseas, too. Conrad Bullard, who ran a foundation named for the child, crowed to Poz Magazine in 1997 that she was “the most popular little AIDS activist in the country.” Given that the only two others anyone had ever heard of — Ryan White and Pedro Zamora — had died, there weren’t many to choose from anyway.

Heady times, indeed. Regaled for her ability to take a stage to explain HIV/AIDS to her peers in an informative and entertaining way, Hydeia was likened by one journalist as Shirley Temple in Rudy Huxtable’s body.

But now, 15 years after her watershed moment in San Diego transfixed the nation, a different, less flattering comparison comes to mind. Hydeia, now 27 and rebooting her activism career, says she was just a sickly child thrust into the spotlight against her will.

“Everything that happened to me is something like what happened to Gary Coleman and the child actors, you see their parents push them,” says Broadbent, who lives alone with her Chihuahua named Itsa in a North Las Vegas apartment and who is so estranged from her mother she doesn’t even have her telephone number. “It started out good. I love my mom; I respect her very much. And she did what she probably thought was best at the time. She just lost her way.”

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Her mother, 65-year-old Patricia Broadbent, rejects this, but she doesn’t dispute that there was a price for all that fame, all that attention, all the accolades. The end result: a tremendous amount of good done for the cause of raising AIDS awareness — and a fractured family with versions of their history so incongruous as to be irreconcilable.


‘When my mission is over, it’ll be my time to go’

Here’s another fact nobody disputes: Hydeia Broadbent wasn’t supposed to be alive today. In fact, as Hydeia mentions in every speech she gives, the doctors told her parents she’d likely be dead by age 5.

Pat Broadbent, a social worker, and her then-husband, contractor Loren Broadbent, took in 6-week-old Hydeia shortly after her drug-addicted mother gave her up in 1984. The couple, who had already raised four children, wouldn’t learn Hydeia had AIDS until the same woman gave birth to a boy in 1987, by which time it had become mandatory to test drug addicts and their newborns for HIV. Hydeia’s half-brother tested positive, and social workers contacted the Broadbents to have their daughter tested as well.

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While it devastated the family to learn Hydeia was HIV-positive, it also made sense of her ongoing health struggles. She barely ate, she was constantly fighting colds, she cried frequently. Her pediatrician stamped her as having a “failure to thrive.”

“When the test came back that I was positive, my whole family had to get tested, because I had been in the home since I was a baby,” Hydeia tells an audience at a health fair at the Las Vegas Library in June, using her story to demonstrate just how difficult it is to transmit HIV. “I’d puked on my mom, I’d peed on my mom. I’d bit my sisters. When I was going through potty training, I’d take my diaper off and paint the walls with my poop, so who was ever babysitting me at the time … they had to clean up the poop. I had to take baths with my sister, so of course, babies what? They pee in the baths. So, let my family be the example: If you fear being around someone who has AIDS, none of them were affected. I was the only one. Everyone was negative.”

Her diagnosis began a life of constant hospital visits, needles, home schooling and meds. Las Vegas, then a region of fewer than 800,000 people, had no immunologists, so once a month Hydeia headed to Los Angeles for injections aimed at boosting her immune system. Around the time when she outlived her brief life expectancy, she had been accepted into a protocol program at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., necessitating constant travel to the East Coast and long stays there. By age 9, Hydeia would suffer seven rounds of chicken pox and three bouts of PCP, a pneumonia common to people with AIDS, among other recurring troubles. Well into the 1990s, she continued to fly to the NIH for regular check-ups and medication refills, and she survived long enough to have her condition stabilized by a medication regimen that would come to be known as “the drug cocktail.” The success of those combination therapies has kept thousands of people with HIV alive and healthy, turning the disease into a mostly chronic condition rather than a certain demise.

Hydeia, improbably and heroically, outlasted her death sentence. Of all her close calls, none traumatized her parents more than the night at the NIH when doctors called a “code blue” on the 6-year-old after her fever soared past 107 and her blood pressure slowed to a dribble. “I wasn’t really all that concerned until I saw the doctor dancing and shoving tubes in her all over and constantly racing to the telephone to call other people,” Pat Broadbent recalls. “Then they turned on like every microphone in the whole hospital and repeated ‘code blue’ over and over. I’m hearing it, but it’s not registering that they meant our room.” By the next evening, when her father flew to Bethesda to be with her, Hydeia was jumping exuberantly on her bed.

Hydeia’s parents may have been shell-shocked, but the child’s gleeful spirit was barely dampened by such experiences. “Daddy,” she once told Loren, “I have a purpose, and my purpose is to let people know what AIDS does to people. When my mission is over, it’ll be my time to go.”

