12/11/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
KEITH LEWIS WASN'T SURE ANYONE would show up. In January 1994, drug manufacturer Abbott Laboratories had asked Lewis, president of the Morgan Model Agency in Costa Mesa, Calif., to find an HIV-positive model to appear in a campaign for Advera, a high-nutrient drink for people with HIV. Though Lewis passed the word to friends and doctors, he didn't expect much. Who, after all, would want to advertise he had contracted the virus? But when Lewis arrived for work two weeks later, his office was jammed with nearly 100 men and women eager to talk about their illness. "They wanted to prevent someone else from getting AIDS," he says.
A few months later, Lewis—a descendant of Meriwether Lewis, the explorer of the American West—opened Proof Positive, the first modeling and talent agency in the country devoted exclusively to people with HIV and AIDS. To his 52 models, who get most of their work in public service campaigns and HIV-related pharmaceuticals ads, the compensation is often more psychological than monetary. "For someone to want me to promote health is incredible," says model David Herndon White, 34, who lost 36 pounds after being diagnosed with AIDS in June 1993, but has since regained enough weight to appear in a campaign for Y.M.L.A. sportswear.
For Lewis—who is himself HIV negative—managing models was the closest he could get to realizing his childhood ambition of becoming an actor. Born in Danville, Va., he studied drama at Lynchburg College and at the State University of New York at Albany, but dropped out to work at a series of jobs to provide for his wife, Conni Theisen, and later their daughter Madison, 9, and son Brian, 8. After a divorce in 1989, he found a job at a talent agency in California (where he lives near his ex-wife and children), then started the Morgan Agency in 1992, specializing in young adults.
At first, Lewis didn't disclose that Proof Positive was a division of Morgan, fearing Morgan might be harmed by it. Then a year and a half ago, encouraged by his models' candor, he went public. One Morgan client dropped him, but Proof Positive, with billings in six figures, has more than made up for the loss. Not that he wants it to exist for long. "I can't wait," he says, "till AIDS is over with."