“I never got cast in anything, ever in San Diego,” says Kathy Najimy. The statement is ironic given that Najimy is now a successful actress, activist, producer, and director. “I am thankful for it now because I learned how to make my own,” she says, “how to survive.” She survived by co-creating The Kathy & Mo Show (with friend Mo Gaffney), a production that premiered at the Old Town Opera House and later became an off Broadway hit and led to two HBO specials. Najimy went on to star in more than 20 films including Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg, and Hocus Pocus with her teen idol Bette Midler, as well as in a slew of television shows.
Najimy was the keynote speaker recently for Tea and Tonic, at The Grand Del Mar to benefit the Center for Community Solutions, a nonprofit that provides prevention and intervention for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and elder abuse. While Najimy’s talk was often outrageous and hilarious, her commitment to preventing domestic violence is serious. “It’s a matter of life and death,” she told Ranch & Coast. “Women are dying every day. Every five minutes a woman is raped somewhere in the world.”
The occasion was a homecoming for Najimy, who grew up in a working class neighborhood in Southeast San Diego, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. An awkward, “frizzy-haired” teenager, she did not fit the “tall, blonde, bronzed beach bunny” ideal of perfection. She also preferred performing and writing poetry to hitting the beach. “Everybody always said, ‘Are you from New York?’” she recalls. “I started to say, ‘Yes,’ even though I had never been.”
She later discovered herself, through the pages of Ms., the magazine at the forefront of the feminist movement. “It gave me a lifeline, a connection,” she recalls. In 2004, the magazine named Najimy “Woman of the Year,” and she remains close friends with magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem, with whom she recently rode elephants in Botswana to celebrate the feminist icon’s 80th birthday. In the works is an HBO series about the magazine, pitched by Najimy and co-producers Marisa Tomei and Bruce Cohen. (George Clooney is involved, too.)
Najimy has championed many causes, including gay, lesbian, and animal rights. Recently, she appeared in an ad for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) urging visitors to avoid SeaWorld because of controversy over the captivity and treatment of killer whales. I have nothing against SeaWorld,” insists Najimy, “I am just for the animals. I don’t think SeaWorld, on purpose, does bad things to hurt the animals. I think it’s a business and I think at some point, they lost their conscience.”
The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority was forced to display the ad as part of an out-of-court settlement with PETA and the ACLU. The ACLU called the decision a triumph for the First Amendment. SeaWorld dismissed the ad as a publicity stunt: “The truth is that our animals at SeaWorld are healthy and happy. We are dedicated to their well-being.”
Controversies aside, Najimy insists there are so many great things about San Diego, from the Old Globe to the Rep, Balboa Park to Black’s Beach. But what does this San Diego native miss the most? “My mom’s Lebanese food,” she says without hesitation, “the number one best Lebanese food in the world.” ANDREA NAVERSEN
Photo by Bob Stefanko