Such unusual eloquence might not have made it out of her own family had she not been naturally drawn to displaying it for others, too. On an early NIH visit, Hydeia grabbed a toy microphone to impersonate the reporter sidekick of the cartoon “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in a play-acting interrogation of Lori Wiener, then coordinator of the Pediatric HIV Psychosocial Support program. “I would like to know how you would feel if you had the AIDS virus?” Hydeia asked, then turned to her mother: “How would you feel if you had a daughter with HIV?” Wiener grabbed a camcorder, filmed Hydeia’s cinematic debut and used it to secure funding for a 15-minute video called “I Need a Friend,” in which Hydeia and two other children discussed the disease. In an endearing performance, Hydeia sang a song she wrote about AIDS and friendship. It was distributed to dozens of AIDS organizations across the nation and shown to countless children with HIV and adults working with them.

 From there, she began appearing in a variety of venues, from a Magic Johnson video to, eventually, the Republican National Convention. Along the way, the Hydeia L. Broadbent Foundation was set up to raise money for her travel expenses to the NIH and to manage speaking requests and fees. It came as a shock to her mother that she was even paid; she recalls in her 2002 memoir, “You Get Past The Tears,” her surprise when she opened up a thank-you note from an AIDS awareness group that Hydeia had visited in Florida to find a check: “It was the first time Hydeia had received money for speaking. I remember thinking that this proved what I’d always believed to be true: God watches over babies and fools.”

Perhaps that was a turning point. Hydeia and her unique story and charm became sought-after commodities by organizations aiming to destigmatize HIV and help young people understand it better. Her upbeat approach and radiant smile helped; she didn’t become the poster child for cruel discrimination the way Ryan White did because she never really encountered particularly shocking or mean-spirited bias in Las Vegas. Instead, she was a precocious symbol of diversity and survival.

“The goal was to put a face to AIDS other than gays and IV drug users and prostitutes,” says Patricia Broadbent in her home earlier this summer. “My biggest concern was Hydeia, was to get her accepted. That was my main goal.”

Today, however, a warning appears on in bright red letters: “I currently do not have nor am I affiliated with the Hydeia L. Broadbent Foundation 501 (c) (3) as advertised on various websites. Please DO NOT give to this website on my behalf.” In addition, Hydeia says she’s also disassociated herself from the Pediatric AIDS Foundation as well as Camp Heartland, a retreat for children with HIV/AIDS that she attended several times as a kid.

“Everything that my mom had something to do with, I shut off,” Hydeia says.

The last time the mother and daughter had contact was in February, when Hydeia invited her to her baptism into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She’d been turned on to the faith after casting about for a church for years before a Mormon neighbor who was evicted came to stay with her.

Pat Broadbent did not attend.


‘A lot of it was about money’

The anger is never far from the surface, even as the 27-year-old in the frilly low-cut black shirt insists she’s “over all that now.” Hydeia, who has built her reputation and career on being sunny and cheerful, who appeared on the cover of Poz Magazine at 13 with a million-dollar grin to match the yellow smiley-faced backpack she toted, now can quite suddenly begin to brood. One moment she’s carefully dipping some noodles into some sauce as she lunches at a nondescript Chinese restaurant in a strip mall, the next moment she’s struggling to keep her composure.

“Without the right structure and without the right guidance, because America had a perception of me, and they wanted a show, I almost died trying to please everyone, because I didn’t know,” she explains, pausing to gasp back a sob that surfaces from nowhere. Then she apologizes and continues. “I didn’t know who Hydeia was, and I didn’t know who Hydeia stood for. And when you’re born with HIV/AIDS, or living with this disease, you have to be careful about not letting it define who you are as a person.”

It’s unclear to Hydeia, who remains under 5 feet tall and could easily be confused for a teenager, where her childhood went wrong because so much of it is a haze. As she recounts her life, it’s as if she’s seeing a gap-filled slideshow that bounces from hospital stays to celebrity encounters to the intense security backstage at the Republican convention. “I think I blocked a lot of my childhood out because it wasn’t a very happy time, but it could also be because HIV crossed my brain so I have a memory problem,” she says.

Still, she recalls that at 15 she started drinking alcohol, running with “the wrong kids” and getting into fights with other girls. To hear her tell it, she was raking in large sums of money but never received any of it, she was being signed up for speaking engagements regardless of whether she wanted to do them, and she was kept out of public school not because of her health but so that she’d be available to make appearances. She missed out on being a cheerleader, going to homecoming, “doing what kids do.”

“A lot of it was about money,” she says. “I felt like, here I am speaking and doing these things, and I don’t even get an allowance! There was no trust fund set up for me until I was probably about to be 16 or 17, and I had been speaking since I was 6. So yeah, I had issues. I didn’t ever want for anything, but at the same time, here I am, speaking and traveling and doing these things, and I can’t even get an allowance. That didn’t sit right with me.”

