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ALS has robbed legendary publicist Nanci Ryder of the ability to walk and talk, but that didn’t keep her from coming out Friday night to thank The Hollywood Reporter and the magazine’s staff writer Chris Gardner for their ongoing coverage of the disease at the ALS Association Golden West Chapter’s Champions for Care and a Cure gala.
THR and Gardner were honored with the Spotlight Award. Gardner’s first story about Ryder was published in October 2014 about two months after she was diagnosed with the neurodegenerative disease, commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It was the first interview Ryder ever gave in her three decades in Hollywood.
Renee Zellweger was by Ryder’s side at the gala to read remarks on her behalf.
“Let me remind you that I was a publicist for 30 years — and a damn good one, too — but I had a rule that I would never be in the spotlight,” she said. “That belonged to my brilliant clients [including Zellweger]. They should shine, not me. I liked it that way.
“However, we can’t always get what we want in life, and I am proof of that,” she continued. “I didn’t want breast cancer, but I got it and I beat it. I didn’t want ALS, but I got it and I want to beat it. In order to beat it, I had to say yes to that interview. I had to step out of the shadows and into the spotlight. I knew that I would have control over that, my words and my outfit, so I said yes. The other reason I granted that interview was because the request came from The Hollywood Reporter and from Chris Gardner. I knew that they would get it right. I knew that he would get it right.”
Gardner has gone on to write close to a dozen stories about ALS, many featuring the participation of “Team Nanci,” a star-studded roster of Ryder’s longtime friends and powerful colleagues, including Courteney Cox, Reese Witherspoon, Bryan Lourd, Kevin Huvane, Simon Halls and Tom and Kathy Maffei.
“I thought I knew Nanci Ryder … but she surprises me still now,” Gardner said. “Showing up. Raising money. Thank you. Thank you for being so quotable and for stepping into the spotlight, when I know you didn’t have to or want to and for leading me here and giving me quotes like this: ‘I have no interest in dying. They haven’t told me that I’m terminal, but the disease is. Eventually. I hear stories about people who have had it for 10 years. You don’t know. But if you look it up on the internet, it says progressive and terminal. So, you fight. That’s it.'”
Gardner acknowledged that it hasn’t been easy witnessing Ryder’s battle with ALS. Her body is nearly paralyzed and her only way of communicating is limited to her eyes looking at signs that say “yes” or “no.”
“It breaks my heart that she can’t tell me that our interview is done or wave me out of the room after one hour, the longest period of time she would ever sit with me,” Gardner said. “I still think about things she said to me about friends, family, insecurities and even work. She said when you find the thing you love, it becomes an addiction. That was publicity for her. For me, it’s journalism.”
THR editorial director Matthew Belloni praised Gardner for playing a significant role in “putting a face” to ALS.
“There are a lot of journalists who are good reporters,” he said. “There is a smaller subset of journalists who are good reporters and can write well. There’s a very small subset of journalists that are great reporters, who write well and have a true compassion for the subjects they are covering and the people that they are writing about. Chris is absolutely that kind of journalist.”
Also honored at the gala, which took place at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel & Bungalows in Santa Monica, was leading ALS researcher Dr. Justin Ishida of USC and the Tanzman family.
The evening closed with a performance by Richie Sambora and Orianthi. TV meteorologist Garth Kemp emceed the festivities, while Byron Allen delivered opening remarks.
A live auction even included a dog rescued from Hurricane Harvey by the Lucy Pet Foundation that went for $800.
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