By ANN WHITCHER GENTZKE
Published March 16, 2023
From the moment Selma Blair walked on stage with her service dog, Scout, the audience sensed this talk was going to be like no other. Indeed, Wednesday’s appearance by the actress, author and disability rights advocate proved to be a riveting sharing of her deeply personal journey, one that captivated those in attendance.
Throughout the fourth and final 2022-23 Distinguished Speakers Series address in the Center for the Arts Mainstage Theatre, Blair talked about her experiences with multiple sclerosis and her work to spread more awareness of the needs of disabled individuals. She also discussed her alcoholism and getting sober, and the trauma of having physical symptoms of MS beginning to appear in childhood, yet not receiving a diagnosis until many years later. She announced her illness in 2018 and was the subject of the 2021 documentary “Introducing, Selma Blair” that reveals her intimate and raw journey with MS. Even with such somber themes, Blair kept her UB audience laughing as she joked and discussed her past and current struggles with humor and a disarming frankness.
Blair was joined on stage by Bianca Weinstock-Guttman, professor of neurology and director of the Jacobs Multiple Sclerosis Center for Treatment and Research at UBMD Neurology. There was some back-and-forth concerning the disease’s characteristics and treatments: “I’ve never had so much time with a doctor,” Blair quipped, after posing a disease-related question of her own.
Yet as the two women conversed for about an hour, the focus remained on Blair’s story, powerfully relayed in her 2022 memoir “Mean Baby.” Asked about the book’s title, Blair explained that neighbors would comment during her infancy, “Don’t go over there — the Beitners [her family name] have a mean baby!” She subsequently used the bizarre moniker as a way to “cement” her understanding of herself, and gradually to find her truth during an often “morose” childhood.
Asked about coming to Buffalo at wintertime, Blair responded that she’s from Michigan, although she’s now “a California softie.” Throughout the evening, as she spoke about her illness and her efforts to help others with MS, Blair apologized for sometimes losing the trail of Weinstock-Guttman’s queries. “Tell me the question again, I just went to Sacramento,” she said, as the audience laughed and conveyed their support with applause. She described how persons with disabilities were more visible during COVID, in large part because of the ubiquity of Zoom. Finally, disabled persons “were in the conversation,” she said. “We had the time to get to know each other.”
Blair also spoke of MS’s sensory symptoms and the optical neuritis she has experienced as a result of the disease. Her overall health is good, she said, and she is currently in remission, even returning to horseback-riding for therapy. Even so, she struggles with physical aspects of the illness that she shared with unflinching honesty. At home in Los Angeles, she has to deal with indignities like unwanted paparazzi and being heckled for using a cane. She relies on the faithful Scout to alert her when it’s time to take her medication, and she has gotten better in asking for help, seeking rides from friends, for example.
Her overall message was one of optimism, both in finding her own way, and in helping others. Blair described how a device invented by a woman with Parkinson’s has helped her to apply makeup, which is often difficult to do because of the loss of spasticity experienced by MS patients. “I love inclusive design when it comes out,” she said.
Asked about her experience appearing in “Dancing with the Stars” last year, Blair laughingly described her disappointment at having to wear flats rather than the heels worn by other female competitors in the physically demanding program. She welcomed the challenge competing in the show that had followed her MS diagnosis and subsequent hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Midway through the “Dancing with the Stars” season, she had to withdraw because of doctors’ concerns for her health.
“I loved it,” she said of dancing with partner Sasha Farber. “I’m trying to challenge myself — I want to be happy.”
Blair said she would like to return to acting, allowing that sometimes the bright lights are difficult for her. Widely known for her performance as Vivian Kensington in “Legally Blonde,” she was asked if she’d like to be in the sequel, “Legally Blonde 3,” reportedly now in pre-production. “I hope I have a cameo,” she said with a smile. Acclaimed for her deft and piercing writing in “Mean Baby,” Blair said she’d like to author another book, “but not about me.” Rather, she envisions a young adult novel in the vein of “The Secret Garden,” thus amplifying the theme of youthful self-discovery.
As the lecture drew to a close, Weinstock-Guttman asked Blair what gives her hope. “It’s the kindness of strangers,” she replied, explaining how she values “kind people who don’t judge so much.” Throughout the evening, she managed to make discussion of medical diagnoses, achieving sobriety and the physical difficulties of illness both insightful and entertaining. “Isn’t this fun?” she asked her appreciative audience, who gave her a standing ovation at the conclusion of her remarks. Scout, too, rose from his sleeping position on the rug and seemed to respond to the hearty applause.
The Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the Department of Neurology were co-presenters of Wednesday’s DSS lecture.