Blair Underwood has been a strong ally and supporter of the fight against AIDS for more than 30 years. On December 1, the culmination of his work, passion and dedication will be recognized. Underwood is receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation‘s Worlds Aid Day Concert in Houston, Texas.
At his side will be his new wife, Josie Hart, whom he exchanged “I do’s” with this past June. Underwood, who has known Hart since he was 16, says it’s a love affair that was 43 years in the making.
“We lived separate lives, going in different directions on separate coasts. Then we found ourselves single, and I looked up and said, ‘Woman, maybe we should be together,’” Underwood declares to EBONY. “I call it an unexpected life plot twist. It’s a rare thing for that to happen. I feel so grateful that she came into my life this way as a romantic partner and now as my wife.”
Here, Underwood shares more about his work to end AIDS and the secret to finding love with a longtime friend.
EBONY: How does it feel to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award For World AIDS Day? I know this is a very important cause to your heart.
Blair Underwood: It’s amazing. When you try to give back in any way you can, you don’t look for awards. I usually avoid these types of things. But when it happens, it’s very nice. The way I was raised in the church, if you’re going to give back, you do it anonymously. Warren Buffett started a group a few years back with other billionaires to give away a portion of their wealth. But the impetus was to bring attention to their giving back and encourage other people to do it. That was my rationale when this opportunity was presented to me: to encourage and inspire others to do the same.
Why has the AIDS fight been such an important story for you?
I was co-founder of an organization called Artists for a Free South Africa to fight against apartheid back in 1989. Our mission initially was to put a focus on apartheid. When Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid was dismantled, our mission shifted to HIV and AIDS in Africa because it was running rampant. We focused on awareness and raising money for preventative measures. Because of that work, I was approached by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. My business partner, Gary Reeves, was the conduit between AHF founder Michael Weinstein and myself. They said, “You see the need in South Africa for this work, but we have that need here, right here in our backyard.” That was the catalyst for me. Back then, around 2009, statistics reported that AIDS was the number two leading killer of African American women. Having a daughter, sisters and beautiful Black women in my life, it just resonated with me. If I could further this work back home, why not? We ended up doing a three-year awareness campaign. We had a mobile van where people could be tested for HIV. Magic Johnson had one as well, so people started asking me, “Do you have HIV?” I said, “No. But that’s not the point. You don’t have to have HIV to be able to help or want to help in this cause.”
The AHF Blair Underwood Healthcare Center in Washington, D.C., has been going strong since 2009. What are some of the major milestones that have come out of its past 14 years?
In D.C., the Black population is disproportionately impacted by HIV. Around 71 percent of people living with HIV in the city are Black. And many new HIV diagnoses in the area are Black. The AHF clinics are amazing because you can get treatment and medication regardless of your ability to pay. It’s an incredible opportunity for people to care for themselves and have a better way of life in Chocolate City. We expanded a few years ago. When he first approached me, Michael asked, “Can we add your name to the clinic to bring awareness and attention?” And I said, “Absolutely.”
Have you started to think about what you’ll say when you receive the award?
We’re in Houston, Texas, another city with a disproportionate number of African Americans with HIV and AIDS. And it’s mostly women. My family is coming in; I live in Utah with my wife and our kids. It will be a great time to talk about where we are and how far we’ve come with World AIDS Day and AIDS awareness and preventative measures. So yeah, I’ll say a few words. And Debbie Allen is going to say a few words. She is one of my favorite people. She’s supported me in my career from the jump, so I deeply appreciate that.
Janet Jackson is headlining this World AIDS Day concert. Which of her iconic songs would you love to see her perform?
Oh, man, “Control,” of course. That’s going to turn the place out! I saw her in concert at the Kentucky Derby last year, and she puts on an amazing show. I’m so excited that Janet agreed to do this show for us.
You are a newlywed! How are you settling into married life? Are you doing date nights? Home renovation? What’s happening in this first year?
All of the above, and a lot of travel. My wife lived in Utah for about ten years. I moved here about a year ago when we started dating and got engaged. And I love it. We love to travel. We have nine adult kids between us: her six, my three. Our kids are grown, so we got time on our hands. We married in the Dominican Republic and went on our honeymoon in Thailand. Every chance we get, we’re on a plane somewhere.
Are there any places you’re looking forward to visiting?
I’ve had the chance to work in South Africa and go to Africa at least eight times in my career. She’s never been. So I want to take her to Africa. She’s Trinidadian and I’ve never been to Trinidad. We’re going there in December. And then Africa. I have a whole bucket list of everywhere I haven’t been. That’s where we want to go.
What advice do you give to finding love with a longtime friend?
When I divorced, my son said, “Listen, man, you’ve been married 27 years. Don’t you want to go out and date? Maybe you should date some celebrities.” I said, “Hold up, hold up. Is that for my good or yours?” He admitted it was for him! But what I realized even before Josie was my wife, before we even started dating, is that you have to be open to it. Going through a divorce, there’s a lot of uncertainty that you’re facing; it can be scary. Anybody who’s been through it can understand that. But be open. What helped me get through life is to be hopeful and faithful and know it’s in God’s hands.
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