Before stepping down from bicoastal BWR Public Relations in the fall of 2014 to face down a heartbreaking ALS diagnosis, company co-founder and veteran talent publicist Nanci Ryder had been responsible for guiding the careers of many of Hollywood’s top female talents, like Renee Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon and Courteney Cox.
But during a 30-year-plus career, the New York native (who has lost the ability to speak, swallow and eat as a result of bulbar onset ALS) was quietly doing something in Hollywood that can’t be measured in magazine covers or successful Oscar campaigns — mentoring other women in the world of publicity. That experience led her to the Milk Studios stage on Wednesday morning during The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Women in Entertainment Breakfast presented by Lifetime.
Ryder was welcomed to the podium by THR‘s president and chief creative officer Janice Min, who praised her as a legendary force and a “funny, smart, brave and honest” woman who may have lost the ability to speak “but has not lost her voice.” Ryder received the warmest of welcomes by the crowd, filled with Hollywood power players like Universal’s Ron Meyer and Donna Langley, Sherry Lansing Award recipient Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Fox’s Dana Walden, Kris Jenner and Melinda Gates.
Ryder was joined by another industry force, longtime friend and DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who read a letter from Ryder, delivering one of the morning’s most touching moments.
Katzenberg was moved to tears as he read Ryder’s letter, but when it was over the veteran executive added his own tribute to Ryder which seemed to move the entire room to tears. “I only hope I can be half the person you are,” Katzenberg told Ryder as he choked up.
But the segment was not without Ryder’s signature humor, or her brutal honesty. She called on the breakfast attendees to make progress in solving Hollywood’s “gender problem” during a segment bookended by standing ovations.
“I helped grow a company when few women were doing so,” Ryder’s letter stated. “I hired and mentored many of you even in this room. I care enormously about my friends who are trying to change this town’s conversation around gender. It’s the same conversation we’ve been having since I first started out. And you know what? It’s boring because it never changes. Trust me, you don’t want to bore me.”
Instead, “do something,” encouraged Ryder. “You’re all powerful. This is not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not even like curing ALS. I wish my disease were as easy to fix as this. All this problem takes is the collective power in this room, combined with the will. Not even money, researchers or Ice Bucket Challenges are needed.”
Read Ryder’s letter in full below:
Dear Hollywood Friends…
I want to say thank you for everything you’ve done for me personally and for ALS in the past year. I’m not going to sugarcoat this. This is a terrible disease. In my interview with The Hollywood Reporter in September, I said, ‘I’m not sure whether I’m living or dying’ some times. I’m not going to lie. I cry. But I also laugh. And because I have bulbar onset ALS, sometimes I can’t control if I’m laughing or crying, so if you see me doing either, you know why.
Let me be the only one to say this in this room. Thank God for email.
Before I stepped down from BWR, I was a publicist whose job it was to help open a movie, win someone an Oscar or help sell any kind of message that needed selling. But I could not have predicted how powerful my message – one woman with a disease who wants a cure – has become. Hollywood is a good place, filled with good people. You, my friends right here, have changed the profile of this enemy, turned the Ice Bucket Challenge into a sensation, and supported me through the uncertainty of a fatal disease. I cannot say thank you enough.
I know everyone here can change conversations. You are the world’s greatest storytellers after all. My friend Jeffrey here was able to spearhead, thanks to your buy-in, the resuscitation of the Motion Picture and Television Fund. That’s just one example.
So now I have no horse in any race now except my own. I visit doctors at Cedars-Sinai and Massachusetts General. My friends like Reese, Renee, Courtney, Kevin, Bryan, Simon and Kathy and I go for walks, watch the crazy birds in my backyard and yes, still shop online. I may have met my match, but I still love a great bag. And I want to look good while we defeat ALS.
But I also am a woman. I helped grow a company when few women were doing so. I hired and mentored many of you even in this room. I care enormously about my friends who are trying to change this town’s conversation around gender. It’s the same conversation we’ve been having since I first started out. And you know what? It’s boring because it never changes. Trust me, you don’t want to bore me.
So, I’m going to use this platform, since you’re now all listening, to make a final request of you. First, donate to ALS. Of course. But then, do something about the woman issue in Hollywood. You’re all powerful. This is not rocket science. It’s not brain surgery. It’s not even like curing ALS. I wish my disease were as easy to fix as this. All this problem takes is the collective power in this room, combined with the will. Not even money, researchers or Ice Bucket Challenges are needed.
It’s my privilege to take this stage and still be able to communicate with you and be part of a breakfast where I can put in context life’s problems. My problem? Bad. Um, no thanks. Hollywood’s gender problem? Easy.
So I’m not going to call you and harass you about this after today. But I might occasionally send you a pushy email, okay? I’m still a publicist at heart.