“There’s No Tragedy for Me”: Selma Blair’s Transformation
By Julie Miller / February 26, 2019
It was about 10 P.M. on Thursday, August 16, and Selma Blair, 46, was lying on an M.R.I. bed, her body jerking uncontrollably. She had spent the past five years or so fending off a battery of puzzling symptoms that came and went—neck pain, severe vertigo, trouble walking, and sudden loss of feeling in her leg. Anxiety and depression, too. And she had been so fatigued a few years ago—crawl-back-into-bed-after-dropping-off-her-son-at-school fatigued—that she told her agent she could work only in Los Angeles. But she is a single mother with a mortgage to pay. So last year she had willed herself out of bed and booked a movie in Atlanta called After and a Netflix series in Vancouver titled Another Life.
By that point, Blair was used to doctors’ chalking her symptoms up to depression, or hormones, or an actress simply being “dramatic.” She had started that Thursday searching for the only workable solution she knew—a steroid shot to soothe her neck pain. But a new doctor demanded she get an M.R.I. immediately. So here she was, in a hospital gown and fuzzy socks, being slipped headfirst into the machine’s coffin-size camera. The M.R.I. wasn’t as frightening as her increasingly foreign body, or her inability to control it. She asked the technician to play one of her favorite Pink songs, hoping it would give her strength and stillness. Tears rolled down her cheeks as “Just Give Me a Reason” played and the M.R.I. began scanning her brain, detecting 20 lesions covering it. Within an hour, a neurologist would tell her what this likely meant: Blair suffers from multiple sclerosis, an incurable autoimmune disease that disrupts the central nervous system’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body.
The first feeling to flood her after the diagnosis was relief. She did not have A.L.S. She finally had a name for what had been wreaking havoc on her body. Her fear was the unknown—how would she react to treatment? Would she ever reclaim control over her physical self? There were 10 minutes of tears. Then she had to get back to business.
Noreen Halpern, an executive producer on Another Life, received word from Blair’s rep about the diagnosis. “Her manager said, ‘She’s concerned that you aren’t going to want her on the show anymore,’ which was insane to me. Because we wanted her…. What was heartbreaking for me was her having to deal with the unknown, coupled with her feeling that we weren’t going to fully embrace her. We said, ‘We’re going to make this work.’” Once Blair wrapped the film in Georgia, she flew to Vancouver. “The truth is, she’s such a pro,” said Halpern. “No one knew about it until she chose to share it with people.”
In mid-October, Blair typed out a long Instagram caption revealing she had M.S., and thanking the Another Life crew for their support. “It wasn’t about announcing a dramatic diagnosis. I had no idea, for some reason, that news outlets would pick it up or anything,” Blair says. “When they did, I was kind of uncomfortable. Then I was worried, thinking, Will anyone hire me?” Her dark humor kicks in. “I reconnected with so many people who thought I might drop dead soon.” She heard from Amy Schumer, whose father has M.S. Marc Jacobs, an old friend who featured the actress in two charity campaigns and named a bag after her, reached out. And Kris Jenner sent flowers that, Blair laughs, “were more expensive than my mortgage.” But three months later, her health having continued to deteriorate, she admits, “I also never thought I’d get this bad, to tell you the truth.”
We are sitting in the corner of a dark restaurant in SoHo for an early dinner. The actress remains a striking vision, but her body in motion tells the extent of her struggle. Ever since Blair reacted poorly to a high-dose glucocorticoid treatment, she has had difficulty controlling her movements, has limped with a cane, and has spoken with a vocal tremor that she cracks is very “Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.” Her vision isn’t great, and “dressing is a shit show.” Her body emits strange noises—grunts, screams. Because she can no longer raise her arms to brush her hair, she recently lopped it into a bob, dyed blond. She looks and sounds so different that her seven-year-old son, Arthur, has taken to curling up alongside her. “He wants to be closer to my body more, and I can tell he wants to make sure I’m still here inside. I used to be so athletic with him. Now I fall in front of him.”
Some days are better than others. But curiously, according to her friend of 20 years and Cruel Intentions co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar, “there’s a calmness to her because I think now she knows she can’t do everything, and it’s O.K., some days, if she can’t.… It’s been wonderful to watch her be more settled, more content, and almost more in control of herself in a weird way.”
As Blair sees it, “there’s a humility and a joy I have now, albeit a fatigued joy.”
The day after our interview, Blair begins a monthly intravenous-drug therapy, which her doctor Saud Sadiq—who is director and chief research scientist of the Tisch MS Research Center of New York—is hopeful will calm her symptoms. “I’m very optimistic,” he says. “I think she’ll be a different person in a year.” But he underscores the courage in her openness. “I have patients with M.S. who are surgeons, actors, a commercial-airline pilot, sports figures, successful lawyers—they don’t want anyone to know about their illness because they feel it could hurt their career. Her decision to speak out also brings awareness and increases research funding for the disease when people can see somebody affected in the way that she is.”
