Leeza Gibbons, the effervescent TV personality known for hosting Entertainment Tonight, Extra and Leeza, has always moved at full speed. Even when taking a break from Hollywood to visit her parents at their home near where she grew up in Irmo, S.C., it was tough for her to hit the brakes.
“My mom finally taught me to slow down,” says Gibbons, 54, whose mother, Jean Gibbons, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1999. “Even when I couldn’t communicate with her and all I could do was brush her hair, hold her hand or play her favorite song, I learned that my hyperactivity wasn’t meaningful. The only thing that mattered was to slow down, take a deep breath, and be present.”
Jean, who died in 2008 at age 72, and Leeza’s father, Carlos, now 82, were always an inspiration to Leeza, brother Carlos Jr. (Carl), now 57, and sister Cammy, 47. Carlos Sr., an elementary school principal and later school superintendent, ran for governor of South Carolina in the mid-1970s.
“I went out campaigning for my dad on a little whistle-stop tour when I was 15,” Gibbons says. “It was electrifying. Not only was he affecting people’s lives, he was really happy doing it. He definitely influenced me to follow my passions.”
And Jean—or “Mama G,” as Leeza’s friends called her—was the epitome of the gracious hostess, selfless in her service to others.
“She always had the door open,” Gibbons says. “And the coffee was always on.”
‘Something isn’t right’
In the late 1990s, the Gibbons family noticed that Jean, whom Leeza describes as a “sassy, funny, strong Southern woman,” was becoming forgetful. She would pay the same bill three times or let loose an occasional profanity, something she’d never done before. At first, the family tried to justify the behavior. “Jean’s probably been drinking a little too much,” someone would say. Or, “She’s just getting older.”
But Jean, whose own mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, knew better.
“She was the one who said, ‘Something isn’t right,’” Gibbons says. “I was in such denial. Mom was the one who forced us to get our heads out of the sand.”
Jean had only one request.
“Go tell the story,” she told her entertainment-journalist daughter. “And make it count.”
A focus on caregivers
And that’s exactly what Leeza did, eventually chronicling the family’s ordeal in her 2009 book, Take Your Oxygen First: Protecting Your Health and Happiness While Caring for a Loved One with Memory Loss.
In 2002, Gibbons created the Miami, Fla.-based Leeza Gibbons Memory Foundation and its signature program, Leeza’s Place, with two locations near her Los Angeles home, plus one in Florida and one in Illinois, that provide resources for people caring for someone seriously ill.
In 2003, Gibbons left her post at TV’s Extra to run the foundation.
“If Leeza is in a position to make a difference or give something back, she does it,” says her sister-in-law, Anne Marie Gibbons, 53, in Columbia, S.C. “Everything she’s involved in, she truly cares about. Her full energy goes into it.”
Besides the hands-on participation of its namesake, Leeza’s Place is unique for its emphasis on the caregiver, not the person with the illness.
“That’s our focus, because if you nourish the caregiver with mind, body, soul and spirit, you’ll get better outcomes for the care receiver,” Gibbons says.
Juggling work and family
Besides her role as caregiver advocate, Gibbons maintains an up-tempo schedule promoting her Sheer Cover makeup line and hosting the PBS lifestyle series My Generation, the radio program Hollywood Confidential, and America Now, a nightly syndicated TV news magazine co-hosted by Bill Rancic, the 2004 winner of the TV reality show The Apprentice.
“We give a lot of information very quickly on a wide variety of topics, then provide viewers with the next step,” she says of America Now. “I love it because we actually show what you can do about a problem like bullying or identity fraud.”
Of all her endeavors, from interviewing movie stars (easy, she says) to learning moves for the 2007 season of Dancing with the Stars (much more challenging!), family remains her priority.
“She is truly doing 100 things a day, and yet everybody gets the attention they deserve,” says Holly Tyrer, 34, Gibbons’ longtime friend and Los Angeles-based assistant. “Her kids are first. It’s family, then work.”
In April of last year, Gibbons expanded her family when she married Steven Fenton, 41, a Los Angeles talent manager whom she met on a blind date nearly four years ago.
“I am in the most supportive marriage and relationship, and that makes all the difference,” says Gibbons, who was married three times previously. “I’m probably authentically myself for the first time. I’m always telling my friends, ‘Don’t give up!’”
The only wedding guests were Gibbons’ three children. In fact, beforehand, daughter Lexi, 22, an aspiring dancer, and son Troy, 19, a film student, became ordained ministers online so they could perform the ceremony. Nathan, 14, who Gibbons says has been a comedian from before he could talk, presided over the giving of the rings.
“I’ve never been an empty, unhappy person—there was nothing broken,” she says. “But now it’s just higher heights. It’s wonderful.”
And, as much as Gibbons misses her mother, she continues to be inspired by her request to “tell the story” of her Alzheimer’s, one that resulted in a mission to help others find hope in the midst of heartbreak.
“It’s been an unbelievable opportunity,” she says, “and the most enriching experience of my life.”