DiAna DiAna: A hairdresser took on HIV

10/14/2008 12:01 AM

12/07/2008 9:36 PM

Hairdresser DiAna DiAna first learned about HIV/AIDS by chance.

“When I was cleaning up the shop one day (in 1986), I saw a magazine that said something about AIDS,” recalled DiAna, now 60.

She didn’t know much about AIDS, and since her job required her to touch others constantly, she thought she should find out more.

So she sent away for information and learned that HIV/AIDS was mainly sexually transmitted and that the best protection was to use a condom.

She began handing out condoms to customers at her Columbia salon, DiAna’s Hair Ego.

She established the S.C. AIDS Education Network, and in 1987 asked fellow activist Bambi Gaddist to take the unpaid position of vice president. Gaddist, who founded the S.C. HIV/AIDS Council, accepted. She also became DiAna’s client and best friend.

DiAna established an AIDS education and support hot line, which she ran from her home.

She enlisted the national advocacy group ACT UP to stage a State House rally in 1989 for the rights of people with HIV/AIDS in South Carolina.

An independent filmmaker used footage from the rally and from DiAna’s salon to make the short film “DiAna’s Hair Ego,” which was honored by the American Film Institute.

From her salon, DiAna planned Tupperware-style at-home parties offering condoms, vibrators and lotions to make safe sex fun. Soon she and Gaddist won bookings for similar parties around the country.

She reached about 800 children with a program called AIDS Busters, which included a film called “What If You Gave a Kid a Condom.” To counter arguments that talking to youngsters about safe sex encouraged them to have sex, she gave kids condoms to see what they would do. The children blew up the condoms and used them to make silly balloon figures.

DiAna took to the streets at night to educate prostitutes, handing out condoms — and, sometimes, food so the women wouldn’t have to sell themselves in order to eat.

She instituted a training course for women called Faces of Sisterhood, which included lessons in self-defense because she learned that some women were beaten when they asked their partners to use condoms.

“This is how you whack ’em back,” said DiAna, who had a brown belt in Tae Kwon Do at the time.

News of her work spread and DiAna was featured in newspapers and magazines and on television — including USA Today, Family Circle, Essence and CNN. Mother Jones magazine featured her as one of its “Heroes and Heroines.”

Each year, despite donations, DiAna spent $8,000 of her own money on her host of projects, shuttering her shop when she left town for HIV-related activities.

When she heard of state grants, often the news came too late for her to apply. Struggling to keep things running, she became burned out and frustrated. She called it quits in 2000.

In 2003, she chronicled her journey in the book “Curlers and Condoms.” DiAna organized one last dinner for the S.C. AIDS Education Network, at which she handed out plaques and thank-yous to board members.

And now she’s back where she started in 1986: styling hair and handing out condoms.

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