Entertainment

06.01.14

Pedro Zamora, a Hero in the Real World

Gay, HIV-positive, charming, and political: twenty years after the reality-TV pioneer Pedro Zamora’s death, his housemate Judd Winick recalls his cultural impact and a much-missed friend.

It doesn’t feel like 20 years, Judd Winick says, mulling his moment in reality TV’s limelight as a star of the San Francisco season of MTV’s The Real World in 1994; a moment when reality TV, while not pure and innocent as a lamb, was—in its infancy—not as shamelessly manipulated, cut, sliced, and diced as it is today.

And it was the season of Pedro Zamora, the young, gay, HIV-positive man, whose living with the disease on camera, humanly, day-to-day with housemates, helped shape a young generation’s more inclusive view of homosexuality and living with HIV and AIDS. Of all the Real World seasons, this remains an engraved pop-cultural memory—for Zamora, and for the conflict generated by messy, objectionable bicycle courier Puck, who the housemates ultimately grouped together to evict.

Bill Clinton once said that in Zamora, who died at age 22 a few months after taping ended, “young America saw a peer living with HIV.” Clinton said Zamora jolted people out of ignorance, and lived a life of “compassion and fearlessness.”

In 2014, this might sound grandiloquent and overstated, but in 1994 there were few openly gay men on TV, and few people with AIDS. Zamora was handsome, passionate, and used his time on The Real World to educate and agitate. He was an uncompromising political radical, he was looking for love, and he was funny. Zamora was one of modern TV’s first three-dimensional gay men: romantic, tough, funny, confrontational, and nobody’s victim.

Winick, who was the cute, straight, preppy one, still lives in San Francisco, and is a cartoonist who has just been commissioned to write a graphic novel series for children. He is married to housemate Pam Ling, who is a doctor (they have two children, aged 9 and 5). They fell in love in the house, and both became close friends of Zamora’s, were with him when he died, and still miss him hugely. 

“We were recently in a coffee shop and the barista said they recognized us,” he says. “We asked how old they were. Twenty-two! So they were 2 when it was on. They had streamed it online. Pam looks exactly the same, I’m older and balder. We haven’t let the kids watch ‘the show,’ as we call it,” but their 9-year-old knows enough to say, when people approach them, “Do you know them or are they fans?” Of Zamora, the children have always asked questions, which Winick and Ling try and answer as openly as possible.

The impact of Zamora was so pronounced because 20 years ago, “it was an entirely different universe” for people with HIV and AIDS, says Winick. “There was no combination drug therapy, some of the most ignorant bullshit was still being said: that you could get HIV from touching people, mosquitoes, and water fountains. It was the Dark Ages still.”

Winick said he was nervous going into the house: While it was “fairly insignificant” that Zamora was gay, his HIV status was—before the two became such good friends—concerning. In the first few days, Zamora let him and the housemates know they couldn’t become HIV-positive through tears, spit, and sneezing. “He knew what we were thinking,” says Winick. “Pedro was being Pedro, just not for us, but the millions watching.”

The face of AIDS, prior to Zamora, notes Winick, had been Ryan White, the Indiana teenager who became infected with HIV after a blood transfusion, “and on the news, all those men who were so skinny they looked like they’d been at Auschwitz, covered in KS lesions. Pedro looked like he’d stepped out of a soap opera: He was handsome, charming, funny, and passionate.”

Zamora had had a dramatic life up until appearing in the show. He had left Cuba, where he was born, aged 8 with his parents. The family settled in Florida. Zamora's mother died when he was 13. His father was supportive of him when he came out. At 17, Zamora was diagnosed HIV-positive, and even prior to appearing on The Real World had become a well-known and respected advocate and campaigner around HIV education. The producers had asked the housemates first how they felt about living with somebody who was HIV-positive, then that they would be living with somebody who was. Winick envisioned “a virus on two legs,” such as he had seen on the news, “but we ended up with Pedro. It was quite a transition. Within an hour he was my roommate, and within a week he was my friend. I could take the credit for being the liberal I always claimed to be, but I was 24 and still had a lot of blank spots. I was frightened by the idea of living with someone with HIV. Then, quickly, I just liked him, and then I was worried about his welfare, although he didn’t want us to feel that.”

