Selma Blair delivered the final installment in UB’s 2022-23 Distinguished Speakers Series on Wednesday night with her service dog, Scout, curled up at her feet.
The moment the duo walked on stage, the Center for the Arts (CFA) Mainstage Theatre filled with Blair’s lively energy. Within an hour, Blair traveled from “Sacramento” to “Honolulu” — metaphorically speaking, of course.
The actress, writer and disability rights activist spoke in a moderated discussion with UB neurologist Bianca Weinstock-Guttman, sharing deeply personal stories of childhood, addiction and her multiple sclerosis diagnosis. The gravity of these topics didn’t stop Blair from speaking with remarkable levity and humor, garnering laughter from the audience all night.
Confident and extroverted, Blair — branded a “mean baby” by neighborhood kids when she was only a newborn, a phrase she would later borrow for the title of her 2022 memoir — spent much of her life trying to live up to the image others had of her: sullen and withdrawn.
“I was like the Wednesday Addams growing up,” Blair said. “Now I’m like the happy Wednesday Addams — the Saturday Addams.”
Describing her childhood self as “morose and morbid,” Blair kept to herself, harboring dreams of being a writer. But when her English teacher saw Blair perform in a play for the first time, her aspirations took a turn.
“I just wanted to be alone and write and read and not have anyone bother me,” Blair said. “[But my teacher said], ‘Oh, you’re really not a writer. You’re an actress.’”
Blair was catapulted to Hollywood fame in the late ‘90s, starring in wildly popular films like “Legally Blonde” and “Cruel Intentions.” But her struggles with undiagnosed MS — and the mental health problems that came with it — soured her success. Blair turned to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate.
“I didn’t lean on anybody. I just checked out with alcohol, or work, and didn’t do them at the same time,” Blair said of this period in her life. “I was a very functioning binge drinker.”
Blair described seeing doctor after doctor, all unable to help her, many not taking her or her symptoms seriously.
“From the age of five, I was searching for why I was in pain, why I had a fever my whole childhood… it [multiple sclerosis] just seemed like histrionics from a dramatic child,” Blair said. “So I spent my life kinda called a liar, and really mental, and depressive… so I had many years of growing up just not trusting myself.”
Finally receiving her MS diagnosis in 2018 brought Blair the validation she had been seeking since childhood. Blair described her “elated” reaction.
“I felt so much more comfortable being me,” Blair said. “I really wanted to share it, not to get more attention — although it really did help a lot of feelings of being ignored for so long.”
Blair is in remission, but spoke candidly about the flare-ups she experiences to this day: dystonia, mobility issues and problems with her vision. At one point in the conversation, Blair leaned in, an inquisitive look on her face as she questioned Weinstock-Guttman about certain MS symptoms she didn’t quite understand. (“I’ve never had so much time with a doctor,” she said.)
When asked to offer advice to MS patients trying to accept their diagnosis, Blair hesitated, admitting that everyone’s experience with the disease is different. She stressed the importance of leaning on friends and being patient with oneself.
“I think it’d be pretty ballsy for me to offer any advice,” Blair said. “But I would say, it’s OK. It doesn’t have to happen overnight… I would say have an advocate. Have patience.”
Sonal Shukla, a second-year Ph.D. candidate in the Jacobs School of Medicine, admired Blair’s straightforward demeanor and outlook on life.
“She’s always been so modest, and she accepts what is. She doesn’t go around it,” Shukla said. “She really is [grounded] in reality, and that inspires me.”
Attendee Alla Costantini found Blair’s experience as a woman navigating the medical system and advocating for herself particularly relatable.
“This is common for everybody, but I think it is especially true for women — going to doctors where they’re often underestimated, talked down to, dismissed,” Costanini said of Blair’s story. “I have some invisible illnesses, and have been advocating for myself for the past year and a half to get the kind of help I need. So that’s powerful, and universal.”
Meret Kelsey is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Suha Chowdhury is an assistant news editor and can be reached at email@example.com
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.