Hydeia’s younger sister Patricia backs up some of this. Patricia, now 19, was an abandoned 6-week-old AIDS baby whom Hydeia insisted her parents adopt, and she says she is grateful she never was pressed into service the way her big sister was.

“I’ve seen all that Hydeia had to go through,” says Patricia, also estranged from her mother after being thrown out of the house last year for failing to graduate high school on time. “She missed a lot of social opportunities, missed a lot of that experience of school. It was always about business for her. She couldn’t really be herself because people looked up to her. She couldn’t be free-spirited, she always had to be so serious.”

It was, as Hydeia herself referenced, a story not dissimilar to the coming-of-age woes of child actors from Leif Garrett to Gary Coleman to Lindsay Lohan. Feeling manipulated and out of control, she says, she lashed out until, at age 18, she was kicked out by her mother for hoarding her disability checks instead of giving them to her mother for household expenses. She says she was allowed to return a year or so later, right as her mother was applying to ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” for a new house.

By that point, Pat Broadbent was also undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer. After Hydeia, she had adopted two more girls with HIV and divorced Loren Broadbent, and the show’s producers could hardly resist wanting to help an ailing single mother raising three AIDS-stricken orphans in a decrepit, low-slung house infested with mold and crowded with soiled furniture.

When that episode aired in December 2004, America watched the old house be bulldozed and the CEO of KB Homes personally send in his crew to build a gorgeous two-story spread complete with an elegant stone façade and a Jacuzzi grotto. KB Homes also paid off the mortgage and ABC gave the family a new Ford minivan. Patricia Broadbent appears repeatedly throughout the episode, tearfully repeating the mantra that the new home would give her the peace of mind that, “If I don’t beat this cancer, my kids will still be able to stay together.”

Behind the scenes, the family was imploding. Everything that TV viewers learned about Patricia Broadbent and all her years of devotion and hard work amid a riot of constant health drama was absolutely true, but Hydeia said her mother still seemed to yearn for even more recognition.

“I think the sad day for me was, after her house was paid and she had a new car, she said to my sisters and me, ‘You should now write Oprah, and tell her what a wonderful mother I am,’” Hydeia says. “At that point, I knew nothing would make her happy. There was nothing that I could achieve, nothing I can do that would satisfy her, that she had an emptiness inside of her, and she had a void that none of us could fill for her.” Her sister, Patricia, echoed this notion: “We had to pretend to be the perfect family on TV and in public.”

While Hydeia Broadbent details her deteriorated relationship with her mother, she also insists, “I never want to come across as if I’m being disrespectful towards her, or trying to damage her character. I’m just telling the truth. I’m just telling what happened to me.” She describes her bouts with depression and how, around age 25, she resolved to put ugliness behind her so she could return to making a living as an AIDS awareness advocate, this time on her own terms.

Two weeks later, she seemed to have thought better of it. In an email, she demanded that the difficult family history she so extensively described not be reported and that her mother not be interviewed because “she is sick and old and should be left alone.”

She may have been looking out for the woman who raised her. Or, perhaps, she knew that her mother would tell a dramatically different version of the story.


‘I have no remorse’

Even without an address, it’s easy to
guess which is the Broadbent home in the cul-de-sac off Cheyenne Avenue. The neighbors all reside in low-slung and rotting boxes, whereas the Broadbent abode — thanks to that ABC show — would fit in neatly in Southern Highlands. And if it weren’t clear from that contrast, there’s also the trail of bricks engraved with the names of each Broadbent in a garden next to the front walk. Once a ramshackle wreck strewn with pill bottles, intravenous tubing and other accoutrements of perpetual health problems, it’s now an immaculate space with a 27-foot ceiling, a baby grand piano signed by Elton John and a yard of fruit trees as well-kept as it was the day it appeared on TV.

Patricia Broadbent is soaking her feet in the backyard pool in the warmth of a Saturday in June. Her hair never returned after her chemotherapy, so she remains as proudly bald as she was on “Extreme Makeover.” While her daughter said she’s unwell, she insists she’s been cancer-free for years and her biggest issue is her damaged lung capacity. To avoid feeling short of breath, she often uses an oxygen line, and it is that trail of tubing that leads to her from the back door.

She remains a formidable, fierce woman willing to explain most anything exactly once and given to raising her voice not when she’s angry but when she’s exasperated by a remark she views as foolish or ignorant.

“I truly don’t have any remorse about dedicating my life to the kids,” Broadbent says at one such moment. “I have no remorse about taking care of the kids. I adopted them, I made a commitment that I would see them through to 18, minimum. After 18, I’m not kissing no more ass. I don’t feel guilty about any of the things I’ve done and I’m not going to explain myself.”

She did so anyway, and in the process she illustrated just how impossibly far apart she and Hydeia are. In her recollection, Hydeia was given the opportunity to turn down each and every speaking engagement, including the time Hydeia decided to go to Nashville to appear with Billy Ray Cyrus rather than visit President Clinton at the White House.

