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?
NC: Absolutely. How many campaigns have there been out now about AIDS? Now everyone knows about it. And most people, when they do go to the doctor for a checkup, say, "Please test me for AIDS. Just in case." That's not what happens with your liver. People don't go, "Will you test my liver?" It's something very specific. You need to say to the doctor, "Take some bloodwork, check out my liver — just in case."
TR: What can we do about the stigma?
NC: Celebrity has a lot of impact, so hopefully our voices will mean more than the average person who would just come out and say, "Get tested." We've been there, and we know what it's like. We want to take away some of the shame, and I think people will respond to that.
TR: You point out that there are a lot of ways you can get it. So are you encouraging everyone to get tested for hep C?
NC: Absolutely. If you are seeing any kind of symptoms (usually, extreme fatigue is a symptom that pretty much everybody has), it's important to get tested. But I didn't have heavy-duty symptoms, which is why they call it a silent disease.
TR: In the black community, we see higher rates of HIV and perhaps more stigma, as well. Is that the case with hep C, and is it important for you as an African-American woman to be one of the voices raising awareness?
NC: Absolutely. In the black community, it's no joke. And we need to be particularly focused on the impact on the black community — also the Hispanic community. We don't necessarily get the message. Some people might not be on the Internet. Some people might not have access to the information. So we need to get it out, by word of mouth or whatever we need to do.
TR: What are the three things you want our readers to know after reading this?
NC: 1) Do regular checkups with your doctor, and have them take blood and check out your liver for hep C. 2) If you have it, don't be afraid or ashamed. Get treated. 3) Keep your eyes open, be aware and watch your health. It's not nuclear science, guys. This is about your health, and the alternative is that the disease will get progressively worse and you'll die.
TR: On a much lighter note, you made an appearance on The Real Housewives of New York City the other night. How did that come to be?
NC: I actually asked the producers if they would consider finding me a way to be on the show because I'm such a fan. And we had a ball.
TR: You sang a duet with LuAnn de Lesseps. How do you think she did?
NC: She's not very happy with me right now. I spoke with Joy Behar, and I didn't give her a glowing report card. I think LuAnn is … well, she wants very much to be a singer. That's what she's wanted to do since she was a very young girl, and she's got a little ways to go. [Laughing.] I'm trying to be nice here.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.