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!”
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.
Tennis legend Martina Navratilova is waltzing onto “Dancing With the Stars.”
She’s joining singer Gladys Knight and National Football League player Donald Driver and other celebrity contestants on the next season of the ABC dancing competition.
Other famous faces participating in the 14th edition include “The View” co-host Sherri Shepherd, singer-songwriter Gavin DeGraw, “Little House on the Prairie” actress Melissa Gilbert and Disney Channel star Roshon Fegan.
The new cast, which also includes “Melrose Place” actor Jack Wagner, “Family Matters” actor Jaleel White, telenovela star William Levy, operatic singer Katherine Jenkins and “Extra” co-host Maria Menounos, was announced on Feb. 28 on “Good Morning America.” The contestants will dance their first routines with their professional partners March 19 and March 26, and the first couple will be eliminated March 27.
Last season, actor J.R. Martinez and professional partner Karina Smirnoff took home the mirrorball trophy with reality TV star Rob Kardashian and partner Cheryl Burke coming in second place in front of former talk show host Ricki Lake and partner Derek Hough. Other previous champions include “Dirty Dancing” actress Jennifer Grey, Pussycat Dolls singer Nicole Scherzinger and gymnast Shawn Johnson.
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The inclusion of Chaz Bono in the cast of “Dancing With the Stars” has already set off a storm of controversy, even though the series doesn’t air until Sept. 19. ABC’s message board has been flooded with negative reactions to the selection of Cher’s transgender son to appear in Season 13 of the popular program. Many of the more than 1,000 comments about the casting of Chaz have accused the program of “pushing a homosexual agenda.”
Christine O’Donnell, the former Senate candidate from Delaware who livened up the 2010 midterm elections, will not be livening up the next run of “Dancing with the Stars.” The new season, which begins in May, will feature Sugar Ray Leonard, Ralph Macchio, Hines Ward and Kirstie Alley. O’Donnell says she was invited, but it seems the right-leaning Tea Party favorite has two left feet. She also posted on her website that she’s at work on a book.
Don’t look for any same-sex couples on the dance floor of next season’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Portia de Rossi, the wife of Ellen DeGeneres, reportedly has turned down the offer to become half of the first same-sex couple to dance on the show, and now producers are scrapping the entire concept.
“If Portia had agreed then this would have been a done deal,” an ABC insider told PopEaters’ Rob Shuter. “She was the only star that could have pulled this off without completely offending the program’s conservative viewers.”
The Human Rights Campaign, responding to media reports of the post, demanded Mamma Grizzly Sarah Palin publicly condemn her daughter’s remarks and make a statement about name-calling among teens. “Anti-gay language by teenagers often starts at home – or at least, that’s where it should be stopped,” HRC executive director Joe Solmonese said, calling on the former vice presidential candidate to address her daughter’s comments.
Margaret Cho is not the first comedian to make the leap from stand-up comedy to singing out. But “Cho Dependent” (Clownery) is in a category all its own.
Cho can sing. She delivers a solid set of songs with some of the hottest musicians out there, including Tegan and Sara, Brendan Benson, Fiona Apple, Andrew Bird, Ani DiFranco and others.
And Cho maintains her sense of humor from start to finish. I spoke with her shortly before she danced her way on to our TVs in “Dancing with the Stars.”
Gregg Shapiro: Did your experience on the True Colors tour play a part in your decision to record an album?
Margaret Cho: It was a huge thing. I had a great time, and I did some music on that tour. Cyndi Lauper really encouraged me to work on my singing voice. (It) really helped shape my musical direction.
GS: You’ve written a few books, screenplays and your comedy material. How does writing song lyrics compare?
MC: It’s kind of similar. There is more restriction on what you can do (in songwriting). You have to contain yourself within a rhythm. It’s a lot more structured than other writing I’ve done, because there is an economy of words. But the need to poeticize experiences is the same.
GS: In the collaboration process, which usually came first – the lyrics or the music?
MC: Generally, the lyrics would come first. The only time that wasn’t the case was with Ben Lee. He wrote the music first and then I wrote lyrics for the music.
GS: The recurring theme of drugs is featured in the songs “Intervention,” “Calling In Stoned” and “Hey Big Dog.”
MC: The culture of addiction is very fascinating. I’ve had my own issues with drugs and alcohol … in a lot of ways I’m still there. There are also other elements of dependency on the album. It’s called “Cho Dependent,” because there are other songs about dependency on people and dependency on ideas of who people are. There are different kinds of addiction and all of that is really fascinating. I have struggled with (it) and continue to, so I think I will always want to write about it.
GS: Was it fun to put a little twang and two-step in your style on “Hey Big Dog” and the murder ballad “I’m Sorry”?
MC: Absolutely. I am a big country fan. Especially alt-country like Patty Griffin, who wrote “Hey Big Dog” with me. … There is a lot of country in my voice as well, so it makes sense to do it. I love that kind of music.
GS: The hidden track is very funny.
MC: I wrote “Lesbian Escalation” with Rachel Yamagata, who is a wonderful singer/songwriter from Chicago. We conducted the whole thing online. We didn’t meet until we came together to record it. All of that was built through trading MP3s back and forth. She’s just amazing. I love the song; I think it has a huge sound.
GS: You’re about to make your debut on “Dancing With The Stars.” Are you looking forward to that?
MC: Yes, I really am. I have been really hard at work for the last several weeks (rehearsing). I can’t wait to start.
GS: Which of your songs would you like to dance to on “Dancing With The Stars”?
MC: I’d like to do “Your Dick,” because that is actually a perfect Viennese waltz.
The next season – can you believe it’s the 11th? – of “Dancing with the Stars” will feature comic Margaret Cho. Other contestants include singer Brandy, ex-basketball player Rick Fox, ex-“Baywatch” dude David Hasselhoff, actors Audrina Patridge and Mike Sorrentino, favorite TV mom Florence Henderson, former teen mom Bristol Palin and, drum roll, “Dirty Dancing” star Jennifer Grey. The season starts this month. Where is WiG placing its bet? “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”