April 07, 1997 12:00 PM

THERE IS A WAVE OF ADOLESCENT chatter as Rebekka Armstrong, a onetime Playboy centerfold, takes the stage at an assembly of Lawrence Academy prep school students near her home in Groton, Mass. But within minutes the racket has turned to uneasy silence. The students have heard the safe-sex message before, but this time they know it comes with an urgency. Once a picture of sexual allure, Rebekka Armstrong is now a symbol of erotica’s dark side. This former Playmate has AIDS.

For a time following her discovery in 1989 that she was HIV-positive, Armstrong was consumed by despair and self-pity, drinking and using drugs with the abandon of someone who wanted to die. Finally she tried to kill herself outright—and failed. But as many would-be suicides do, she found in that moment of failure a reason to go on living. For the past two years she has been fighting her illness on two fronts—defending her health through aggressive drug therapy and campaigning to warn teens against making the same mistakes that may yet cost her her life. “I think it helps me more than them,” says Armstrong, 30. “When you say, ‘I have AIDS,’ it’s such a powerful thing. With the positive response everywhere I go, I’m really fortunate.”

Fortunate in a different way, certainly, than that day 10 years ago when Armstrong, still a teenager herself, realized a childhood dream by becoming Playboy‘s September 1986 Playmate—blonde, busty and, but for a gauzy swatch of white lace, nude. The exposure paid dividends. Modeling, Playboy videos and roles in a few low-budget films brought her a $100,000 annual income, a beach house in El Segundo, Calif., and a loaded Ford Mustang convertible.

Then she learned she had contracted HIV, and within three and a half years she had full-blown AIDS. Weakened by recurring infections and numbing her anguish with drugs and alcohol, she was scarcely in condition to work. She lost her house and her car, and for months, keeping her illness secret, lived with a succession of friends. The future, it seemed, was unendurably—and unalterably—grim.

“I said, ‘What am I doing here, anyway?’ ” Armstrong recalls. And so, one day in 1993, she took all the pharmaceuticals she had in her possession—cocaine, Demerol, Prozac and the AIDS drugs AZT and ddi—”washed everything down with a bottle of tequila” and drove her rented car at low speed into a brick wall. Having sustained only minor damage to her vehicle, she pulled away, drove another two miles, stopped in a parking lot and called a male friend. The man found Armstrong unconscious, then drove her to a hospital. Her stomach was pumped, and, after 36 hours in a coma, she awoke. It was then that she made the choice to live—and bring some good out of her illness. “It took me hitting rock bottom,” Armstrong says, “to decide, ‘Well, I’ve got to do something.’ ”

Armstrong, who grew up in the Mojave Desert town of Ridgecrest, Calif., had discovered Playboy as a tomboy looking over her paternal grandfather’s back issues. Entranced by the flawless naked women—”They were like these classy angels,” she recalls—Armstrong told her divorced parents, Dan, a welder, and Milela, a secretary, that she longed to be one of them. Her mother was supportive. “Nudity was nothing that was ever vulgar to me,” says Milela, 47, who sometimes double-dated with her teenage daughter. Dropping out of high school during her senior year, Armstrong soon moved into a trailer with her boyfriend (she contracted HIV, she believes, either during a fling with a bisexual model or an earlier blood transfusion during minor surgery), and clung to her Playboy dream. “The day I turned 18,” she recalls, “I said, ‘Oh, boy, I’m old enough.’ ”

A year and a half later that dream had come true, and she found herself rubbing buff shoulders with Hollywood stars at Playboy Mansion parties while straining to live up to her image with boyfriends. “You make sure—this is embarrassing—that your performance is above average,” she says. To keep her weight down, Armstrong took speed, eventually becoming addicted.

In August 1989, fatigued and experiencing irregular menstrual cycles, she visited her doctor. “At the very last second, I said, ‘Give me one of those HIV tests,’ ” she recalls. A week later she got the results. “I literally hit the floor. I just started crying.”

The next few years were harrowing. As her immune system began to fail, she survived pneumonia and meningitis as well as bladder, kidney and brain infections. When she wasn’t in the hospital, Armstrong lost herself in liquor and speed. “I was just partying my ass off, because I was gonna die,” she says. She failed to show up for some appearances and photo shoots, and finally the phone stopped ringing. “I started sleeping in backyards and garages,” Armstrong says. “I didn’t even have the money to buy a cup of coffee.” Yet through it all, she hid her homelessness from her parents and brother Dan. “She didn’t want us to see her deteriorating,” says her mother. “I didn’t know what she had gone through until after she tried to commit suicide.”

After that, Armstrong, helped by friends and a couple of AIDS groups, gradually pulled herself together. In 1994 she went public with her disease, in a cover story for the gay magazine The Advocate billed as “Portrait of an HIV-Positive Lesbian Centerfold.” Armstrong, who had begun dating women in 1991, then described herself as bisexual. But two years ago she met aspiring recording engineer Joe Shea at an L.A. bar, and her lesbian liaisons ended. “He’s incredibly warm and giving. Even after I told him [I had AIDS], he stuck right next to me.” After a 10-month courtship they married, then moved to his family’s 18th-century house in Massachusetts. “A lot of people would have walked away,” says Shea, 25, who is HIV-negative. “But I’m not a lot of people.”

It has been more than two years now since Armstrong resolved to take her cautionary tale to teenagers. After an initial visit to a Ridgecrest high school, arranged by Dan, 26, a supermarket checker, she has made appearances in California and New England. “Every time I call now, she’s happy,” says Dan. Though she tires easily, she carries 130 pounds on her 5’8″ frame, 30 more than at the nadir of her illness, and AIDS drugs are sustaining her T-cell count. Meanwhile, Armstrong’s newfound sense of mission—”my definite cure,” she calls it—sustains her spirits. “Sure, there are things I wish I hadn’t done,” she reflects. “But why waste time saying, ‘Oh, God, if only I had done it this way?’ It’s better for me to just make my future better than my past was.”

RICHARD JEROME
STEPHEN SAWICKI and TOM DUFFY in Groton

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