Jamie Lee Curtis tells A&U's Dann Dulin
why she deflects her celebrity's spotlight onto AIDS causes
"The makeup artist said, "I won't touch you." And
the hairdresser handed Rick a hairbrush, a bottle of hairspray and
said, "Do it yourself." And my friend did it - says a tearful Jamie
Lee Curtis about her friend, Rick Frank, who had AIDS, prepping before
a performance." ...from Lifetime's Intimate
"Jamie wants to talk to you!" urges the
assistant as she rushes into the conference room of the Los Angeles
public relations office of PMK. Jamie Lee Curtis is thirty minutes
late for our interview. I pick up the phone. "Dann, I am so
sorry." Traffic, huh? "No. I could tell you a hundred
excuses why I'm not there, but the truth is I fucked up! My son
was learning to ride a two-wheeler and I got so involved that I completely
forgot about this appointment. I am so sorry. I need to drive my
daughter over to volleyball practice in West L.A. in about an hour
and if it doesn't mess up your afternoon, I could meet you in Beverly
Hills, or wherever after that." Oh, since you will be on the
Westside, and if you feel comfortable in coming to my place, I live
in West L.A. "Perfect."
About one hour later, the Scream Queen herself
is sitting on my sofa! From Curtis's first film, Halloween (she
was paid a mere $8,000 to do it), to such treasures as Trading
Places and A Fish Called Wanda, she garnered a Golden
Glove and a British Film Academy Award. Jamie is also a Lady since
her husband, actor Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting
for Guffman, Best in Show), inherited the British title of Lord
after his father's death. They have two adopted children, Annie,
fifteen, and Tom, five. And, of course, Jamie is the child of actress
Janet Leigh (remember her being slashed in the shower in Psycho?)
and actor Tony Curtis (the gender bender, Josephine, in Some
Like It Hot), who divorced when she as three years old.
As soon as Jamie had strolled through my front
door she apologized again, adding: "It's the only way I've learned
to be in my life. Truly. In all areas of my life. Tell the truth,
be responsible for what it is you do or say." Tanned and vivacious,
she is dressed in casual black attire, a gold chain around her neck,
with black running shoes to complete the ensemble.
Known for her svelte, sexy body, especially in
the strip scene in True Lies, in which she starred opposite
Arnold Schwarzennegger, I pop the question right off; How do you
stay in shape? Jamie quickly replies: "I wear black, long-sleeved
shirts and pants, and usually a baseball cap—everyday! I stopped
showing my arms long ago. I was on Jay Leno and I remember waving
goodbye. I swear to god if you watch a tape of it, you'll see I
get this panic look in my eye. I look at my right arm, and there's
something moving that I wasn't planning on moving. Since that time
I've just realized people have this image of my figure, so I wear
no clothes that attract any attention. No one has seen me in a bathing
suit in ten years."
Curtis's introduction to the AIDS epidemic was
in the early nineties when George Lowe, the partner of her pal and
costar of her television show Anything But Love, Rick Frank,
fell ill. "I remember George was in the hospital with pneumonia." she
says, "and before I visit him, Rick asked that I bring along
some video tapes. We watched a Preston Sturges film, and we all
loved it. It was such a great way to spend the day. Now, whenever
I work with a hospital, I put video tape machines in all the rooms." (Jamie
is involved with several children's hospitals, including one in Pittsburgh.)
George's condition deteriorated rather rapidly.
"I saw a lot of him during that time. I don't need to describe
it. It was not anything that I would want anybody to ever have to
go through in life. It was horrible," Jamie grimaces. "The
last good time we all had was when they had a joint fortieth birthday
celebration together—an eightieth birthday celebration. That was
before George died, Rick found out that he, too, was infected with
HIV. One time, while performing in the South, Rick experienced the
degrading and humiliating situation alluded to at the start of this
article. Before the show, he was in the makeup room getting ready,
and it was clear he had lesions. Instead of attending to him, the
makeup and hair person merely handed Rick all the utensils in a zip-lock
bag. "That ws a horrible experience for him," Jamie remarks.
"And yet, I understand the naiveté of people. They are just
afraid. You have to be compassionate toward them because they are
coming from a place of fear." Unfortunately, Rick was flying
home when George took his last breaths. "Rick missed him by
one hour," Jamie notes.
Rick's condition deteriorated over time. One summer,
Jamie reluctantly had to leave Los Angeles for England to film Fierce
Creatures ("Horrible, terrible film!" is how she describes
it.). She called him every day and he did manage to hold on until
she returned before he died. "It was the biggest loss I've
ever had in my life, without question," she says.
