Jamie Lee Curtis: Helping Children Flourish
The actress on kids, fame and family.
By October 1, 2002 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
You may have seen her in television interviews, or read about her in magazines, but you don't really know Jamie Lee Curtis. And the daughter of tinsel-town royalty prefers it that way. Born to Hollywood luminaries Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in 1958, Curtis has been in the glare of celebrity throughout her life, and it has given her a gimlet-eyed view of fame.
Taking a seat beneath a long line of windows in her unpretentious southern California home, the actress explains both the danger and the usefulness of stardom. "I don't need any more attention; it didn't do much for me," she says. "The attention that I have received--both because of the notoriety of my family and because I am an actor--did not give me self-esteem. It didn't stop me from seriously risking my life with drugs and alcohol."
It did, however, allow her to shift attention to people who need it, a beneficial aspect of fame she learned early on. "My mother joined forces with other celebrity women to create SHARE, an organization that works with the mentally handicapped community. SHARE stands for 'Share Happily and Reap Endlessly,'" Curtis says.
After 43 years in the limelight, Curtis now gets satisfaction from helping lesser-known causes. "Organizations that have hundreds of celebrities showing up for them don't need me," the actress says. "But many other organizations need a spotlight to raise awareness and money. The only value of having the spotlight on me is that I can mirror it back to someone or something else."
Which is just what Curtis does. Though involved with many charities, she is self-effacing about her role in all of them. If asked about her work at Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, she discusses at length the caring people who work there but doesn't mention that she has spent the past two decades visiting its terminally ill children. While describing in detail the bravery of those she met through the Children Affected by AIDS Foundation (CAAF), she neglects to tell you about her many hours of tireless fund-raising.
A little research unearths that Curtis first became involved with CAAF after losing a friend to the disease. Since 1998 she has attended the organization's annual Halloween fund-raiser every year-a fitting touch for a woman who earned the title "Scream Queen" in the film Halloween.
"CAAF is just a natural fit for me, given my relationship with the AIDS crisis and because of my friend Rick, who died of the disease," she explains.
Curtis' interest in children's causes first began while shooting a film in 1983, when she befriended Lori Tull, a 13-year-old heart-transplant patient.
"The town that we were shooting in put on a benefit for Lori, one of the first successful teenage heart-transplant patients," she says. "I met her and we became friends over the course of the rest of her life, which was another six years."
Where Do Balloons Go?
To truly discover the extent to which Curtis is involved with helping children, you would have to hear it from others. Perhaps no story is more telling than that of Katie Westbrook. A young cancer patient who aspired to be a lawyer, Katie met Curtis during a fund-raiser for Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and the two quickly became close.
"Katie wasn't in awe of Jamie, and Jamie didn't pity Katie," Beth Westbrook, Katie's mother, says. "They genuinely connected, whether they were talking about cancer or boy bands. Once, after getting off the phone with Jamie, Katie said, 'You know, Mom, she doesn't like me--she loves me.'"
Another time, Katie underwent a 23-hour-long surgical procedure. A nurse approached Beth in the waiting room to tell her that Beth's sister had been calling for regular updates throughout the ordeal. Puzzled because her sister was standing beside her, Beth asked the caller's name. "She would only say 'Jamie,'" the nurse replied.
After the surgery, Curtis flew out to Pittsburgh to see Katie, who spoke excitedly about receiving an honorary law degree from Duquesne University. The commencement took place the day after Katie's fifteenth birthday. She died three hours before the ceremony.
After the funeral, Beth thanked Curtis for her endless support. "Are you trying to get rid of me?" Curtis replied. Today she remains close with the Westbrooks, and has taken Katie's younger sister, Kerry, under her wing. "She is not a celebrity," Beth says. "She is a friend."
Curtis, all too familiar with losing friends, draws on her personal experiences in her children's book Where Do Balloons Go?Using the premise of errant helium balloons, the book helps children explore the idea of loss in a less-frightening way.
Tell Me Again About The Night I Was Born
Curtis and her husband, actor and director Christopher Guest, have two adopted children: Annie, 15, and Tom, 6. Not surprisingly, Curtis' second book, Tell Me Again About the Night I Was Born, focuses on adoption. The story is a helpful introduction to the topic for children and is engagingly illustrated.
"I think we, as parents, forget that we are also teachers," Curtis explains. "If our children don't have good learning skills, it will be our fault." However, she doesn't believe that learning is a one-way street.
"My sobriety is a gift from my daughter, and I will be grateful for that for the rest of my life," Curtis says. "Not that she looked at me and said, 'You are an alcoholic, a drug addict, you're in trouble.' It was that my behavior and attitude and focus were off, and she was authentic enough to say, 'Hello! This isn't working.'"
Discovering what does work is an all-consuming goal for Curtis. "Just replicating how your family raised you is mindless parenting," insists the very mindful parent. Nothing escapes her attention, from the amount of time her children spend on the Internet, watching television and playing video games, to whether or not they will succumb to fast-food culture. "Children get a toy with the meal and then all of a sudden you have to bribe a child to eat. It is a very bad pattern to set."
As a mother whose acting career made her ultra-aware of the media's power to influence, Curtis is especially concerned about the movies her children see. At book signings, she is often dismayed when children tell her they've seen one of her horror films, and it is not a feeling she forgets at home, either.
"My son wanted to see Spider-Man," Curtis says. "But after I found out how violent it was, I sat him down and told him why we couldn't go. It was hard; he was disappointed," she continues, reflecting on the job of parenting as she gazes out the window. "We have struggles, but what gives me self-esteem is that I am teaching my children by example. They see me doing things for other people, like I saw my mother doing."