By: Kelly Rouba
In the disability community, actress and comedienne Geri Jewell was highly regarded for becoming the first person with a disability to truly break into Hollywood when she landed a regular role on the prime time series The Facts of Life in 1980. But ironically, Jewell now admits she never felt like a star. "What's interesting about what happened to me is that I had always been viewed as a successful person with a disability-somebody who made it-and that just ate me up inside because I was paraded all over the place as someone who made it and (yet) I was so struggling to survive on a daily basis," said Jewell, who has cerebral palsy.
In her newly released autobiography, I'm Walking As Straight As I Can, Jewell recounts what it was like to grow up with a disability and the challenges she faced as an actress and comedienne trying to make it in show business. "There were heart-wrenching experiences that threw me into severe depression and I wondered if I could even keep going. That's why I wrote the book because I wanted to show all sides."
Throughout the book, Jewell reflects on how she was discriminated against and abused by people she trusted during her early years in Hollywood. "My naïveté caused a lot of serious problems, and I guess we could look at it as coyote claws came out to me." Jewell said she was repeatedly taken advantage of and easily manipulated. "People had a tendency to play jokes on me. I had never experienced relationships like that so I didn't know how to handle it. And because I had so little social skills growing up, being thrown into Hollywood with a lot of coyote claws, it was difficult to navigate." She also sets the record straight about her departure from The Facts of Life. "There were rumors that I was fired from Facts and I didn't get along with the girls, I asked for too much money, whatever, and none of those things were true. You know how the internet is-all over the place with rumors-and tabloids and I wanted to tell the story from my perception of what happened during those years." Overall, "I have bittersweet memories of The Facts of Life because I was going through so much at the same time and I was emotionally years younger than my chronological age. I was 23 when I got The Facts of Life, but I was probably emotionally 12. So, I was dealing with a world of people that 12 year olds don't associate with and that came from spending too much time in special education." However, Jewell has changed quite a bit since then. "One of the most amazing moments for me was fairly recently when I was in New York at the TV Land Awards and The Facts of Life was honored as Best Pop Culture Series, and I was able to reunite with all my costars." Jewell said it was an incredible feeling to reconnect with her costars, from Lisa Whelchel to Mindy Cohn. "I had so much gratitude for being reunited with them," she said, adding that getting the award meant a lot to her as well. "I was the first person with a disability ever to be cast on a series and that will never change. That was who I was and what I did, so to be acknowledged 25 years later was just so rewarding and I love everyone-Charlotte (Rae), Kim (Fields), all of them." In the past, Jewell also dealt with a multitude of other personal problems. The book provided a platform for her to candidly discuss theses issues, which range from tax problems to an accident that nearly claimed her life. "I wanted to show others because I've struggled with so many things. I struggled with low self-esteem. I struggled with addiction to prescription meds. I struggled with my sexuality and having to stay in the closet. For a long time, I didn't even know what I was, so I didn't know what closet I wanted to be in." In the telling of her story, Jewell made sure to inject some humor to offset the heavy parts. "That's the difference between my memoir and a lot of the other ones that are out there because a lot of the books I've read, there's no humor," she said, adding, "I'm not saying there aren't heavy parts to my book, but it is very balanced with humor because I believe that balance is important in life overall and even in the telling of life, it's important." Jewell said her autobiography is also laced with spirituality as she wanted to give readers a sense of hope and faith. "It's not bitter. I'm not a bitter human being. I'm not angry. I don't blame everybody under the sun for the things that happened to me. I take accountability for my own situation. I believe firmly that everything we experience in life-whether it's negative or positive-is for a reason." As for advice to others, "the most important thing is to have the faith and to believe in yourself and to keep putting one foot in front of the other," Jewell says. "Even when you think you can't go on and it's dark, there is light." She also stresses that it is important to have a sense of humor. Furthermore, "try to develop a skill of taking life seriously, but not yourself seriously. There's a difference. If you can do that, using humor can actually be a really healing tool." According to Jewell, it was Carol Burnett's comedic style that inspired her to become a comedienne and actress. "I started a pen pal relationship with Carol Burnett, which