'Top' designer tells housemates he has HIV
By Gary Strauss, USA TODAY
Tonight's episode of Bravo's new Top Design competition (10 ET/PT) offers a rare moment for reality TV: A cast member discloses that he is HIV-positive.
John Gray, whose temper-filled outbursts caused friction among the competing interior designers on Top Design's debut last week, reveals his anger was fueled by medication used in his treatment.
"I just want everyone to know I'm HIV-positive," Gray tells his fellow contestants. "I'm not making excuses or apologies."
The burly Gray's macho posturing and outbursts may have sparked tension last week on the show, which was Bravo's highest-rated series premiere ever at 1.8 million viewers. But his comments tonight barely cause a reality-show ripple among the group, who share a dorm-style hotel for 10 weeks.
"Everyone was shocked by John's behavior the first few days," says rival Carisa-Perez Fuentes, 26.
After his disclosure, "there was some heightened understanding of his behavior. Relationships changed for the better. And he mellowed out."
Gray, 40, is a homosexual who was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1993. (Those who are infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, don't necessarily have the disease.)
The late Pedro Zamora, an AIDS educator, was the only other reality-show contestant to reveal he was HIV-positive. That was on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco in 1994, a time when misconceptions were pervasive. His status caused upheaval and angst among his housemates.
"Times have changed," says Top Design executive producer Clay Newbill, who coincidentally was a Real World producer during Zamora's season.
"Back then, society's understanding was different. We saw it as an opportunity to educate people."
Gray says he's not on a similar mission: "I don't want to be the new face for HIV or be on the cover of Out. I felt the cast was entitled to an explanation for my behavior."
Still, advocacy groups applaud his move. Damon Romine of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation says, "This visibility is important in raising awareness that HIV is a major health issue."
Gray told producers of his condition during casting; producers say there were no plans to disclose it.
"This isn't a relationship show, so it wasn't an issue," Newbill says.
Gray says his anger was fueled by testosterone taken to counteract lower levels induced by HIV. His dosage was boosted 400% just before the show started because he wasn't sure how long he'd be away from home. "After the first episode, I asked myself why I was so angry, and it was a light-bulb moment," says Gray, a self-taught designer who operates Chicago-based Gray Consulting.