Soleil Moon Frye’s pandemic experience, in all likelihood, was not like yours.
Not too long after COVID-19 froze the country in place, Frye went back to work on Punky Brewster, a reboot of the series that made her a star at age 8. It was among the first productions to resume under the tight health restrictions that became a Hollywood norm in the months that followed.
“We all thought we’d be filming in the studio together, but a lot of the time we ended up in our bedrooms with clothes all around for soundproofing,” she recalls. “Kits would show up in the mail at your house with microphones and all the other gear you needed to make it work.”
Even though the show didn’t live to see a second post-reboot season, it allowed Frye to step back into the (mismatched) shoes of the character that defined her — and at a moment when she needed the emotional boost.
“Punky has always been such a big part of my heart and soul. She’s the superhero I lean into,” Frye says. “Whenever I feel like I’m about to fall down, she’s the survivor in me who gets back up. Anytime I get to bring her back, she’s never far away from me.”
That survivor spirit has infused Frye’s personal and professional lives since the first iteration of Punky Brewster went off the air in 1988. Frye believes the character’s innate optimism and guilelessness has helped make her a better mother to her four children, aged 17, 14, 9 and 6. Meanwhile, the fame and credibility that came with early success in show business helped her forge a career rich in passion projects, including Kid 90, a compilation of footage she shot of her young Hollywood peers in the early 1990s, and Sonny Boy, a documentary about her father’s battle with frontotemporal dementia. She has written parenting and party-planning books, cofounded a company that sold party decoration kits and helped run an eco-friendly children’s boutique, The Little Seed.
“I’m definitely not the type of person who’s going to look back and think, ‘Hey, why didn’t I try this?’” Frye says. “What’s important is to be of service to others and to discover your passion. Work is fun when you’re doing what you love.”
A similar sense of mission informs her latest endeavor. Since August 2021, she has been the celebrity face of GSK’s Ask2BSure meningitis B vaccine awareness campaign, which targets the parents of teenagers and young adults. Her interest, not surprisingly, was spurred by her status as a parent.
“I made an assumption, which is that when kids are little they get a meningitis vaccine. I assumed it was really that straightforward,” Frye says.
But she soon learned that a second vaccination is needed to protect children against meningitis B. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2019 only 22% of 17-year-olds had received a dose of meningitis B vaccine.
Frye was persuaded to vaccinate her children — and, eventually, participate in the GSK campaign — when she sat down with families that had been affected by the disease.
“Even though it’s rare, it’s incredibly deadly,” Frye says. She relates the cautionary tale of a mother who had been getting her daughter ready for prom, only to see the child fall ill and die within 24 hours.
“The mother was a nurse. She was certainly aware of vaccines and she was incredibly conscientious, but so many people don’t ever think something like that can happen to them,” Frye adds.
What followed was a series of conversations with her eldest child, Poet, and her healthcare providers. These conversations resulted in Poet receiving a meningitis vaccine in advance of her senior year of high school.
“Knowing about [meningitis B and vaccines that protect against it] empowers you to have those dialogues with each other and with doctors,” Frye says. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I felt like there were so many other people who were in the same situation.”
Patsy Schanbaum, a meningitis vaccination advocate whose daughter, Jamie, survived a harrowing bout with the disease, was one of them. The family founded The J.A.M.I.E. Group (Joint Advocacy of Meningococcal Information & Education), a nonprofit designed to educate the public about the disease, which claimed Jamie’s legs and fingers.
Jamie thrived after her bout with meningitis, qualifying for the U.S. Paralympic cycling team in 2011. However, Schanbaum recognizes that many people with the disease don’t bounce back as well — that is, if they bounce back at all. And she stresses that, given the ready availability of effective vaccines, no one should have to get sick in the first place.
Schanbaum applauds Frye for not just sharing that message with her sizable audience, but also for the sincerity of her involvement in the campaign and her work alongside individuals and families.
“Soleil is like family to me, and to so many other people in this community,” Schanbaum says. “She has used her voice so well, and in a way that I couldn’t have. I mean, look, I’m just a mom of a child who has been affected. Soleil has a real following.”
Frye plans to continue to leverage that following. She sits on the board of CORE Response, a disaster-relief organization cofounded by her old friend Sean Penn. When the organization coordinated COVID-19 testing and vaccination at Dodger Stadium early in the pandemic, Frye was on-site and involved. She notes with great pride that her daughters assembled care packages, which included Girl Scout cookies, for frontline responders.
“Keeping our hearts and minds inspired and busy — that’s always been a part of our DNA as a family,” she says. “It’s how I was raised.”
To that end, Frye isn’t daunted by everything that comes with generating awareness for a vaccination push during the current era of health misinformation. She distinguishes the tone of the Ask2BSure campaign from other vaccination-awareness efforts by stressing that, for her, it originates from a place of personal discovery.
“It’s not just wagging a finger and saying, ‘Do this!’” Frye explains. “Everything came out of these beautiful, ongoing conversations that started during the pandemic. It came out of educating ourselves and then sharing the experience of our own learning.”
While Frye says she hasn’t experienced any pushback in the wake of her participation, she doesn’t criticize or otherwise judge individuals who remain skeptical of meningitis vaccines.
“I can completely understand families having questions, so what I’m focusing on is speaking from what I have personally seen,” Frye says. “I’m not a parenting expert; I’m a parent sharing my own personal experiences. I’m doing my best, just like everyone else.”
From the March 01, 2023 Issue of MM+M - Medical Marketing and Media