Fran Drescher — An Interview

Circa 2005

Throughout history, passion has lead people to do remarkable things and achieve extraordinary heights. An unfettered passion for equality and freedom brought an end to slavery; doctors passionate to find cures for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis teeter on the brink of medical breakthroughs. And behind every great movement, there is a passionate voice—one voice that through persistence, diligence and fortitude becomes a thousand voices speaking for ten thousand more. If Fran Drescher has her way, her voice will be heard by millions and will save countless lives.

Entering into the second season of her new hit comedy Living with Fran, Drescher is finding herself in a familiar position as star and executive producer. While Living’s Fran strikes a strong resemblance to the quick-witted Fran of Drescher’s previous hit, The Nanny, Drescher’s off-screen persona has in some ways metamorphized. After persevering through a bout with cancer, Drescher has developed a newfound sense of purpose as an advocate for women’s gynecologic health care education.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD, recently joined Drescher for lunch at a small Malibu eatery. While Drescher does not easily suppress the executive producer in her—she was quick to find the most temperate table for the unusually warm day—she remains a down-to-earth woman who pleasantly accepted the type of fan recognition that comes with being a Hollywood veteran of more than 25 years. So engrossed in sharing her story that she hardly had time to finish her meal, Drescher discussed her new show, her own experience with endometrial cancer, and the advocacy that has truly become her passion.

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Chet Cooper: You had quite a success with The Nanny. How long did the show run?

Fran Drescher: Six seasons.

Cooper: You were the original TV nanny; what do you think of the recent genre of nanny-related reality shows such as Supernanny and Nanny 911?

Drescher: I’m not really into reality shows; personally, I like a scripted show. I’m aware of the reality series, but I’m not a regular viewer.

Cooper: I thought you’d say, “I can take those nannies any day; bring ’em on!”

Drescher: (laughs)

Gillian Friedman, MD: It’s exciting to see that Living with Fran has been picked up for a second season. Tell us about the show.

Drescher: Living with Fran is an older woman/younger man romantic comedy. On the show, I have two kids from a former marriage. My son is actually closer in age to my boyfriend than I am, and I have a teenage daughter who is beginning to go through an incorrigible stage. My ex-husband is played by Charles Shaughnessy, who played [my employer-turned-husband] Mr. Sheffield on The Nanny.

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Friedman: How much of the show is based on your own life experiences?

Drescher: Well, for four years I was seriously involved with a man who was 16 years my junior.

Cooper: And he got too old for you?

Drescher: (laughs) It ran its course. Sometimes people come into your life for a season and other times for a lifetime. I believe he came into my life for a reason: to get me through my bout with cancer. Our relationship lasted for two years after that, and then it was time to move on. But there was a lot that came out of that and certainly a lot to draw on creatively.

Friedman: Speaking of your bout with cancer, you undertook a great deal of advocacy when your book Cancer Schmancer came out in 2002. What are some of the things you’re doing now?

Drescher: I’m very active. Being a famous survivor has given a purpose to my life that I really didn’t have before. Although I was always supportive of charities, this is different because I see a real need to improve women’s gynecologic health care. I wrote Cancer Schmancer so that what happened to me wouldn’t happen to other people—it took me two years and eight doctors to get a proper diagnosis. When I went on my book tour, I realized that misdiagnosis happens to tens of thousands of women and men. The way people are diagnosed, the tests offered, the knowledge patients have and the control they take of their bodies all need to be improved. I feel like a whistle-blower. I got famous, I got cancer and I lived to talk about it.

Friedman: How do you think things can be improved?

Drescher: I’m presently trying to push a bill through in Washington that was called Johanna’s Law.

Cooper: Was?

Drescher: It’s now been re-named by the Senate as The Gynecologic Cancer Education and Awareness Act or Johanna’s Law, which is obviously clearer for members of the House and Senate to take a position on. I’m very excited about the progress it’s making, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it will in fact be turned into law.

Friedman: What are some of the most important provisions of the bill?