Blair has continued candidly sharing her roller-coaster journey on social media. Kris Jenner, who bonded with Blair after the actress played the Kardashian matriarch on FX’s The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, has been closely following. “She really is sharing something so vulnerable, and so scary,” Jenner says. “She showed me what courage is, and how to be brave. I changed a bit of the way I live my life because of her.”
Blair has several motivations for being so forthcoming. First, she wants to ensure other women aren’t making the same mistakes with medical treatment. “With my previous doctor, I put on a good face, because he was a man. We had a joking relationship. I wanted him to think I was doing well, even though I would say, ‘I’m beyond tired.… I can’t stay awake.’ I wish he would’ve taken me more seriously,” she says. “I had been so embarrassed by some events in my life, whether it was drinking or immature behavior, that, as a mother, I wanted to prove I was great even when I was telling someone I had problems. That’s a shame. So, I’d like to counterbalance it by being really honest about how I am.”
Blair was surprised her honesty struck a chord with strangers. “I’m pretty much a nobody in Hollywood,” she says dryly. “But when I read comments on Instagram from people who were suffering, whether it was from M.S., or anything, I thought, Holy shit, there’s a need for honesty about being disabled from someone recognizable.” Blair can’t sleep much lately, so she has been trying to respond to many of the people who take the time to comment on her posts. “I care about the people on my damn Instagram,” she says. “An actor I admire said Instagram could have been a great experiment for the human condition, but instead it’s curated narcissism. And, yes, there’s some of that. But for me, it has been an exploration into the human condition.”
Blair grew up in a Jewish, upper-middle-class household in suburban Michigan, the youngest of four daughters to an attorney father and judge mother. Their family seemed normal from the outside, but Blair alludes to a simmering unhappiness, mentioning that she began drinking at the age of seven, after discovering the intoxicating effect of wine at Passover Seder. Asked what led her to drink so early, she only says, “I have a history of sadness,” before pivoting to happier thoughts. “I had some wonderful moments, too. We took amazing family vacations to Puerto Rico and Aruba and New York. We lived one life and vacationed another. And those bright spots, those dapples of sunlight in the pool, kept me going.” It wasn’t until she enrolled at Cranbrook Kingswood private school that she began to flourish creatively: “Keith Haring did our yearbooks. Yoko Ono came to speak…. That experience showed me there’s more than the dark hallway of my house and my brain. And movies did it for me. And fashion.”
After graduating magna cum laude from the University of Michigan with a degree in English, psychology, and photography, Blair relocated to New York. An agent discovered her in a theater class, and, within a few years, she had made her mainstream breakout in Cruel Intentions. Her momentum carried over into the aughts—she landed alongside Reese Witherspoon in 2001’s Legally Blonde. She balanced popular fare like 2002’s rom-com The Sweetest Thing with interesting turns in thought-provoking indies, like the Todd Solondz films Storytelling and Dark Horse, and Lori Petty’s autobiographical drama, The Poker House, playing Jennifer Lawrence’s prostitute mother. In 2004, Guillermo del Toro cast Blair in his adaptation of the Hellboy comic as the title character’s paranormal love interest, Liz Sherman. Her performance was singled out as “superb” by The New York Times, and she reprised the character in the 2008 sequel, but Blair was clinically depressed while filming both movies. Afterward, because of her fatigue and physical condition, she limited herself to Los Angeles-based opportunities, like the short-lived TV series Kath & Kim.
But Blair had difficulty finding roles that coalesced with her quirks—she’s clearly intelligent and deadpan hilarious, patrician but disarmingly blunt. In conversation, it’s easy to see why she and, say, Carrie Fisher hit it off. Blair says the Star Wars actress approached her about 15 years ago at the Four Seasons and simply said, “I want to be friends. I’m having a birthday party tonight, come.” Blair did, and when she married Ahmet Zappa, son of Frank, in 2004, Fisher hosted the wedding at her Beverly Hills home. (Karl Lagerfeld designed two wedding dresses for Blair, one in pale pink, and an identical one in black for the reception so she would not have to worry about spilling her red wine. “I told him, ‘I want a big gown,’ and he said, ‘For your next wedding.’ ”) The marriage did not last—it ended in 2006—but the friendship with Fisher did. “I was not the closest person to her when she died, but her spirit was the greatest of all time—she touched everyone,” says Blair. “I pray to her at night and say, ‘Give me a little bit of your attitude.’ And she does.”
