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

Beer and bobbleheads. Candles, colouring books and cupcakes. Dolls, socks, hoodies and mugs. T-shirts and yard signs declaring Dr Fauci my hero and In Fauci, we trust.
Anthony Fauci, an 80 year-old scientist, doctor, and public servant, became a unlikely hero during the Covid pandemic.

This phenomenon speaks volumes about his dedication to saving lives and his willingness to listen. It also reveals his honesty as a truth-teller. It also speaks volumes about the US as a divided country, where vaccines and face masks are as controversial as abortion rights and gun rights, and where science is being attacked.

Tony's popularity stems from people being able to see that he is honest and won't let anyone stop him, says John Hoffman (co-director of Fauci), the director of a new documentary. Tony is the signal in the noise. People can sense when there is too much noise. Their ears are searching for the signal. Tony is that signal.

A yard sign in Rockport Massachusetts that proclaims Cult Hero... Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters/Alamy

The film opens with a split screen showing the Faucis of today and four decades ago making the same journey to their desks. It's a portrait of a man who has seen seven US presidents, and was bounded by two major pandemics in the last century: HIV/Aids (and Covid).

Both times, Fauci has been a magnet for public emotions: he was revered by some and vilified by others. Janet Tobias is the film's other director. Fauci was born in the Aids pandemic, and was then tested during the Covid pandemic.

While growing up in Brooklyn (New York), Fauci worked as a pharmacist at his parents' pharmacy. He describes a simple childhood in which he didn't feel intimidated.

After completing an internship and residency at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center in New York, he became a physician. In 1968, he was appointed a clinical fellow at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda (Maryland).

Fauci began to research early scientific reports on a mysterious disease in 1981. It had initially affected gay men, intravenous drug addicts, and haemophiliacs. It would be known as Aids.

Fauci, in one of six interviews that he gave to film-makers is seen fighting back tears while he recalls the story of an Aids patient who lost his sight. When asked why it still affects his, Fauci pauses and clenches the jaw before he replies: Post-traumatic Stress Syndrome. It is what it is.

He was appointed director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. This position he still holds. He was a self-confessed workaholic and had no time for romance.

The film tells of how he treated a Brazilian man who couldn't speak English one day. Christine Grady, a nurse from Brazil who spoke Portuguese for two years, was called to interpret. Fauci asked her for information to inform the patient that the ulcers had not fully healed. If he was to be discharged, he would need to keep his legs elevated, change his dressings often, and keep his legs elevated.

Fauci: The signal among the noise... see the trailer.

The patient, who had been in hospital for months, refused to believe it and promised to go to the beach every single day, and to dance at night. Grady said. I gulped, and wondered what I was going to do. Fauci was assured by her that she would do what he told him.

The next day, Dr Fauci was waiting for me in the hallway. He told me that he wanted to see me in my office and that if I wasn't caught, I would be reprimanded and fired.

They were married in 1985, and have three children. This documentary gives rare insight into his six-day-a week, 12-hour-a day work schedule. He says that although I didn't neglect the care of my children, I didn't sacrifice my professional goals as much as I should. I didn't go to every track meet, every soccer match, or every swim meet. Chris did it all.

However, the Faucis had a set of rules that required them to eat dinner together every night, regardless of how late it was. Jenny, his eldest daughter, recalls him returning home to dance with her mother while the children were hungry.

Fauci cupcake-lovers and those who light Fauci candles might be shocked to discover that HIV/Aids activists condemned him as a murderer in the late 1980s and early 1990s for not moving quickly enough to find treatment. Placards bearing the words "Dr Fauci, we are killing you" are held by protesters outside of the NIH. Some carried a mock-up or burned him in effigy on a stick.

I didn't go to every track meet or every soccer match. Chris did everything... Fauci with Christine Grady. Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Peter Staley is an HIV/Aids activist who was diagnosed in 1985. He recalls in a telephone interview that he was the de facto head for Aids research in the US and was very unhappy with the way the research was progressing. Tony's Aids clinical trials group at NIAID was a problem. They weren't finding the drugs that we needed to prolong life, so we were very unhappy with the way he ran research there.

Fauci was able to ignore the anger and wonder what he was missing. He ventured into Act Up's lions den in October 1989 to listen to the concerns of its members.

Steven Wakefield, an activist for human rights and HIV/Aids, recalls his phone call: It revealed who it was. Most people will leave if you tell them: You're wrong, you're a killer, and youre the worst person in the world. It said: That's not who you are. I will go to a place to tell them who I am and to listen to their reasons for believing I could be a monster.

This humble display changed the way clinical trials were conducted. It acknowledged the limitations of the scientific establishment, and brought diverse populations into the process. The community engagement lesson was applied to Covid clinical trials, making sure that Latinos, African Americans and others were included.

People were searching for someone they could trust and who would guide them. Janet Tobias was his representative

Fauci gained the friendship and respect of Aids activists like Staley. He says that he almost believes our friendship has a heavy side of S&M. Although I love him, half of the time I find myself frustrated and angry with him, especially during the Covid period.

Being an activist, I often tell him my frustrations in blunt terms almost weekly. It doesn't seem to diminish our friendship, but it does strengthen it. This shows a strength that few people possess. It's quite extraordinary to me. I don't know. I beat him up pretty often.

Fauci described Covid as a repeat of the Aids crisis. It was his misfortune that he was working for Donald Trump's White House Taskforce. He waded over mask-wearing, advocated unscientific treatments, and insisted the virus would go away like a miracle.

