‘Maybe the guy’s a masochist’: how Anthony Fauci became a superstar

The US diseases expert has been spoofed by Brad Pitt and lauded as the ‘sexiest man alive’. Now the pop culture phenomenon is the focus of a documentary

Beer and bobbleheads. Candles, colouring books, cupcakes and cushions. Dolls, doughnuts, hoodies, mugs and socks. T-shirts and yard signs that declare “Dr Fauci is my hero” and “In Fauci we trust”.

Anthony Fauci, an 80-year-old scientist, doctor and public servant, has become an unlikely cult hero for millions of people during the Covid pandemic.

The phenomenon says much about his devotion to saving lives, as well as his willingness to listen and his role as a candid truth-teller. But it also reveals much about the US, a polarised country where face masks and vaccines have become as controversial as abortion and gun rights – and where science itself is under siege.

“At the core of Tony’s popularity is that people intuit that this is a man who is speaking the truth and will not let anything stand in the way,” says John Hoffman, the co-director of a new documentary, Fauci. “Tony is the signal amid the noise. People are able to sense that there’s a lot of noise and their ears are trying to find the signal and Tony is the signal.”

A yard sign in support of Anthony Fauci in Rockport, Massachusetts
Cult hero ... a yard sign in Rockport, Massachusetts. Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters/Alamy

The film begins with a split screen: the Fauci of today and the Fauci of four decades ago walking the same journey to his desk. It is a portrait of a man whose career has spanned seven US presidents and been bookended by the two great pandemics of the past century: HIV/Aids and Covid.

In both cases, he has been a lightning rod for public emotion: revered as a hero by some, reviled as a villain by others. Janet Tobias, the film’s other director, says Fauci has a “grounded charisma”: “He was forged in the Aids pandemic and he was tested in the Covid pandemic.”

Fauci worked at his parents’ pharmacy while growing up in Brooklyn, New York. It was an unpretentious childhood where you did not get intimidated, he says in the film – “or, as we used to say, you didn’t take shit from anybody”.

He took up clinical medicine during an internship and residency at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, then arrived at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, as a clinical fellow in 1968.

In 1981, Fauci turned his research focus to early scientific reports of a mysterious disease that at first had stricken gay people, intravenous drug users and people with haemophilia. It would become known as Aids.

In one of six interviews he gave to the film-makers, Fauci is seen fighting back tears as he recalls an Aids patient who lost their sight. Asked why it still affects him, he pauses, clenches his jaw and says: “Post-traumatic stress syndrome. That’s what it is.”

By 1984, he had become the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a position he still holds. A self-confessed workaholic, he had little time for romance.

But one day, the film recounts, he was treating a Brazilian man who could not speak English. Christine Grady, a nurse who had spent two years in Brazil and spoke Portuguese, was summoned to act as an interpreter. Fauci asked her to tell the patient that his ulcers were not completely healed, so, if discharged, he would have to keep his legs elevated and change the dressings frequently.

‘The signal amid the noise’... watch the trailer for Fauci.

But the patient, who had spent months in hospital, said “no way” and vowed to go to the beach every day and go dancing at night. “I sort of gulped and thought: what the heck am I going to do now?” Grady says. She decided to assure Fauci that he would do exactly what he said.

“A day later, I saw Dr Fauci in the hallway. He said to me: ‘I’d like to see you in my office,’ and I was certain that I was caught and going to be either reprimanded or fired.” In fact, he asked her to dinner.

The couple married in 1985 and have three daughters. The documentary offers a rare insight into the impact on his family of his 12-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week work schedule. “I wouldn’t say I neglected the raising of the children, but I did not sacrifice professional things as much as maybe I should have,” he says. “I was not going to every soccer match, every track meet, every swim meet. Chris did everything.”

The Faucis did have a rule, however, about always eating dinner together as a family, no matter how late at night. His eldest daughter, Jenny, recalls with good humour him arriving home only to start dancing with her mother, even as the kids were desperate to eat.

Some viewers who light Fauci candles or eat Fauci cupcakes might be surprised to learn from the film that he was condemned as a “murderer” by HIV/Aids activists in the late 80s and early 90s for moving too slowly to find treatments. Protesters outside the NIH are seen holding placards that read “Dr Fauci, you are killing us”. Some burned him in effigy or carried a mock-up of his head on a stick.

