HARLEM — As a hairdresser for the past 23 years, Rochelle Walters often develops very personal relationships with her clients. That's why she has no problems dishing out warnings about safe sex or the prospects of becoming infected with HIV/AIDS.
Now Walters is going to use her chair at Hair on Madison to officially spread information about HIV/AIDS as part of the Hairdressers Against AIDS campaign.
The program, sponsored by the L'Oreal Fondation D' Entreprise in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, is designed to help hairdressers speak to their clients about the disease.
"We become their confidants," said Walters. "They know we are not going to steer them wrong. We become the other doctor, giving them prescriptions of life knowledge."
Walters and other participating hairdressers will soon be handing out pamphlets with detailed information about prevention and testing.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined Assemblymen Robert Rodriguez, celebrity hairstylists and AIDS activists in Harlem on Thursday, for Worlds AIDS Day, to kick off the advocacy campaign's second year.
"We see our hairdressers more than anyone else. They know about our families, the birth of a child, our deepest, darkest secrets," said Christine Schuster, U.S. chair of Hairdressers Against AIDS.
Harlem Councilwoman Inez Dickens said she visits her hairdresser every 10 days but only sees her primary care doctor once per year. "They are our therapists. I talk to my hairdresser much more than I should," said Dickens.
Celebrity hairdresser Kimmi Hendrix, whose clients include Jennifer Hudson, Adam Sandler and Queen Latifah, said she's had both a client and close friend pass away from AIDS.
And when she told a friend and fellow stylist that she was participating in this initiative, the stylist told her for the first time that they had been living with HIV for 20 years.
"There is a regular dialogue about these issues that needs to take place and the salon is the best place for this conversation because when people walk out of the salon, the conversation continues," said Hendrix.
More than 1.2 million Americans have HIV/AIDS and about 20 percent of those infected are unaware of it. In the African-American community AIDS is the leading cause of death for women ages 25 to 34 years old.
Even as talk of a vaccine or cure increases, the HIV/AIDS epidemic is still wreaking havoc among black women. While women account for 1 of 4 new infections overall, African-American women make up two-thirds of new infections among women.
"It's the 'Not Me' syndrome," said Deborah Levine, vice president of community development for the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, Inc. "A lot of women think AIDS doesn't look like me or sound like me. I'm a better judge of character."
For Maria Davis, 51, a hip-hop promoter and HIV/AIDS activist who contracted the HIV virus 16 years ago from a heterosexual relationship, the campaign will address what she calls the "mental thing" surrounding HIV/AIDS.
"We have to get into their heads and figure out why they think HIV/AIDS is a disease they can't get or that they don't need to talk about," said Davis, who fell victim to the idea that she couldn't get the disease because she wasn't gay or an IV drug user.
"People need to understand that you don't have to be infected to be affected by this disease," said Davis.