Fauci, as usual, is circumspect and direct on camera. He clearly disagrees with the president but refrains from using fruity language. What were those toe-curling, televised briefings like to Staley? He was afraid that his friend might be dying in the inside.

It was quite uncomfortable to watch him stand by craziness. These were the conversations that made me angry. I began pushing him to quit the taskforce. I said: You can't stand behind him when China virus is mentioned.

He showed that he is a classy man, I believe. Brad Pitt as Fauci in Saturday Night Live.

After Trump's bleaching [suggesting that disinfectant might be injected to treat Covid], Tony was no longer required to support Trump. The problem has been resolved. It was hard. It was a relief to know that Trump had left on January 20, while Tony was still at his desk.

In the final stages of his long and distinguished career, Fauci was suddenly thrust into the spotlight: Fauci became a beacon of truth against Trump's lies and misinformation. Fauci was a regular on magazine covers, television and merchandise. He was the subject of a petition signed by thousands to be named People magazine's sexiest man alive. Brad Pitt played him on Saturday Night Live, a late-night comedy.

This sketch is a great example of the circular nature fame and Fauci's position at its centre. He joked with TV interviewers that Pitt would be the best actor to play him in a movie. SNL delivered the goods, with Pitt seated behind a doctor's desk in a grey wig, Fauci specs, and a Fauci tie. Pitt imitated Fauci's voice and said: Tonight, I would love to explain what Trump was trying to say. And let us all remember to keep our minds open!

The sketch was nominated for an Emmy and has been viewed over 14 million times on YouTube. Fauci said that Pitt showed he was a classy man when he took his hair off at the end and thanked me as well as all the healthcare workers.

It's funny, it's interesting, but it's not serious. Fauci on his celebrity. Photo by Visko Hatfield/National Geographic, Disney+

It was perhaps inevitable that entertainment and politics would become indistinguishable (The Apprentice's host was elected president), scientists caught up in the orbit of politicians would follow suit.

Larry David is one of Fauci's satirical foils. He plays a curmudgeonly version himself in Curb Your Enthusiasm, an improvisational comedy series. Both are Brooklynites, gravelly voiced and with no graces. Fauci says in film: Brooklyn to Manhattan is like New York to Rome.

Fauci was confronted with many awkward social situations when he had to deal Trump. These were similar to those that David faced on-screen. One White House press conference saw Trump attempt humor by calling the state department "the deep state department". One YouTuber zoomed in to Fauci's despairing look downwards, placed his hand on his forehead, and added Curb Your Enthusiasm theme song.

Fauci was not accused of shunning his cultural currency. He held a video conference call in April with over 30 celebrities, including Orlando Bloom and Kim Kardashian West, Ashton Kutcher and Katy Perry.

Fox News seems to have made him enemy number 1 and it is getting insane. These death threats never stop

Kardashian West reportedly created the hour-long call and it allowed participants to ask any questions about Covid. CNN reported that Fauci said he did it because celebrities had megaphones, and could spread the word about staying safe to their large followings on social networks.

It looks like Fauci's latest extravagant ego trip to his critics. It was evidence of Fauci's savvy as a communicator, according to his admirers. Wakefield said: This movie shows that he is someone who has done his work, has integrity about what he says and isn't seeking fame. I have never met anyone more humble in my life.

Fauci says this about celebrities in the documentary: It's funny, it's interesting, but you shouldnt take it seriously. Otherwise, you might start to believe that you are something you are not. There are some things that you can do with it.

Why did he become a national treasure and a heartthrob? Tobias suggests that people were looking for someone they could trust and who would guide them. Because he was constantly communicating about Covid, he represented that.

Being around him often made me think that America was like a huge, digital Roman forum. There were many people encouraging the crowds to throw flowers and then encouraging them to throw trash. Tony was the one who entered the Roman forum. He had to deal in digital age with all this. It is amplified and has characteristics you wouldn't have expected in Rome.

Fauci at NIH: Workaholic Fauci Photo by Visko Hatfield/National Geographic Disney+

In a country where over 80 million people still don't have their vaccines, Fauci's celebrity has a dark side. There are also violent clashes about mask mandates in schools. The Delta variant of the disease sweeps the US and kills 1,500 people per day.

Fauci is the embodiment of this hyperpoliticised, divided US. He joins Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to be a bogeyman in the anti-science conspiracy theorizing right. Bill Gates says that this phenomenon has made Fauci both an enemy and a rockstar.

Trump often attacks him, and is especially obsessed with mocking Fauci's poor ceremonial pitch at a baseball match. Fauci's name is often recited by the crowd at former presidents rallies. Rand Paul, a Republican senator, has sent a criminal referral to the justice department. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican congresswoman, has proposed the Fire Fauci Act.

After receiving death threats, the doctor was assigned a security detail. The film shows him complaining to Staley about the fucking dark internet people who are harassing Chris. They harass my daughters continuously, and one of them called me eight times today with violent threats.

Staley was one of those who hoped that Trump's presidency would end all the bad. He said by phone, "It's been twice as bad since last year." Fox News has made him enemy number 1 and it is getting insane. These death threats are relentless. A man who sent out threatening emails was arrested by the police a few months back. He wasn't far from where they were located. It is weighing on him right now, I think.

Fauci, despite his Brooklyn childhood and disquieting years spent as an HIV/Aids activist, has maintained a thick skin. His instinct is to not immediately respond when someone attacks him. He says it in the movie: The Godfather is the greatest book of philosophy. It's not personal. It's business.