Fauci and his wife, Christine Grady
‘I was not going to every soccer match, every track meet. Chris did everything’ ... Fauci with his wife, Christine Grady. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Peter Staley, an HIV/Aids activist since his diagnosis in 1985 and a participant in the film, recalls in a phone interview: “He was the de facto head of Aids research for the US government and we were very unsatisfied with how that research effort was going. We felt the Aids clinical trials group Tony set up at NIAID had major problems and wasn’t finding the drugs we needed to prolong our lives, so we had major issues with how he was running research there.”

Fauci heeded the anger and wondered what he was missing. In October 1989, he ventured into the lions’ den of a meeting with the biggest activist group, Act Up, and listened to its members’ concerns.

Steven Wakefield, a human rights and HIV/Aids activist, recalls by phone: “It revealed who he was. Most individuals, when you get in their face and say: ‘You’re wrong, you’re a killer, you’re the worst person on the planet,’ will walk away. What it said was: ‘That’s not who I am. I’m going to go into a place and tell them who I really am and listen to why they’ve come to believe I could be such a monster.’”

It was a display of humility that changed the way clinical trials were done, recognising the limits of the scientific establishment and bringing diverse populations into the process. This lesson of community engagement was applied to clinical trials for Covid, ensuring the inclusion of African Americans, Latinos and other groups.

Fauci won the respect and friendship of Aids activists such as Staley, who remains an adviser to him in the Covid pandemic and says: “I almost think our friendship has got a hefty side of S&M to it. I love the guy, but half the time I’m very frustrated with him and almost furious at times, including the past two years during Covid.

“I’m an activist, so I tell him in very blunt terms on almost a weekly basis what my frustrations are and it doesn’t seem to diminish the friendship; if anything, it strengthens it. That shows a character that very few people have. I find it pretty extraordinary and I call it S&M because maybe the guy’s a masochist. I don’t know. I’m beating him up on a pretty constant basis.”

Covid proved to be, in Fauci’s words, a “diabolical repeat” of the Aids crisis. This time, it was his misfortune to be working on a White House taskforce under Donald Trump, who waffled over mask wearing, pushed unscientific cures and played down the danger, insisting the virus would disappear “like a miracle”.

As ever, Fauci is circumspect on camera, making clear that he disagreed with the president, but abstaining from fruity language. But what were those toe-curling televised briefings like for Staley to watch? Did he fear that his friend was dying inside?

“To watch him have to stand behind some real craziness was kind of uncomfortable. Those are the conversations where I started getting angry and I started pushing him to resign from the taskforce, saying: ‘You can’t be standing behind him when he says “China virus” any more.’

‘I think he showed that he’s really a classy guy’ ... Brad Pitt as Fauci on Saturday Night Live.

“Thankfully, after Trump did the bleach thing [suggesting that disinfectant could be injected as a cure for Covid], there were no more instances of Tony having to stand behind Trump, so that problem kind of went away. But, yeah, it was painful. The great news is that on 20 January this year, Trump was gone and Tony was still at his desk.”

Suddenly, in the twilight of his long and storied career, Fauci found himself thrust into the limelight: a bulwark of truth against Trump’s mendacity and torrents of online misinformation. He became ubiquitous on television, magazine covers and merchandise. Thousands of people signed a petition to make him People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” and he was played by Brad Pitt on the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live.

The sketch was a perfect illustration of the circular nature of fame and how Fauci finds himself at the centre of it. When TV interviewers had asked him lightheartedly which actor might best play him in a film, he had joked that it should be Pitt. SNL duly delivered, with Pitt sitting behind a doctor’s desk wearing a grey wig, Fauci specs and a Fauci tie. Imitating Fauci’s voice, Pitt introduced clips of Trump by saying: “Tonight, I would like to explain what the president was trying to say – and remember, let’s all keep an open mind!”

Pitt earned an Emmy nomination and the sketch has been viewed more than 14m times on YouTube. Fauci himself said: “I think he showed that he’s really a classy guy when, at the end, he took off his hair and thanked me and all the healthcare workers.”

