Playboy centerfold turns AIDS activist

Former Playboy model Rebekka Armstrong discusses her journey of contracting and living with the HIV/AIDS virus as the keynote speaker for World AIDS Day in the Cavalla Room on Monday night.

By Lauren Santye

Imagine enjoying the celebrity lifestyle in Los Angeles that goes with being a successful Playboy model and having hundreds of people line up to get your autograph. Then one day, at 22 years old, all of that gets taken away by an HIV diagnosis.

This is what happened to Rebekka Armstrong, the former Miss September 1986 Playboy Playmate who on Monday night served as the speaker at Rider’s World AIDS Day event to spread AIDS awareness and talk about the importance of safe sex.

After she became Miss September, Armstrong explained how she stepped into fame but at the beginning of 1989, she noticed some changes. She was tired, her menstrual cycle was off and she was bruising easily. She went to the doctor to get checked out and had a variety of tests done, including a pregnancy test and an HIV test.

She didn’t think about it again, until she received a call one day from her doctor who said the test came back positive. Armstrong thought she was telling her that she was pregnant. Armstrong described how a flood of emotions came into her mind.

“Do I want to have a child right now in this stage of my life?” she thought. “Things are going so well for me, I’m on top of the world, I’m working constantly.” Armstrong’s doctor realized she didn’t understand what was said. “I am telling you that you are HIV positive,” her doctor told her. Initially, Armstrong was in shock and didn’t handle the news well.

“When she told me I was HIV positive I lost it,” Armstrong said. “The only thing I knew about HIV was death. I knew that I was going to die.” Armstrong initially didn’t tell anyone who wasn’t necessary about her condition because she was terrified of people not wanting to be around her and treating her like “toxic waste.”

For the first five years after her diagnosis, Armstrong was on a roller coaster ride with two sides of herself: one that was committed to getting well and being healthy and the other side of her that didn’t care. She was doing speed, drinking, heavily and partying all the time because she believed she was dying. She was frequently in the hospital for excruciatingly painful brain infections and for an intestinal tract infection.

Every time she went to the hospital she thought this might be the time she wasn’t going to come home.

During this point in her life, Armstrong said she was in a dark place. She felt she wasn’t good enough to be taken care of. “I knew what was in store for me, and I didn’t want to do that to my family,” she said. “I freaked out, and I wasn’t going to let the virus do that to me, so I was going to take my own life.” This led Armstrong to a dangerous decision that could’ve ended her life — her initial intention.

“I took a lot of drugs and washed them down with tequila and drove my car into a wall,” she said. This resulted in her entering a coma, which lasted three days. When she awoke, she remembers telling the doctors one thing. “I was begging them to please let me die,” she said. “They said, ‘We can’t do that.’” After this incident, she ended up wanting to turn her life around; she went public about her diagnosis in magazines and on television so she could make a statement.

“This can happen to you; this can happen to me,” she said. Her goal was to create awareness because when she was younger, there was no information or awareness about HIV. Armstrong stated that more than 1 million Americans are infected with HIV and the scariest part is that one in five are unaware that they have it. Her battle with the disease had not been easy though.

She went through tons of medications like AZT, DBI, Virasept and different “cocktails” of medicines like Crixivan.

Many of them resulted in serious side effects like severe weight loss, bad fevers, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, lesions, hair loss and burning of the hands and feet because of nerve damage from AZT. As of a year and a half ago she has been on a new drug, that makes her disease undetectable.

She has a full-blown AIDS diagnosis, but she looks healthy because of the medication, Armstrong said. “These are the many faces of AIDS,” she said. “I’m Rebekka and I have AIDS.” Armstrong also stressed the importance of safe sex and said a condom could have saved her life. Originally she was on the hunt to find the man who gave her HIV, but she eventually gave up that search. “I did this to me,” she said. “I’m HIV positive because of my own irresponsibility.”

Patrick Callahan, a junior elementary education and psychology major, attended the speech and felt Armstrong got her message across in an interesting way. “Rebekka did a great job,” Callahan said. “Throughout her speech you laughed, you cried and really got to follow her on her personal journey.” Armstrong said that HIV and AIDS are conditions that affect so many young people who need to be more aware of the risk that’s out there. “This is all of our disease, and it’s up to you to take care of you,” she said. “As far as my future’s concerned, I’m going down fighting.”


Printed in the 12/7/12 edition

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