Drescher: It’s an education-based bill targeted at women and their physicians. One goal is to teach what the early warning symptoms of gynecologic cancer are and what tests are available, so women can detect cancer when it’s most curable. That’s the first step; if women know how to recognize the earliest warning symptoms, they have a much better fighting chance. Unfortunately, the early symptoms tend to mimic far more benign illnesses, and the medical community is pressured by big-business insurance companies to use the least expensive diagnostic testing. So most doctors ascribe to the philosophy, “If you hear hooves galloping, don’t look for a zebra. It’s probably a horse.” But that kind of thinking is killing us. Eighty percent of women with ovarian cancer will find out in the late stages, and 70 percent of them will die.

Friedman: The problems of early detection are a significant dilemma.

Drescher: And many, many of those late-stage cases were misdiagnosed initially as irritable bowel syndrome because the symptoms are similar in the earliest stages. Cancer screening tests have to become more a part of basic health care. Plus I am a big believer in the transvaginal ultrasound, which is the equivalent of putting a pair of eyes on the end of a doctor’s fingertips. I cannot believe that the uterus and the ovaries are left to be diagnosed blindly with a manual pelvic exam. But insurance companies are afraid that if we’re offered ultrasound as part of our basic gynecologic health care, it’s going to open a Pandora’s box. It’s a diagnostic tool—not a cancer screening tool—and women get so many problems that could be benign, it would create a domino effect of subsequent testing to see what each problem is. To my mind, it allows a patient and her doctor to see any abnormality, any thickening, and watch to see if it’s growing.

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Going to the gynecologist and simply getting a Pap test—and often the wrong Pap test, because everybody should be getting a Pap with DNA testing, not the regular Pap that’s presently offered—is the equivalent of going to the dentist and having him look at only onethird of your teeth. We have to start questioning the care we’re getting. Right now I’m working to start a new organization called WOMB: Women Organized for Medical Breakthroughs. I am on a rampage, really, to start a movement in this country to change the thinking, to change legislation, to change insurance policies and to get unions to demand for their women different types of health insurance policies. I hope to get a group of female CEOs to take an interest and write a new kind of policy with a health insurance company that’s willing to take this first step. I want to speak at colleges and high schools across the country. A hundred years ago women started a suffrage movement to get the right to vote, and now we have to start a movement to save our lives. It’s that serious and that necessary.

Friedman: An important point you raised is that if a woman is having symptoms, the testing she needs is not screening, but rather diagnostic testing. Screening, by definition, is testing done in people with no signs of illness, to identify treatable conditions early. But once someone has symptoms, it’s a completely different ballgame— symptoms put the person in a higher risk group for serious illness, and it is important for her to pursue a different level of testing for diagnostic purposes. However, a doctor is never going to be able to ask about every symptom. Women have to know themselves what the early symptoms of gynecologic cancers are so they can alert their doctors and ask for testing.

Left Gazing into the eyes of Living with Fran co-star Ryan McPartlin Below Confronting her television son Josh, played by Ben Feldman
Living with Fran co-star Ryan McPartlin Below Confronting her television son Josh, played by Ben Feldman

Drescher: Exactly. If a woman has staining between her periods, that’s it! Endometrial biopsy. Now, it might end up that you’re peri-menopausal, which is what I was misdiagnosed as being for two years. I was placed on four different hormone replacement therapies, and all the while I had cancer and the hormones were exacerbating that cancer. I want to have a tool available to women—a cheat sheet, a bookmark, anything that describes symptoms. You can’t keep your head in the sand because the day will come when you can’t deny what’s happening to you. You feel it. You know. If I knew then what I know now, when doctor number one said I was too young for a D&C [dilatation and curettage, a scraping of the lining of the uterus] I would have said, “Wait a minute. Let’s do the D&C. Let’s eliminate the possibility that I have uterine cancer before we start going down the road of hormone replacement therapy.” It’s the zebra and the horse… let’s rule out the zebra first, because it’s my life.

When a doctor calls and tells you that you have cancer, at the end of the day he goes home and eats dinner with his family, but you go home and eat your heart out with yours. Ultimately, who’s got the greater responsibility for your health? You do. You have much more to lose. It’s vitally important for us to start thinking that way as patients and become greater partners with our physicians. We put more energy into the buying, selling and repairing of our automobiles than we do into our own bodies. People become infantile, they become scared, they turn their doctors into gods. All wrong. That’s oldschool, twentieth century nonsense. Now it’s the twentyfirst century and we’ve got to know what we’re doing.

