Her story is one shared by countless Black women: her man tested positive for HIV/AIDS. But unlike most women, her man is world-famous with legions of loyal fans who all know: Magic Johnson has HIV.
Cookie Johnson was in their living room when her husband walked in and broke the news. At first she thought she’d misunderstood him or her mind was playing tricks on her. He couldn’t have the AIDS virus. Not now. Not one month after their wedding. Not when AIDS was still a mysterious and deadly virus. Not when she was pregnant with their son, Earvin III.
In the subsequent days before the basketball legend’s televised press conference in 1991, Cookie discouraged her husband from going public. “I tried to stop him,” she admits. “I told him, ‘we can handle this on our own’.”
But the all-star Los Angeles Laker, who was in the midst of a new basketball season, had a different perspective. He explained to her, “I have to go public. I have to save as many lives as I can.”
After that fateful day, Cookie chose to stay in the background and let her famous husband do the talking. After all, she freely admits, she’s somewhat shy and terrified of public speaking. Then, a few years ago, an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show changed everything for the Michigan State graduate and former buyer for a Toledo department store. On the show, a young Black woman was told by a doctor that she had AIDS. “What is it?” asked the young woman, who went on to explain that she was only six years old when Magic Johnson made his announcement.
Cookie had heard enough. She knew it was time to forget about her shyness, emerge from the shadows of the struggle and become a major force for change. “A lot of people still think they’re not going to be infected and don’t have to worry about it,” she says. “Since Oprah, I decided to go out and speak to Black women. I want to empower women to take an active role in their relationships and make sure that they are practicing safe sex.”
To that end, Cookie became involved in I Stand with Magic, part of the Campaign to End Black HIV/AIDS by the Magic Johnson Foundation and Abbot. With a commitment to providing communities with information and resources, I Stand With Magic empowers Blacks with education and awareness in the critical areas of protection and prevention, regular testing and available treatment. As its first spokeswoman, Cookie is instrumental in the five-year effort to help reduce new HIV infections in the Black community by educating minority women about the disease. “Mothers need to talk to daughters,” she says. “Fathers need to talk to sons, churches need to talk to their communities. Everybody has got to get involved. People are not protecting themselves, people are not getting tested. They still think: not me.”
This honoree knows better. “I don’t have HIV, but I live with someone who has HIV,” she tells her audiences. Sometimes, those audience members are college students, like a debutante at Spellmen who was the perfect model child until her first sexual encounter. Now, that debutante stands with Magic. “Many people still think you have to be a prostitute on the corner to get it.”
Cookie is determined to make sure her three children are not as ignorant. “I explain the whole thing to them,” she says. “I explain that it’s a preventable disease and that anyone can contract it. I also try to teach them that they should wait to get married first before having sex, but if you do have sex, be responsible.”
The shy woman has found her powerful voice. Her family benefits and so does the entire world. Cookie intends to step up her efforts to speak out and empower more women, all while raising her kids and working on a new line of jeans for women with curves. “As Black women, many of us don’t have the self-esteem we need,” she says, then describes a common scenario where a dominant male doesn’t want to use condoms and a subordinate woman doesn’t want to lose her man by saying no. “Women need to be clear: unless there’s protection, there’s no sex. If you lose him because he doesn’t want to wear a condom, he’s not good enough for you in the first place.”
It’s a message Cookie eagerly shares with Black women. She also encourages others to look at HIV/AIDS care and prevention in a whole new light. “We took it on as a family,” she says. For the Johnsons, that meant all of them developing healthy habits and attitudes. “As a mother and a wife, I take care of my family. If Earvin needs to eat healthy, we all eat healthy and live healthy.”
Cookie Johnson has come a long way from the nervous new bride who wanted to hide from the world spotlight. Her children are all HIV-negative like her and her husband has changed the course of the world history of HIV/AIDS. Still, she insists, her family is like any other. The basketball legend has to pick up his clothes and take out the trash like everyone else. The only difference is now both husband and wife are saving as many lives as they can.