When Earvin “Magic” Johnson revealed his HIV diagnosis to the world in 1991, not much was known about the immune disease and fear was high. Johnson didn’t know what his future would look like, or how the world would receive the news. But, as he tells Variety, he knew that he still wanted to be with his wife, Cookie, forever.
And the feeling was mutual. Despite the odds being against the Lakers legend, he went on to play for several more years until retiring in 1996. Magic and Cookie Johnson became HIV/AIDS activists, aiming to educate the public and raise funds for medical research.
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Through their Magic Johnson foundation, the couple has given over $15 million to underserved Black and other communities of color across the country. That’s why, on Sept. 21, the couple will be honored with the Elizabeth Taylor Commitment to End AIDS Award at the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS. Hosted by Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS will be held at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
“We’re in line with each other because the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation, they do a lot of work in underserved communities and that’s where Cookie and I built our business,” Magic Johnson told Variety. “We were out educating people in the Black and brown community, and we raised a lot of money to take care of people. Cookie and I had the same mindset, had the same heart. We wanted to bring an end to HIV and AIDS in any way that we could. So, this is special for us.”
An edited version of our interview with the Johnsons follows below.
How did you react after finding out you were being honored by the Elizabeth Taylor Foundation? How did that relationship with the foundation come about?
Magic Johnson: Cookie and I were truly blessed and excited about the evening because we worked with Elizabeth for years with Macy’s Passport [charity event] and we always used to love going in her trailer, her private area and talking to her. She would always have her dogs!
She had the biggest heart and she was so passionate about really making sure that people who are living with HIV and AIDS were getting their medicine, making sure that we talked about prevention and educating people about HIV and AIDS as well. Cookie and I were passionate about the same things. I think that’s why we had such an incredible relationship with Elizabeth. Then, to be able to raise all that money for HIV and AIDS organizations through Macy’s Passport at that time and now to know that we’ve been honored by her foundation, they’re doing everything that Elizabeth was about and fighting for back then. The foundation is doing a wonderful job of providing so many different services for people who are living with HIV and AIDS and social justice.
You’re being honored for your work as an advocate for those with HIV and AIDS. When you announced your diagnosis over 30 years ago, how did you manage to share that with the world?
Magic Johnson: To have Cookie’s support, it made it easier for me to tell the world. I also had the support of Dr. Buss, the Lakers and also the NBA. Knowing that Cookie and I had our strong relationship, and also our faith too. Because Cookie and I pray. Cookie’s a prayer warrior — and I think that helped us too. God really blessed me. The medicine and the support of my beautiful wife. But also those people in the league in terms of Dr. Buss, the Lakers. They supported me then and Commissioner David Stern supported me.
To know that you have all the people, as well as my parents, and my brothers and sisters. I can’t tell you how much that meant, knowing that I had their support as well. That helped me to go do what I needed to do to be here a long time.
And Cookie – don’t give her a task. She’s a task master. She’ll make sure you take your meds, “you’re doing it? You need to go to the gym.” We laugh about taking vitamins, herbs, and my wife will research everything. Even today, she’s still making sure, and that’s why we’re together. We laugh about it, but it’s serious. I think that’s why I’m still here and let’s give all the doctors and scientists credit too. There was one drug at that time, now there’s almost 40.
I’ve had a positive mindset and attitude, because the only thing in life I wanted really was to be with Cookie forever, and hopefully see that we would have some grandchildren. Our son Andre has provided that for us. I want to walk my daughter Elisa down the aisle one day and hopefully that happens. I want EJ also to be married as well. That’s what we’re going for. So, when you think about me, I’m just happy. It’s been going on 32 years. My wife has been amazing. She’s educated a lot of women about how you support your husband or your boyfriend. She’s been on panels, talking about what she did for me, and how she stood strong. I’m really happy about the job that Cookie has been doing.
Cookie, you stood by Magic at such a tough moment in both of your lives. What went into that decision?
Cookie Johnson: It’s huge when a person is diagnosed, and they have the support system from their family. That the family is there to boost them up when they’re when feeling low, to make sure that they’re taking their meds, to make sure they’re eating healthy, getting their exercise. It’s a whole lifestyle and if your family is not on board, or if you don’t have a support system, it makes it a little bit harder. I think it also makes it a little lonely, and people can get depressed. It was so important that I was there for Earvin and supported him. And we learned about the disease together, we fought it together.
We had just gotten married, but we’d been together off and on for almost 12 years before we got married. So, I wasn’t going to just walk away. I loved him, number one. And because I loved him, I felt like, the first thing that was facing me was life or death. All the other stuff went out the window. To me, it was choose to stay with him to help him live, or leave him and watch him die. I loved him enough that I chose to stay and help him live and we figured it out together. Whatever we had to face, we were going to face it together. That was never an option to leave.
Holding on to my faith, knowing that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord, and believing in that, gave us the strength to carry on. From that day forward, the first thing we said was, okay, let’s learn as much as we can about that about this disease, and figure out how we can beat it because we were going to beat it. That was our option and that’s what we had in front of us because God does not just let you go away. I believed that he was going to be with us, strengthening us, guiding us. With that in mind, we went for it.
How did the diagnosis change you and your family’s lives?
Magic Johnson: The experience definitely made our love and our marriage stronger. We had another purpose in life. That purpose was to raise a lot of money for HIV and AIDS organizations. We also went out and educated our people because the Black and brown community – at that time, there were so many myths, so much misinformation out there. So Cookie and I just got out there and educated our Black and brown community and also raised money to care for people.
Like Magic said, there was a lot of misinformation back then surrounding HIV and AIDS. But in an age where many still don’t fully believe in modern science, what do you think of the progress we’ve made?
Magic Johnson: It’s a better climate, because there’s so many more great organizations who are jumping in the HIV and AIDS fight, and there’s so many great doctors and scientists who are trying to come up with a cure. As we continue this journey, we have a lot more people living. See, this is the thing that, to me, is very important. There are a lot of people living healthy lives now who got diagnosed just like me, 30 years ago 40 years ago, 20 years ago. That couldn’t happen back then because we didn’t have the drugs. We didn’t have the information on how to be here for a long time. A lot has changed for the good.
Cookie Johnson: It’s great to see the advancements we made, but I think because people are so healthy and living long lives on medication, the young people are not scared. And then they’re not taking the precautions they need to be taking. As a result, the numbers are starting to go up a little higher again, and they’re getting sick and not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.
I think the answer is to continue to educate. We don’t feel like, because this has been around for a long time and people know what it is, that we should be quiet and not address it. It needs to be talked about a lot more because I really believe that young people don’t feel that they they can die from this disease. They’re not afraid of it. And they’re not taking the precautions they need to take.
Magic Johnson: What we want is to continue to make sure we drive the numbers down. Then one day, hopefully, the doctors or the scientists can come up with a cure. But we want to make sure that Elizabeth’s legacy continues to live on, because of the great work that she did in this field. We will both be in our communities, as long as we can talk about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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