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Friedman: Especially because doctors don’t always agree with each other. You said you went to eight different doctors. The first person you see may not hear everything, or your condition may change. Sometimes you need to see more than one professional to get the complete picture.

Drescher: I always tell my friends, “Whatever they tell you, get a second opinion.” How can you just go to one person when you’re dealing with your life? There are so many doctors out there. The place you bring your automobile to fill it up with gas may not be the place you want to do delicate engine work. And the doctor you’ve been seeing for years, even a gynecologist, may not be the best diagnostician.

Cooper: You said you had a sense there was something else going on. At what point did it become clear to you that something was being missed?

Drescher: I definitely didn’t feel right. Something was wrong. I was getting more and more odd symptoms, and I did not feel that I was peri-menopausal. I wasn’t having hot flashes, and I had very strong, you know, actual desire. But I didn’t feel well after having sex, and I didn’t think that going through early menopause or going through the pre-stages of menopause would cause that. And then I was getting terrible leg pain. Gilda Radner talked about leg pain in her book about her experience with cancer, and I brought that up to every single doctor. Doctor number eight said, in no uncertain terms, “Fran, you do not have cancer,” and put me on a birth control pill. I started bleeding 24/7. I called her and she said, “Okay, go off it.” Then she said, “I probably just put you on too low a dose.” I thought, Too low a dose? It’s making me worse! How could too low a dose make me worse?

Left On-the-set dance party with Misti Traya, who plays daughter Allison on Living with Fran. Sharing a beer with her character’s young boyfriend
Left: On-the-set dance party with Misti Traya, who plays daughter Allison on Living with Fran. Sharing a beer with her character’s young boyfriend

Friedman: In the end, how did you finally come to be tested for cancer?

Drescher: Doctor number eight finally said, “Just as a precaution, we’ll do an endometrial biopsy in the office.” So after two years, I was finally in her office getting the biopsy, and all the while she was talking to me about going to a fertility center. She was so convinced that I had five minutes left of fertility, and if my boyfriend and I wanted to procreate, we had to think about doing it right then. She was in complete denial that I could possibly have uterine cancer. They all were. I slipped through the crack every step of the way. Twentyfive percent of women with uterine cancer are young and thin and don’t meet the typical profile.

Friedman: We had a saying in medical school for patients who didn’t meet the usual profile for their conditions: That patient didn’t read the textbook about this illness.

Drescher: (laughs) Exactly. Other people I’ve talked to who have had cancer have said the same thing—that early on something was weird. My stool changed, my coping mechanisms were different, my face started to break out.

I also realized that I had probably always had luteal phase defect [a shortening of the second part of the menstrual cycle—the luteal phase—usually caused by low progesterone levels], but since I never tried to have a baby, I was never diagnosed with that. Yet, I had always had very short menstrual cycles—19 days, sometimes 17 days. I’d ask doctors and they’d say, “Has it always been such a short cycle?” “Yes.” “Well, normal is what is normal for you.” But you know what? That’s not true. I always ran low on progesterone. Had I been diagnosed with that in an earlier stage, I might not have had the uterine cancer, which I believe came about because I had unopposed estrogen.

Friedman: Some studies have suggested that relationship.

Drescher: What you don’t know will kill you.

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Cooper: Going back to Johanna’s Law, is part of the legislation also funding research?

Drescher: Not this particular bill. But I didn’t initiate the bill; Johanna’s sister did.

Cooper: Who was Johanna?

Drescher: Johanna was a woman who died of ovarian cancer. When she went to the doctor she was misdiagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, even though her mother had died of ovarian cancer.

Friedman: So ovarian cancer should have immediately been considered, because she was in a very high risk group.

