Renée Zellweger gave a touching speech at the 54th annual ICG Publicists Awards Luncheon on Friday, where her longtime publicist Nanci Ryder — who has been battling ALS since 2014 — was honored with the President’s Award.
Ryder represented numerous A-list clients during her 30-year-plus career as a founder of BWR Public Relations — including Zellweger, Reese Witherspoon, Michael J. Fox, Jennifer Garner, Leonardo DiCaprio and Courteney Cox.
But her 2014 diagnosis was precipitated by ongoing vocal issues and as the neurological illness progressed, Ryder’s speech continued to deteriorate. By 2015, Ryder had lost her ability to speak and began using a gastrostomy feeding tube connected to her stomach to replace eating meals.
In her place, Zellweger read Ryder’s acceptance speech that had her and the crowd at the Beverly Hilton Hotel both laughing and crying.
“This award means the world to me,” Ryder wrote. “Believe me, the irony is not lost that I am a publicist who made a career out of communicating and I am now receiving the biggest award of my career at a time in my life where I’ve lost the ability to speak. I say ‘irony’ as to not use another four-letter word.”
“This situation is something I never saw coming, but in a way it’s fitting to sit here now because I never sought out the spotlight and I’ve never been comfortable on stage,” she continued. “I love being behind-the-scenes, and it’s only been these past couple of years since being diagnosed with ALS that I’ve had a choice to put my reservations aside and do what’s needed to raise money for this disease.”
Ryder explained that her fight with ALS “hasn’t been easy,” but that “being a publicist wasn’t always easy either.”
Born in Long Island, she first moved to Los Angeles in 1979 — jobless after a divorce in the early 20s. She started her own firm in 1984, and wrote that she put “everything [she] had into my work and my client’s careers.”
“It’s amazing and it becomes an addiction,” she said, thanking her clients — including Zellweger, Cox, Witherspoon and Fox. “It was all that and more … I’ve seen first hand what it’s like to see someone’s dreams come true.”
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In 2000, Ryder was diagnosed with breast cancer — but was cancer-free within a year. “I always wish the two diseases were similar,” she wrote. “I found that battling breast cancer was a breeze. The doctor’s this is what you have, this are the treatments, let’s get to work. And get to work we did!”
“I haven’t had the same experience with ALS,” she continued. “It took the better part of a year to get a diagnosis. Back then, in 2014, I could still walk and talk and drive. I lived a fairly normal life, if normal means having a really great blowout.”
Though she’s retired now, Ryder hasn’t stopped working. “This is my new job: fundraising, finding a cure,” she wrote. “I’m so lucky to have been associated with such big hearted and generous friends. It’s been hard to lose the ability to eat, talk, drive, text. What I haven’t lost is the ability to email everybody asking for help. I won’t give up asking … I take pride in the work that we’ve done in raising awareness. Thank you to everyone who has helped.”
Despite her physical limitations, Ryder retained her trademark humor and sarcasm — kicking off the speech by asking the publicist’s guild to rename her award.
“It doesn’t feel like a great time to be getting an award called ‘the President’s award,’ Ryder wrote, as the room — including fellow honorees Denzel Washington and Ryan Murphy — erupted in laughter. “If I’m finally going to win a big award, I didn’t want anyone to be confused about who the real president is. So for today, I will gratefully be your leader, at least until you leave the hotel.”
- With reporting by ALEXIA FERNANDEZ