Not long after Rick's death, Jamie and Chris adopted
their second child, Tom. "My son is a gift from Rick Frank," she
says. "Wherever Rick went, he sent us back Tom." She
also dedicated one of her children's books, Where Do Balloons
Go?, to Rick. An uplifting mystery that deals with letting
someone go, it was launched in September 2000, and spent eighteen
weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Currently,
Curtis is completing her fifth children's book, which will be released
in fall 2002.
this point in our talk, Jamie breaks into a song from the movie Bye
Bye Birdie: "Kids. What's the matter with these kids today...." She
stops, then says, "I think about my mother in a black wig when
I sing this song. Can we discuss that for a second?" Gingerly
she tosses her her bangs off her forehead. "Do you know why
they put that song in the movie? The way I've always heard it was
that the play the movie was made from was a little risqué, and it
was about racism. Meaning: Chita Rivera played Rosie Alvarez, this
hot little Hispanic. Rosie was going out with this Jewish guy, and
the Jewish mother didn't like that. So, quite frankly, here's a
dickless, adult Jewish man whose mother is so oppressive. That makes
sense to me. But in the movie they didn't want to go there. So
they picked my mother—WASP-bo white girl—put her in a black wig,
and called her Rosie DeLeon. Now when you watch that movie, it makes
no fucking sense! Because why on god's earth would the mother object?
I mean it's Dick Van Dyke for god's sake! Why can't he
date my mother? They clearly wanted to avoid the issue of racism."
Returning to the story about her friend Rick Frank,
she continues: "One month after Rick's death, I began to attend
the L.A. AIDS Walk, and continue to participate every year. [She
also does the New York AIDS Walk.] At that first Los Angeles event
I went to, I said: 'I'm embarrassed that it took my dear, dear friend
to die three weeks ago for me to show up here for the first time.
I'm ashamed of myself." In my livingroom, Jamie takes a sip
of water, then sits back into the couch, and goes on: "Every
year, in my opening remarks I try to talk about activism. Obviously
last year, which was an election year, my rallying cry was, 'We are
not satisfied.' Clearly, the Bush administration has an opportunity
but they aren't taking advantage of it. They could not only reach
out and put their money toward research and funding but reach out
to the gay populatoin in America. They could make a connection and
say, 'We may be on an opposite political slant, but we're not just
light of the passing of her gay friends Rick and George, I returned
the conversation to her views on death. "I subscribe to a Buddhist
philosophy if I subscribe to anything," Jamie says. She read
a book about Buddhism around the time of Princess Diana's death.
She learned that in evaluating one's life, one must ask two important
questions: Did I learn to live wisely? Did I love well? She pondered
Diana's life and came to some conclusions: "Diana got out of
a horrible marriage, and thumbed her nose at the high monarchy. She
clearly loved her children in a way that Royal children had not experienced
in the past—a caring, maternal love. Well, she's dead but it gave
me great comfort somehow to know that, in fact, her life was complete.
Whether or not the opportunities she might have had in her life
were denied her because of her death, ultimately, her life was complete.
She had learned to live wisely, and she had loved well. If I have
a mantra, that's it. It's all about self-knowledge, which is the
key to freedom, and the ability to love another human being, show
love, and receive love."
Sharing love is a huge part of Curtis's life. When
I praise her as an activist, she immediately interrupts: "Oh,
but I'm not. I must qualify this. People are always fascinated
by celebrities, but our time commitments to causes are minimal. We
sit down with you for an hour and provide a picture and people say,
'Oh, you're so terrific.' Bullshit! I don't really give a lot of
time. I don't have it to give. I have two children, a husband,
and four careers. I have a life of giving. If you have a child,
you give. I'm vice president [of the Board of Directors] of my son's
school. That is the focus of my life. That's not selfish."
sits upright on the edge of the sofa and continues: "As a celebrity,
it's obvious to me the whole reason that God created celebrities
was so that they could help organizations. It certainly isn't so
that I'll get a discount at clothing stores, or restaurant tickets,
or tickets to any concert I want to go to. There's got to be a reason
for the insatiable desire for celebrity-ism. I say that I am a deflector.
Bring the light to me, then I deflect it onto the person who really does
a lot of work."
Jamie deflects that light onto The Children Affected
by AIDS Foundation (CAAF) as its spokesperson and a member of its
Advisory Board. Each October, the foundatoin has a benefit called
Dream Halloween. Curtis also belongs to animal rights' organizations,
and the "Commitment to Kids Program," which is part of
the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. She is
also a recovering alchoholic/addict, and Substance Abuse at Columbia
Our meeting at its end, Jamie jumps up, grabs the
black bag she brought with her, and affectionately bids me adieu.
Activist or not, she has a big heart. And in some ways Jamie Lee
Curtis always leaves a piece of her heart behind.
Contact The Children Affected by AIDS Foundatoin
for more information about Dream Halloween and the organization's
work by mail at 6033 W. Century Blvd., Suite 280, Los Angeles, California
90045; by phone at (310) 258-0850; and by fax at (310) 258-0851.
Visit its Web site: www.caaf4kids.org.