by Elyse Glickman
Fran Drescher is the latest celebrity to show America just how chic and wearable Old Navy is. Striding gracefully in the stilettos once filled by soap diva Morgan Fairchild, supermodel Molly Sims and the late 20th century fashion icon and journalist Carrie Donovan, her New York-tinged spark, earthy sexiness and youthful presence breathes life into the already colorful ad spots. But given the extremes she's endured and the heights she's experienced, this is just icing on a cake with a most complex recipe.
Although there are many stars in Hollywood, and several in that group doing inspirational things, Fran Drescher always had a certain resonance in my life. First and foremost, she was living proof that Jewish girls could be sexy, glamorous and successful without having to hide their roots-figuratively or literally. One of her early (and extremely convincing) turns as publicist Bobbi Flekman in the 1983 mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, struck two chords, first during my run as a teen rock journalist (having set up interviews and backstage passes with many a Bobbi Flekman) and then as a publicist in Hollywood (having had to become Bobbi Flekman on a few occasions).
However, there is also the courage she has exuded when she discussed taking on uterine cancer with a warrior's spirit. She successfully channeled her pain into a courageous, outspoken message for other women to heed and comprehend. Even better, she has done it without maudlin tones or an additional agenda. It truly comes from the heart. Having seen my mother cope with a gynecological cancer scare along with a complement of bad medical advice she had to fight her way through, it was easy to be receptive not only to the message, but the way in which it was delivered.
Last fall, Drescher appeared at a glamorous luncheon in a lush Hollywood Hills home for Step Up Women's Network (http://www.stepupwomensnetwork.org), a health-oriented women's charity based in New York and Los Angeles. Although there were luxury items for sale, fabulous edibles from Chaya (a major and very deserving destination restaurant in L.A.), a Burberry's fashion show and an entertaining auction conducted by ex-Spice Girl Geri Haliwell, the afternoon belonged to Drescher. Her choice of words was pointed, the message was intense, and her anger with the medical establishment was evident. However, she maintained her definitive sense of humor and strength.
"I have just begun a new chapter in my life," says Drescher a few weeks after the luncheon. "I am not trying to ride my past. Instead, I am open to all possibilities and will cheerfully let fate carry me in whatever direction, professionally and in other aspects of my life as well."
In addition to the Old Navy ads, Drescher recently lit up the airwaves in ABC Family's modern-day fairy tale, Beautiful Girl. Set in Pennsylvania and shot in Toronto, Drescher portrays Amanda Wasserman, a glamorous career woman and well-intentioned mom to Becca Wasserman (Marissa Jaret Winokur, who starred in the Broadway production of Hairspray), a talented music teacher blessed with a loving Jewish family and devoted fiancé Adam Lopez (Marc Consuelos of All My Children fame and real-life husband of co-star Kelly Ripa). Since a Hawaiian honeymoon proves to be a bit costly for a music teacher and an emerging restaurateur, Becca enters a beauty contest on a lark, hoping to snag the prize of a vacation in the islands. To everybody's surprise, she wins several rounds, only to contend with overprotective Amanda, a scheming former high school rival and her own elevated drive to win at any cost. While Becca comes away from the experience with a more important personal victory, Drescher returned to L.A. a winner on many fronts.
"I adore Toronto, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to visit friends and attend the Toronto Film Festival," she says. "I also loved playing Amanda because she has an interesting complexity to her. I also appreciated that the story spun around a Jewish family portrayed in a way that's not only realistic, but subtly threaded through the story. However, the time in Toronto was also a time of spiritual awakening. I was still in the painful process of getting over an old boyfriend. This man was the one who helped me get through my cancer experience, making it doubly difficult to let go. I was wondering what I would do next in my life with my newfound freedom, when the role of Amanda came along.
"Each day I would go to the set, and each night I would come home to my hotel room to find a large plate of fruit and a bottle of water left for me on my desk," she continues. "However, one day I came home from work to find a fruit plate, but this time, with a single plum in a shape of a perfect heart. Immediately, I found the sight of this magnificent plum special, and thought that the gift of this heart-shaped fruit surely must be divine intervention. It was there for a reason, and it was up to me to figure out what that message was. I have never beheld such beauty. It was almost like Greek mythology. I could not bring myself to eat it. I painted a still life of it and photographed it. I showed it to many people who visited me and all agreed it was a most special, magical plum.
