Mark King whose business card reads "Writer. Blogger. Ginger." has always been a redhead but not always so healthy, enthusiastic and entertaining.
"Someone stepped in and helped me out. I was not capable of getting that needle out of my arm on my own. I'm the one who wouldn't leave the dance floor. I'm the one who couldn't get enough of anything. I tried every new drug that came along. I brought that attitude into my new life. Now I can't get enough of the good stuff."
I got an earful of both the good stuff and the bad during my visit to the waterfront Victoria Park home he shares with Ben, his partner of ten years and an executive in a biotech company.
(This profile appeared earlier this week in South Florida Gay News.)
You may know Mark from the videos he produces for TheBody.com, the most comprehensive HIV/AIDS resource on the web, where he is consistently ranked among their most viewed pages. You may also know him as the author of A Place Like This, an autobiography about his crazed years as an actor and owner of a phone sex company, Telerotic, in Los Angeles.
Mark reports that in six years he handled 30,000 calls from men seeking phone sex. By using his performing skills and his abilities as a manipulator, he brought those calls to a satisfying conclusion in an average of 13 minutes. As we laughed about the fact that many would consider that timeframe not objectionable for even real sex, I began to understand the irresistible humor of a man who has not just survived his tribulations but has transformed them into the inspiring and funny venture MyFabulousDisease.com that he launched just seven weeks ago.
Not everyone appreciates his black humor. He has been receiving some email from angry people who are shocked that he would call HIV fabulous or that he would be thankful for being HIV positive.
"AIDS has been normalized for me. I take two big handfuls of pills a day and I say 'Thank you, God'. My motor is gratitude not resentment. I'm happy to be here. That's just another perq of HIV. I guess some people are not ready for comedy writing about HIV."
Mark was born in 1960, a military brat whose family's last stop was Shreveport, Louisiana. He attended school in New Orleans, Houston and Atlanta before moving to Los Angeles at the age of 20 to continue his successful career as a boyish actor featured in many fast food commercials.
"I was your basic young self-centered pretty boy in West Hollywood doing a lot of coke."
Mark had always been interested in writing, and particularly enjoyed crafting the print ads for the phone sex business he started when he was 26. He is especially proud of catchy creations such as 'Telerotic - our men know you like the palm of your hand." and "Speak now or forever hold your piece."
His written commentary about HIV brought him to the attention of TheBody.com. Realizing the potential of his acting skills, they sent him a video camera and suggested he use it to talk about HIV. His camera work has taken him well beyond HIV and has resulted in fame for his alter-ego, Anita Mann, whose hilarious video rendition of "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" is a must-see Youtube classic.
Mark tested positive for HIV in 1985, in the same month the test became available to the public. A friend who worked in a Los Angeles medical lab secretly got him tested after hours. Mark guesses that he was probably infected with the virus soon after moving to Los Angeles at the age of 20.
In those days, men died of AIDS rapidly, often before their friends even knew they were ill. Mark got tired of spending his days having sex conversations with clients and watching all his friends die, so he ended his phone sex business and went to work for a local AIDS organization.
"Much to my surprise, I didn't die. Then, in the mid 90s, came the protease inhibitors. I realized I would survive and my reaction was to become a crystal meth addict. This is actually not that unusual a reaction for men like me.
"When Ben and I met ten years ago, we had what I like to call 'sex before eye contact'. Fortunately for Ben he's never done any of the drugs, but that made it easy for me to manipulate and lie to him. I'd say 'Honey I'm going out to Home Depot' and then I'd go shoot crystal and come home and pretend to be straight."
They separated and Mark went through a recovery process that eventually brought them back together.
"I knew I could not be here under the same terms and conditions as before. I took a lot of time before I came back. I needed to have a new purpose because without that I would start using again. My mind in a neutral state wants drugs. So I need a creative outlet."
Today Mark's only fear is growing and looking older and unattractive. This is understandable for an actor whose youthful beauty was an important asset. He made a startling video of his receiving cosmetic injections to counter his HIV related facial wasting. Ben held the camera.
Mark has no map for his future but he does have some immediate plans. He is going to Vienna in July to cover the biennial international conference AIDS 2010 and in October he will be hosting an HIV positive cruise/retreat for HIVcruise.com.
"I'm just building on who I am, an absurdist, a lover of human frailty, and a gay man in recovery living with HIV. What's not to love?"