This story is over 5 years old.


How to Survive Life According to Gay Disabled 'Facts of Life' Star Geri Jewell

Decades before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, lesbian stand-up comedian Geri Jewell became the first sitcom star with cerebral palsy.
All photos courtesy of Geri Jewell

Nobody tells a cerebral palsy joke better than Geri Jewell. Although millennials robbed of campy sitcom reruns have never heard of Jewell, she became a household name in the early 1980s when she became the first person with cerebral palsy to appear in a recurring role. Jewell survived Hollywood sexism and fluctuating finances, while also having a disability and being a closeted lesbian. (She came out publicly in 2011.) I am meeting with Jewel to learn how to deal with life.


The Facts of Life chronicled the fictional lives of students who lived together at an all-girls boarding school as they learned about sex and other, well, facts of life. At any moment, the show's tone jumped from after school special to edgy comedy, giving it a campy vibe perfect for Jewell. On several episodes, Jewell played the lead character Blair's Cousin Geri, who, like Jewell, has cerebral palsy. Throughout the series, Jewell made jokes about her disability. On her debut episode, Jewell wore a T-shirt that said, "I don't have cerebral palsy. I'm drunk." Wearing the shirt, she joked, "When I'm drunk, I walk perfectly straight!"

At the Federal, a bar in West Hollywood, I meet Jewell for salads to discuss these jokes. In person, Jewell reminds me more of a regal actress like Tilda Swinton than a politically incorrect stand-up comedian. She says "thank you" constantly and wears a white collared shirt and an indian chakra necklace, which symbolizes "all the symbols of spirit and of heart and our mind and our body," according to Jewell. But I just stare at her middle finger. For several years, Jewell has painted a handicap sign on it, so she can make a stronger point when she flicks off assholes. "It's for if somebody pulled into a handicapped parking space and they don't have a placard," Jewell says.

Jewell has many reasons to give people the bird. In the 80s, audiences responded well to her performance as Cousin Geri on Facts of Life, but the spinoff options for her own series never materialized. The show allowed her to discuss serious issues about disabilities through bawdy humor. Audiences loved her jokes--Norman Lear produced the program; he famously pointed a "humorous spotlight" on bigotry through Archie Bunker's racism on All in the Family--but the network worried too much Cousin Geri would make seem like a series about disabilities. After Jewell's stint ended, she struggled to find more work. The Facts of Life gave her fame but failed to provide her with a stable income.


"It was a tricky deal," Jewell says. "How do you write Geri into this episode and have all of the attention be off her? I would walk into a room, and it was like, 'Oh Blair's cousin with cerebral palsy is back.' [It was] never just 'Blair's cousin is back.' So [for Cousin Geri] to be mainstreamed and integrated was hard."

But instead of complaining, Jewel told more jokes. She supported herself through speaking arrangements, appeared on 21 Jump Street, and briefly married a man. She lived a difficult life for years, she said, until in 2002 she ran into NYPD Blue creator David Milch at a pharmacy. He recognized her; she was one of his favorite comedians. On the spot, he offered Jewell a regular role on his new HBO show Deadwood. She accepted. In 2011, she followed up Deadwood with I'm Walking as Straight as I Can, a memoir detailing her coming out as a lesbian.

Jewell has experienced a unique life. But her jokes and fuck-you attitude are as universal as riot grrrl punk songs appealing to multiple groups or Rose McGowan calling out sexism in Hollywood, which operates within a larger sexist world. Over lunch Jewell tells me about her years in Hollywood, life as a lesbian with a disability, and how to tell a good cerebral palsy joke.

Broadly: How did you get cast as the first person with cerebral palsy to star in a recurring role on a network sitcom?
Geri Jewell: I performed for the second annual Media Access Awards. Normal Lear and [The Facts of Life star] Charlotte Rae were in the audience that night. Norman came up to me afterwards and said, "You know you're really funny, kid, but you're way before your time." And I said, "So wait a couple weeks."


Did your standup routines about disabilities make people uncomfortable?
Oh god, yes! I was so new, I was so different, and I opened the door for a lot of comedians with disabilities. Being the first, there is an enormous price and an enormous reward for it. You are the first, but you pay the prices.

Some people didn't even believe I have cerebral palsy they thought it was an act. Someone who was on Deadwood when I was cast came up to me and said, "You're never going to believe this. I went to a party the other night, and someone came up to me, and said, 'Woah! I just loved Geri's duel on Deadwood. She does cerebral palsy so well. Maybe that's why they always cast her in TV roles.' He thought it was your specialty acting skill." I'm a method actor, and I never drop it.

