Jamie Lee Curis

Jamie Lee Curtis
Photography by Andrew Eccles

Living Wisely, Loving Well

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 Portraits.

"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.

Curtis at CAAF Dream Halloween with fellow Power Rangers

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 fabulous."

Curtis with Steve Burns of Blues Clues Shortly 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.

Curtis with Leeza Gibbons as Cher At 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 cold-hearted picks....'"

click here In 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."

Click here She 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 University.

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.

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