I ask Winick if he felt the housemates were fairly portrayed. “It depends, some people got a raw deal, but Pedro was properly portrayed. Listen, it’s reality TV: They filmed 70 to 90 hours of TV a week, and boiled down to an episode of 22 minutes and 32 seconds. It was heavily edited for dramatic effect and story.” Winick laughs: Zamora would grow and shave his goatee—“he was even ahead on growing that”—unpredictably, causing a continuity nightmare, as reaction shots might be filmed after a particular incident had taken place. 

“For the most part, what you saw is fairly true. The minor quibbles we had about who said what in what sequence became really infinitesimal to the wider experience we were having," Winick says. The group moved out of the house in June 1994, Zamora was hospitalized that August and died in November, hours after the final episode of the show aired. 

Through filming the show, Winick and Ling became aware that Zamora was trying to use the show to raise big issues, “and we could help him by being his friend.” They accompanied him to talks he gave. “The experience of filming puts dog years on a relationship. I was falling in love with Pam, Pedro was my best friend. Everything is heightened, intense, you’re exhausted. There’s so much adrenaline. You’re always a little on your guard. And for Pedro the stakes were higher: He would let down his family, gay people, and people with AIDS.”

On the flipside, the housemates had fun. “He was really geeky like me," says Winick. "We both loved Star Trek a lot, he had no taste in music. He didn’t know Elton John’s ‘Rocket Man.’ I said to him, ‘Pedro, you’re going to meet him at one point. He has two spectacular songs, and this is three of them.’ Pedro also had this wonderful dark humor. He complained he was going to die of AIDS all the time. If I asked him to hold something, he’d say, ‘I’m standing here, dying of AIDS, and you’re making me exert myself. This is all going to be on your shoulders.’” Winick laughs. “They never showed that on TV.” 

I wonder if Winick got hit on by guys, because of his looks. “Yes, we’d go out clubbing, and I’d be very polite about it. Pam and Cory (Murphy, another housemate) could dance on the dance floor, but I’d get hit on even more if I did that. Pedro asked if I was OK getting hit on, and he’d tell the guys that I was with them.” He laughs. “I’d be more flattered if it happened now rather than then. I was younger and prettier—of course I got hit on.” 

As for the notorious Puck (real name: David Rainey), Zamora clashed with him over Rainey sticking his fingers in a jar of peanut butter after picking his nose; Rainey’s obnoxiousness and homophobia were also highlighted. “He was disgusting,” says Winick. “Didn’t wash. Puck didn’t enjoy having the focus taken away from him. He was louder, more vicious than any of us could take. Pedro had had it with Puck’s homophobic behavior. It bordered on the physical,” although, Winick says, “Pedro didn’t need protection from anybody. If anyone took Puck’s shit the least, it was Pedro.” The housemates asked Rainey to leave. “At the time it was like a mega-war had occurred.”

Watching Zamora fall in love with his then-partner Sean Sasser was significant. “Pedro told me it as his first adult relationship,” says Winick. “Sean was his intellectual equal. They were as happy as hell together. When they decided to have a commitment ceremony, this was long before gay marriage, so it was a pretty big deal. The crew [who were close to the housemates as they lived with them] were instructed not to cry. On Melrose Place there’d just been a scene where the gay character Matt was going to kiss another man, but the camera cut away at the last moment. On our show Pedro kissed all the time.” 

Knowing Zamora helped Winick become “the more open-minded person I wanted to be, just as the millions watching Pedro as a gay person, living with AIDS, changed minds. We got one old letter from an old conservative saying they couldn’t imagine Pedro going to hell for who he was.”

Zamora encouraged Winick to take on public speaking on HIV and AIDS. “I’m a very comfortable straight guy. I always knew who I was. It was very important to Pedro that I did this. He told me not to joke about being bisexual if anyone asked about my sexual orientation. He told me to tell them the truth—that I was straight, and this was proof that straight and gay men could get on together. ‘You’re my first straight friend,’ Pedro told me.” Zamora thought audiences would listen to Winick more precisely because he was a “white, straight, college boy.”

