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March 25, 2011

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First star to speak out on AIDS

ELIZABETH Taylor was as well known for her AIDS advocacy as she was for her acting. She was the first celebrity to speak out on the mysterious and socially divisive disease in the 1980s, calling for research, compassionate care and an end to discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS.

"I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything," Taylor once recalled. "And then I realized that I was just like them. I wasn't doing anything to help."

She got involved with AIDS activism in 1985 and worked tirelessly to raise money and awareness for the rest of her life, said Craig Thompson, executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, where Taylor held early fundraisers for AIDS research.

"There have been a lot of incredible warriors in the fight, but she will stand for history on a podium above everyone else," he said, adding that Taylor had seen firsthand how her friend, Rock Hudson, had lost his battle with AIDS.

In 1985, when the government had done little to educate people about the disease and nurses were afraid to deliver food trays to AIDS patients in hospitals, Taylor, along with a group of physicians, helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).

"This was long before celebrities routinely performed or worked with charities ... and the cause she selected was a disease Americans were frightened about," Thompson said. "It wasn't just as if she took the risk of attaching her celebrity status to a cause. She picked the most controversial cause at the time. But she said, 'I have friends who are dying and I have to do something, and what I can do is help raise money and help raise awareness'."

Taylor, as chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, visited Capitol Hill to demand that the government live up to its promise to spend nearly US$1 billion a year to help people with AIDS.

When she testified on Capitol Hill, every senator showed up. The rooms were packed and people were spellbound.

"She connected HIV and AIDS to a generation that felt itself immune, the over-50 folks. Because Elizabeth Taylor was talking about it, people like my mother were reading about HIV and AIDS," said Thompson.

Taylor put a public - and beloved - face on the disease at a time when most Americans thought of HIV/AIDS as something that didn't affect them.

Magic Johnson, who put his own face on the disease when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, tweeted his gratitude to Taylor. "Elizabeth, thank you for all your help in the battle for HIV and AIDS," he wrote. "You will be missed by the world."

In 1991, the actress founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which has given more than US$12 million to US organizations providing direct care and services to people living with the disease.

Elton John praised his fellow AIDS advocate and entertainer as "a Hollywood giant ... and an incredible human being."

"She earned our adoration for her stunning beauty and for being the very essence of glamorous movie stardom," John said, "and she earned our enduring love and respect for her compassion and her courage in standing up and speaking out about AIDS when others preferred to bury their heads in the sand."

Liz liked to marry - 8 times

OF her eight marriages, Elizabeth Taylor once said, "I was taught by my parents that if you fall in love, if you want to have a love affair, you get married.

"I guess I'm very old-fashioned."

All but one marriage ended in divorce: her marriage to Michael Todd. (Dates are for final divorce decrees.)

Conrad Nicholas "Nicky" Hilton, hotel heir 1950-51: "Dazzled by his charm and apparent sophistication, driven by feelings that could not be indulged outside of marriage, desperate to live a life independent of my parents and the studio, I closed my eyes to the problems and walked radiantly down the aisle. Before our honeymoon was over, my eyes were opened."

Michael Wilding, actor, 1952-57: "Michael Wilding was a wonderful man and I loved him dearly. Our friendship continued until his death several years ago, but in the '50s the strains on our marriage were too much. We were so very different."

Michael Todd, producer, 1957-58: "He was 25 years my senior and eternally young. I could hardly keep up with him. He was the most energetic man I've ever known and he made our short 18 months together one of the most intensely glorious times of my life ... I have had two great loves in my life. Mike Todd was the first."

Eddie Fisher, singer, 1959-64: "He and Mike had been good friends and it was natural we should comfort each other ... In hindsight, I wasn't thinking straight. I thought he needed me and I needed him. The press made much of Eddie's leaving his wife, Debbie Reynolds, but their marriage troubled long before I hit the scene."

Richard Burton, actor, 1964-74; 1975-76: "Since I was a little girl, I believed I was a child of destiny, and if that is true Richard Burton was surely my fate. Certainly for a very long time he was my life. Despite what the press wrote at the start of our affair, I never regretted a moment of it."

The Vatican denounced their unmarried cavorting as "caprices of adult children."

John Warner, 1976-82: "Our first year of marriage was spent on the intimate, challenging high of campaigning together for one goal - his Senate seat. I cannot tell you how happy and proud I was of him ... yes, and of myself."

Larry Fortensky, construction worker, 1991-1997: "Life is good and sweet and we love each other and each day as it comes, and we want to share our happiness with family and friends. I always said I would get married one more time and with God's blessings, this is it, forever."


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