Death of Charlotte Valandrey: in 2005, she broke taboos on AIDS in L'Express

The first HIV-positive Frenchwoman to receive a heart transplant in 2003, Charlotte Valandrey chose L'Express two years later to testify to her life with AIDS, contracted at the age of 17.

Death of Charlotte Valandrey: in 2005, she broke taboos on AIDS in L'Express

The first HIV-positive Frenchwoman to receive a heart transplant in 2003, Charlotte Valandrey chose L'Express two years later to testify to her life with AIDS, contracted at the age of 17. In this interview, she confided the shock of the discovery of the virus, which remained dormant for ten years, then the heaviness of the treatments (23 pills to swallow per day) which damaged her heart. She also revealed the impact of the disease on her career but without ever losing the strength to lead the fight: "In the cinema, on TV, I shot as much as possible, multiplied the effort as one struggles. Death , that bitch, I kept her at a distance."

"Telegram for you!" his mother shouts to him, from the dyke. It is the summer of 1984. Charlotte Valandrey is 15 years old, she is spending her holidays in Brittany. The mail invites her to a casting. She goes to Paris. Everything is packed. At 16, the teenager, a powerful pout, a laser gaze, finds herself propelled into the revelation of French cinema, after the film Rouge Baiser, by Véra Belmont. "It's fabulous to live a fairy tale, isn't it?" sermon the journalists. She says yes. Think no. Is silent. If they only knew... A thousand times, she almost let her secret out in front of the world. A thousand times she has bribed herself. We all know her today as the intrepid daughter of the most famous cop in France, the heroine of the series Les Cordier, judge and cop, who won audience records on TF1 - up to 11,400,000 viewers. in 1999... It took almost twenty years for Charlotte Valandrey to decide to deliver her truth, in a courageous document, L'Amour dans le sang (Le Cherche Midi), and to L'Express, exclusively: at 36 years, the actress reveals that she has been HIV positive since 1985 and that she received a heart transplant two years ago. The end of a taboo?

France has nearly 100,000 HIV-positive people. It is estimated between 3000 and 5000 the number of new contaminations each year. But few personalities have publicly associated their face with HIV: Jean-Luc Romero, elected UMP, did so after a forced coming out about his homosexuality. The founder of SOS-Attentats, Françoise Rudetzki, started in 2004 by publishing Triple Peine (Calmann-Lévy): she had been contaminated by transfusion. For the first time, therefore, today, an actress testifies. We could describe this story as an invigorating message of hope, we could make this story the fight of a modern heroine, in love, rebellious, who devours life and diverts death. But Charlotte Valandrey refuses to be held up as an example, even more as a militant icon: "I just want to free myself from a secret, she says. And find a normal life again."

Interview by Marie Huret.

In your book, you reveal two secrets: you are HIV-positive, and you received a heart transplant two years ago... Why are you talking about it?

Me, it frees me, I hope it will free people. The reflex, at first, is to live in hiding with HIV. Never say anything to anyone. I spent too long doing my blood tests alone, monitoring my life expectancy alone. After two heart attacks, I had a new heart transplanted. At 36, I escaped death twice. That was the trigger, I decided to write a book. At one point, I warned my publisher, I was no longer ready, I was thinking of my 5 year old daughter, who is HIV negative: what if we bothered her at school? But I can only rebuild myself by telling the truth. I was contaminated by loving: it is not a fault. I'm not guilty of arousing desire, not guilty of looking for love too soon. Guilty of nothing!

You come back from afar, very far away: the summer of 2003, your heart sank. An organ donation saves your life...

At Saint-Antoine hospital, lying on the ultrasound table, I listen to the cardiologist: "You have about 10% of your heart capacity left." My heart is necrotic, the arteries are clogged. The doctors warned me, the procedure is not 100% safe, far from it. My life giver died on November 4, 2003. Today, I continue my life and his. This is the first time in France that an HIV-positive woman has received this transplant. But I only found out a year later. One day, I asked Professor Rozenbaum, who has been following me since the beginning of my triple therapy: "How many HIV-positive people have been transplanted?" He said to me: "You are two, a boy and a girl." Organ donation, we have to talk about it. There is a terrible shortage: 11,000 requests per year, for 3,800 that succeed. I understand that a parent does not want us to take everything from his child, but a single organ, what can that do?

You learned of your contamination very young, at 17, and you never said anything?

