Comic Jewell headlines Milwaukee fundraiser

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The story went viral: Was Geri Jewell, the actress, stand-up comic, lesbian and disability activist going to be featured on “Dancing With the Stars?”

It turns out that it was Jewell’s own wacky and inspired idea. Her “Dancing with the Stars” gambit says a lot about the determination, humility and humor of Jewell, who will make an appearance at IndependenceFirst’s annual Power Dinner May 23 at Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee. Independence-First is a Milwaukee-based non-profit organization that assists people with disabilities to live independently and achieve their life goals.

“I created a Facebook page called ‘Geri Jewell on Dancing With the Stars,’ ” Jewell said. “And then a week later I woke up and I couldn’t walk and I thought, ‘OK, what is the message here?’”

Her health, complicated by the effects of cerebral palsy, took a turn for the worse in early April. Yet she laughed at the irony of her setback and expressed renewed determination.

“Can I do ‘Dancing With the Stars’? I don’t know. But I look at it this way: Did people think I’d succeed in stand-up comedy? Did people think I’d ever star in a hit sitcom? The odds were against me. There’s no guarantee you can do anything. The important thing is to put out the effort. The important thing is to try.”

Jewell grabbed Hollywood’s attention by bluffing her way onto a telethon for cerebral palsy in 1979. She performed stand-up comedy at the fabled Comedy Store and became the first actor with a disability to star in a network sitcom. She played Cousin Geri on “The Facts of Life” for four seasons. Later, she played the much put-upon Jewell on HBO’s “Deadwood.”

Most recently, she appeared on the FOX series “Alcatraz.” Jewell published her autobiography last year. The title, “I’m Walking as Straight As I Can,” is a wry comment on her disability and her sexual orientation.

The book includes moving testimony about the challenges of living with CP, which is characterized by involuntary movements and perceptual difficulties (in Jewell’s case, substantial hearing loss).

The autobiography also includes anecdotes about actors such as Carol Burnett, Patty Duke and Liza Minnelli and lots of rollicking humor. The stories about her dad’s reaction to her finding condoms in her parents’ bedroom and the earthquake that struck on her wedding night (she was married to a man for 12 years) are hilarious.

Jewell came out as a lesbian in her book and said of the reaction: “It has been 99 percent positive. There were a few people who deleted me as a friend on Facebook but, oh, well. It’s the truth. If I wasn’t going to tell the truth, why write a book?”

“It had always been an open secret. I had a large gay following and all my friends knew. It was just a matter of me maturing and evolving to the point of embracing all of me.”

Jewell was involved in the “NOH8” campaign in sup- port of marriage equality in California and promises to continue her activism. “I believe that I have a spiritual responsibility. Just as I have hopefully created sensitivity and understanding about people with disabilities, I would like to do the same for the GLBT movement. It’s part of who I am – not all of me, but part of me.”

Jewell said the greatest thing about stand-up comedy is “the response of the audience, the smiles and laughter. The biggest high is realizing that you have brought joy to people. The outcome, rather than the process of performing, is the real reward for me.”

When acting in TV and films, the opposite is true, she said. “With movies or TV, you don’t get that immediate response from a live audience. But I really enjoy the process. Whether it’s drama or comedy, I love developing a character and bringing her to life. I have more fun acting than I do going on stage being me.”

Jewell said that opportunities for actors with disabilities are improving, “But we are probably the largest minority group in any industry with the lowest number of people employed.”

There is now a well-organized group that lobbies the studios and networks to hire people with disabilities both before and behind the camera. Jewell thinks the merger of two entertainment unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, will concentrate that effort and enable more entertainers to obtain health insurance, a growing concern for all working people, especially those with disabilities.

The subtitle of Jewell’s book is “Transcending Disability in Hollywood and Beyond.” That is often the theme she addresses in her second career as a motivational speaker. She writes that “it is not about over-coming the disability, but instead learning to accept it so you can live life to the fullest.” “Sometimes I think the real disabilities in life are not what we commonly perceive them to be,” she said. “The real disabilities are prejudice, hatred, abuse, deception, greed, despair. Those are the real disabilities that face all humankind. They threaten all of us.”

“A healthy sense of humor helps all of us to live our lives with greater ease because life is painful.”

When told that she could have another career as a philosopher, Jewell cracked up.

“Oh yeah, like I don’t have enough on my plate!”

She said that in her public speaking, “I try to give back the inspiration that’s been given to me in a million and one ways.”

“I hope by the time this article comes out I’m dancing a little, or at least making progress in that direction,” Jewell said, still thinking about “Dancing With the Stars.”

Then, as if it just dawned on her: “I’ve got a lot of work to do! I gotta go!”

In person

Out comic-actress Geri Jewell is the keynote speaker at the 2012 IndependenceFirst power dinner on May 23 at Potawatomi Bingo casino. For more, go to www.independencefirst.org.