Magic Johnson estimates that he receives between 300 and 500 requests each year from organizations across the United States with offers to honor him or his family. He turns down almost all applications except the one he received this year from the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
The organization rolled out the red carpet for Magic and wife Cookie Johnson to receive top honors at the Elizabeth Taylor Ball to End AIDS, a black-tie event held Thursday evening at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The couple appeared alongside their children Andre, EJ and Elisa, and mingled with close friends and celebrity couples such as Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, with the latter couple taking on the task of presenting the event.
Magic added that while he agreed to take the stage, he also had a few conditions for the program, such as A-list entertainment and electric vibes. ETAF officials and party planners also succeeded by bringing Gladys Knight to close out the evening and installing a dance floor in the ballroom located directly in front of the stage. Magic and Cookie got the party started by having a private couple dance while being serenaded by the legendary singer.
Long before that happened, the Johnsons walked the red carpet where the NBA great took a few minutes to chat The Hollywood Reporter about the quality time he spent with Taylor in the early 1990s. During a press conference on November 7, 1991, Magic revealed that he was HIV positive, and coincidentally that same year, Taylor launched her foundation with a focus on fundraising and fighting for a cure. The two joined forces in the mid-1990s by sharing the stage at Macy’s Passport, an event that was a high-profile fundraiser on the social calendar for years.
“Elizabeth and I co-hosted or chaired the event for what must have been five or six years in a row,” Magic said. “We raised a lot of money and the fashion show was always incredible. Every year we had the top models, so it was just a great event.” As for the bond he shared with the late actress and activist, Magic noted, “We shared a love for creating change and raising awareness. We both understood that the disease needed our faces, our platforms and also our hearts. That said, we were able to provide that.”
Thursday evening’s program – supported by Gilead Sciences and Bulgari – also featured a live auction in collaboration with Christie’s and auctioneer Brett Sherlock, and a guest list that also included ETAF Ambassador Paris Jackson (Taylor’s goddaughter who arrived at the event with a Doberman bandana-wearing Doberman). Pinscher named Koa), Rick and Kathy Hilton, Jennifer Tilly, Dancing with the stars pro Gleb Savchenko and others.
As part of the tribute to the Johnsons, Vance read a letter from former President Barack Obama recalling the impact they had on the public’s perception of the disease. “They didn’t just help raise research dollars or inform the public. They have pushed us to think in a whole new way about a condition that affects millions of people around the world – changing attitudes with the kind of grace and encouragement that only true leaders can show,” Obama wrote. “It was the same grace and courage that Elizabeth Taylor displayed when she became the first globally recognized HIV and AIDS activist. Work that is done in so many ways by the foundation that bears her name. Magic’s pragmatic, optimistic approach to his diagnosis ultimately changed the way the world viewed the disease.”
During his time on stage, Magic also reflected on how far they had come. “When I think back to my journey 32 years ago, when people say I wouldn’t be here, it’s companies like Gilead and others that provided (an opportunity). Back then there was only one drug, but the blessing is that now there are more than 40. We have made great progress. Now we can eat and talk openly about HIV and AIDS, where that was not possible at the time.”