Sometimes yes. There are a few people who, indeed, will be able to brag, "See, I told you, it wasn't just a rumour!" On Jean Anouilh's play, Roméo et Jeannette, for example, I confided my secret to one of the actors. To my lovers too, to a few relatives, it was my way of relieving myself, I had no right to say it at home! The family instruction was silence, it was their way of helping me. At the time, we didn't wonder if it would be better to talk about it, to see a shrink. The family of my father, a retired engineer, is bourgeois, Breton, dispersed in Paris. My mother didn't even confide it to her sister! But without this instruction, this weight of silence, I realize today, I would have spoken to more people and I would surely have worked less. Rumors circulated. I remember a handsome guy, who lived near my house. We see each other at the greengrocer's, I look at him - I like handsome guys - we drink a Coke. He said to me: "Is it true that you have AIDS?" Here, for once, you have to go quickly. I looked surprised: "Really?" And I chained: "Well no."

Actress Charlotte Valandrey on the cover of L'Express, September 22, 2005.

L'Express

In 1987, the State launched the first national campaign against AIDS, and triple therapy did not yet exist. Your body defends itself for ten years, you stay healthy...

Because HIV, I didn't "calculate" it, I ignored it. Because I left him no room. Never. The day I found out I was HIV positive, I put it aside. I acted like I wasn't. Apart from the two blood tests a year, I refused to think about it. In the morning, when I got up, I didn't think about it. AIDS, at the time, came down to just that: don't shake hands, don't touch, don't eat, don't drink from someone else's glass. I didn't try to find out more, I was just honest with each of my partners. For the first ten years, a female doctor followed me at Saint-Louis Hospital. She looked at my results, minimum service, "Goodbye, see you next time": that was fine with me. At 20, I ate a lot, I weighed up to 62 kilos, it was not big, it was round. I was not aware of it, but AIDS is linked to thinness. My pounds meant: I'm healthy, look, I'm chubby! In the cinema, on TV, I shot as much as possible, multiplied the effort as one struggles. Death, that bitch, I kept her at a distance.

In Rouge Baiser, the film by Véra Belmont which revealed you, Lambert Wilson has this line about your character: "It's a tough life, these little critters." And is HIV tough?

I never felt in my body what was marked on the reports of the labs: there was no stain on the skin, no headaches, no infection. This abstraction helped me. I kept my girlish figure for the first fifteen years. But for the past five years, I've put on a belly, my breasts have grown, my legs have lost weight, even though the triple therapy has made the presence of the virus almost undetectable. It's hard to see your body change, especially in the world of actors, who run on desire, beauty, fresh flesh. With this book, I entered a phase of acceptance, I can't help it, it's the result of the drugs. On my chest, the graft left a fine scar, almost invisible, almost too much! I'm proud of it, I wear it like a pendant, a piece of tribal jewelry, it's part of me.

At 17, you are propelled new muse of French cinema, it's young...

Too young. I wanted to be unique, apart, recognized. After Rouge Baiser, success, effervescence, celebration, that suited me very well! At 16, I was earning my living. My parents bought me a studio, when I was not at all prepared... Today, in therapy, with the shrink, we only talk about that, about this paradox. I didn't distrust love. I was carefree, like girls my age, maybe a little more. I didn't know anything about AIDS, apart from the stuff I heard on TV: the target was gay people, drug addicts. I didn't feel concerned. However, I fell in love with an addicted musician, and other risky boys. At home, kid, I had all the rights, I lived a hyperprotected childhood, so reality, I looked for it far away, with guys skinned alive. My parents' permissiveness made me fearless, immortal. I kept this conviction for life: it gave me too much confidence, but it saved me.

When you open the Chambon laboratory envelope, is it a shock?

On the sofa, that day, I sort my mail. A postcard from Thailand, the blue sea, the palm trees, and, below, a white envelope. I was expecting it. Time to unfold the paper, I see: "Positive HIV serology." My head spins upside down, 360 degrees: "Zap, Charlotte, zap." It was necessary to slip, to deny. In two seconds, I covered everything. Time to run to the bathroom, why, why me? I detail this girl's body, shapely, firm, my arms, my hands, everything seems normal. In a few days, I turn 18: happy birthday! I will never know who gave me the virus. If I took the test, it was because I had taken risks, but no more than others. I'm going to tell my parents, and then forget, live fast, forget about this thing in my blood. Maybe that's what kept me going for ten years without taking medication.

Without ever opening your mail, paralyzed at the sight of an envelope with a piece of tracing paper!

My mother opened it; I couldn't anymore. Good or bad, I didn't care, I didn't want any more news, just to be left alone! Today, it drags on, it overflows. Every fortnight I collect the letters, pile them up, unopened, in a corner of the apartment. After three months, I finally tackle it. It's inscribed in me, like DNA, for life: "Don't open your mail regularly."

And don't listen to music...

The day I learned that I was HIV-positive, I put all my desires aside. Kids make youthful mistakes, mine seemed irreparable to me. I then decided to punish myself: I would never listen to music again, I who loved looping Sanson, Higelin, Telephone in my studio. Alone, I will no longer dance, I will no longer sing, I will not cheat with myself, but I will smile at others, I will show my vitality, I will pretend.

