entertainment

Madonna's Blond Ambition dancer Carlton: 'I hid my HIV status from everyone on tour'

In 1990, Madonna changed pop music - and the lives of her dancers - forever.

2020-04-14

It's been 25 years since Madonna released her documentary film In Bed With Madonna, which profiled the star on and off stage during her legendary Blond Ambition Tour of 1990.

The film also shone a spotlight on her troupe of mostly gay dancers, whose presence in her life and on her stage preached a powerful message of acceptance to her huge mainstream fan base.

Now, a quarter of a century later, their stories are being revisited through a new documentary Strike A Pose, by film makers Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan, and Attitude has taken the opportunity to catch up with five of them.

We've already caught up with Slam and Kevin this week, and in this interview with Carlton, he reveals how he hid his HIV status on the original tour and discusses how the new documentary gave him the perfect chance to revisit a tough time in his life, from a new, positive perspective.

What was it like going back to meet all the dancers again after 25 years? 

It’s phenomenal for me. Yes, we have been consistently contacted throughout the years by various people who are looking back at the influence Blond Ambition has had, but to feel it at this scale is what is mind blowing for all of us. The audience reaction to us at the Berlin premiere was amazing. To see that it is still relevant, and people were interested in our point of view.

When you signed up to do the Blond Ambition Tour, did you have any idea how culturally significant it would be?

No, of course not! I was a little bit different to the other guys, because I had had a full career already, being one of the older guys. I had come from a professional company in Chicago, I had already been touring, I’d already been in newspapers. So by the time I got to Madonna, yes I was going to get to work with this mega rock star, and have a super shiny career opportunity, but with regards to what we were saying on a social level, and the fact that it would be a somewhat evergreen experience – I had not thought about that at all. I was just trying to make sure I had the best costume, and that I was in the best numbers!

carltonwilborn_news

What was your favourite moment from the show? I enjoyed all the 'Like A Prayer' stuff because I was partnering her, and holding her upside down and stuff like that. But I also went back and did The Girlie Show in 1993, and I did 'Fever' with her, which was kind of the opening number, and that was strong.

When the In Bed With Madonna documentary came out, you guys were almost as prominent in it as she was, and it was one of the first big instances of her really spotlighting the gay community. What was it like to be a part of that?

It was such an interesting unfolding for me, because I was not a big fan of hers when I got the job. Obviously I knew who she was, and I knew the Who’s That Girl Tour had happened. I knew she was controversial, but I didn’t know that much about her. I didn’t know when I said yes to going on tour that she would be positioning us to take a stand for the gay community. I didn’t know that at all. And I can’t even say any of that was inside the tour - that happened when the documentary itself happened. Even with that, it wasn’t like she made that the aim of the documentary. I didn’t know it was going to be about the LGBT community, and empowerment. It’s been a blessing that I did not foresee.

What has life been like for you in the years since? Do people still recognise you?

Yeah. When I go to take a class, a lot of the older dancers will know me, but people who weren’t around at the time, they won’t know who I am. I’ve had a love/hate thing with being a dancer, and that really stemmed from my sexuality. I guess to all intents and purposes I was out when we did the Blond Ambition Tour, but I was never really comfortable. I was one of those active homophobes. I was never comfortable with the title of dancer, because I thought it would always track back to somebody asking me about my sexuality, and then somebody asking me about my status, all of which I was very shielded about for most of my adult life. So I found I would dance for a while, then I would take some time away, and then I would come back to it. The great thing for me about this documentary Strike A Pose is that I get to be inside of everything that is Carlton, everything that the Madonna journey was about, and all from the position of 100% celebration – which I was not in when we did it. I was deeply hiding my HIV status when we were on the road. I couldn’t embrace those high levels of accomplishment at the time, because I had this other thing going on.

CARLTON-DUAL  

So you were HIV positive during the tour?

Yeah, I was diagnosed in 1985 on tour with a company in Hawaii. I moved to L.A. in 1986, largely because of my diagnosis. In 1985 it was fire and brimstone. So I moved to L.A. because I thought, if I’m going to die in a year, I need to make my life as amazing as I can right now. That’s really where I was. At that time I had no evidence that I would live life for many more years.

Did you keep that from the other dancers?

No one knew. My family didn’t know. I didn’t tell my family until 2006. I was dodging and hiding for most of my adult life.

It’s ironic that you had trouble accepting yourself at that time, and yet for a lot of young gay people watching In Bed With Madonna, seeing you guys helped them with their own sexuality, and identity.

Seems that way! I guess so.

12605326_1696609663895454_3101817761343409861_o

What have you thought of Madonna’s career since you worked with her?

She’s always compelling and exciting. As far as my understanding goes, what she stands for is getting people to raise their consciousness. I think she’s still been doing that, even as an older artist in the industry. She makes certain moves, and people want to say she shouldn’t be doing that anymore, and why shouldn’t she? She’s a human being, she’s got a life, she’s not hurting anybody. She’s an underground artist that has been given a lot of money to fund her projects. So the way she goes at things is like this fearless, raw, edgy street kid, doing her art. Now she just has tonnes of money to put into her stage shows. I love it that she has not abandoned that balls out way of doing things. She and I are both actors and we shared a lot of that conversation, certainly by the time it got to The Girlie Show. I know how much she cares about being an actress, and how much she has really wanted to have a viable position in that medium, and it hasn’t really happened for her yet. So I keep watching to see if that’s going to happen for her. I really hope she gets that opportunity to have that on a really big level, in a really critical role.

201609488_1 - SQ 2016 embed

Finally, what can viewers expect to see in Strike A Pose?

They’re coming to see the men from the Blond Ambition Tour. What more do you need?!

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Dancer Slam: 'I still get letters about my gay kiss in the film'

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Dancer Kevin: 'I didn't accept I was gay until I saw the documentary'