RMT’ers, coming up in just under two weeks is the California Women’s Conference here in Long Beach! This conference is not just a long-standing local tradition but also has a great reach throughout the state of California and the Southern California and Southwest region of the country in whole. This conference is where thousands of women gather to learn, grow, and laugh with one another and hear more about how to build brands and create and compound on their small business ideas. And some – like me – will just go to hear all the awesome speakers for some general positive inspiration for daily living.
When I learned that this year’s conference was featuring actor and comedian Geri Jewell as a speaker on a panel for Women in Comedy, I was sold. Jewell has been an inspiration to me since childhood when she was featured on the early-1980s television series “The Facts of Life” as Cousin Geri, character Blair’s relative with Cerebral Palsy (CP). Jewell’s role wound up being so well-received by fans that she became the first actor with a permanent disability featured in a recurring prime time TV role. From there, Jewell’s acting and stand-up career catapulted beyond her wildest dreams, including her more recent recurring role as the character Jewel in HBO’s popular mid-2000s series “Deadwood.”
Also, Jewell was inspirational to me as a little girl for a very special reason. I happen to have a cousin who has been living with Cerebral Palsy (CP) her whole now-25-plus years. When my cousin was born, it was hard for me to understand why this happened to some babies and not to others. However, my cousin – like Jewell – has never once seen it that way nor ever sat on the sidelines of this world or her own life; like Jewell, she’s rolled up her sleeves and fought for every single day she’s been given and made the most of it. My cousin made goals to graduate high school (which she did), create and grow her own charity and annual fundraiser (which is five-plus years running now), and work as an inspirational speaker in her community. While I don’t get to see my cousin on a regular basis, I think of her often and hold her close to my heart, especially when I am having a struggle or rough time of it; I very quickly am able to turn my bad ‘tude around because I know that’s what J would do, and she’d do it without hesitation or complaints. Her strength is as admirable as her spirit.
So when I got the chance to get a brief, written interview with Jewell, I jumped at the chance, probably a little too high and a little too loudly (sorry to my friend who helped to set this up if I shocked you at all with my unbridled enthusiasm!). Needless to say, I was excited, grateful, and humbled for the opportunity. And I am also humbled by the responses that Jewell shared with me, proving yet again that she’s just a force to be reckoned with – a positive, upbeat, funny-ass force – and one that just keeps going, and going, and going. If we all could have just half her positive outlook and a sliver of her ambition, what an even more wonderful world this truly could be!
With that, I now share with you the 10 questions that Geri Jewell answered for me and for you, my dear RMT’ers! Enjoy the read, and maybe you, too, will find a bit of inspiration below just as I have. Happy Wednesday!
10 Questions with Geri Jewell (The First Exclusive Interview for Real Mom Time (RMT)!)
1. What intrigued you about acting and entertaining in general?
“I have always been a creative person, and was inspired by Carol Burnett in how she was able to turn laughter around; people laughed with her, not at her.”
2. Your role in “The Facts of Life” was groundbreaking at the time for ALL persons with chronic illness and/or physical disabilities. How did the role of Cousin Geri come about as a recurring role on a prime-time sitcom, and how did you land the part?
“I was introduced to Norman Lear in 1980. I had started doing stand-up in 1978, and Norman wrote “me” into “The Facts of Life” as Blair’s cousin. It was supposed to be only one episode, but because the ratings were so high, and the response was amazing, the had me return as a recurring character.”
3. Cerebral Palsy (CP) is no laughing matter, of course, but for some reason you are and always have been able to use humor in a way that makes others feel comfortable around those with CP and in turn use your positive outlook, attitude, and demeanor to educate others about CP in general. What prompted you to adopt humor and comic relief in your approach?
“Truthfully, I came from a family that had a wonderful sense of humor. I got that from my Mom. At some point I had seen a medical report on me when I was about 4 years old. The question was: Does your child show any signs of awkwardness? My mom wrote: Always. But then again, not as awkward as I feel answering such a silly question regarding cerebral palsy. The Doctor laughed, my Mom laughed… but I was too young to appreciate the humor – so I awkwardly just was in a state of utter confusion….”
4. As a person with CP and from your life and family experience, and from an offspring’s perspective, what advice would you give to my RMT audience of parents who might be struggling short- or long-term with the diagnosis of their own child(ren)? In other words, what are some of the positive memories of how you were you parented that made you the upbeat, honest, and funny person you are today despite your own challenges?
