Taking the reins on 'Gossip,' and cancer

Special to The Times

One afternoon last fall at Warner Bros. studios, Jessica Queller found herself acting more like a middle-aged woman than the youthful TV writer that she is. While tossing out lines for the headmistress, a new character on "Gossip Girl," the popular teenage soap opera she works on, Queller began formalizing her diction and sitting erect as a chalkboard to channel the drab disciplinarian. So what did her colleagues do? As a joke, they named the character "Headmistress Queller."

"I found out when I saw it on TV," Queller said recently over lunch, smiling as she recalled the moment that made her very cool with her little cousins. Wearing a cream-colored dress that was a good deal more stylish than her fictional counterpart's buttoned-up attire, she laughed when asked if there are any similarities.

The real-life Queller is one of two writers on the show who graduated from -- or survived -- the viciousness of the moneyed Manhattan private schools that are the show's milieu, and she often draws upon that experience. In recent years, though, Queller, 38, has felt like a survivor of a much more painful ordeal in her life. That one hasn't ended yet and seems renewed for yet another season. After watching breast and ovarian cancer take hold of her mother, Queller discovered that she carries a genetic mutation that increases her risk for the same diseases. And so in an attempt to evade her mother's fate, as she explains in her new memoir, "Pretty Is What Changes," she decided to remove her breasts, even though she didn't have cancer.

"The biggest trauma for me was witnessing my mother's suffering and death," Queller said. "My subsequent surgeries were not pleasant but were nothing compared to that. I'm hoping that if that story can help keep other women from dying and getting sick, then her death will not be in vain."

So she has promoted the issue at full speed, first writing an editorial several years ago in the New York Times, which led to an appearance on "Nightline," a book deal and now a full media tour, with stops on "Good Morning America" and NPR. The original charcoal drawing that accompanied the editorial hangs in her Hollywood Hills home, near sketches of her fashion designer mother's pillbox hats and pleated dresses, styles eerily similar to the outfits of the backstabbing Blair Waldorf on "Gossip Girl." Still, Queller said, all the publicity can be disorienting when strangers recite intimate family details, and it can be even embarrassing when a photograph of herself appears online, followed by the headline, "Why I Had My Breasts Removed."

Speaking so intimately about her body, she said, is not a natural inclination. "Had I not been public about this, I just would have been a television staff writer working up the ranks in TV dramadies," said Queller, who has also written for "Gilmore Girls," "Felicity" and "One Tree Hill." "The level of how exposing it feels is just mind-blowing. But that said, I know it's meaningful and I know it's going to help other women, so I'm trying to not think about it."

Another time bomb

These days, what she's trying to focus on is starting a foundation in her mother's name. Queller and her younger sister, Danielle, hope to raise money to fund research on cancer and groups that help at-risk women receive mammograms, MRIs and genetic tests.

If Queller hasn't embraced that role as fully as she would have liked, it's only because there's yet another potential genetic time bomb: To avoid getting ovarian cancer, she's decided to take out her ovaries too -- but she desperately wants a biological child first.

Having an alteration along the BRCA1 gene, as Queller does, or the BRCA2 increases one's lifetime risk of breast cancer by about 55% to 85% and also comes with a stronger likelihood of ovarian cancer. Doctors emphasize that a genetic test is not a crystal ball. "It can't predict when you will develop these cancers, or if you will develop these cancers," said Dr. Joe Leigh Simpson, president of the American College of Medical Genetics.

Still, some recommend what's called a prophylactic oophorectomy around age 40 for premenopausal women with the mutation. For Queller, that's in a year and a half, a deadline that clearly weighs heavily on her.

Between publicizing her book and the cause and writing for "Gossip Girl" -- both of which can stretch the hours until after midnight -- it's been hard to carve out time for what she wants most: getting pregnant. She is single, so she began fertility treatments with donated sperm in September, hoping to conceive by the book's April publication date. But that didn't happen, and scripting this ending is proving much more difficult than that of a television episode.

"I spent those months really hoping and trying to get pregnant. I couldn't really imagine how I could go on dates with someone and be saying, 'I might be pregnant. I will find out in two weeks,' " Queller said. "So I have shut down my personal life. And I'm very conflicted about what to do."

She vacillates between the serious and a much lighter side, joking that she has lately received three marriage proposals from strangers and several offers for dates. The book often focuses on her search for the right partner, and her friends' attempts at setting her up -- making it a kind of a "Sex and the City" in the genetic age. She describes one encounter with an ex-flame at a party that didn't progress romantically. After having already recovered from a double mastectomy, she told him, her breasts had been only partly reconstructed. She didn't hear from him again.

Telling those kinds of stories in the book, she said, was necessary to break up the death and illness. Besides, she said, that was her day-to-day. Her life truly has zigzagged through hospital rooms and into a realm saturated with celebrities, where Calista Flockhart is a BFF and many mornings begin with a drive to the studio, where she helps shape the superficial perfection that makes shows like "Gossip Girl" so addictive.

Still, as some book reviewers have noted, it sometimes makes "Pretty" a bit of an odd mix, with celebrity name-dropping bumping up against Queller's very honest and painful rendering of a daughter making sense of both her mother's death and her own genetic makeup. Of course, that inside-Hollywood perspective and status as a writer on a hit TV show may also be why her story and her cause have gained public attention.

"I think in some cases 'Gossip Girl' has helped; in some cases they don't mention what I do," Queller said. "I think the subject is so topical and zeitgeisty, and there's someone they can put a face to." What her job has certainly done is provide an escape into a world where the wrong dress is grounds for a meltdown.

The title of Queller's memoir comes from a Stephen Sondheim song: "Pretty isn't beautiful, Mother. Pretty is what changes. What the eye arranges is what is beautiful." Those lines seem to encapsulate her own struggle to make sense of her upbringing -- to value the aesthetic and her own buxom figure -- and how illness can transform all of that.

The fears that she had before the procedure are no longer there. She said she felt sexy again, despite the scars on her hips, where skin grafts were taken to form new nipples, and the ones that trace their way across her breasts, where surgeons removed most of the at-risk tissue and reconstructed her breasts two bra sizes smaller, as she requested.

Time on TV

Queller's experience has prompted an episode of the TV show "ER." And though fans of "Gossip Girl" will not see the show's Queen Bee drawing blood for a genetic test in the future, the many shades of beauty, says the show's co-creator, is a reoccurring theme. "I think [Queller's] kind of insight is something that's the result of a transformative life experience," said Stephanie Savage, executive producer of "Gossip Girl." "But that idea of beauty being not something that is what it appears . . . is part of the show and is something we play with, the idea of what is beauty to an individual versus what is beautiful to society."

For Queller, any doubts about her decision were erased when the surgeon performing her mastectomy found precancerous changes in one breast. This whole experience is now a prism through which she views life. "Basically my mantra now is: 'Everything is tenable except for illness,' " she said. "If I lose my job, if I get my heart broken, if -- God forbid -- I can't have a child, I will be devastated, but whatever it is, I can deal with it. Anything but illness is OK."

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