The Invincible Woman, Selma Blair

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Keah Brown
·11 min read
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Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski
Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski

Long before we met, I thought I knew who Selma Blair was. As a pop culture buff, I’d watched her work, and I believed I could surmise what her life was like through red carpet photos, magazine covers, and movie screens. I came of age, and Blair rose to stardom, in an era before social media, when fans put public figures on a pedestal and projected a grandeur onto their every moment. On a recent Saturday night Blair and I met over Zoom. She was perched in front of a blue wall in her Los Angeles home, wearing a dreamy sequined Molly Goddard dress, with one knee pulled to her chest. I was in a New York hotel room, wearing my best red lip and quickly learning how wrong I had been.

Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski
Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski

In conversation, Blair is wonderfully human. Of course, you’re aware that she’s a movie star, but since she disclosed her multiple sclerosis diagnosis on Instagram in 2018, Blair has become more than just her profession, she’s been a light for many disabled people. After her disclosure, I was one of many disabled people who felt seen, understood, and, strangely, hopeful. As a public figure who has been open about her disability and the ways in which it can be both beautiful and frustrating, she has made room for many of us to do the same. More important, she’s a full person whose life includes her illness, but she is not solely defined by it. Blair is a world famous actress, someone with MS, a goofball, a beauty buff, a fashion plate, and a fierce mother. The fact that she is able to be all these things at once and out loud makes her feel like something more than the sum of her parts, something like a messenger of hope.

Often, when there is any mention of disability in the public sphere, it serves to create narratives about disabled people who find that their sole purpose is to make nondisabled people feel better about their lives. In these narratives disabled people become tools used to further the idea that disability is inherently wrong or pitiful. This will not be that narrative. If it were, it would be a cheapening of who Blair is. Her truth gave many of us the chance to dream bigger, to see that we too belong on television, movie screens, and red carpets. We belong, and so does she.

Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski
Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski

“I am aware my challenges affect other hopeful or isolated people—and a few of them may be joyful snobs like me,” Blair says. “I’m very comfortable in my body, mostly because I am now making a deeper positive connection with it. I am fascinated by this body and this life. I am humbled and pleased to be any inspiration for people.”

One of the first things we discuss is beauty. Not simply looking good for others—though there’s nothing wrong with that—but our desire to look and feel good because it’s what we deserve. The thing about beauty for Blair is that it can affect how we see ourselves, and that isn’t frivolous. It matters.

“I’ve been made up by some of the most famous makeup artists since I started acting, and I’ve felt so transformed by their makeup that I really did become a different person,” she says. “It was a superpower to me, and I mean this. Makeup is not trivial to me. If anything moves the needle for me in my life—even before my diagnosis or challenges—it is my gorgeous war paint.”

She adds, “I don’t mind if my muscles get caught at the intersection of a slow brain signal. I just want those words to come from lips covered in Chanel gloss.”

The makeup artist Gucci Westman has worked with Blair on such projects as a cover of Italian Vogue; most recently the pair collaborated on a charitable campaign called Natural Beauties that featured 13 ambassadors for Westman’s beauty brand. And while Westman can’t quite remember when she first met Blair, she’s clear on what made her perfect for the campaign.

“I really wanted to approach this list of diverse people who are extraordinary in their own right,” Westman says. “Selma was the first person we asked. She’s a great storyteller and a great actress. We loved letting her go and seeing what she was going to do.”

Blair was born in 1972 outside Detroit, the youngest of four sisters, and began acting as a high schooler. After moving to New York City, she began seriously studying acting and landed roles in commercials, on sitcoms, and in films. Her first leading role was in Strong Island Boys, a 1997 coming-of-age feature, but her breakthrough came in 1999, when she played Cecile Caldwell, the naive daughter of social climbers, in Cruel Intentions, the reimagining of Les Liaisons Dangereuses played out among teenagers on the Upper East Side. The New York Times called the film “faintly ridiculous,” but it was a box office hit and it became a generational touchstone; Blair and co-star Sarah Michelle Gellar famously won an MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss to commemorate their onscreen lip lock. (Last December, to mark the 20th anniversary of the award, the pair recreated the kiss with one very 2020 update: a plexiglass divider between them.)

Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski
Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski

From there Blair went on to become a reliable presence in romantic comedies (Legally Blonde and my personal favorite, The Sweetest Thing) and action films (she starred in 2004’s Hellboy and has lent her voice to TV sequels and video games). She made a movie for John Waters (A Dirty Shame) and starred opposite Molly Shannon in an American adaptation of the cult Australian series Kath & Kim. Blair became the kind of actress you root for, thanks to her easy comedic timing and ability to be funny, sexy, charming, or evil depending on what a script required.

Her choices were thoughtful—even if some, like Legally Blonde, which turns 20 this year, are only today being celebrated in earnest and not treated as ironic pleasures. “Legally Blonde is one of those Technicolor Hollywood films that really spans the ages,” Blair says. “Now we see things with a different lens, and all those things [the movie portrays] are celebrations of the human spirit. It’s dressed up in pink and feathers and glitter, but it’s eye-catching and kind. I love that the world’s more like that.”

