“She was working in a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens,
till her boyfriend kicked her out in one of those crushing scenes …
She’s the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan
The flashy girl from Flushing
The nanny named Fran.”
When I mentioned to friends that I was interviewing Fran Drescher, the majority greeted the news by humming snatches from the iconic theme song of the 1990’s sitcom The Nanny. But there is so much more to the 61-year-old entertainer than the foghorn whine that emerged whenever Fran Fine opened her mouth. Indeed, pre-Nanny Fran racked up some impressive albeit eclectic credits ranging from Saturday Night Live to This is Spinal Tap.
The Nanny signed off in 1999, the year Fran divorced Peter Marc Jacobson, who was both her high school sweetheart and co-creator of the beloved sitcom. In the decades since, Fran has remarried and divorced; written two books, Enter Whining and Cancer Schmancer; and acted in theater, movies, and television. Her small screen highlights include starring in a sitcom loosely based on her first marriage called Happily Divorced, a 2017 appearance on Broad City, and a riotous standup set on the 2019 Showtime special Funny Women of a Certain Age. In early 2020, Fran will debut in the NBC sitcom The Indebted, in which she’ll star as—gasp—a grandmother!
But it was being diagnosed with uterine cancer at age 43 that altered the trajectory of her life. Fran conquered the disease, subsequently starting a non-profit called what else, CancerSchmancer.org, and she is a passionate advocate on disease prevention and transforming the “sick” medical care system as well as LGBTQ rights.
NextTribe caught up with her by phone a few days after she returned to Los Angeles after hosting a Cabaret Dinner Cruise around New York Harbor for CancerSchmancer.org. No, her real voice isn’t as nasally as Fran Fine’s, but yes she is just as effervescent as her immortal TV persona.
You said turning 50 was easy but 60 was a real “Oh My God” moment. Now that you’re 61, how has your perspective, well, aged over the past year?
It’s made me more mindful of what makes me happy, how much I want to do, and how I want to spend my time. I honor my body and allow it to rest when it needs to rest. The idea of pushing through—no pain, no gain!—is no longer part of my vernacular. At this age it’s really important to develop inner peace as well as a compatibility and respect for your physical being. With aging comes a process of living and growing wiser and moving into a chapter that is focused on deeper, more meaningful things.
From your present vantage point, what advice would you give to younger Fran?
As a child I got rewarded for being “needless” and extremely quiet. It stayed this way till the cancer, which became a license to make it about me. I would tell young Fran, “You are trying to gain acceptance and approval from the outside world but until you flex that muscle and start asking, What do I want? What do I need? What’s good for me? you are not really advancing on your journey of self-refinement.”
Congratulations on recently celebrating your 19th year of being cancer free. It’s wonderful that getting sick helped you find your voice. Were there other silver linings gleaned from your cancer diagnosis?
Initially, I was absolutely devastated. This came after two years of being told by doctors there was nothing wrong. Now I tell people, “Sometimes the best gifts come in the ugliest packages.” After a tragedy, turning pain into purpose can be healing and help make sense of the senseless. Look at Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. About seven years into my wellness I started Cancer Schmancer.
The cancer wasn’t the only trauma you’ve endured—in 1985 you were raped at gunpoint in your home. Yet no matter what is thrown at you, ultimately you don’t just survive but find a way to transcend. What advice do you have for women on how to get through the setbacks and shitshows that inevitably show up in our lives?
When you’re in the depths of despair, you’re going to feel like you’re almost drowning and that there is no joy anywhere. But there is joy, so make it your business to notice it or you will have a harder time surviving this blow. No one leaves this planet unscathed, so you have to wrap your mind around the fact that one random Tuesday afternoon one way or another life is going to bite you on the ass.
Prepare yourself that it is going to happen. Don’t live in a fool’s paradise where you make plans for what the future’s going to be and then the shocker is that it doesn’t work out that way. You have to be fluid in this life, malleable, and not get stopped in what was supposed to be but say, Okay, this is what is presented to me and what the hell do I need to do to get through this? You don’t know what’s happening five minutes from now, let alone the rest of your life so get your head out of the clouds because you have to start experiencing life for all its ephemeral glory.
After a painful divorce followed by Peter coming out as gay, how did the two of you eventually wind up besties? As a couples counselor myself, I can tell you it’s a rare feat!
That was one of the silver linings to the cancer. He was so hurt I wanted out of the relationship that he stopped talking to me for over a year. Later, when Peter was told by our manager about my diagnosis, he immediately burst into tears, and all his anger melted away. Now we’re closer than during our marriage. We have the creative compatibility that has always been a big cornerstone of our relationship. Our sense of humor is very similar. We understand ourselves better and communicate better than before. He is living an authentic life as a gay man. We are the best of friends, which is how we started out in high school.
How did you wind up becoming a Public Diplomacy Envoy for Women’s Health Issues for the U.S. State Department and what does that entail?
I was very instrumental in having a bill passed—Johanna’s Law or the Gynecologic Cancer Education and Awareness Act—during the Bush 43 administration. [I ended up] becoming an envoy during the Obama years. It was a vetted position, and I was sworn in. It was a great honor. I got to visit countries such as Romania and South Africa as well as military bases speaking about taking control of your body and transforming from patient to knowledgeable consumer so you can become partners with your physician. My focus now is on causation. Why are we getting sick, and how can we not get sick in the first place? I’m a survivor and lived to talk about it, and I’m famous. The best contribution I can make is educating and motivating people to realize that how they live equals how they feel.
You have become a “JewBu”—someone with a Jewish background who practices forms of Buddhism. How does that add to your spiritual life?
It’s a philosophy that allows me to know I’m going to falter, to forgive myself, and to use that as an opportunity for self-awareness. It teaches me to focus on what’s true happiness and to develop a detachment for stuff, things, possessions. It also reminds me that we’re all ripped from the same fabric. We’re in this together.
Tell me about the new sitcom, Indebted.
It’s going to be on NBC—a primetime comedy paired with Will and Grace. Steven Weber and I play baby boomers who go bust and move in with our adult son and his young family. Typically, grandparents on a sitcom are not the fuck-ups but the voices of reason. Here Steven and I are the immature ones. We are spendthrifts with a very cavalier attitude about life. We’re a sexy couple—very tactile.
Nanny to hot granny …
But with joie de vivre—to a fault!