Drescher: She was a very beautiful, vital woman in her very early 40s who is now dead. Her sister couldn’t let her die in vain, so she initiated the law and got Congress members Sander Levin, a Democrat from Michigan, and Kay Granger, a Republican from Texas, to back the bill. I heard about it through e-mails. Then my oncologist, Beth Karlan, who is president of the Society for Gynecologic Oncologists, began promoting the bill. When I went for one of my exams, Dr. Karlan and I started talking and I said, “When you go to Washington, don’t go without me, because I know a lot of people on Capitol Hill and my celebrity opens a lot of doors.” I ended up getting Senator Arlen Specter, the Republican who is the head of the Appropriations Committee, to set up a hearing, which I spoke at. He agreed to appropriate monies whether the bill gets passed or not. He got Senator Harkin to cosign, and I got Senators Hillary Clinton, Barbara Boxer and Barak Obama.

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We have some high-profile people who are going to try to push it through, like a little A-team.

Friedman: Sounds like a big A-team.

Drescher: Except it’s heavy with Democrats, and we need greater bipartisan support.

Cooper: ABILITY has been fortunate to receive bipartisan support, and we’ve been working with a number of senators and congressmen on The Hill as well. As a matter of fact, Senator Harkin has been writing a regular column for ABILITY.

Drescher: He’s a lovely man. So is Senator Specter. He’s battling cancer himself, and he also feels he got a late diagnosis. He said, “I was complaining to my doctor 10 weeks earlier. I should have gotten the CT scan done then.”

Cooper: Like everyone else, politicians bring a deeper level of understanding to an issue when it has affected them personally.

Drescher: Specter has done many things with his career, but signing on to help women’s health care is going to be his finest hour. I sent him a letter that said, “Get well because there’s much to be done.”

Friedman: Changing course a little, I’d like to share some of the trivia that came up as we were preparing to meet with you today. Did you know you’re on the National Rifle Association’s hit list?

Drescher: That’s funny. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a position about guns.

Friedman: If you Google Fran Drescher, there is an NRA site about Second Amendment rights, and they have listed a bunch of anti-gun celebrities. Your name is only one in a long list.

Drescher: I’m surprised because it’s not something I’ve ever really taken a strong position on, being that I was a victim of a violent crime.

Cooper: I expect that’s where it’s coming from.

Drescher: I’m actually more conservative than most people would expect. My assailant was on parole, and until very recently I was pro-capital punishment. I don’t have a problem with people having weapons.

Cooper: Are you packing heat right now? Should we be a little nicer?

Drescher: (laughs) No, no. I think the right to bear arms in this country is something that protects us from the types of oppressive governments that exist in many parts of the world.

Friedman: Was it more traumatic to receive the cancer diagnosis while you were still recovering from the trauma of a violent crime? I can’t even imagine that.

Drescher: I didn’t really deal with the rape at the time it happened. I was still in my Superwoman mode. I came face-to-face with it almost 10 years later when The Nanny was on the air; one of those exploitive magazine shows did a piece on it and actually went to the prison and tried to talk to my assailant. All sorts of people started calling my parents, concerned, because the show presented it as though it had recently happened.

I was in therapy at the time and suddenly I experienced what I didn’t allow myself to experience the first time. At the time the rape happened, I was anonymous. Later, I became famous. I didn’t think the rapist would have made the connection, but they made it for him. It made me feel exposed and vulnerable and like a target, even though he’s in jail. Now I’m connected to him and whoever he knows in his world—that freaked me out and brought up all the fears. Thank God I was in therapy at the time so I could process the experience with a trained ear to guide me and help me digest what had happened.

Friedman: How did you ultimately put it in perspective?

Standing beside Jamie Kennedy, co-executive producer of Living with Fran And meeting with manager Elaine Rich and Senator Hillary Clinton
Standing beside Jamie Kennedy, co-executive producer of Living with Fran And meeting with manager Elaine Rich and Senator Hillary Clinton

Drescher: That’s a good question. I live defensively, and I do have a certain amount of control in my life. I can’t let the frightened inner child in me take over. Being famous is a double-edged sword—I can be a target, but I am also surrounded by people. I travel in posses. I have bodyguards when I need them. I live with very sophisticated security in very good neighborhoods—not that that means anything, but it gives me a certain sense of security, even if it’s false. I was completely anonymous and I became a victim of a violent crime, so it can happen to any of us.

