Until recently, she hadn’t even told most people in her life she was positive. “I didn’t want them to use it against me,” she says. She’d been working for New Jersey Life, a house-and-garden monthly, and writing occasional pieces about things like Argentine polo players for Departures when Armstrong approached her about becoming the managing editor of Poz. “I wasn’t ready because I was still . . . I don’t think I had forgiven myself for getting it,” she says. Still, she was willing to write an anonymous column for Poz; the idea was that she’d disclose her status to one person each time, and perhaps reveal who she was in the end. Her first piece was about worrying whether the drugs were affecting her body in a way that would give her away.
“It was very unusual to have someone writing anonymously, since the whole idea of the magazine was in coming out,” says her then-editor, Tim Murphy. “She comes from very Mayberry, small-town USA. She was like an interloper: She hears the things that regular people hear about aids. She wrote this great column where they’re on the veranda of the country club or something and someone says, ‘Isn’t it great that AIDS targets the people that should die anyway?’ ”
Her parents knew, and her sister, but not too many other people did. And she was terrified that they would. As she wrote in an essay in this month’s issue of Vogue, when people inquired as to how she dropped from size 8 to size 4 thanks to the appetite-killing and fat-redistributing properties of her meds, she’d joke about her diet of stress and caffeine, while worrying about not being “healthy skinny.” Still, the closet wasn’t so bad. “I think that one of the things that helped me was that I was able to maintain this normal lifestyle and this perception of myself as a normal person,” Hofmann says. “And the fact that I didn’t tell people was very reassuring, to just be treated as if I were perfectly healthy, because I was for all intents and purposes.” Except for things like when a man she’d started seeing changed his phone number after she told him. Or when her gynecologist refused to even discuss pregnancy with her, even though, if properly monitored, she’d have only a 2 percent chance of passing it along. We’re sitting in a bar near her house, a ski-lodge-like place with plastic flowers and NASCAR flags that hosts line dancing on Tuesday night. When the rather severe-looking waitress comes over to get our orders of fried cheese sticks and local microbrews, Hofmann seems to be thinking about whether she knows. Did she read the piece in the Times about her new job? Does she read Vogue?
Her coming to Poz was more of a personal journey than a career move. Before she could help destigmatize the disease, she had to stop hating herself for having it. “I had always been very careful,” she says. “I had volunteered for Planned Parenthood when I was in high school, I requested that people get tested before I slept with them on occasion. But by the mid-nineties, I’d never heard of a single heterosexual person getting the disease, so I honestly didn’t think I was really at risk. I let down my guard, I was human.” She says she and her boyfriend had unprotected sex only twice. “He really was a guy that I would bring home to Mom and Dad,” she says. “It’s not like, ‘It happened when I was on a drug binge in Brazil for four weeks,’ you know?”
“He really was a guy that I would bring home to mom and dad. It’s not like, ‘it happened when I was on a drug binge in Brazil for four weeks,’ you know?”
Of course, statistically, it’s impossible to argue that she’s the New Face of AIDS—even she’ll admit that. “It’s not that everybody in America who’s getting the disease is like me,” she says. “It’s the Latino community, it’s the African-American community disproportionately, and it’s the aging population. That’s what’s really crazy—they are postmenopausal, virgins when they got married; the men are on Viagra. These retirement communities that people go into sometimes, it’s like a fraternity house. It’s crazy. The infection rates of people over 50 are comparable to those for people under 24.”
The nice prep-school girl from Princeton isn’t quite sure how to handle being a symbol of something—she’s by nature not an activist. But she’s learning.
A year ago, Strub sold Poz to a new company called CDM, which plans to launch other magazines and Websites for different illnesses. Armstrong left soon afterward and recommended Hofmann for the job. When she took it, she told the publisher of New Jersey Life that she was editing a “health magazine.” When the piece came out in the Times, her boss’s reaction made her wish she’d told her seven years before. She’s not the epidemic’s first Waspy spokeswoman: Think of Mary Fisher, who made a speech at the 1992 Republican convention, urging compassion. And there’s a reason why Vogue published that essay.