The public knows you as one of the stars of the series Les Cordier, broadcast on TF1. And in the cinema, what happened?

I took a slap, very violent, at 19 years old. That, I had never spoken of. At the time, I was one of two or three actresses of my generation, with Sophie Marceau or Charlotte Gainsbourg, who were popular. A famous director then offered me a lead role. The rehearsals last several months, the shooting will start soon, I have to release my secret. I tell the director. He just had to answer: "My poor Charlotte!" And then we didn't talk about it anymore. However, the film will be made with another actress, because the production refuses to insure me. The filmmaker didn't bother to tell me. I learned it by rumor: it wasn't me anymore, that's all. I cashed! If I had made this film, Noce blanche, I sincerely believe that my career would have been different. It was from there that I started to give up, to turn to the radio or the animation of TV shows (Flashback on M6). Something had broken, the cinema had left me.

In the casting of the Cordiers, in 1992, TF1 said no to your name, at the start?

I didn't have a good reputation, people said I was a bit of a pain, a bit on drugs, not in great shape. Gaining weight, losing weight, no longer going out... weird, isn't it? She must be on drugs! Fortunately, Alain Bonnot, the director, insisted. I redid the tests, I was taken. When it was safe, signed, I went up the large production corridor, where, that day, we were doing a reading, and, facing the producer, I rolled up my sleeves, stretched out my arms: " Look, Nelly, I don't see any bite marks!" It was a spontaneous gesture, not premeditated. I couldn't stand the rumor going around anymore - Charlotte is destroying herself - when every morning was a fight. The producer never forgot that scene, neither did I.

In February 1995, a blood test revealed for the first time a significant drop in your white blood cell count...

I have a stomach ache, I even find it difficult to leave my house. I tell my parents that I might be sick, soon unable to hide our secret. Without saying a word, my father keeps abreast of the progress of medical research. He hears about a new molecule which comes from the United States and gives good results. On TV, he spots a French doctor who we see more and more, who speaks with conviction: Professor Willy Rozenbaum. My father writes to him, gets me an appointment. After several months, the doctor prescribed my first doses of AZT. At first, I was reluctant, these pills reminded me of my invisible illness, but I realized the obvious: I had to take care of myself.

Your book, L'Amour dans le sang, is a summary of survival. There are three essential remedies. Number 1, your father...

My life is inseparable from his. His silence, his excessive modesty weighed on me for a long time. The first ten years, he never accompanied me to a doctor! At the beginning of triple therapy, on the other hand, he took care of me. I went back to my parents' house for a month, to my teenage bed: my father got up, crushed my pills, because swallowing them tore my throat. On an empty stomach, when we woke up, that was what awaited us, me and the others, three disgusting pastilles. Later, after my transplant, in 2003, my father was there. He was the first person I called, at the nursing home. Like a kid: "Help, come get me!" I stayed three and a half weeks in rehabilitation. In syrup, infusion, in cachet, I tried everything, but I threw up my anti-rejection treatment, it smelled of cod! My father bought me yoghurts, coconut flavor, which I like. What I loved was his love in little jars. Among the men I looked for, desired, I had no physical criteria, or rather, only one: that they look like my father.

No. 2, humor...

A survival reflex! It helps, it blinds, I've always liked to laugh, even at myself. Anonymous in the room of the Saint-Antoine hospital, after the heart transplant, I had fun imagining the surprise of the nurse, if she had known that the luscious girl on TV was me! I saw myself giving the recipe to my famous girlfriends who dreamed of going incognito: wear a "Saint-Antoine Hospital" branded blouse and lose 17 kilos in six months. There are also times when we throw ourselves under the duvet. I cried a lot, it helped me. What supported me, too, was psychoanalysis. Fifteen years of therapy allowed me to understand that I was guilty of nothing - it relieves.

And number 3, the drugs...

For me, it's 23 pills a day. Christmas or Valentine's Day, summer or winter, working days or holidays, I must have them with me, everywhere, for life. Cross Paris if I forget them. The yellow ones, the round ones, the oval ones, I know them by heart. Twenty minutes late is already too much! Pride takes a hit, I hate addiction. The cachets are benefactors and cannonballs. If we don't take them, we die. Science has made enormous progress. I remember that ten years ago my mother took me, with the money from her book, to a healer who injected ozone into my veins! It cost her 40,000 francs, she would have put all her savings into it. Since I became a mother myself, I realize that she was constantly worried about me.

How did you experience your desire for a child and your relationships with men?

First, there is the fear of saying it. On this, there are no rules, I take my time or I throw myself into the water - "I should tell you something". Often, I throw it like that. There are those who run away leaving me letters. “There are three words that scare me: police, army, AIDS,” Roman, a theater manager, who was of Romanian origin, wrote to me. Another, comedian, told me: "Sexually, it won't do it."

