It has been 31 years since the beloved and legendary Freddie Mercury died from complications due to AIDS. Although the Queen singer was aware of his diagnosis four years prior to his passing at the age of just 45, he spent much of those years hiding it from friends and family. And, despite his bandmates knowing something was not right with their friend of more than 20 years, Mercury only shared the full extent of his battle with the terrifying illness with a select few. One of these people was Queen guitarist Brian May, who later revealed the moment Mercury had told him about his debilitating illness, showing him just how much AIDS had ravaged his body.
At the time, a great deal of stigma surrounded AIDS, and while Mercury learned that he had contracted it shortly after Easter of 1987, he strove to keep it hidden, fearful that it might mark the death of his career.
The perception of AIDS has come a long way since: in the year of Mercury’s death, a third of Americans surveyed believed that one could contract the virus through sitting on a public toilet.
AIDS, which has killed some 32 million people around the world, was at that time a death sentence, as even though Mercury had the means to afford the best and newest drugs money could buy, it could not cure it.
Just five years after his death, new drugs were discovered meaning that an AIDS diagnosis no longer equalled death.
In order to hide his illness, Mercury cut back on tours, particularly to America, where HIV testing was mandatory.
Queen’s last ever live show had been at Knebworth Park in 1986, and despite releasing The Miracles album, Mercury insisted that he did not want to tour because he wanted to break the cycle of releasing an album followed by a world tour again and again.
In an interview following his death, May admitted Mercury had, to some extent, succeeded in his plan of hiding the truth of his illness. He said: “We didn’t know actually what was wrong for a very long time. We never talked about it and it was a sort of unwritten law that we didn’t because Freddie didn’t want to.”
Although Mercury shied away from the public for the two years prior to his death – his last public appearance with Queen was at the 1990 Brit Awards – he did at one point reveal just how badly he was suffering.
In an interview with The Times in 2017, May revealed that AIDS had led to Mercury’s foot wearing away. He said: “The problem was actually his foot, and tragically there was very little left of it. Once, he showed it to us at dinner. And he said, ‘Oh Brian, I’m sorry I’ve upset you by showing you that’. And I said, ‘I’m not upset, Freddie, except to realise you have to put up with all this terrible pain’.”
When Mercury knew the end was near, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Rumours had circulated with The Sun previously reporting that Mercury, who would have been 76 on November 24, had been tested for HIV/AIDS in the Eighties.
Just 24 hours before his death on November 24, 1991, Mercury finally went public, releasing a statement through his publicist, Roxy Meades, revealing that he had been battling AIDS.
It read: “Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS. I felt it was correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me.
“However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors, and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.”
At his Garden Lodge home in Kensington, London, where he once hosted exuberant parties for 200 people, Mercury died, surrounded by his cats and long-term partner, Jim Hutton.
The Queen members, May and drummer Roger Taylor have since set up the Mercury Phoenix Trust which seeks to fight the HIV/AIDS crisis worldwide and has so far provided £17million to more than 1,500 projects in almost 60 countries.