See Cousin Geri From "The Facts of Life" Now at 65
Actor Geri Jewell played the groundbreaking role 40 years ago.
Throughout its nine-season run, The Facts of Life primarily followed four teenage girls at Eastland boarding school: Blair, Tootie, Natalie, and Jo. But in the second season, a character was introduced who made television history. When Geri Jewell joined The Facts of Life as Blair's cousin Geri, she became the first person with a visible disability to have a recurring role on a primetime show. Jewell has cerebral palsy, as did her character, Cousin Geri.
The Facts of Life was Jewell's first major role. Prior to her casting, she had been performing standup comedy. Like Jewell, Cousin Geri was also a standup comedian. "[Show creator] Norman Lear saw me perform in 1980," Jewell told GoPride in 2019. "He came up to be me after the show and said, 'You are really funny, kid, but you are way before your time.' I said, 'Well, wait a couple of months!' He actually waited three months before casting me in The Facts of Life." Jewell also explained that actual jokes from her comedy set were used on the show.
During The Facts of Life's time on air, Jewell appeared in 12 episodes. In the years since, she has continued to act in high-profile projects and has also become a motivational speaker and advocate for those with disabilities. Read on to learn more about Jewell's life today.
Jewell continued acting following The Facts of Life.
In the time following The Facts of Life, Jewell has appeared in movies and TV shows including 21 Jump Street, The Young and the Restless, and Glee. One of her most famous roles is that of Jewel on the Deadwood TV series and in the 2019 movie revival. In her interview with GoPride, Jewell explained that she was cast in the Western drama after running into the series' creator David Milch at a pharmacy after she'd had spinal cord surgery.
"He explained it was for a new Western on HBO," Jewell said. "I looked up with my titanium neck and thought, 'God has a quirky sense of humor. I have cerebral palsy, can barely move and now I have to ride a horse!'"
She's written two memoirs.
Jewell has released two memoirs about her life: Geri in 1984 and I'm Walking as Straight as I Can in 2011. In I'm Walking as Straight as I Can, Jewell came out publicly as gay. "The book's title—I'm Walking As Straight As I Can—has a double meaning, referring to both Jewell's sexuality and her extraordinary struggle growing up with cerebral palsy," reads her website.
"Initially, I wanted to write a new book right away, because I was so mortified by the first one," she told Ability Magazine in 2012. "But there was no opportunity to do so, and the universe knew better than I did that I had a lot of life to live before I was to write my real autobiography." She further explained that the first book was not actually written by her. "I had very little to do with that one. I was interviewed, and then Stewart Weiner, who was a sweetheart, did the best he could with my life, but it was not his life. And the words he chose did not reflect who I was," she said.
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She's a motivational speaker and advocate.
In addition to being an actor, Jewell is also an advocate for people with disabilities and a motivational speaker. According to her website, she has assisted a number of large companies in developing their diversity and disability training programs.
Jewell told GoPride that people have thanked her for both offering representation for those with cerebral palsy on TV and representation for the gay community. "I never fully realized the impact I had with Facts of Life until the '90s when I started doing the college circuit in stand-up comedy," she explained. "People came up to me and said Cousin Geri changed their life. Some people admitted to me that they were suicidal for being gay, having a disability or being bullied. When they saw me on Facts of Life it gave them hope."
She continued, "When I came out of the closet in 2011 with my book I'm Walking as Straight as I Can, I got over 35,000 hits on my website within one week. I was surprised how many people with disabilities that were gay telling me thank you for having a voice for them."
Playing Cousin Geri pigeonholed her, but she still loves the show.
In an interview with GLAAD in 2016, Jewell explained that being known as Cousin Geri meant that she missed out on future auditions. "I will always be 'Cousin Geri' and there are pros and cons to it," she said. "I am 60 years old now, and I am still thought of as that character—and therefore, casting directors don't always consider me for other roles. I have had maybe 37 auditions in 38 years!! However, I am very proud of my role on Facts and it has a special place in my heart. Most importantly, is seeing over the years how it has made a difference in so many people's lives and that there are so many people with disabilities going after their own dreams. I am very grateful indeed."