*How did you get into standup in the first place? What makes a good cerebral palsy joke?*
There's obviously a tricky line you have to walk. [You have to] truthfully tell the joke in such a way where everyone can relate to it--make it as generalized as you possibly can. Not everybody has cerebral palsy, but everybody can relate to the line. One of my famous lines early on was, "I'm one of the few people who drives better than I walk."

It was in 1978, and I was going to school. I was in college at that time, and I was going to school with a young man named Alex Valdez, who was blind. I was very very frustrated, and I said, "I don't even want to finish school, Alex. I really want to be an actress. I want to be a comedic actress." He said, "Well why don't you do what I do?" And I said, "What do you do?" He said, "I go to the Comedy Store every week and tell blind jokes."


Stand-up is a loner's sport, but television comedy involves an ensemble. Did you get along with the other girls on The Facts of Life?
Oh yeah, I got along with them fine.

Did you worry about your body image against young Hollywood actresses?
Body image? Oh I could care less. In fact Lisa Whelchel, [the actress who played Blair], and I were roommates. It was fun! We had a lot of fun times together.

Are you guys still friends?
Not friends, but you know, we were in the 80s. We drifted apart. She went on to Texas. I went on in my life. But we saw each other recently at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills, and she was just amazing.

She has become an outspoken Christian. Was she devastated when you came out?
In all honestly Lisa knew then that I was gay, and I don't think she's ever embraced that. It goes against her religion, but she's never rejected me because of it either.

Was fame challenging?
It was difficult in the sense that I was a kid--even younger than my real years emotionally. There were a lot of people around me that were very negative, that used me, that took advantage of me. So in that sense, I'm lucky to have survived that. I think that in a way, even though I was chronologically 23, when I got Facts of Life, emotionally I was probably 12. In that respect, the journey I took was similar to child stars, where they go through stuff where they are young and people can take advantage of them. I trusted everybody. I never really knew that there were people that outright lie to you.


Is it true your 1980s manager stole from you?
Yeah. That was disappointing, but today I'm at peace with all of it. It was what it was, and truthfully it was an amazing thing to have occurred, even with the setback--does that make sense? I'm not angry; I'm not bitter.

Did special-ed prepare you for life's challenges?
No. Truthfully, that's not completely true because, in a way, there's a flip side to every coin. Being a product of special-ed, I got the best physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy you could ever get--so yes, in that way, it did prepare me for my future. Academically and emotionally? No. It coddled me, pampered me, didn't prepare me for life. I was intellectually capable, but they weren't feeding my intellect.

In a strange way, did cerebral palsy make you better prepared to survive Hollywood?
Yeah, it did. I think being born with cerebral palsy and coming into the world fighting for my life--literally--I think you are born a warrior, you're born a fighter, you're born to be strong to overcome. This is ingrained in my brain since day one: "I have to survive, I have to survive." My quest for survival is probably 100 times stronger than the next person because my battle for survival started when I was in the womb.

What film projects are you currently creating?
Right now I'm working on a documentary called My Next Breath. I am one of the producers and also an actor. It's a wonderful documentary combining art, and actors, and [an acting] workshop, and what we are going to do with our next breath. It explores life through our own personal stories, and we act them out. Philosophically, it goes back to Corey Allen's philosophy, which is we are given a certain amount of breaths in this life, and we never think about what we are going to do with our next breath.

How could Hollywood improve its narratives about people with disabilities?
It's gotten better, but it needs to be a lot better. I am on the actors SAG PWD committee. I'm looking at how the people with disabilities are being used in the industry and making sure that there's employment. We've got a long long way to go, but I think the biggest obstacle is opening the doors and seeing the vision outside the box. Why can't someone with cerebral palsy be someone's mother and the disability has nothing to do with it? Why does the disability have to be the central part of every role that you do? That's ridiculous.

Does it annoy you annoy you when casting directors only want you to audition for roles focused on cerebral palsy?
Lets put it this way: It's a fact of life.

How did you muster the courage to become a comic in Hollywood in the first place?
It has nothing to do with courage. It has to do with the theory of the bumblebee. Technically the bumble bee cannot fly because its body is too heavy for those tiny little wings, but the bumble bee doesn't know this, so it goes ahead and flies anyway. I believe that if I knew ahead of time what all the obstacles were, what I was up against in Hollywood and everything else, I would have said, "No. I'm not going to go through that door." I was fearless. I was young. I believed in myself. I was a little kid with a big dream and believed that I could do anything, just like that little bumble bee believed he could fly.

Correction: A previous version of this article said NBC refused to make Cousin Geri a regular character. This article was corrected to say spinoff options never materialized.