The phrase which always bothered Winick was that he and the other housemates had “accepted” Zamora, “when he was just our friend, and it’s a disservice to who he was.”

Sasser, who went on to become a pastry chef, while also working for youth and mentoring organizations, died last August, suddenly, aged 44. Winick says the cause was not HIV-related, but a particular kind of cancer caused by asbestos. He had been in a seven-year relationship, with his husband Michael Kaplan. They were foster parents to a 4-year-old girl. “Sean’s death was horrible. We’re not over it,” says Winick. “People’s reaction is, ‘Pedro and Sean will be in heaven.’ And we’re like, ‘Yeah, he had a husband and his life had moved on.’” Sasser himself had said that he knew his obituary would be: “Sean Sasser, partner of Pedro Zamora of The Real World.”

Winick and Ling still miss Zamora with a “sharp pang of grief.” His absence has been most obvious at his and Ling’s wedding, and when they had children. “I’d love him to meet them, and I would have loved to have met his children. I would have loved to have been at City Hall when our mayor, Gavin Newsom, went delightfully crazy [in 2004] and started marrying gay and lesbian couples. It’s becoming more obvious: We’re becoming older. I’m 20 years older than when I knew him, yet he’s stuck in this amber. I would have liked to know the men he became and the old man he became.”

Winick committed their friendship to a comic book in 2001, Pedro & Me: Friendship, Loss, And What I Learned. He’s consistently surprised by young people today finding and being moved by Zamora’s story.

People have thought Zamora was calculating in his crusading on TV, says Winick, “but he was still this 22-year-old kid from Miami. He really didn’t know he was going to die.” Zamora’s decline was brutal: He suffered from progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), which attacked the frontal lobe of his brain, and he lost his ability to speak, and then became progressively more confused. He was taken critically ill ill on a trip to New York, was hospitalized at St Vincent's, before being flown home to Miami. “He suffered badly, it was awful,” says Winick. “He withered away and died.”

Zamora never knew the effect he had had, says Winick, although before he died he was in preliminary discussions with MTV about hosting his own talk show, with Zamora keen not to be boxed into discussing HIV and AIDS every week, but youth and health more widely. 

After Zamora’s death, Winick spent a year and a half talking to and lecturing halls-full of people. “I wasn’t an AIDS advocate, there was a huge level of hypocrisy. I wasn’t positive, I wasn’t a gay man. I tried to be as honest as possible.” He laughs. “Pedro said, ‘They’ll come and listen to you ‘cos you’re on that damn show. They’ll ask you stupid questions about Puck, so let’s do this.’” But Winick found it didn’t get easier the more he spoke about Zamora—he just kept reliving the pain of the experience of losing him, so he stopped.

He doesn’t watch The Real World now: “I’m a 44-year-old dude. It would be a kind of creepy scenario.” But he and Ling do enjoy Top Chef and Project Runway, noting he and Ling are “an experts in the field” of reality TV’s manipulations.

When his Real World was shown in 1994, people yelled at him on the street, because the fledgling reality-TV genre was viewed with such distaste. Now, when he is recognized, it is invariably with affection and nostalgia. The honesty, as represented by Zamora in that early season, has never happened again on a reality show, he thinks. “Something amazing and enlightening and terrible and haunting happened in 1994, and that is why it has stood the test of time. I don’t think of Pedro as a hero, or AIDS activist, or as a ‘face’ of AIDS. He was our friend.”

I ask if Winick has a favorite memory of time spent with Zamora. There are too many, Winick says, although he eventually singles out “this perfect day when Pam, Cory, Pedro, and I went to Sausalito.” The group was with a director with a basic camera. “It felt like a real day. We bought candy necklaces, went to the aquarium, rode tandem bikes, and I was very conscious of, ‘We’re all friends here. This is great. I will know these people for the rest of my life.’” Winick pauses. “And I was right about most of that.”