Holly Johnson on UK AIDS Memorial Quilt and why he had ‘great difficulty’ watching It’s A Sin

Exclusive: "Like Pose, It's A Sin was a very airbrushed version of events," the Frankie Goes To Hollywood star tells Attitude.


Words: Jamie Tabberer; picture: Wiki

“It was an immense project, both in the US and here; a physical and tangible thing. You don’t scroll past on your phone. It’s folk art as well - people with sewing machines and glue guns wanting to commemorate their friend, their son, their daughter, whoever..."

Such are the reflections of Holly Johnson, frontman of blockbuster '80s band Frankie Goes to Hollywood, on the power of the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt, which recently went on display in its entirety for the first time in decades at London's Acorn House.

What's more, the star - known for number one hits like 'Relax' and 'The Power of Love', and pictured below with his bandmates in 1985 - sees in the beautiful and moving AIDS Memorial Instagram account a modern-day equivalent to the quilt.

"It has superseded [the quilt]," opines the 61-year-old, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. "It’s fantastic, although heart-breaking. Like the AIDS quilt, it's a patchwork of love.”

"Like Pose, It's A Sin was a very airbrushed version of events"

Speaking to Attitude at last week's quilt display launch event, hosted by the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt Partnership, the subject of remembrance also comes up while discussing Russell T Davies' 2021 TV hit It's A Sin. 

“I had great difficulty watching, to be quite honest," says Holly of the Olly Alexander-starring show, which recounts the ascent of HIV in 80s London. "My partner watched the first and second episodes and couldn’t watch further. The next two episodes I had to watch on my own."

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A post shared by HOLLY JOHNSON (@mrhollyjohnson)

On the show as a whole, the 'Love Train' singer is measured in his praise. “Although it was evocative of what happened, it was much worse in reality - much, much worse," he says.

"Although it was great and they were very successful with it, like Pose, it was a very airbrushed version of events that were horrific. Full waiting rooms of very ill people, friends dying one after the other, many, many funerals. It’s just so hard, if you weren’t there, to put across the fear and the stigma of that moment in time.

“Although it was extremely popular and included many of the types of events you’d be subjected to, it didn’t completely grasp the horror of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and early 90s. That’s just an opinion, of course.”

"I would never preach to a young person"

Asked for his advice to young people who are complacent with their sexual health, Holly - who was interviewed in the first-ever issue of Attitude in 1994 - said: “I would never preach to a young person. Young people want to experience life, don’t they? I’ve just sung a song for the film Everybody’s Talking About Jamie with Richard E. Grant. It’s an old drag queen talking to a young wannabe drag queen. It’s a song that’s not actually in the musical. It’s that moment when an older gay man, or drag queen, basically says 'now I pass it on to you, as you’re the younger generation with all the energy.'"

The winner of the 2015 Attitude Icon Award adds: “It’s up to you to make a choice in your life, how you’re going to live it. Are you going to be drawn into the chemsex world? Be dead on a Tube line? You have to make your own choices and make the right ones. That’s all I can say.

"I had a lot of fun when I was young, but I didn’t know AIDS was out there when I was doing it. You have that information. It’s there for you on your phone. Read it, take it in. It could happen to you – don’t let it!”

The Attitude Summer issue is out now.

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