By Elizabeth Jensen
Special to TelevisionWeek
Even 14 years later her stifled, hiccuping sobs still resonate.
Hydeia Broadbent was just 7 years old in March 1992, with adorably chubby cheeks and braids, a tiny fidgeting figure seated next to basketball star Magic Johnson as he talked with children about what it means to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. She remained quiet until Linda Ellerbee, hosting the “Nick News” special “A Conversation With Magic” on Nickelodeon, asked the two HIV-positive children in the group what they wanted to tell other kids.
“I want people to know we’re just normal people,” Hydeia piped in, but she barely got the words out before breaking down in tears. As she sobbed, Mr. Johnson took her hand, telling her it was “OK to cry.” Other children on the set reached out to pat her on the back.
The broadcast was groundbreaking. While both Ms. Ellerbee and Mr. Johnson stressed the need to avoid having sex at a young age to keep from getting infected, Ms. Ellerbee used her fingers to demonstrate matter-of-factly how to use a condom. Other children spoke poignantly, one recounting how his family had to move because neighbors were afraid of his HIV-infected brother. But it was Hydeia who brought the show’s message home in a way that no script, no matter how well crafted, could ever have done.
“It was nothing short of a magic piece of television,” Ms. Ellerbee said. But she added, “Like most great pieces it was an accident; we had no idea that child was going to cry.”
Still an AIDS Activist
As for Hydeia, her moment in the limelight may have touched many lives, but today the 21-year-old AIDS activist and public speaker said she doesn’t remember much of the show, particularly because it wasn’t her first time on television. She doesn’t rewatch it, she said, because, “I had really puffy cheeks, which I don’t like.” She didn’t really know who Magic Johnson was. And she was so young, she said, “I don’t think I understood how many people would see it. I just thought it was like any other show.” It didn’t really change her life or those of her family members, she said.
Hydeia was born to an HIV-infected mother and was diagnosed with AIDS just before she turned 4. As well as Ms. Ellerbee can remember, the production team found her through the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. Hydeia had already done some public speaking on what it means to live with the disease.
When Hydeia broke down, Ms. Ellerbee was seated on a couch across from her. “Nobody but a mother would notice this,” Ms. Ellerbee recalled, but when she started to cry, there was “just a second where nobody did anything.” Off camera at that point, Ms. Ellerbee said, she quickly tried to get her microphone clip off to go comfort the child-“Screw the show,” the host recalled-when Mr. Johnson reached down and touched the child to comfort her. The crying, Ms. Ellerbee said, “went on for a long time” and had to be edited down.
Afterward, the producers discussed whether to even use the moment in the show, but Ms. Ellerbee said they quickly agreed that “what that child does is more real and will affect more people’s thinking about AIDS than anything. It eliminated the screen between her and the people watching.”
The show was conceived the day of Mr. Johnson’s press conference in which he announced he was retiring from the National Basketball Association because he had been diagnosed as HIV-positive. It was an era when hysteria and confusion over AIDS were still common, before the development of the so-called cocktails of retroviral drugs that make it possible for many of those infected to keep the disease under control. Mr. Johnson said he would use his celebrity status to educate young people about HIV and AIDS.
Geraldine Laybourne, then head of Nickelodeon, immediately called Ms. Ellerbee to suggest a program featuring the basketball star, and a deal came together.
Ms. Ellerbee was undergoing her own crisis. The day after Mr. Johnson’s appearance was booked, Ms. Ellerbee recalled, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her surgery was scheduled around Mr. Johnson’s availability to tape the show.
The show was taped “four days after losing both my breasts to cancer, and I was about to start chemotherapy, and had surgical drains under my shirt hanging down both arms,” Ms. Ellerbee said. Before the show, while in Orlando, Fla., to shoot a cover photo for TV Guide with Mr. Johnson, the talk was about AIDS, “And all that time I was thinking I may die of cancer. It was awful,” she said. But she said she never considered canceling the program.
The reaction to the show was overwhelmingly positive. ABC’s “Nightline” rebroadcast it in full in its late-night slot. A woman in New York watched the program with her son and used it as a way to break the news to him that she had AIDS and was dying.
The episode remains in circulation as a teaching tool.
Ms. Broadbent said she dealt with a lot of questions after the program aired, including annoying ones from people who wanted to know all about the basketball star. She had to explain, she said, that, “I’m not friends with him; I just did a show with him.”
Her speaking career continued, and in 1993 she started the Hydeia L. Broadbent Foundation to teach AIDS prevention and encourage acceptance of people living with AIDS. In 1996 she spoke to the Republican National Convention. She appeared again on “Nick News” and Nickelodeon sister network The N in 2003 programs that examined the AIDS crisis in Africa. In 2004 her family received a new home from ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.”
She now has as many as four or five speaking engagements a month. She talks to high school students, “trying to make sure they know that [HIV infections and AIDS] can happen to anybody at any time,” she said.
In particular, she wants her listeners to be aware of the reality of the disease as the availability of the drug cocktails has resulted in some complacency. The medicines are “wonderful,” she said, but they “don’t work for everybody, so I try to give a little background. The side effects can be really harsh, so I try to let people know the reality. They don’t know what it is like to live with AIDS.”
Ms. Broadbent is a first-year student at the Community College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas. She is studying communications-with a possible eye to public relations-though she has already proved herself a seasoned communicator.