Two men have truly shared your life. You say an incredible thing about them: "We used to protect ourselves sometimes, but not all the time."

I found it both beautiful and odious. No net, few condoms. The first, Christophe, was a daredevil of love, a guy who rode a motorcycle, who broke 15,000 times 15,000 things. The second, Oscar, with whom I was married from 1999 to 2003, absolved himself of guilt by accepting me. It meant: "I am worth something, I am a good person." At the time, we say to ourselves: phew! the other accepts. And at the same time this consent also disturbed me. There was no place in these two married lives for illness. To deny it is not a solution. Today, I am learning to give it its place, to give myself my place.

Finally, at 30, you decide to have a child?

The desire for a child, at the beginning, we hesitate to feel it: we must not feel it, we are not entitled to it. One day - it may seem selfish - we feel like it, we do it. When you save your skin, you have no choice. This desire for a child is the fruit of my will to survive. Science, too, has made progress, Professor Rozenbaum had confirmed us: no woman had transmitted HIV to her baby, according to the cases recorded at the time. Tara was born five years ago, she is HIV negative. We had to wait several months, during which she took preventive AZT, before being really reassured. The first year, I couldn't love her, I was afraid that she would get sick, afraid of dying. I remained detached. The virus, sometimes, gets in the way. Luckily, her dad took great care of her. Me, I couldn't be alone a day with her. The drama lurked. At the time, I was obsessed with concentration camps, with the image of Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice, forced to choose between her two children. I saw myself, Tara in my arms, forced to choose which of us would stay alive: her or me? Both. But it came close.

In 2003, your heart is about to let go, the indefatigable is tired?

I had a heart attack, then a second. I obviously see a symbol there: I loved too much, took things to heart too much. This organ, I abused it, it ended up letting go. In June of that year, I walk a little less far every day, I take more time for everything, to get dressed, to wash myself, to move on. I have water in my stomach that my heart no longer chases. When I arrive, in August, at the cardiology department of the Saint-Antoine hospital, I weigh 36 kilos, I have a thin waist, very thin, I dress in 12 years. I am told: "You have to be grafted." At no time did I imagine that my existence was going to end! Ending up on tinplate and synthetic sheets was not in the program at all! I yelled at my heart: "Say, you haven't pissed me off all my life to let me go?" After two weeks of resuscitation and two weeks of intensive care, I have enough strength to go home, weak but alive.

We put you on an emergency waiting list. After a month, a graft is available...

I don't realize anything, I don't realize that I'm going to be sawn in half, that the operation will last seven hours, that this type of transplant is a medical first in France, on an HIV-positive woman. I don't want to know, I'm immortal once again. Denying my physical reality helped me. In the recovery room, superbly connected, connected to the blood and air machine, I very quickly felt my graft beating. I adopted him. Sweetheart, this is my pre-Christmas present - I had surgery in November - a very nice present. My only concern was: what if I get the heart of someone who was even more in love than me, crazier, more passionate? Did he love more than me? I thought it belonged to a woman. She saved me, that changes everything. A priori, I no longer have the right to want to fuck myself out the window, you have to get back on your feet.

The shrinks insist that children must be told the truth, that they understand everything. What does your daughter know?

Already, she knows that my heart has been replaced, she worries, watches me take tons of drugs. And, before the release of the book, I told her about a germ in my blood, explaining to her that she hadn't caught it, thanks to her birth by cesarean section. Oscar, her father, is very afraid of the reactions of other parents and their children to Tara. She needs to be prepared...

Your ambition was to be unique. Today first French transplanted and seropositive, you made it?

Yes, it's true. Not as I had expected! A few months ago, doctors advised me: "Why not meet people like you, to see how they grow, gain muscle mass...?" I never wanted to meet other people like me. I thought about it, I could have, but I wouldn't have been unique anymore...

What do you expect from the future?

After the transplant, I was completely broken morally, physically. When we have fallen so low, we no longer see things in the same way, we go straight to the point, we stop dreaming, hoping for wonderful things. I want to redo theater, a TV series, want another child, a new companion. I am passionate about yoga. One summer night, a year ago, I heard Lebanese songs on the radio in the car. I opened the door and danced for two hours on a Seine quay. For the first time, I had the impression of hearing the music again. I'm coming back to it little by little. Desires take on tastes, shapes, smells. Before, nothing was useless. Today I feel good. Already at the foot of death, I didn't really feel sick! Now I am serene, freed from my secret. It was thanks to my parents, to their love stored up during the first fifteen years of my cloudless life, that I had the strength to fight. It wasn't a fight. It was a faith in life.

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