After the rape I was still seeing myself as Ms. Wonder Woman. Having cancer presented the opportunity to ask for help in a way that I didn’t when I was raped. There are so many silver linings that came out of my experience. I’m much better for it. I’m not glad I had cancer, I don’t wish it on anyone, but I am much better for it. All my relationships have deepened because now I accept the fact that I’m as vulnerable a human as you are and…

Cooper: Gillian’s still super-human.

Drescher: (laughs) I had always been the caregiver, and I realized it’s very selfish of me to be comfortable only giving and not taking. I never gave anybody the opportunity to feel good about giving to me.

Cooper: Here, let me give you this glass of water.

Drescher: (laughs) You’re quite the comedian—you’re not trying to audition for my show, are you? (laughs)

Cooper: (laughs) As they say, humor is the best medicine.

Drescher: True!

Friedman: How did having cancer affect your family relationships?

Drescher: My relationship with my ex-husband changed for the better. When he was told that I had cancer, he burst into tears. All of the anger melted away and all that was left was the love. My parents, I couldn’t even call them after I was raped. I told them they didn’t need to come out, I was fine. But when I got the call that I had cancer, I said to myself, “I’ve got to call my parents. I have to pick up that phone and tell my mother I have cancer.” It was a huge turning point for me in my own psychological growth. Much to my amazement, she didn’t become hysterical as I had thought she would. She said, “Okay, let’s not panic. What’s the next step? What do the doctors say we need to do? Daddy and I, we’ll come to you. We want to be there.”

Hugging parents Morty and Sylvia; a Fran sandwich with grandparents
Parents Morty and Sylvia; a Fran sandwich with grandparents

Cooper: You had to let go and let someone else care for you for a change.

Drescher: The challenge comes when you’re broadsided one Wednesday afternoon and your life changes forever. You’ve made plans for what you think your future is going to be, but you have to let go of the plan. You have to play the hand you’ve been dealt. That is my greatest lesson from this experience: whatever I do, wherever I go, I know in my head I may end up taking an unexpected sharp left and I have to let go of where I was heading.

Friedman: It requires a leap of faith for some people to approach change with the assumption that things are still going to work out.

Drescher: All the Zen masters live in the moment, because it is all we have; eventually, I was able to wrap my mind around that. For a while after the surgery, I couldn’t accept the permanence. I couldn’t believe that in this life I was never going to experience having a baby. I can adopt, I can raise a child as mine, but my choice was taken away. And I felt further enraged because I felt victimized by the medical community.

Cooper: How did you get past the feelings of anger and victimization?

Drescher: I was told by a few people, “You’re going to have to let this go because it’s only going to make you bitter, and that’s not good for healing.” People I trust, I listen to. Also, I’m not going to give birth to children, but I gave birth to a book, and people tell me all the time that it saved them—saved them psychologically, saved their lives because they went in and insisted on getting a test the doctor didn’t want to give them. It made a difference in their recovery.

Friedman: I’ve read that when you evaluated some of the treatments for your cancer, you made the fairly unorthodox decision not to have radiation therapy. Did you get any resistance from your doctors about your choice?

Drescher: Not really. It was left up to me because I was still in stage I. Initially my oncologist said she and the pathologist had collectively decided that with a uterine cancer patient in stage I who’d had a radical hysterectomy, they didn’t see any reason to do radiation. Then I went back for my first two-week checkup after I was out of the hospital, and she had changed her mind after talking to a colleague in Wisconsin. Wisconsin has the highest rate of uterine cancer in the country because it has the highest rate of obesity. Obesity creates estrogen, and estrogen contributes to uterine cancer. The Wisconsin doctor said, “One out of ten of my patients needs radiotherapy, but I zap them all with it.” Although I already had a 95 percent chance of non-recurrence, my doctor suggested the radiotherapy would probably push it up to 98 or even 99 percent. She said, “If it were me, I would do it.” And I felt, Well, it’s not you, it’s me, and I’ve got to do my own research.

