Actress Taraji P. Henson has never shied away from a worthy cause, and she has always been ready to fight for what she believes is right. Not only has that worked out well for her, but it is also paying off for those living with HIV/AIDS.
Vocal on such varied topics as equal pay for women, police brutality and animal cruelty, the critically acclaimed actress is also lending her voice and her star power to efforts to raise awareness about HIV and to help those affected by it.
Best known for the larger-than-life character of Cookie Lyon that she plays on the Fox television series “Empire,” Henson strikes just as powerful a figure, when she is offscreen. Like Cookie, Henson is passionate about what she believes in. This year she proudly unveiled her line of fuchsia lipsticks as part of cosmetic giant MAC’s Viva Glam campaign, which has raised money for HIV/AIDS awareness since 1994. One hundred percent of the proceeds from Henson’s line of lipsticks will go to the cause. “The best part of the Viva Glam campaign for me is that all the money helps someone who’s living with HIV and AIDS have a better life,” Henson says.
Henson has also been vocal about homophobia in the Black community, which contributes to stigma and is a major deterrent to HIV testing and treatment. When “Empire” received criticism for daring to showcase a gay character, Jamal Lyon, played by Jussie Smollett, in one of the lead roles, Henson came to the show’s defense. She told “People” magazine: “People are dealing with this, it’s not a joke; that’s why it’s in the script. It’s not for show, it’s not for sensationalism. It’s because people are struggling with this. And that’s why we shed light on it. You can’t make everybody happy; we don’t try to. We just try to touch and affect lives, and I think we have. We’re always going to have haters, so here’s to all my haters! I’ll send you cookies, thanks.”
Shrugging off haters is nothing new for Henson. When she became pregnant in college at Howard University, people told her she wouldn’t graduate, but she proved them wrong and walked across the stage to collect her diploma with her son on her hip.
Later, when she moved to California at the age of 26 as a single mom with $700 in her pocket, people told her she couldn’t succeed as an actress, because she was too old. Luckily, she tuned them out. “If you listen to people and you let people project their fears onto you, you won’t live,” she says.
An authentic journey to stardom
It’s that take-no-prisoners attitude that fueled Henson’s success, when she left behind her native Washington, D.C., to become one of the most celebrated actresses in Hollywood. She’s received a Golden Globe Award and three BET Awards for best actress for her work on “Empire.” She also received an NAACP Image Award for outstanding actress for her portrayal of mathematician Katherine Johnson in the film “Hidden Figures.” Other movies Henson is known for include “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Hustle & Flow” and “No Good Deed.”
As impressive as she is in her field, Henson is just as respected for the moves she is making when she is not on camera. In 2016 Henson was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine. Empire co-creator Lee Daniels has called her “the modern-day Bette Davis, touching audiences with her honesty and intensity.” She is also the author of an autobiography, “Around the Way Girl,” in which she details how she has managed to stay true to herself throughout her rise in Hollywood.
Henson’s collaboration with MAC for the Viva Glam campaign is not the first time she has lent her voice to the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 2015, she became an ambassador for Alicia Keys’ charity Keep a Child Alive, which also raises awareness about HIV.
In an interview with Black Entertainment Television, Henson explained why she feels so compelled to lend her star power to educating the Black community about HIV/AIDS. “So many people believe that HIV/AIDS is no longer because of the amazing medications and advancements in preventing and treating the disease,” she told BET. “But I want people to know that we cannot become complacent or have a lazy attitude because it’s still affecting people today—especially African Americans.”
Tamara E. Holmes is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist who writes about health, wealth and personal growth.