Another actress Blair connected with is Parker Posey. Nearly two decades after co-starring in The Sweetest Thing, the wry, raven-haired women reunited to play sisters in Netflix’s Lost in Space. “I think we’re both kind of loners, on the fringe,” Posey wrote in an e-mail. “My first impression was that she was really cool—Selma has eyes that elicit a coolness and knowingness.… We both have ‘resting bitch face.’… There’s a sweetness to Selma and an easy glamour—subtle humor.”
Blair does not always speak about herself in the same glowing terms. On her career, Blair says, “The best performance I gave was in a play called Gruesome Playground Injuries.” Blair played Kayleen, a woman who loves deeply but harms herself, in the two-person play from Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph, during a run in Houston. “It was the hardest, bravest thing I’ve ever done. But then it came to New York, and they didn’t cast me even though I originated the role,” says Blair. “So a few people in Houston might know I am very talented. But the rest of the world might know me as Cecile Caldwell,” she adds, citing her Cruel Intentions character. “And that’s O.K.”
In the past, it seems that Blair, like Kayleen, was a tightly wound character who loves deeply but harms herself. “I’ve never known how to self-soothe,” she says. “That’s why people drink. And I won’t do that anymore.”
“After I had my son and he’d go to his dad’s [fashion designer Jason Bleick], I started drinking because of the pain, one, of him not being with me, and two, my physical pain was so extreme that I would drink by myself. That was also a warning to me. I’ve never been one who handled alcohol like a lady. I was self-medicating.”
Almost three years ago, an incident led her to give up booze cold-turkey. Blair was flying back to Los Angeles from Cancun when she took what she thought was an Ativan (medicine to treat anxiety). The pill, she later learned, was Ambien, which is known to have behavioral side effects. Fatigued and dehydrated from a good time in Mexico, Blair blacked out on the plane. Tabloid reports said that she had shouted, and was taken off on a stretcher upon landing. She was humiliated by the press, and although she says she hadn’t been drinking on the plane, she decided to re-evaluate. “It made me see things differently, and it opened up a conversation with my son about my own past with alcohol.
“There were a couple of experiences in my recent adult life that transformed me,” Blair says, citing the plane incident as one. Coming forward two years ago with allegations about being sexually assaulted by filmmaker James Toback when she was a young actress was another revelatory moment for her. (Toback denied the allegations at the time.) “Just being free of that shame was huge,” Blair says of the experience, for which she was named a Time Person of the Year in 2017, along with other “silence breakers” in Hollywood. “And then another was being diagnosed with M.S. The doctor said, ‘Your life will forever be different.’ And I was like, ‘Well, thank God.’”
Throughout the course of our three-hour conversation, Blair offers only one complaint about her M.S. diagnosis—and it’s related to the lack of stylish clothing available to disabled people. It might sound frivolous, but to Blair, who has always used clothes as a form of self-expression, it is a matter of identity. When Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde opened in theaters, in the pre-stylist era of Hollywood, Blair’s inherent sense of style made her a muse for fashion brands like Stella McCartney and Marc Jacobs. Karl Lagerfeld chose her as a face of Chanel in 2005, photographing her himself. Blair has had a difficult time adapting her style for M.S. functionality and has been dreaming up a solution: “I would like to partner with someone like Christian Siriano on a line for everyone—not just people who necessarily need adaptive clothing, but for those who want comfort, too. It can still be chic. You shouldn’t have to sacrifice style. Like, let’s get elastic waistbands to look a little bit better.”
Then there are the challenges of canes. “I bought an acrylic cane that was very Miami 1980—kind of fabulous and horrible,” Blair tells me. “But the problem with an acrylic cane with M.S. is that you drop the fucker. If it’s acrylic, I’m like, ‘Oh my God. My cane just shattered and it’s everywhere.’”
Canes, she says, should “fit right and look cool.” “I have met so many people on Instagram who have said that they were always ashamed of their cane,” says Blair. “You want to still be part of the living, not a shuffling person people get out of the way for because they’re queasy. A cane, I think, can be a great fashion accessory.”
She continues, “I really feel like people with disabilities are invisible to a lot of people. Because they’re uncomfortable, or don’t have the energy to dress up, don’t want to be seen.… There’s a friend I follow on Instagram, my new friend, and she’s had a stroke and both our brains are affected similarly. She’s gorgeous but lives in a boarding house and has a different life than I do. I look at her pictures and I’m like, ‘You got to get some artwork on your wall.’ I don’t know how to get there, but I have to make over her space. I want to do this for so many people. I wasn’t sensitive to it before I became like this, but luckily I am not a shy person.”
She isn’t—and she will continue to share her story. “There’s no tragedy for me,” she says. “I’m happy, and if I can help anyone be more comfortable in their skin, it’s more than I’ve ever done before.”
Blair will keep acting, too.
“I don’t know if I believed in myself or had the ambition before my diagnosis,” Blair says. “And oddly now I do, and I don’t know if it’s too late.”
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