Hydeia most certainly had a trust, her mother says, and she received a $75 allowance weekly from her older brother, the administrator. She stayed home from school only because her health kept causing absences that made it hard to keep up. It is true Hydeia was kicked out for cashing her disability checks, but that’s because that money was provided to defray household expenses, not to live large.

What irritates her the most is her daughter’s suggestion that money may have been misappropriated. At the height of her speaking activity, Hydeia did an average of two gigs a month and, at most, was paid $5,000, Broadbent says. Usually it was far less.

“I think Hydeia thought we were getting paid for all the things, but back then half of those AIDS organizations didn’t even have money,” says Broadbent, pulling the oxygen tube from her nose and leaning forward for emphasis. “Hydeia thought we were being paid to go on Jerry Springer and Oprah. People have told her this stuff, ‘Your mom’s making all this money.’ Anyone that met her would say that, ‘Oh, your mom probably made lots of money.’ And she believed it, I guess.”

She says she’s genuinely puzzled by Hydeia’s struggles — “She had a privileged life. What is there to be depressed about?” — and suspects it stems from the constant praise she once received. “Hydeia would say to me, ‘I won’t die.’ And I’d say, ‘Why?’ And she’d say, ‘Because everybody says I’m an angel and I’m special.’ ‘No, you are not special. Yes, you can die.’ She just looked at me. ‘You’re here because Mommy worked her ass off trying to make sure you stay healthy. You don’t take care of yourself, you’ll see just how special you are.’”

Even as strained as the relationship is, Patricia still smiles when asked to think of all they accomplished. Hydeia, her mother says, was gifted and clever and surprisingly cognizant of the stagecraft elements of the endeavor. After going on Maury Povich’s talk show, for instance, the duo agreed that it had been a good appearance but a devilish Hydeia grinned, “Yeah, but I couldn’t make him cry. I couldn’t get him.”

She says she doesn’t mind being her daughter’s bogeyman — “I’m the Wicked Witch of the West and that’s all good, I own it” — but she’s most disappointed that Hydeia didn’t go to college. University presidents used to promise her full-ride scholarships when the then-teen would speak on campuses, and her mother would get those pledges in writing for later collection. None of those chits were cashed out.

“That’s what gets ya,” she says with a sneer, “when you get opportunities for ’em and then they piss ’em away.”


‘There needs to be some type of reform’

Hydeia did put in two years at the
College of Southern Nevada, but it wasn’t her thing. She also spent part of her 20s working as an office secretary and a Gap cashier, both of which she found unfulfilling. Even in the years when she wasn’t giving talks, people would reach out to her on the Internet or on chance encounters and remind her how powerful her story had been. She also grew more concerned that she needed to set a positive example for her younger sisters and cousins.

Her goals, too, have changed. She dubs herself an “international AIDS activist” atop, but she’s become far more concerned with raising awareness and creating support organizations in Las Vegas than she ever was in her high-flying years. She wants to reverse the Clark County School District’s ban on allowing speakers like her to visit classes during school time to discuss HIV prevention, and hopes to open a community health center in African-American neighborhoods to make health services more accessible.

The main priority, however, is advocating to protect Obama’s health insurance reforms and push for further changes. Earlier this year, she was dropped from Medicaid because she’s so healthy she can no longer be considered disabled. In the process, the government stopped paying for her AIDS medication, priced at about $2,000 a month. Last month, she was approved for free meds through the Nevada arm of the federal AIDS Drug Assistance Program, but that’s a short-term fix that doesn’t cover any other health needs.

Hearkening back to her big moment in San Diego 15 years ago, she dreams of a highly unlikely repeat engagement: “I would love to go back and deal with the Republican Party, to show them how important some type of health care is. They’re just so against it. They don’t have to agree with it all the way, but there needs to be some type of reform. What I went through this year, nobody should have to worry about that.”

Her speeches remain intensely personal affairs peppered with private revelations, and they reflect the fact that she’s no longer a pre-teen with a technical but hardly emotional comprehension of sex. At 27, she’s had both good and bad romantic relationships, including a boyfriend who insulted her by suggesting that nobody else would put up with her HIV status.

And nowadays, she tells her audiences she’s abstinent and works hard to encourage other young people that it’s a valid and wise choice. But even in that message, there’s some indication she’s not quite at peace with her complicated upbringing.

“I’m not defined by a man,” she tells the library audience in a sequence that would never have been a part of her earlier repertoire. “If anything, he will add light to me, not dim my light, okay? So, if you hear me preaching to the young girls, I’m (just) talking to you. Because, when I was growing up, I didn’t always have that positive figure. I didn’t know that a young man was supposed to open my door. You know, I didn’t know that it was okay not to be called a bitch. So, that’s not love. I just want you guys to know that you’re beautiful. That’s all.”