Natalie Cole on Hep C: Lose the Stigma

She's as open about her experience with the disease as she is about her Real Housewives cameo.

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She's the Grammy Award-winning daughter of legendary singer Nat King Cole, but Natalie Cole's most recent performance wasn't designed to honor her family's musical legacy or advance her own career. At a benefit concert for the American Liver Foundation last week, her only aim was to raise awareness about the seldom-talked-about and poorly understood disease that she's lived with for 25 years: hepatitis C.

Yes, she got it while shooting heroin. No, it's not just a drug addicts' disease. And yes, she says, you need to get tested.

The Root talked to Cole about her personal story, the stigma surrounding the disease and a lighter topic: her recent appearance on The Real Housewives of New York City (she dishes on which cast member shouldn't quit her day job for a singing career).

The Root: Has having hep C impacted your music career at all?

Natalie Cole: Luckily, it didn't have an impact on my career initially. It was from IV drug use -- shooting heroin -- about 25 years ago, sharing needles back in the day when it was "free this, free that." I'm sure there are a lot of people who I got high with that also have it. And I didn't get diagnosed until three years ago. So I was living with this virus in my body all that time, which is an extraordinary thing to discover. Hep C can actually lie dormant in a person's body for many, many years.

TR: What made you get tested?

NC: I was having a routine surgery on my hernia and needed to get some blood work done. And my doctor said, "I'm looking at some numbers and they're a little uncomfortable. I need you to go see a specialist." And he sent me first to a kidney guy, and the kidney guy said, "I need you to go see a liver guy, because I think you have hepatitis." And the liver guy said, "You do."

TR: You're working with Merck and the American Liver Foundation as the spokesperson for Merck's new public health campaign, "Tune In to Hep C."  Why is your involvement with this issue important? 

NC: There really hasn't been anything on a national level to bring awareness about hepatitis C. You know, we've got a lot of causes out here. But this one is pretty critical. There's like 3 1/2 million people walking around with hepatitis C. And many of them won't do anything about it because they don't know they have it, they're scared or they're ashamed because of the stigma that's surrounded it. You know: "You must have been a drug user," or, "You are a drug user." That's not what it's about anymore, and drug use isn't the only way you can get it, either.

TR: Would you have found out sooner if there had been greater awareness of the kind you're advocating for now?