Pedro Zamora appeared on the third season of MTV’s “The Real World” in 1994, and he’s still arguably the show’s best-known alumnus. Zamora was an AIDS activist and the first HIV-positive man to appear on a television series. By the time he died, on the day after his final “Real World” episode aired, he had become the public face of the disease—toward the end, President Clinton even called to offer moral support. So it’s no surprise that MTV has decided to bring Zamora back, in a sense, from the dead. He showed up recently on “The Real World: Brooklyn” (the 21st season) when this year’s cast was given the job of staging a screening for MTV’s upcoming biopic “Pedro.” Never mind the shamelessness of the cross-promotion—what was really sad was that when it came time for the “Pedro” screening, almost no one showed up.
And the world could use another Pedro Zamora right now. HIV prevention has dropped off the cultural radar in recent years, thanks in large part to the medical advances that have occurred since Zamora’s death. There’s no shortage of gay characters on reality TV or scripted dramas, but not many bring up HIV. It’s hard to name a mainstream movie in the past decade in which a character dies of AIDS. The producers of “Project Runway” hid the HIV status of one of their 2007 contestants, Jack Mackenroth, until he was rushed to the hospital because of a staph infection. After he revealed his condition, he never returned to the show. It’s all too clear that the silence is becoming deadly once again. A report from the New York Department of Health found that HIV infections among gay men under the age of 30 rose 33 percent from 2001 to 2006. This month a study found that 3 percent of residents in Washington, D.C., have HIV or AIDS, which makes the virus more common there than in West Africa. Just last week during a trip to Africa, Pope Benedict said that condom use actually “increases the problem” of AIDS.
“Pedro” could have been just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, the movie is so dull and disease-of-the-week derivative, it’s not likely to have much of an effect beyond putting people to sleep. The film starts with Pedro’s audition tape for “The Real World”—there’s a lot of “Real World” on display—before flashing back to his journey from Cuba and through the rest of his short life, which ended when he was only 22. Alex Loynaz, the actor playing Pedro, has the thankless task of re-creating verbatim some of the memorable scenes from “The Real World.” The screenplay, by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), never teaches us anything about Zamora that you couldn’t learn from his Wikipedia entry. The power of Pedro’s story was its rawness and how “real” it really felt. We watched him go from gorgeous to gaunt, from a TV star to a powerful voice for HIV awareness, and beyond. His wedding to his HIV-positive partner, also broadcast on TV, was the first time most ’90s teens saw two men kiss. When MTV showed his coffin being carried across a graveyard, he became a martyr. Zamora lobbied on Capitol Hill many times. During a 1993 trip to Washington he said, “Since I was 18 years old I’ve been doing education across the country. I remember when I started doing it, how angry I was. I promised myself never to stop. Now I spend more and more time worrying about my doctor’s appointments.” He fought back tears, and he continued, “I wonder now as I look around me who’s going to pick up my torch.” Sadly, we’re still wondering.