In a most moving moment at The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Women In Entertainment breakfast on Dec 9, sponsored by American Airlines and Mercedes Benz, power publicist Nanci Ryder who was given a heartbreaking diagnosis of ALS Lou Gehrig’s disease in 2014, addressed the audience with the help of Jeffrey Katzenberg, The DreamWorks Animation CEO. “I love you all,” Katzenberg said as he fought back tears before reading the letter that Ryder had written to the audience, because since her diagnosis she has lost the ability to speak, swallow and eat. “It is my honor to be here as a friend.”
As a result of her diagnosis, in 2014 Nanci Ryder was forced to step down from BWR Public Relations, a company she co-founded with Paul Baker and Larry Winokur in 1987. Throughout her career she represented many A-list clients including, Renee Zellweger and Reese Witherspoon.
Most people know of the disease from the popular ice-bucket challenge that gained internet momentum late last year. Ironically, Ryder discovered her prognosis around the same time the challenge was picking up social media steam.
As Katzenberg read her letter, Ryder sobbed at times, and in other moments put her thumbs up to show her support for the crowd who cheered and supported her right back for having the courage to take the stage and deliver this message. “Because I have bulbar onset ALS, sometimes I can’t control if I’m laughing or crying,” Ryder’s message read, “so if you see me doing either, you know why.” She did both. As did most of the audience that included Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Sean Penn and Melinda Gates. Ryder not only raised awareness for what ALS is and what it can do to you, but she also used her voice, to remind the audience that gender equality is of utmost importance. “This is not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not even like curing ALS,” her letter read. “I wish my disease were as easy to fix as this. All this problem takes is the collective power in this room, combined with the will. Not even money, researchers or ice bucket challenges are needed.”
Read Nanci Ryder’s letter in full below:
Dear Hollywood Friends…
I want to say thank you for everything you’ve done for me personally and for ALS in the past year. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This is a terrible disease. In my interview with The Hollywood Reporter in September, I said, ‘I’m not sure whether I’m living or dying’ some times. I’m not going to lie. I cry. But I also laugh. And because I have bulbar onset ALS, sometimes I can’t control if I’m laughing or crying, so if you see me doing either, you know why.
Let me be the only one to say this in this room. Thank God for email.
Before I stepped down from BWR, I was a publicist whose job it was to help open a movie, win someone an Oscar or help sell any kind of message that needed selling. But I could not have predicted how powerful my message – one woman with a disease who wants a cure – has become. Hollywood is a good place, filled with good people. You, my friends right here, have changed the profile of this enemy, turned the Ice Bucket Challenge into a sensation, and supported me through the uncertainty of a fatal disease. I cannot say thank you enough.
I know everyone here can change conversations. You are the world’s greatest storytellers after all. My friend Jeffrey here was able to spearhead, thanks to your buy-in, the resuscitation of the Motion Picture and Television Fund. That’s just one example.
So now I have no horse in any race now except my own. I visit doctors at Cedars-Sinai and Massachusetts General. My friends like Reese, Renee, Courtney, Kevin, Bryan, Simon and Kathy and I go for walks, watch the crazy birds in my backyard and yes, still shop online. I may have met my match, but I still love a great bag. And I want to look good while we defeat ALS.
But I also am a woman. I helped grow a company when few women were doing so. I hired and mentored many of you even in this room. I care enormously about my friends who are trying to change this town’s conversation around gender. It’s the same conversation we’ve been having since I first started out. And you know what? It’s boring because it never changes. Trust me, you don’t want to bore me.
So, I’m going to use this platform, since you’re now all listening, to make a final request of you. First, donate to ALS. Of course. But then, do something about the woman issue in Hollywood. You’re all powerful. This is not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not even like curing ALS. I wish my disease were as easy to fix as this. All this problem takes is the collective power in this room, combined with the will. Not even money, researchers or Ice Bucket Challenges are needed.
It’s my privilege to take this stage and still be able to communicate with you and be part of a breakfast where I can put in context life’s problems. My problem? Bad. Um, no thanks. Hollywood’s gender problem? Easy.
So I’m not going to call you and harass you about this after today. But I might occasionally send you a pushy email, okay? I’m still a publicist at heart.