Natalie Glebova

Natalie Glebova interview by Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD

When Natalie Glebova decided to enter the Miss Canada pageant, some of her friends discouraged the idea. “You’ve no shot of winning,” they told her.

Why the dismal forecast? Unlike most contestants, Glebova wasn’t a native Canadian—she was born in Russia and had moved to Toronto with her family when she was 12. Despite her foreign origins, the striking 23-year-old proved her doubters wrong and snared the Canadian crown—in her first-ever pageant competition, no less. Not long thereafter Glebova scaled even grander heights when she was crowned the new Miss Universe at the international pageant in Bangkok, Thailand, an event that was broadcast live to a TV viewing audience of more than 600 million people.

Since accepting the crown, it’s been a dizzying time for the new Miss Universe. After moving to New York, the multi-talented Glebova—a classically trained pianist and composer who has worked as a motivational speaker, model and fundraiser—embarked on her year-long reign representing the Miss Universe organization. Glebova has traveled to numerous countries and passionately immersed herself in a campaign to increase awareness of HIV and AIDS, the ongoing platform of the Miss Universe titlebearer.

Recently, Glebova talked with ABILITY Magazine’s editor-in-chief Chet Cooper and managing health editor Gillian Friedman, MD, about her experiences as Miss Universe, the heartwrenching sights she’s witnessed and the ongoing efforts to curb the onslaught of AIDS on a global basis.

Gillian Friedman, MD: I know you’re currently preparing for a rather extensive tour promoting World AIDS Day, and we appreciate your taking the time to speak with us.

Natalie Glebova: Thank you.

Friedman: Where have you traveled most recently?

Glebova: I went to the Ukraine to promote the new Miss Ukraine pageant, and then to the Bahamas to support some organizations that are making efforts to educate people about HIV and AIDS.

Chet Cooper: In the Bahamas, what were some of the activities you participated in?

Glebova: I attended a fundraiser for the AIDS Foundation of the Bahamas. The next day I attended a youth rally for more than 300 junior high school students, where I gave a speech about the dangers of unprotected sex and about being aware of AIDS.

Friedman: I’m sure you’ve seen that discussions about sex—and particularly protected sex versus unprotected sex—can be very different in other cultures. In some places, it’s okay to talk about these subjects; in others, it’s taboo. What have you found in the places you have visited?

Glebova: That is definitely a problem I’ve seen in some countries. For example, in South Africa these issues are seldom talked about because of the community’s conservative nature. On the contrary, in Thailand they are very open about discussing sex, and that is probably why Thailand has one of the lowest HIV transmission rates in the world right now.

Cooper: What is the extent of the AIDS crisis and AIDS awareness in the Ukraine?

Glebova: Well, there is a problem there just like in every country in the world. I hope to continue my work in Eastern Europe because that area of the world is seldom talked about. Right now Eastern Europe is showing the same danger signs that Africa did 10 years ago. If nothing is done, then the same problems will occur there.
Friedman: How do you handle it when you’re in a place that is very conservative? How can you talk about AIDS awareness when you can’t talk about sex?

Glebova: Sex is an important issue to talk about, so I do discuss it. I say exactly what needs to be said: “You have to protect yourself.” Talking like this is the only way you can reach out to people; you can’t really cover the issues up with something else. People need to know the facts and to be more open about the subject.
Friedman: Have you received any criticism for that approach?

Glebova: No, I haven’t. I think people appreciate that I am being honest and I am doing something to help other people.

Cooper: There is an opposing movement that says abstinence is the best policy, and that’s where they want to leave it. They don’t want to discuss alternatives such as condoms. I think it’s great you’re able to use the Miss Universe platform to openly discuss the issue in communities and countries that would normally suppress that information. What do you typically say in your talks?

Glebova: Well, basically I have three lessons I try to get across when I talk about HIV and AIDS. Number one is to get tested and know your status. I try to give that message everywhere I go, because people in many countries are afraid to get tested, or they just don’t know that they should.

The second message is that once you know your status, you have to adjust your behavior. Whether you are HIV-negative or HIV-positive, you have to engage in a responsible relationship. So if you are having sex, protect yourself and your partner.

The third thing I talk about is the stigma associated with the disease. Many people think you can contract HIV by hugging somebody, holding hands or just talking to a person. So I try to reduce the fear of people with HIV by visiting places like hospices or orphanages and interacting with the people there, showing that it’s okay to hold the babies or to kiss them on the cheek, and that you can hold hands with a person and you’re not going to get AIDS.

Friedman: In places such as Thailand, Africa and other Third World countries you have visited, how does the stigma attached to people who are HIV-positive or who have AIDS manifest itself?

Glebova: The mindset is that people with HIV and AIDS shouldn’t be touched, that they have done something wrong and that is why they have been punished with this disease. That attitude prevails in a lot of places, even in Thailand where the issues surrounding sex are so openly talked about. People sometimes drop off their family members at a temple or a hospice and just drive away, leaving them abandoned.