"When a wonderful Japanese foot masseur came to my room, he asked me what I planned to do with it," she continues. "When I told him I supposed I would have to eat it, but that I couldn't bear to put a knife to it, he suggested I just lift it to my mouth and take a bite out of it. I knew he was right but still I couldn't bear the thought of not having it to gaze at. So instead, I brought it to work during the day and at night I would put it in the fridge to keep it fresh for as long as possible. This went on for almost two weeks. Then, on the last day of my stay in Toronto, the Japanese foot masseur came once again. He said, 'I was thinking about your plum. Fruit is meant to be eaten. When it's ripe, take a bite out of it. Don't let it rot.'"
It was the life-affirming, mystery-solving message Drescher had been waiting for-the perfect metaphor for life. En route to Toronto's Lester B. Pearson Airport, she opened her purse, lifted her plum out of the lovely white napkin it looked best in and took a last look. The plum was as perfect as the day it first arrived in her room. It had only gotten heavier in its own juice.
"I lifted it up to my mouth and took a bite," she says dreamily. "I sighed. Ahhhhh. It was as sweet on the inside as it was exquisite on the outside, as it slid down my throat in one bite. Then my heart-shaped plum was inside me. "The plum was a powerful sign for me, and at this time of my life, I have a higher awareness when it comes to signs and spirituality. If you open your eyes and you see signs everywhere, you will never feel alone. You will know there's a greater energy out there helping to guide you, and that life filled with spirituality has many special rewards."
The new phase of Drescher's acting career, despite her thoughtful, low-key attitude, is in full flower. Those stylish Old Navy ads, helmed by noted director Matthew Rolston, have proven to be a most enjoyable way to reintroduce herself to the public. "They are really wonderful people," she beams. "Their products are well-made, affordable and perfect for every member of the family. [The campaign represents] a wholesome kind of marketing, and I like everything about it."
In additions to the ads, she has brought some sunshine to several episodes of CBS-TV's Good Morning, Miami and is optioning a screenplay she hopes to direct. In live theater, she triumphed in a New York City production of Exonerated taking a dramatic and provocative turn as Sunny Jacobs, a woman wrongly convicted of murder who spent 17 years on death row. On PBS, she served as host to A Chanukah Celebration, a well-received special produced by the Jewish Television Network. It was filmed in the classic "variety show" format, with Drescher introducing various acts and explaining the holiday's origins and traditions.
Even as Drescher eases her way into the future, there are still some experiences she will always hold dear. She considers them part of a foundation that will be enhanced as she assumes new acting and professional challenges. Although everything she touched didn't necessarily turn into gold, she found that every job had its own gift. For example, her small role in Saturday Night Fever was not just the perfect feature film debut in 1977, it enabled her to work with John Travolta, whom she watched on Welcome Back, Kotter with her parents just a year earlier. In 1978, American Hot Wax wound up being her ticket to Hollywood. On the set of Dr. Detroit, she not only met two of her best future friends, Donna Dixon and Dan Aykroyd, but witnessed their relationship blossom into one of Hollywood's most enduring marriages. In 1994, Car 54, Where Are You? introduced her to co-star Rosie O'Donnell, who remains one of her closest friends. The still talked-about performance as Bobbi in This Is Spinal Tap enabled her to shape the character out of pure improvisation and earned Drescher recognition through Esquire magazine's "Five-Minute Oscar." And then there are the special roles that were pure gold on both a professional and personal level.
"Fran Fine (of The Nanny) will always have a special place in my heart," she says. "I loved playing her, and I am proud of that show, the success (of its original run) and its continued success worldwide. I also loved playing Mameh in Ragtime opposite Mandy Patinkin and under the direction of Milos Foreman. Milos enabled me to work within a dramatic and emotional range that I infrequently get to explore as an actress. It was a period piece and I got to wear period clothing. Everything we wore was authentic because Milos really wanted his actors to feel like their character from the inside out. In portraying Sunny Jacobs, who was accused of murdering two policemen, my attitude about capital punishment and all its ramifications changed. Prior to the play, I had been a victim of a violent crime, so I naturally I identified with the victim. I could not see the point in keeping alive a person who was a danger to innocent people. I used to have an ongoing debate with my ex-boyfriend on this very subject. His position was that violence begets violence, and it is too easy to make a mistake. Well, he was right. After doing the play, I did a 180-degree turn in my thinking. Getting inside the skin of Sunny made me realize that justice is blind, racist and unfair to the poor. There are so many problems within the judicial system, that we have to keep people guilty of even the most heinous crimes alive because of the innocent people like the Sunny Jacobs of the world."