motivated me," she said. "I just wrote her a letter saying, 'Carol, I love your show. I love your sense of humor. It's so cool that you make fun of yourself. I want to do that too'." In her letters, "Carol always told me never to quit, to keep going, and to get into acting. She told me there were no guarantees I would become professional, but you will never know what you can do unless you try; so that was a big motivating factor." However, Jewell knew from a young age that she had a passion for acting and comedy. "I think I always was a little bit of a ham," she admits, adding that by age 13, she was certain she wanted to become an actress. As for being comedic, "I think, as a kid, I always intuitively felt that the only way the other kids were going to accept me is if I made them laugh. So, I think that became so ingrained in my makeup that even when I'm not trying to be funny, I'm funny. It's just who I am." Best Selection of Authentic Designer Sunglasses. Fast, Free Shipping and Excellent Customer Service! As she got older however, Jewell no longer relied solely on humor to help her in life but also on spirituality. "I guess I've grown so much spirituality that I'm able to use that as my faith in life. I'm not a religious person, but I'm very, very spiritual." Jewell's spirituality has also helped her redefine what it means to have a disability. "I believe that the real disabilities in life are not what we perceive them to be, like having cerebral palsy or being blind or being deaf or whatever it is. I believe that the real disabilities are the broken spirits and the hatred and prejudice and hypocrisy and deception-and these disabilities can happen to any of us if we allow them to." Essentially, "I think the real disabilities in life are the things that cause destruction and the challenge is to get beyond that and to allow (people) to build and to involve and to love and to forgive and that is what life is about." Furthermore, "I think the disabilities that we perceive as disabilities are to me really a part of the human condition or a part of being here. If life was so perfect and everybody was exactly the same-we all had the same level of intelligence-what would be the point of coming into the world? There would be no point." Jewell, who is also a motivational speaker, shares this message along with other advice to audiences around the country. Her schedule of events can be viewed on her Facebook page or on her website: www.gerijewell.com . Over the years, many people have been inspired by Jewell, just as she has been inspired by Burnett. "I told her one time that, 'I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciate what you did for me in motivating me as a kid,' and she looked at me and she said, 'You do know Geri that whether I had written back or not, you still would have done it'." Jewell admits Burnett was right. "Basically, what she was saying was, you've got to give credit to yourself too; you've always had it in you, and I did." Someday, Jewell hopes she gets the chance to work with Burnett professionally. Additionally, "I would love to work more in non-traditional roles and be considered for a role that has nothing to do with a disability, where the disability is coincidental, and I don't think I've done that quite yet." In one of her most recent roles on the show Deadwood, Jewell played a character named Jewel. "It was fun. Actually, it was one of the most challenging roles I had ever had to date. But again, she was known for her disability. It would be neat if I could play the role of a totally psychotic bitch," she laughs. Jewell would also like to see more people with disabilities get into acting. "One of the things I mention in the book is the high unemployment rate of people with disabilities in the industry," she said, adding she hopes groups like the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) and the Writer's Guild of America "get involved with progressively hiring people with disabilities behind the camera and in front of the camera." Visit 4 Medical Supplies for mobility aids to help you get around. We provide lift chairs, stair lifts, electric mobility scooters, electric power wheelchairs, wheelchair lifts and ramps, bath lifts, walk-in bathtubs and much more. Until Jewell, herself, takes on another role, she is enjoying promoting her autobiography. So far, she says, the response has been phenomenal. "If you go on Amazon, you will see it's got only 5 star reviews and people love the book. But, I feel a little naked because I kind of put myself out there-way out there-on a limb." She also offers a piece of advice at the end of the book. "I basically said that there is no such place as 'there'...(or) 'making it.' You are a success each day however you chose to be, but it doesn't mean there is a magical plateau of 'Wow, I've made it!' I think that's what was very difficult for me because that's how I was viewed by the public. I was viewed as this super disabled person with tons of money (and as a) successful movie star and comedienne, and it was a far cry from what my reality really was. But it didn't mean that I was a failure, although I felt like it at the time," Jewell said, adding, "It made me who I am today." Follow @ThisAbled