Though Debra Messing has been a working actor for 25 years, the work she is most proud of started about 10 years ago when she began working with Population Services Intl., a charity whose mission statement is to help people in the developing world lead healthier lives and plan for their families. “I feel like this is why I’m here. I call this my ‘soul work,’” Messing says.
Messing, a PSI global ambassador with a focus on HIV and AIDS, was inspired to get involved after seeing the 2005 Aldo Shoes “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” campaign designed to end HIV stigma.
“I remember thinking, ‘That’s brilliant!’” Messing says of the campaign.
Already supporting worthy causes by donating money, Messing was looking to do more, remembering how important NYU professor Paul Walker, who died of AIDS soon after she graduated, was to her. “It was a very profound loss,” she says. “And as I started to have a platform for the first time because I was recognizable, I reached out to PSI to get more involved.”
Messing’s partnership with PSI has often taken her to Africa. Zimbabwe was her first trip in 2009 when she traveled as PSI’s YouthAIDS ambassador to highlight the country as one of the few success stories in HIV and AIDS prevention practices. She has since visited Zambia with the same mission in 2012 and Malawi in 2016.
Messing goes with pilot projects designed to spread awareness about preventing HIV and AIDS. “The first one was voluntary male circumcision, which has been extraordinarily amazing as an innovation to decrease HIV transference by heterosexual males by 60%,” Messing says. “And then this most recent one was the very first at-home HIV test that’s just a mouth swab.”
While in Africa, Messing visits PSI testing and counseling centers, clinics, warehouse facilities and support groups for HIV positive people. She meets with PSI’s senior staff to learn about new developments in ongoing projects, such as oral contraceptives, and new projects about to launch, as well. “We just keep making these huge strides, and an AIDS-free generation is absolutely within reach,” Messing says.
Messing also uses her platform back in the States to document the hard work PSI is doing for the public and to testify on Capitol Hill in order to get further funding. When she first returned from Zimbabwe, she was proud to announce that the government provided $100 million toward HIV and AIDS treatment in Africa.
“Everything has built to this, starting with Paul and then getting ‘Will & Grace,’ which obviously opened up a lot of awareness,” Messing says. “I’m a storyteller, so being able to tell the stories of those I meet on these trips to get more funding or inspire others to get involved, it’s the most important storytelling that I do.”