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Kevin Sessums Keeps it Real: A Survivor’s Tale

Blunt and unapologetic, yet also spiritual and unpretentious, Kevin Sessums had done it all.

By Shawn Schikora

He’s successfully climbed Mt Kilimanjaro and travelled the Camino de Santiago as part of his spiritual journey. He’s held the position of executive editor at Andy Warhol’s Interview during the magazine’s heyday. For his numerous celebrity profiles, including 27 cover stories for Vanity Fair, he’s interviewed everyone from Madonna to Hugh Jackman, helping define and influence celebrity culture. He’s attended Oscar parties, yet also been broke and nearly homeless.

For all his success, Sessums has faced numerous challenges, including the death of both parents at an early age; a lonely childhood spent feeling largely alienated from others, partly due to his sexuality; sexual abuse at age 13; and being diagnosed as HIV-positive around the time he parted ways with Vanity Fair.

While his post Vanity Fair career remained high-profile, freelancing for various publications including The Daily Beast, his drug use (primarily crystal meth) reached dangerous levels. His addiction eventually lead Sessums to a bleak point, both personally and professionally, yet also served as a catalyst in regaining his sobriety and rebuilding his life.

Now editor-in-chief of the glossy, LGBT-oriented Four TwoNine, Sessums has also authored two best-selling, critically praised memoirs: the Lambda award-winning Mississippi Sissy in 2007, and the recently published I Left it on the Mountain: A Memoir.

 Sessums recently spoke to HIV Equal about his HIV status, the current celebrity culture, the possibility of performing on stage in ad adaptation of Mississippi Sissy, and the positive use of anger to facilitate healing.  

 HIV Equal:  Today’s culture is more accepting of the LGBT community, and there is less stigma surrounding HIV.  Yet, what areas do you feel society still needs to confront and accept in order to continue healing?

KS: I think HIV has at its most basic level a fear of mortality so I'm not sure full acceptance will ever happen from those who are not HIV-positive.  We are talking about ancient and deep feelings about death that have finally nothing to do with HIV itself.  Mix in the complicated feelings - even I'd say the singular ones each person has - regarding sex and I'm not sure acceptance is something that will ever occur.  I'd much rather talk about something concrete - such as a cure - than something abstract like acceptance.  

You write in I Left it on the Mountain that your decision to climb Mount Kilimanjaro was motivated as a way to forgive yourself for becoming infected with HIV, part of your emotional healing process.  You explain that a letter you received from Tom Cruise referring to your HIV status as an “illness” angered you, yet you utilized that anger as a motivating force to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.  Do you feel anger can ultimately be a healing force?

Only if we move past it and don't live in it.  Anger has to be the fuel that burns itself out and gets us to another place - kind of like whatever rockets burn off.    It can't be an end unto itself. That said, anger fueled so much of ACT UP's genesis and genius and success.  So I can see the beauty in a pure kind of anger as well. 

You also write about having to grieve for your HIV-negative self.  Is this grieving process continuous, or a process that reaches some point of completion or finality?

I'll always miss my dead parents.  I will always miss my dead grandparents who raised me. I will even always on some level miss the active addict I once was now that I am a recovering one.  So I will always miss my HIV-negative self.  

You were very open about your HIV status after being diagnosed.  Do you feel this “coming out” process is a necessary part of the healing process?

It was a part of mine.  I can't speak for anyone else regarding how they should find a way to heal. 

Have celebrities asked your advice about publicly disclosing their HIV status? Do celebrities fear publicly disclosing their HIV status? Do publicists discourage their clients from publicly discussing their HIV status?

I've never been asked for such advice.  Look, a lot of famous people are ruled by fear - to use that word again - so I'm not sure we should expect bravery from celebrities.  They are fearful of losing their fame or fucking up the financial success that not only they but others depend upon.  I understand the fear.   Everyone has to make their own decisions about being public about private medical issues and being a part of a larger public community. 

Your career has always somehow related to the entertainment industry, perceived by many as glamorous.  Yet, how exciting and glamorous has your work been? Does the public have a misconception in this regard?

I have a very blue collar, working class attitude about my job. I've often referred to it as driving a truck.  I'm a truck driver.  I get behind the wheel and haul my glamorous cargo to deadline, dump it out, and get behind the wheel again.  I'm a long-haul trucker. 

You began your career pursuing acting.  Any plans for acting projects at this point? Is Moises Kaufman in the process of adapting Mississippi Sissy for the stage?

I am in the process of adapting Mississippi Sissy into a theatrical evening.  Right now the plans are to workshop it at New York Theatre Workshop in the fall.  I plan to be in it right now. But we'll see how it pans out.  

You’ve evolved from being interested in celebrities when you were young to interviewing celebrities to now being a celebrity yourself.  Being famous yourself, has that changed how you view fame, publicity, or how you interact with the celebrities you interview and deal with?

I've always thought of myself as celebrity-adjacent - not a celebrity myself.  But I Left It on the Mountain made the New York Times Celebrity Bestseller List.  So I guess that does qualify me as a celebrity in some way.  It was the first time I really thought of myself that way - making that specific list.  I was between Derek Jeter and Jerry Lee Lewis - which has always kind of been my fantasy, come to think of it.

You’re very honest and direct, yet seem hardest on yourself.  Are you your harshest critic?

 No.  Have you read some of my Amazon reviews?

 What qualities do you find appealing in a romantic partner? Would you consider one day getting married?

 I've almost given up on this part of my life.  I haven't had a date in years.  Haven't had sex in a very, very long time.  The older I get, I guess the one thing I'm looking for - other than someone who turns me on - is kindness.  Physically?  I like guys I'd describe as nerdy-but-dirty. 

  I Left It on the Mountain seems at times almost a cautionary tale, yet also one of hope and renewal.  You have survived quite a bit. What more do you hope to accomplish, what are your goals at this point?    

 My goals are simple ones at this point.  To wake up each day and surrender to God's will. Pray to remain sober one more day.  And to react in the same way no matter what happens to me, good or bad, and that is with grace and humility.  

(Photo Credit: Matt Edge)