For a generation born in the 1960s and 70s, Jennifer Beals is the iconic symbol of the 1980s -- big hair, leg warmers and a feline body, star of Flashdance. For generations born in the 80s and 90s, she's glam-lesbian Bette Porter from Showtime's The L Word. But the Jennifer Beals of 2010 has morphed into an activist, a photographer, a mother and wife, as she continues her career as an actress. Unchanged is her love of ideas and books -- a discussion with her is peppered with the names of authors who have had an impact on her worldview, particularly global health superstar Paul Farmer.
While Beals had no particularly strong political views during her Flashdance days, she had been aware of feeling like an outsider while growing up as a biracial child in Chicago. But it wasn't until she began traveling as a photographer in the late 80s that she began to form strong views about the connectedness of all people. She says, "I began to experience the world in a new way through my photography. I would walk and walk and walk, which took me to places I would never have gone otherwise." A seminal moment happened in Haiti during that nation's first free election: Beals was photographing the chaos in the streets when she saw a man repeatedly running into a burning building. "I couldn't just stand there and watch," she recalls. "I didn't want to bear witness to his death." So she asked a police officer to intervene. That may have been the day she decided to ensure that the legacy of her life would go far beyond her legwarmers.
I met Jennifer Beals at the Women Deliver conference earlier this month -- at a small luncheon for the First Ladies of Ghana, Sierra Leone and Zanzibar. She rushed in late, having attended a session on gender and culture. We were already halfway through our meal when she launched into a discussion about female genital mutilation. Not exactly the topic of choice for most luncheons with the wives of heads of state, but it was clear that Jennifer needed to hear from the women what their countries were doing to stop the practice. She talked about her own involvement at her daughter's school, and urged all of us to talk about our own children. At a table of global celebrities, she made it easy to just chat. "I wasn't going to let class or labels get in the way of who we are as women," she says now.
Jennifer Beals is now well into her 40s, but looks at least a decade younger. She is slim, with perfect skin and the kind of intellectual curiosity that is the hallmark of her alma mater, Yale. She champions causes that affect women, perhaps stemming from the day she brought her own newborn daughter home from the hospital four years ago, a day she says that "the veil was lifted." She looked at all the people she passed in the car and realized that "a woman had given birth to each of them. Every mother wants her child to be fed, clothed, safe and healthy, educated to the highest potential. Women are the wheel."
She is an "honorary member of the LGBT community" and is active in promoting their rights. She recently self-published The L Word Book, a photographic essay of her six years on the Showtime hit, with all proceeds going to charities that benefit adults and children who are living in distress. In fact, she chose to self-publish so that none of the proceeds would be diverted to agents or publishers. She is also determined to get the word out about the necessity of sexual and reproductive rights for all women -- a lesson learned at the Women Deliver conference. "Celebrities can help get the message out about critical issues," she says. "People can take it to heart or not."
Jennifer Beals remains an actress, though her roles can reflect the activism in her heart. Her next role is in a new Fox show called Ride Along in which, she proudly says, she plays the first female Police Superintendent in Chicago. Jennifer Beals may still be recognizable as the ingénue of Flashdance but she has grown into a woman of strong compassion and depth. She ends our conversation by saying that former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet is her new hero. "I want to read all about her," she says with feeling.