The plight of the sick in Kenya and Cape Town was far from our minds as Beyoncé shook her curvy bits so furiously, lashing the stage with her locks like a girl on fire. The hard-to-surprise crowd — the international fashion press, among others — couldn't help but surge forth, unaccustomed to anything this full-bodied and overt. In time, Leonardo DiCaprio would also take the stage here at London's Brompton Hall, as would Bono, Elle MacPherson, Kim Cattrall, and that beacon of philanthropy, 50 Cent. The event was Giorgio Armani's One Night Only party, an unveiling of his crazy-sleek 2007 spring/summer line — as well as a showcase for Bono and Bobby Shriver's AIDS-fighting Red campaign. As jaded sylphs glided beneath mirror balls, cosmopolitans held aloft, occasionally nibbling from the small bowls of risotto provided to the crowd of 1500, it was hard not to contemplate the clashing marriage of glamour and good causes. But then clarity itself seemed to cleave the air in the form of one clean, strong, steady voice. When Ashley Judd materialized before the mic, shaking nothing but our sense of complacent passivity as she told us about children who have sex to survive until, of course, it kills them, the room grew still — the crowd rapt for the first and only time that night. She had a mysterious air of serenity and certainty.
Four hours earlier, Judd and I had met in Hyde Park for a stroll before coming upon a commodious, womanly, welcoming tree into which she immediately climbed. So I joined her, and there we had a chat about death, sex, faith, hope, and what's involved in trying to save the world.
MC: Back in 2002, you got involved with YouthAIDS when your old buddy Bono lobbied you to do so. I guess one doesn't say no to Bono...
AJ: I was shooting Twisted in San Francisco, and he started calling and Bobby started calling, and they were tag-teaming me in a really heavy-duty way. And at the same time this woman Kate Roberts, the founder of YouthAIDS, sent me a letter — they were two separate parties, each unaware that the other was asking me to do the exact same thing.
MC: It doesn't sound like you were hesitant.
AJ: In terms of getting involved with the struggle against HIV/AIDS, that was totally a natural fit. I was more trepidatious with regard to YouthAIDS because I thought, Oh my gosh, this organization — where do they get their money from? Is it blood money? Are there any secret right-wing Nazis involved —
MC: Covertly working an agenda?
AJ: Yeah. Do they have programs in one of these 65 countries that would really be in contrast to my personal values? I kind of cringe thinking about this letter I wrote to Kate, because it was just like Women's Studies 101 — like, you know, Who are the people with whom you associate, and I can't be affiliated with you if you work with misogynists. I just absolutely went off in this letter.
MC: The exploitation of women and girls is the crux of the work you're doing, in some way.
AJ: My belief is that none of this will go away until the revolution takes place, and girls and women have the same status as boys and men and have the same universal access to education, the same opportunities for economic empowerment. It would begin from childhood with the complete freedom to pursue one's interests. I love that line: "For every girl who tosses out her Easy-Bake Oven, there is a boy who wishes to find one." I weep every time I read that. Because just as our definition of girlhood is so stifling, the definition of what it is to be a boy or a man is arid and abusive. It's the most extraordinary curtailing of personhood.
MC: You read such terrible things in the YouthAIDS literature — that there are places in the world where girls get a dollar for sex with a condom, two dollars for sex without; that girls have "sugar daddies"...
AJ: Cross-generational sex is the phenomenon in which young girls are given material goods in exchange for sex. All girls are vulnerable to it, particularly orphans. So you have a 12-year-old orphan who gets a liter of kerosene from her sugar daddy and has to walk X number of kilometers to sell it in little containers. That's how she is trying to feed herself, her siblings, and the only source of money she has is through the older men with whom she is forced to have sex.
MC: You've talked about meeting with sex workers in brothels. Are they open to what you have to say?
AJ: They are, they are. [sighs] There may be two categories — the first being those who are dead in their souls, who are numb and disassociated. And you can absolutely see it, when the woman is physically present but emotionally absent, which is the only way she can tolerate what she has to do X number of times a day, day in and day out. The second type is, how do you say that word, blowsy? A blowsy personality, where she's got kind of a crass sense of humor and is able to joke about herself, her body, the men, what they ask for. An example would be this sex worker in Guatemala. One of the questions I always ask is, "Does your family know what you do?" And this woman said, "My family thinks I sell lingerie." Then she goes, "Ay, puchaquita" — [grabs at her crotch] — "not that far." [laughs] It's gallows humor.