In fact, many of the films on Blair’s résumé subverted Hollywood ideas and flipped misogynistic tropes on their heads. In conversations about films that hold up because they were ahead of their time, Blair’s work is often mentioned; she’s had one of the most considered careers of her generation of stars.

Blair led what seemed a charmed life. In 2011 she became a mother, when her son Arthur was born. (His father is her ex, fashion designer Jason Bleick.) In the years following, she starred in the FX series Anger Management, she played Kris Jenner for a season of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story, she won a Grammy nomination for her narration of an audio adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank, and she starred in fashion campaigns for brands including Chanel, Miu Miu, and Gap.

Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski
Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski

In February 2018, however, she first knew that something was truly off. Blair was walking in a New York Fashion Week show for Christian Siriano when she noticed a loss of sensation in her leg. She had noticed similar symptoms before but had considered them minor troubles and not signs of something significant.

“It was on that runway, with the thrill of walking in the show, that I suddenly lost feeling in my left leg,” she says. “But I was on a runway and thinking, What do I do?”

In October of that year, Blair revealed her diagnosis to the world via Instagram, writing, “I am disabled. I fall sometimes. I drop things. My memory is foggy. And my left side is asking for directions from a broken GPS.”

The Essential Selma Blair

A brief history of her most memorable moments onscreen and off.

She was met with support from her fans, and the active choice she made—and continues to make—to be open about the realities of her condition is saving lives. Blair has made the choice to be transparent about her struggles and successes alike; she showed up at the 2019 Vanity Fair Oscar party with a cane; she has been vocal on social media, posting photos of her hair loss after chemotherapy and patiently explaining her symptoms; she has lent her celebrity to philanthropic causes like Race to Erase MS.

Sharing her illness with the public gave Blair a new dimension, but that didn’t mean the ones we knew would disappear. She’s still gorgeous and goofy and looking for a way to make her mark. Speaking about the night she brought her cane on the red carpet, she says, “It was a no-brainer, and there was no choice.” She needed the assistance walking, but the glamour she added was completely, deliciously optional—her manicurist monogrammed the cane with gel nail polish and jewels. “I hadn’t been on a red carpet for so long, and now I was coming,” she says. “I knew, since my diagnosis, people might be watching. I didn’t know if I would be forgotten about and be the last one on the red carpet.”

Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski
Photo credit: Alexi Lubomirski

She wasn’t forgotten. Her look that evening made headlines, and she didn’t stop there. Siriano, a friend and frequent collaborator, says, “I want to make sure that what she wears is still her. She still loves to have fun with fashion and get dressed up. We try to make things easier; we try to make sure the zippers are functional and that she can do things herself. I dressed her for a gala that she was being honored at not that long ago, and we did a suit without any fastenings. We still have fun. We still can have great fashion moments.”

Today Instagram is where Blair is serving her most fun looks—whether she’s playing with her horse, Mr. Nibbles, posing in a black hat and ruby slippers, or hanging out with her son in the pool—playing with the color and texture of her clothes and crafting the perfect eye to go with it. Later this year she’ll be back onscreen when a documentary, Introducing, Selma Blair, streams on Discovery+. The film is an unflinching, funny look at her life, the people who care for her, the realities of what unknown things the future may bring, and the joy, exhaustion, and silliness of illness.

But for now, on our Zoom call, we’ve blown through the time allotted for our chat and gotten lost in a conversation about good hotels, fingernails, and Toni Morrison, among other things. It’s easy to see how Blair has earned such admiration from the 2.4 million people who follow her on Instagram, as well as the select few who know her best: She’s funny and frank and devastatingly smart. “Regardless of what is happening in her life, she always shows up,” says the beauty entrepreneur Nyakio Grieco, a longtime friend.

Sarah Michelle Gellar says, “We have one of the purest friendships I have ever had. We’re able to be scared, to feel the highs and lows. Between Covid and her diagnosis, a lot of the barriers that we put up have been broken down. [Before the pandemic,] if she was having a bad day I would come over and crawl into bed with her, and we would lie there for hours and watch HGTV. We didn’t have to talk, and to me, real friendships are when you can sit in silence and know that the other person is there to love and support you.”

Perhaps what’s most appealing about Blair is that she shows us ways we could all be better. She is there for her friends and teaches them to laugh at themselves; she feels at her best with her family; she’s passionate about what she does—and despite her successes, there are things she’s still hoping to conquer.

“One day I would hope to be a great writer,” she says, “and that people who were with me on this journey from when I was little, in Cruel Intentions, and got to make mistakes and really mess things up, can come back and see a whole new way of me being at peace with myself.”

Photographs by Alexi Lubomirski Styled by Elizabeth Stewart

In this story: Hair by Chris McMillan for Solo Artists/Drunk Elephant. Makeup by Rachel Goodwin for Makeup Forever at A-Frame Agency. Nails by Tom Bachik at A-Frame Agency. Set design by Gill Mills at 11th House Agency. Video DP Leonard Abraham. Production by Viewfinders LA. Shot at Milk Studios.

Photo credit: Town & Country Magazine
Photo credit: Town & Country Magazine

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