Finding Prince Charming: Eric Leonardos Opens Up About Living with HIV for 10 Years
"I knew I was sharing a very deep part of myself," Eric Leonardos tells PEOPLE exclusively of his decision to go public with his HIV-positive status
Finding Prince Charming, Logo’s trailblazing all-gay dating show, created buzz from the moment it was announced, most notably when reports surfaced that one the show’s suitors would reveal to leading man Robert Sepulveda Jr. that he is HIV-positive.
Now that man is ready to get real.
Eric Leonardos, a 35-year-old celebrity hairstylist based in Los Angeles, tells PEOPLE exclusively about opening up to Sepulveda Jr. — and America — in Thursday’s episode, as well as how he hopes to use this platform to raise HIV awareness and how the reveal will impact his journey to find Prince Charming.
Let’s start at the beginning: When you heard that the show was in the works and started the application process, what were your original thoughts and intentions?
Going into it I decided I wanted to be my true, authentic self. I wanted to just be who I was and this is a part of who I am. It’s not the largest part of me, but it is a part of me, and I wanted to be open about it. Because this is a dating show, this is the appropriate time that this subject comes up in my life. It is the time that I usually share it with somebody, outside of, you know, people that I’m dating, and people that I’m close to in my life are the people that I share this with mostly. So I figured that this would be a time to come out.
This opportunity kind of fell into my lap. This year was a year of yes. I decided I was inspired to say yes to everything that scared me. And going on a reality show I can’t think of anything else that would scare me more than putting my life, who I am, my feelings, on the line. And that definitely scared me so I said yes to that. You know, I’ve been single for a few years now, I thought, Why not? Not a lot of people get an opportunity to pursue love in this way, so why not take a risk, take a chance and see what happens?
When you were getting closer to the reality of going on the show, did you ever have any doubts about revealing your status in such a public way?
Over the past five years I’ve become more and more confident and comfortable talking about this with people that may not be that close to me in order to share my experience with HIV, living with HIV and where I’m at today. I feel like sharing my story with the people around me is helpful. I really just want to be a service and be able to help people and use my experience for the greater good.
Going in to the show, did you have any sort of timeline in your head of when you would share with Robert or the others that you are HIV-positive?
I knew going in that the moment would present itself and it would be obvious to me. It’s up to me to be present, to be in the moment and realize that this is the right time to do that. When we were told about the masquerade party and the way that it was going to unfold and that we were going to reveal something about ourselves to Robert, I knew that this was the perfect moment for that. This definitely was one of those pivotal moments that sort of changed the course of my life.
As you headed into the night when you knew you were about to share this very personal news with everyone, where were you mentally?
I was nervous. I’m not going to lie. I was absolutely nervous. Mainly because I was sharing, I’m sharing this not only with Robert, I’m sharing it with my peers on the show, I’m essentially sharing this information with anybody who’s going to watch the show. I know this information. It was definitely something that was heavy on my mind. It’s definitely weighed on me, but I knew that I was doing the right thing.
That first moment when you realized that now everyone knows, this news is out — how did that feel?
It was very freeing. It was one of the most freeing moments I think I’ve ever experienced to have the people around me put their arms around me. I felt supported. What I do know about people living with HIV is that one of the most important things is to make them feel the love and support of the people around them and they apparently take better care of themselves and seek treatment and go through with that when they feel that sort of love and support, and so statistics show that people take better care of themselves when they feel supported by the people around them. For me I just felt really good. It was a beautiful moment.
And how did you feeling this would impact your relationship with Robert? How did you think he’d react?
I knew I was sharing a very deep part of myself with him. Anytime we share the deep parts of ourselves to anyone it allows us to get closer to them. For me, what I’ve understood is being open and vulnerable with people is the best way to relieve guilt and shame about certain things and in your lives, and it allows you to feel free and comfortable around people and to take just one more step to being your true, genuine, authentic self. That moment allowed me to do that with Robert and allowed me to feel closer with him and the other guys in the house.
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In a more general sense, we’re so many more representations of what it is to live with HIV and AIDS these days. Where you think you fit into that big picture?
We’re in such a different place, you know, HIV today isn’t what HIV was 20, 30 years ago. They’re very different places and today the thing that is the most meaningful to me is reducing the fear around HIV. It’s something to protect yourself from but it’s not something to be afraid of. And the stigma around people with HIV and AIDS is something I would love to see in my lifetime completely eradicated. People live normal lives today with it and people are able to have relationships and share themselves with people, and nobody should be limited to the experience of love based on a virus that they may have, a disease that they may have.
The call to action here really is that people need to go get tested and not be afraid to get tested. So many people don’t get tested for HIV and for other STD’s because they’re afraid of the result. And educating people is where it starts. If I’m able to share my experience, that’s one more person that’s able to come out and say, “Look at me. I have HIV. I am living my life to the fullest. It doesn’t hold me back for one bit. I’m happy. I’m joyous and free, and I’m achieving all the things that I want to achieve in my life.” The more and more that people can see people come out as HIV-positive and see the reaction to the people around them be positive and those people go public, wrap their arms around those people and show their support and support, the more it begins to diminish the stigma of HIV. Being able to do that. For people to be able to see that, that can change things.
Finding Prince Charming airs Thursdays (9 p.m. ET) on Logo.