Love & Sex

Talking to Darren James, Porn’s First Patient Zero, Ten Years After His HIV Diagnosis

Pin it

"I tell anyone with a chronic illness, you can do anything. It's all there for you. It's just a question of doing it."

Ten years ago, porn performer Darren James made global headlines as "Patient Zero" in a highly-publicized HIV outbreak in LA's adult film industry that left multiple performers HIV positive and out of work. James is thought to have contracted the virus during a condomless anal sex scene shot in Brazil; upon his diagnosis, it was discovered that three of his female co-stars had also contracted HIV. James immediately retired from porn, saying few goodbyes. After struggling through a period of intense emotional turmoil, he eventually sued the Adult Industry Medical Health Care Center for making his test results public. A decade later, the industry has successfully prevented further on-set transmissions – but with increasing numbers of performers contracting HIV in their personal lives, some say it’s a question of when, not if, the next outbreak will occur. We checked in with James – now an HIV/AIDS awareness advocate and highly sought-after public speaker – to discuss the life of a man finding peace with chronic illness, and what other performers can learn from his experience.

NERVE: How'd you get into porn in the first place? Why'd you want to do it? 

JAMES: Years ago, I was trying to be a police officer – around 1998. But I got caught up in the budget cuts. Right around that time, I had a female situation go south on me. A girl I was in love with met a guy, got married, got pregnant, and I had no idea what to do. A friend of mine who was an actual real actor, in mainstream, said he knew about some modeling down in the Valley. I figured I'd check it out, just to get some quick cash, pay my way through the academy. Honestly, I just wanted to have some money, so I could eat. 

I walked in the office, Jim South's office, World Modeling [an adult talent agency], and I got lucky. A producer came in, and they happened to be looking for a black guy that weekend. My first job was for VCA. It wasn't the biggest role, but it was big for me. 

And of course I didn't know what to do when I went to that set. I had a script to read – I knew everybody's line. It was funny, because I was sitting there, all hyper, ready to go, and [porn actor] Byron Long, I remember watching him walk around. He thought I was the dumbest motherfucker in the world. "Who is this new guy, looking all stupid?" 

Did you get to be friends? 

Byron was cool as hell, later. But right at the beginning, those dudes didn't like me. I was just another new guy, getting in the way. (Laughs). It was kind of like feast or famine. You're sitting on Jim South's couch, waiting, starving like an animal, waiting for the meat to be thrown to you. Producers come in there and they go, "Who's got wood today?" And Jim looks over, and he's got ten guys sitting on the couch. As a black actor? You better have wood 24-7. There was no room for failure. 

Because black actors were not doing features for the most part at that time, right? They were getting gonzo work. 

Exactly. Mr. Marcuswas busy all the time. [Lexington Steele] was busy all the time. And Mark Anthony. They soaked up all the work. And Jake Steed. Everybody needed him. But when I'd sit on the couch, I kind of felt like, "I'm never gonna get nothing." I'm telling you, I sat on that couch for three and a half years.

When did you catch on as a performer? 

It just kind of crept up. I always tried to be a professional, and to be reliable. Tried not be above any scene. Eventually, I think people got the idea that they could count on me. 

After your exposure to the HIV virus became public in 2004, you disappeared for a while. 

I was suicidal, man. It's been a hard road. 

Did you feel rejected by the industry after the whole thing came out? 

Yeah. I was really angry, for a really long time. Because you notice one thing, just like in cigarette companies, you don't have the owner smoking. In porno, the producers don't fuck. The owners don't fuck, either, because they know the dangers out there. That's why they have us do it. 

You've been vocal about lobbying for mandatory condom use in adult films. 

Absolutely. And I'm proud of that. The companies complain they'll make less money. But they're making their money. People are going to buy porn regardless. Ain't gonna stop people from being horny. 

They say, "It's going to stop the industry, drive it underground." But when has porn ever been above ground? [Laughs] When have you walked to a scene, walked to your neighbors, and hey, by the way, I'm shooting a triple-anal next door, you don't mind? Sure, neighbor! 

You seem like you've come around to a better place right now. 

I've still got a lot of work to do. I'm still mad. But I've been working out and training. I did martial arts my whole life, and that was the only thing that kept me afloat when I got really down. And the organization that I work for, AIDS Healthcare Foundation, working in the community, testing people that are affected by HIV, trying to educate people about prevention – I like that. That keeps me more focused. 

Did you begin to work for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation soon after you learned of your diagnosis?

No. I actually tried to direct porn for a couple of years, from 2005 to 2007. TT Boy gave me a job. And TT was hardcore, man. He knew how to run his product. I shot interracial, black scenes, whatever. I created a line called Big Butt Smashdown. It's still going on. But being a director is tricky. I was so scared we'd have another outbreak. I was so stressed out it made me sicker, behind the camera. I woke up one day and I said, “I don't want to direct no more.” I got tired of sending these people to their doom. 

What's your job like now with AIDS Healthcare? 

I do a lot of public speaking. I try to tell people my story, so they can benefit from it in some way. And I test people. I'm at the Hollywood Out of the Closet now, but I worked with our mobile unit for a long time – we'd go to MacArthur Park, UCLA, USC. Some people know our sites, and they'll show up periodically through the day. We test, and we try to teach. Some folks out there still think you can get HIV from toilet seats, and kissing, and spit…but when people don't know, it's not their fault, we just try to educate them. And sometimes we get a positive, so you have to use your counseling tools to help them. 

Did you get a positive today? 

Not today. But sometimes you do get positives. I have to remember what I went through. I don't give my own story, because that takes the focus off of them, and that's not right. But I do use the tools I've learned from my own experiences. It's so hard, though, man. Giving people news that will change their life is so hard. 

How is your own health, ten years after learning you were HIV-positive? 

It's great. I'm very lucky. But I work extremely hard at staying healthy. I work out all the time. I'm a big jiu-jitsu guy. I tell anyone with a chronic illness, you can do anything. It's all there for you. It's just a question of doing it.

Has living with HIV changed you as a person? 

Yeah, it has. I care more about other people now. I have more empathy. To me, the most fun thing I can do is reach out to other people, try to give back to my community. I wasn't really like that before. Not that I was a bad guy or anything, but helping other people just wasn't as big a priority for me. Now, I really love hearing other people's stories. I truly want to see people succeed.

I've also had to deal with being a public figure. I used to get stopped every once in a while by some fan, some guy saying, "Man, I got you at home on the movie!" Now it's way different. But I'm getting used to it. I'm even trying to write a book about the whole experience. I'm about halfway done. I think it's going to be good. 

Do you have any final words for your fans out there? 

Wrap your shit up. It can happen to you.