Anthony Fauci filming an interview for the documentary Fauci
‘It’s amusing, it’s interesting, but you can’t take it seriously’ ... Fauci on his celebrity. Photograph: Visko Hatfield/National Geographic for Disney+

Perhaps it was inevitable that, after entertainment and politics became indistinguishable from one another (the host of The Apprentice was elected president), the same would happen to scientists caught in politicians’ orbit.

Among the satirical foils for Fauci is Larry David, who plays a curmudgeonly version of himself in the improvisational comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Both are gravelly voiced Brooklynites of the same generation with no airs and graces. Fauci says in the film: “I was a kid from Brooklyn, and Brooklyn to Manhattan is like New York state to Rome.”

When Fauci had to deal with Trump, he faced countless socially awkward situations reminiscent of those that befall David’s on-screen persona. At one White House press briefing, the president attempted humour by calling the state department “the deep state department”. One YouTuber zoomed in on Fauci’s reaction – despairing glance downwards, hand to forehead – and added the Curb Your Enthusiasm theme music.

Fauci could not be accused of shunning his cultural currency. In April last year, he held a private video call with more than 30 celebrities including Orlando Bloom, Kim Kardashian West, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Gwyneth Paltrow, Katy Perry and 2 Chainz.

The hour-long call was reportedly Kardashian West’s idea and allowed those taking part to ask anything they wanted about Covid. Fauci told CNN that he did it because the celebrities had “megaphones” and “could get the word out about staying safe” to their huge followings on social media.

To his critics, it looks like another example of Fauci’s extravagant ego trip. To his admirers, it was evidence of his shrewdness as a communicator. Wakefield says: “This film shows you that he’s someone who has done the work, who has integrity around what he’s saying and is not seeking fame. I have not known anyone with more humility in my lifetime.”

In the documentary, Fauci himself says about celebrity: “It’s amusing, it’s interesting, but you can’t take it seriously, because then you’ll start thinking that you’re something that you’re not. However, built into that are some fun things.”

What explains his sudden ascent to national treasure – and heart-throb – status? “People were really looking for someone they could trust, who would be their guide,” suggests Tobias. “He represented that, because he was communicating on a daily basis about Covid.

“I often thought, being around him, that there were aspects of America that were like being in a gigantic, digital Roman forum. You had a situation where there were people who were encouraging the crowd to throw roses and then encouraging the crowd to throw garbage. Tony happened to be the person who entered the Roman forum and had to deal with all that in a digital age, where it is so amplified and takes on characteristics that you couldn’t have imagined in Rome.”

Anthony Fauci at the NIH
Workaholic ... Fauci at the NIH. Photograph: Visko Hatfield/National Geographic for Disney+

Fauci’s unexpected celebrity comes with a dark side in a country where more than 80 million people are still unvaccinated and there are furious clashes over mask mandates in schools, even as the Delta variant sweeps through the US and kills 1,500 people a day.

Fauci personifies this divided, hyperpoliticised US, joining Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as a bogeyman for the anti-science, conspiracy theorising right. Says Bill Gates: “This phenomenon, just telling the truth, has made him an enemy and a rock star all at once.”

Trump frequently assails him and is particularly obsessed with mocking Fauci’s poor ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game. Crowds at the former president’s rallies respond to Fauci’s name with bilious demands of: “Lock him up!” The Republican senator Rand Paul has sent a criminal referral on Fauci to the justice department. The Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene has proposed a “Fire Fauci Act”.

The doctor was given a security detail after receiving death threats. In the film, he is seen on the phone in summer 2020 complaining to Staley: “These fucking dark web people are really getting bad; they’re really harassing Chris. One of them called up violent threats eight times today on a cellphone … They’re harassing my daughters constantly, which really bothers me more than anything else.”

Staley was among those who hoped the worst was over with the end of Trump’s presidency. But he says by phone: “It’s gotten twice as bad since the last year. Now, Fox News [appears to have] made him enemy No 1 and it’s getting absolutely insane. The death threats are unrelenting. They arrested a guy a couple of months ago that made horribly threatening emails and was not far away. I do think it’s weighing on him now.”

But Fauci has had a thick skin since his childhood days in Brooklyn and those disquieting years as the public enemy of HIV/Aids activists. When someone attacks, his instinct is not to immediately fight back. As he says in the film: “Using The Godfather as the great book of philosophy, it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business.”

• Fauci is released in the US on 10 September and in the UK on 17 September

Contributor

David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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