For five years, Duffy has supplemented her daily morphine with a good dose of dark humor. That, she prescribes in her new memoir, Model Patient: My Life as an Incurable Wise-Ass, is the best medicine. "It's not like I'm this victim," she says. "Having a disease is just a small part of me."
The rest is always up for a laugh. During the depths of her illness, Duffy wore ballgowns and heels to the hospital for checkups, promised to date any doctor who cured her and once hung a photo of Dr. Kevorkian above her bed to spook the staff. "She's always up and positive," marvels her friend The Sopranos actress Aida Turturro. "She looks at the cup as half full."
She wants others to see it that way too. "I didn't want to write a book about being sick," says Duffy, who still suffers from what she describes as "nun-kicking, bunny-stomping" pain. "I wanted to write a book about how to live and live fully."
In the fall of 1995 she was busy doing just that. A former recreational therapist from Park Ridge, N.J., Duffy, the second of four children of developer Phil Duffy and his home-maker wife, Carol, had parlayed a three-year stint on MTV into a small part in Dumb and Dumber, a Disney TV development deal and a six-figure contract with Revlon. To top it off, she was due to attend the Emmys on Sept. 10 in L.A. with her pal George Clooney. And a lingering headache wasn't going to stop her. "I would have gone on this date if my head fell off and I had to carry it in a wheelbarrow," she says.
When the pain worsened the next morning, though, Duffy hopped a plane home to New York City, where doctors discovered an inoperable lesion at the base of her brain stem. Nine months would pass before they arrived at a diagnosis, but within days, numbness set in on the left side of Duffy's body, followed by severe pain. Pumped up with steroids, morphine and, later, weekly doses of chemotherapy, she hunkered down in her Greenwich Village apartment, avoiding friends until late November, when she accepted a dinner invitation from a pal who wanted to set her up with a guy named Richard.
Richard, as it turned out, was Richard Gere. But he didn't exactly sweep this pretty woman off her feet. Instead, the star wound up extinguishing a fire Duffy ignited when she suffered a seizure, knocked over the candles and set a papier-mâché centerpiece ablaze. "Richard grabbed it and jumped up and down on it to put it out," she says. "It was very impressive." The experience also impressed upon Duffy that she couldn't go on hiding her disease. "I realized," she says, "my life would vastly improve with the company of my friends."
One in particular made a world of difference. In 1996 Duffy shared a beach house on New York's Shelter Island with a group of acquaintances including investment banker John Lambros, now 35. He bought her a dog bed to lie on in the bathroom between chemo-induced bouts of vomiting, and they soon fell in love. The next March they eloped to Jamaica, and for the first time in months, says Duffy, "I felt like I had a future."
She also had a career. When she revealed her illness to Revlon in 1996, Duffy expected them to break her contract. Instead, chairman Ron Perelman handed her the Almay gig, and they worked around her side effects with lighting and wigs.
Her lesion is now gone thanks to the drugs, and Duffy says she averages four or five "good days" each week. "A good day is one where I can get out of bed and not be in pain," she adds. "I can go to work. I can write. I can live a good life." And, even on the bad days, she can laugh.
Fannie Weinstein and Sabrina McFarland in New York City