Shortly after the run of Exonerated, Drescher met Jacobs, who shared with Fran her own inspiring story of survival as a wrongly convicted victim of the system. When Jacobs was forced into solitary confinement for five years, she turned to yoga and turned her cell into a sanctuary. This ultimately saved Jacobs' life, and enabled her to reach others. She now lives in Ireland, owns a beautiful home, teaches yoga and lives with a man who himself was exonerated from a sentence for a crime he did not commit.
Even with breaks from acting, Drescher never really went away, in part, because she not only has many stories to tell, but has a strong belief that all women should exchange stories in order to empower themselves and each other. Both her books, Enter Whining and Cancer Schmancer, not surprisingly, were New York Times best sellers.
"With Cancer Schmancer, it wasn't just about recounting my tale of surviving and healing," she details. "The reader will ideally become better informed as a medical consumer/patient, as well as learn the early warning signs and the tests that are available. I learned that even when dealing with a disease like cancer, there are always positives to experience side by side with the negatives. I'm not glad I had cancer, but I am better for it, thus confirming my belief that some of life's greatest gifts come in the ugliest of packages."
Drescher is now hard at work on her next book. Though she is not yet ready to discuss it in detail, she is hoping it will touch people and encourage dialogue on important topics the way her other books did. She is deservedly proud of the fact that people from all walks of life approach her every day and tell their stories of triumph over the odds. Many of them, in turn, tell her that they were able to persevere because she had told her personal story in such a public way.
"[When it comes to personal and health issues] we all should open up and exchange stories," Drescher declares. "It's one of the only ways we will become empowered as women. "Recently, at a benefit for Rosie O'Donnell's children's charity (the For All Kids Foundation), a 28-year-old wife and mother approached me to thank me for saving her life. This woman went on to explain that shortly after reading Cancer Schmancer, she recalled how she felt something in her breast. Though her doctor told her she was too young for a mammogram, the book prompted her to demand she receive one. It turned out she indeed had cancer. The woman needed a mastectomy and post-op treatment, all of which might have been detected too late had she not read Cancer Schmancer.
"Although the profile for women who get uterine cancer is usually either obese or postmenopausal, in reality, one in four victims are young and thin like I am, proving there are exceptions to every rule," she adds. "See your doctor and request the cancer screening tests available so you can rule out cancer before being treated for a more benign illness. Knowledge is power! Unfortunately, doctors are often encouraged by insurance companies to choose the least-expensive route of diagnostic testing. That's why so many women find out they have gynecologic cancer in the late stages. In the case of ovarian cancer, women are very often misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome because the early symptoms are so similar. This means up to 80% of all women with ovarian cancer will not be diagnosed until the late stages of the disease and 70% of that group will die. We need to take control of our bodies and become greater partners with our physicians. In the end, the best gift you can give your family and the ones you love is a long and healthy life."
On top of all she's accomplished in 2003, she was last year's recipient of the Ribbon of Hope Award, bestowed by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship. With a clean bill of health and much to live for this year, Drescher affirms she wants to spend much of it elevating women's healthcare issues to a greater and more political level. She supports Senator Joseph Lieberman's proposal for a national healthcare program called Medichoice, which will offer a choice of health plans affordable to every American of any economic level through privatized insurance, as well as a program called Medikids, which would guarantee that every child born will leave the hospital with a birth certificate and healthcare coverage. She also has plans to produce and direct a three-tier public service announcement program generating awareness for cervical, ovarian and uterine cancers on behalf of the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation.
"Let the river carry you," she advises. "We are all like little droplets of water that make up a whole, flowing river. As long as we allow ourselves to be carried, life can be so much easier, as well as surprising."