“Always try to treat a child with special needs like you would treat any other child. Allow the child to have a sense of high self-esteem by letting them be a part of the problem solving in family situations. Try not to overprotect as if we are china and will break if we experience frustration and pain. If we do not learn good coping skills as children, they will not be instilled in us as adults. Also, in all the children with disabilities that I grew up with, the most well-adjusted were those who were allowed to be kids first!”
5. What about kids makes you laugh most?
“Their innocence and blunt honesty. They tell it like it is… at the chagrin of us adults… who wish we could say those things now. Funny thing is, comedians do!!!”
6. You released your autobiographical book last year, “I’m Walking As Straight As I Can (2011).” When did you know it was the right time to write and publish your story and share such an intimate, honest account of your life journey with your fans and the public?
“I have wanted to write this book since 1985! And I started it many times over the years. It came in fruition in 2009 because I was ready completely and the universe supported my effort. If it was NOT the right time, it would not have manifested. It was somewhat difficult at times to write, but it was mostly cathartic and allowed tremendous healing and growth. I am at peace with this endeavor, and know that it has helped others in discovering their own healing in their own lives.”
7. Speaking of books, what was your favorite book as a child?
“I honestly did not develop a true “love” of books until I was in high school, but I do remember enjoying The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I also enjoyed all the “Curious George” stories, as well as The Wizard of Oz. AND of course, The Little Engine that Could!!”
8. I’ve heard that you will be a part of a panel on “Women in Comedy” at the California Women’s Conference. Why did you decide to appear at this event?
“I am quite honored to be a part of this conference, and when Harlan (Boll) asked me if I wanted to be a part of it, I was thrilled. It is so nice to be recognized as a woman!!! Meaning, that I have been doing conferences for decades regarding Disability – which is wonderful – but to be embraced as a woman (and one that is funny) ….Well, that is just the icing on the cake!”
9. Aside from entertaining us, what questions and topics do you hope to touch on in your appearance at next month’s California Women’s Conference, and why?
“I have no idea what to expect… I’ll just go with the flow and see where it goes!!! Hopefully though, I will be seen in a more expanded light – and that cerebral palsy is just a small part of who I really am as a human being and a woman.”
10. Who are you personally looking forward to meeting for the first time at the California Women’s Conference and why?
“Again, I have no expectations… I am looking forward to meeting lots of people because that enriches my soul.”
BONUS: Care to share anything else with the RMT readers?
“Teach children how to think, not what to think. Also, our attitudes are the biggest disability in life; once we instill a positive attitude, everything else becomes a healthy challenge rather than an unhealthy burden.”
RMT’ers, California Women’s Conference (CWC) is coming to the Long Beach Convention Center on September 23 and 24, 2012! FROM NOW THROUGH SEPTEMBER 15 use code “Empower12” to get BOTH days of the conference for ONLY $99 when purchasing tickets at http://californiawomensconference.com/ . To redeem: Select the two-day $199 ticket; continue to the next page to fill in your information; and then enter your code into the “Coupon Code” box. Once registered, you will be sent an email with your ticket reservation. Please print and bring to the conference for entry. Speakers this year include Gloria Allred, Stedman Graham, Marcia Cross, Mark Victor Hansen, Michael Learned, Julie Newmar, Tippi Hedren, Dr. John Gray, Shannon Tweed, and more. The full agenda (with ongoing updates) is available here. Watch this video for more star-studded details! CWC was created in 1985 by then-Governor George Deukmejian to address the high failure rate among women-owned businesses by giving women entrepreneurs greater access to funding and other helpful resources. Then-First Lady Gloria Deukmejian assumed responsibility for the conference, which became known as the California Governor and First Lady’s Conference. Today, the tradition of enthusiastically serving women-owned businesses continues under the stewardship of Michelle J. Patterson, CEO of EventComplete. For more information please visit: http://californiawomensconference.com/ . For the latest news and updates, CWC is also on Facebook and Twitter.
Also, for my RMT’ers in the San Diego County area, please save the date of Saturday November 10, 2012, for the 7th Annual Eve Selis/Jessica Smith United Cerebral Palsy (UCP)/Children’s Rainforest Benefit! For just $25 per person (and this is an all-ages event and fun for the entire family), you get a Mexican buffet dinner by Taco Man and live music by seven-time San Diego Music Award-Winning Eve Selis Band along with so much more! For more details and updates, please go to my cousin’s website.