Friedman: You recently returned from Thailand, where you visited an orphanage and had children clinging to your legs. I can only imagine how moving the experience must have been. Is there any one event or image that has really stayed with you?

Glebova: I think the biggest thing that affected me was the number of orphans I met—orphans whose parents have died of AIDS and who are themselves infected with HIV. AIDS has really taken a toll on people between their 20s and 40s, so many children are left alone. It is really sad because you know these babies haven’t done anything to get into this situation.

Friedman: That kind of devastation isn’t seen so much in the United States, where there is more public information and treatment is much more available. Access to treatment is improving in other parts of the world, but I’m sure you’ve seen there are many other factors that contribute to the severity and complexity of the epidemic.

Glebova: That’s true. There are many reasons, including stigma, that continue to make AIDS a worldwide problem.

Cooper: At one point, you publicly took an HIV test. What went into that decision?

Glebova: Well, I decided to do that to bring attention to the importance of getting tested. I chose to get tested in one of the most highly populated areas of Johannesburg, South Africa. I took a test in public and it was reported by the media the next day. My hope, of course, was to show that it’s okay to get tested and that everybody should do it.

Friedman: Have you witnessed instances where the community is being proactive in encouraging its residents to get tested?

Glebova: Well, I’ve talked about some of the problems in South Africa, but many good things have happened there as well—for example, in the mining communities. South Africa has a lot of gold and diamond mines, and in the towns where people live and work, companies have established programs to monitor the rate of HIV and to help people get tested and treated. In some places they have tested about 80 percent of the workforce. And from the statistics, it appears that the conditions for people with HIV are improving. They are gaining weight and they are healthier.

Cooper: It has probably been a business necessity for companies to develop programs there because they need to have a healthy workforce. So it actually works well for both the company and the community.

Friedman: Statistics show that the groups most at risk for HIV in places like Africa are different from the groups at highest risk in the United States. In some areas of Africa, for instance, AIDS is extremely prevalent among married women because there is wide cultural acceptance for extramarital sex by men. Have you had to tailor your message to what is happening in those particular cultures?

Glebova: Well, I have heard about this problem. Married women are at a great risk because infidelity rates are very high and women don’t have a say in whether or not the man wears a condom. So in my message to women I always try to emphasize that they do have a choice—they do have the right to insist the man wear a condom. And I just keep repeating this message in the hope that women realize it is very dangerous if they don’t insist on protection.

Cooper: Have you seen a general improvement in the availability of medication in poorer areas?

Glebova: I have seen a lot of good programs all over the world. Many governments and pharmaceutical companies offer programs that provide drugs for free. There are many communities where people have a lot of opportunities to get tested and receive treatment.

Of course, that is not the case all over the world. I know in some remote places in Africa people have to travel many miles to even get tested, and sometimes they have to spend a lot of money to do so. Lack of access to testing and treatment is still a big problem in Africa.

Cooper: Are condoms available there?

Glebova: We visited a lot of clinics, hospitals and offices for organizations that educate people about HIV and AIDS, and all these places have condoms right there for anyone who wants them.

Friedman: Prior to becoming Miss Universe, did you have any background or experience with HIV awareness?

Glebova: Not really. I knew the basic facts of transmission, but I really didn’t know a lot of details, and I didn’t realize what kind of devastation HIV and AIDS cause all over the world. I learned so much after becoming Miss Universe and seeing the devastation first-hand.

Cooper: Have you changed the way you talk to your friends—do you find yourself educating everyone around you now?

Glebova: I guess in some ways I do. HIV has become a very personal issue to me because I have met so many people who have the illness. And I do talk a lot about it with my friends and with anybody I meet, anywhere in the world.

Cooper: With taxi drivers? .…Continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Natalie Glebova issue include Letter from the Editor — The Impact of AIDS; Senator Harkin — Emergency Preparedness Planning; Headlines — Breast Cancer, FDA Ruling on Trans Fat; Humor — Clean Up on Aisle 5!; ABILITY Magazine — 15th Anniversary Retrospective; International Travel — Ten Minutes ’til Takeoff; HIV/AIDS — Top 10 Myths; Employment — Creating a 30-Day Plan; Volunteers with Disabilities — It’s All About Inclusion; Accessible Smiles — Dentistry for All; Recipes — Healthy Drinks to Get Through the Day; Events and Conferences... subscribe

More excerpts from the Natalie Glebova issue:

Natalie Glebova — Speaks About AIDS Activism, Relationships and Her Russian Roots

Homes for Our Troops Serving the Military

Paul Orfalea — Kinko’s Founder Speaks About Dyslexia

Winter Paralympics — Let the Games Begin

Panama Canal Cruise — Holland America Line

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