So I hit the Internet and got all the information I could about this procedure. I learned that for a lot of women, radiation deformed their vaginal canals and they had constant dryness, bleeding and shrinking. I thought to myself, This is all I have left of me. Then I started calling the doctors who are leaders in this field. I called someone at Sloan Kettering, someone at M. D. Anderson and the doctor from Wisconsin who talked to my doctor in the first place. He explained that the problem with his patients was that most of them are farmers who live 300 miles from a hospital, and they are not going to come back every three months to get a checkup. He said he zaps all of them, not for the 9 out of 10 who wouldn’t need it, but for the 1 out of 10 who would have a recurrence. This is very unfortunate for the 9 out of 10 who don’t need it. A lot of women on the different websites I logged onto said they never really felt they recovered because they had to deal with the stunning side effects of the radiation.

Then I also learned that the techniques for doing radiation vary not only from state to state and city to city, but also hospital to hospital, and for no real reason. The dose of radiation, how often it’s given, how much time the treatment is stretched over—it all varies. Some hospitals have very advanced equipment and others kind of make do with what they have. After doing a great deal of research, I decided that if I ever decided to have radiation, I would do it at M. D. Anderson, which has very state-of-the-art equipment. I’m now involved there as a patient advisor, and I wrote a letter when they applied for—and then received—the largest grant ever for uterine cancer research.

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Friedman: It sounds as though you investigated very thoroughly before deciding that radiation was not the right option for you.

Drescher: I gave the decision a lot of thought, because whatever choice you make, you can’t look back. But ultimately I thought to myself, the odds of my dying are higher just driving on the freeway than taking my 95 percent chance of non-recurrence. I was in stage I; I had a slowgrowing, non-invasive cancer; I had the radical hysterectomy; I had the advanced staging; my odds of non-recurrence were already excellent. If somebody had told me, God forbid, that I had a stage IV cancer, and that even with surgery I had maybe a 20 percent chance to live, then I’d do whatever I could do. But mine was a different situation. I made, I think, an educated decision. I feel it was the right one. I still feel it was the right one for me.

Friedman: Certainly, after all the research you did. It can be confusing for some people, though, to figure out whether the information they’re seeing is coming from a qualified authority.

Drescher: Yes, you can go nuts with all the different research findings. If you see a study that enrolled only 15 people, then you have to move on. If it’s a study that had 1,500 people and spanned more than five years, you can pay attention to that. You can talk to that doctor.

Drescher and ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper share a few laughs
Drescher and ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper share a few laughs

Cooper: Have you done anything to celebrate your continued good health since your recovery? What are you doing for fun these days?

Drescher: I’m very busy and I have a lot on my plate. Recently I bought an apartment in New York, which I’m really enjoying. I’ve never lived in Manhattan before, other than to stay in hotels; I just got back from a two month trip, and it was incredible.

Cooper: Two months in New York?

Drescher: Yes, with intermittent side trips—to Washington DC, to Jamaica and to Miami, where my parents live. In celebration of my five years of wellness, I threw a wonderful party on the roof of my building. I also bought an important piece of art that day. The week I found out I had cancer, I bought a Botero sculpture of a nude woman lying on her side, and at my five years of wellness I bought another beautiful nude of a woman who is taking a thorn out of her foot. I found the theme to be symbolic on the anniversary of my wellness.

I like to travel, I like to entertain, I like to cook. I’m very music driven; I love going to concerts, I love musicians and I love music. I just wrote a hip-hop song for a friend of mine. I have meetings about my WOMB organization. I’m writing for the show and we begin production shortly.

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Cooper: You’re keeping busy.

Drescher: Yes, I am. And I love my home right on the beach with its magnificent view. It’s a nice lifestyle here.

Cooper: Do you know John C. McGinley from Scrubs? We interviewed him for a past issue of ABILITY. He doesn’t live far from here.

Drescher: Sure, we did a movie together many years ago.

Cooper: Oh—a movie together. For a second, I thought you said you moved in together.

Drescher: (laughs) No, I was married at the time.

Friedman: Are you doing any volunteer work in addition to starting WOMB?

Drescher: I show up for a lot of fund-raising events. I think it’s important for celebrities to bring focus to important causes and help get national exposure. I try to focus on the events that reach a lot of people. I get all kinds of invitations: “Can you come to my kid’s elementary school? They would be so excited.” And of course, I would be excited too. But there’s only so much of me to go around, so I have to do as much good in one fell swoop as I possibly can.

foreword by Romney Snyder

Warner Bros.

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