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Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Post-Swayze chemo comment fallout: Can Suzanne Somers' media savvy channel the voice of change that NBC's misguided "Farrah's Story" should've?
Media-shrewd actress-turned-bestselling author Suzanne Somers last week outraged many Americans—including the equally vocal Whoopi Goldberg, who just ripped her on The View—with her latest, publicity-magnetizing comment, which goes something like this: Chemotherapy poisoned the late Patrick Swayze. Last week's headlines took it a (logical) step further: "Suzanne Somers Claims Chemo Killed Patrick Swayze."
The always-outspoken Somers' remarks surfaced just days after Swayze died—and, ironically, less than a week after TV icon Farrah Fawcett's cancer documentary, Farrah's Story, was denied an Emmy amidst claims that Ryan O'Neal seized control of the NBC special and, in essence, muffled Farrah's voice in her final months. Retroality.TV recently broke news about Fawcett's hopes for the project—and revealed stunning details about her fight for life and O'Neal's alleged threats to kill Farrah's Story executive producer Craig Nevius—in this exclusive interview with Fawcett's producing partner and confidant.
To be fair, Suzanne's sound bite-worthy claims were derived from her longer, if equally unsettling, comment about the late Swayze's chemotherapy. In Somers' own words: "They took this beautiful man and they basically put poison in him. Why couldn't they have built him up nutritionally and gotten rid of the toxins in his body? I hate to be this controversial. I'm a singer-dancer-comedienne. But we have an epidemic going on, and I have to say it."
Goldberg today shot back: “In case she doesn’t know, Patrick did everything and went everywhere to try and stay healthy as long as he could. That he’s been gone a week and this statement came out is bad timing and bad taste and Suzanne, you know better. And I’m not sure that’s not what you meant to do, but you should have thought about it.”
"MaryscottOConnor"'s stinging comments following a New York Post story about the controversy also pretty well sum up the anti-Somers Swayze backlash:
"She's entitled to her opinion. As am I: and my opinion is that Ms. Somers is an utter moron, and an insensitive, opportunistic moron, at that. I believe she actually believes the stuff she's spewing, but I also believe she's spewing this particular stuff at this particular time—taste and tact be damned—because the publicity and attendant possible increased sales for HER book are just too tempting. Which makes her not only a moron but a venal, contemptible moron, at that."
Ouch. Somers' new book, Knockout: Interviews with Doctors Who Are Curing Cancer—And How to Prevent Getting it in the First Place, hits bookstores Oct. 20.
The breast cancer survivor, who in 2001 controversially announced she eschewed chemo in favor of injecting the herb Iscador, made her Swayze remark to Toronto-based columnist Shinan Govani just hours after the beloved Dirty Dancing and Ghost star succumbed to almost always-deadly pancreatic cancer following a valiant 20-month fight. “People won’t listen to me," the PR-savvy proponent of alternative medicine told the National Post gossip columnist. "If only they would listen to me.”
Monday, Somers apologized on her blog: "In a casual conversation at a private party (with someone who never identified himself as a reporter) at the Toronto Film Festival last week, I was asked about this beloved actor. It was never my intention to make an official statement about his passing. I was not informed or aware I was being interviewed. I would never have been so insensitive as to offer a public statement so close to his untimely passing. I sincerely apologize if my comment has caused any additional pain to his family during this difficult time. I send my deepest condolences for their loss."
(I wonder who Suzanne thought she was talking to when Govani chatted her up—or vice versa—at this industry event. Govani must've had a good memory, because apparently he quoted her accurately without wielding a pen or a tape recorder. Chances are, Suzanne will get the 411 next time.)
Timing is everything. Perhaps if Suzanne had waited a few weeks to reference Swayze's death, more people would be willing to listen. On the other hand, would her comments spread like wildfire once the media focuses squarely on (God forbid) the next untimely (and, in the case of Michael Jackson and Billy Mayes, non-cancer-related) celebrity death?
In Somers' defense, she says she just wants to get potentially life-saving information to the public. As someone who's had the honor of interviewing a few famous cancer survivors—namely Fran Drescher, Jaclyn Smith and Olivia Newton-John—I appreciate the value of Somers' voice in the public arena. And as the guy who literally wrote the book on her rise to superstardom and public war of words with her Three's Company producers and, many years later in my book, her former co-stars, I also appreciate Suzanne's passion to speak her truth, however controversial and, at times, completely at odds with seemingly everyone else's truth, it can be.
Perhaps she will be more successful in getting her potentially life-saving message out than was the late '70s sensation whose stratospheric stardom inspired Somers' own quest for instant made-for-TV celebrity. Farrah Fawcett devoted the final years of her life to fighting cancer and enlightening the public about alternative, life-extending therapies. Sadly, the brave TV Angel lost her three-year battle with anal cancer on June 25. But thanks to her "video diary" that documented her trips to a German clinic to find the treatment and hope that the U.S. health care system could not offer her, she left behind a legacy of courage, strength and potential change for millions afflicted with terminal cancer.
Tragically, according to my interview with Craig Nevius, Farrah's Emmy-nominated NBC documentary was riddled with misinformation, missing information and the misguided machinations of Fawcett's longtime lover, Ryan O'Neal, and close friend Alana Stewart.
Farrah's message was further muddled by the coincidental timing of Michael Jackson's shocking and suspicious death. What media attention and analysis Fawcett's death—and life—clearly merited gave way to the relentless feeding frenzy surrounding MJ's demise.
Not that Stewart had trouble promoting her well-timed (?) book My Journey with Farrah last month, though. People magazine gave her the cover treatment, and the talk show circuit spread the word. (Gotta love corporate synergy.) But when Nevius broke his silence recently about Stewart and O'Neal's alleged betrayal of Fawcett while they apparently took the reigns of the documentary Fawcett and Nevius had named—with NBC's apparent blessing—A Wing & A Prayer, the media turned a deaf ear.
So what if Nevius exposed Farrah's true—and apparently thwarted—intentions behind her cancer video diary? So what if he revealed for the first time why she avoided surgery to receive a colostomy bag, famously commented on weeks earlier by Ryan O'Neal? So what if he offered compelling details about O'Neal's alleged efforts to overtake the project and Stewart's supposed remarks that "at least (Entertainment Tonight) ran only the 'good wheelchair pictures'" while the celebrity news show exploited Farrah's final days last spring?
By early September, the media was more interested in showing Patrick Swayze's "final photos"—the same wheelchair trip home to die that Farrah had taken in April—and looking for the next death-related celebrity sound bite. Which Suzanne served up, unwittingly or not, during the oh-so-important 24-hour news cycle following Swayze's sad demise.
Somers will be on the talk-show circuit next month with her new book, offering more potentially breakthrough info in the fight against cancer. Thankfully cancer-free and otherwise able-bodied, she will have the chance to get her unfettered words across—an opportunity that Fawcett, according to her A Wing & A Prayer producing partner, was denied in Farrah's Story. (Farrah was indisputably unable to promote the NBC special last May; instead, O'Neal and Stewart walked the red carpet and spoke in place of the iconic Angel in numerous interviews.)
I trust that Suzanne will use this public platform responsibly and sensitively. If she invokes Swayze's or Fawcett's name—and she probably will and, under the right circumstances, maybe should—I hope for her message's sake that she tempers her product-publicizing passion with the utmost respect for the brave, though sadly silenced, celebs whose advanced and terminal cancers clearly couldn't be beaten with herbs and nutrition.