By Greg Carannante
City & Shore PRIME
It was 2003 and Madonna was causing a commotion by kissing Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears on the MTV Music Awards. On the last day of the year, Tammy Gail, a single mom in her late 30s with a burgeoning business and no time to think about being sick, was slammed with a diagnosis of breast cancer.
The next year was hellacious for the Tampa-area resident: six surgeries, including a bilateral mastectomy; and 12 weeks of chemotherapy. Meanwhile Madonna, who was on her smash “Re-Invention World Tour,” was becoming Tammy Gail’s patron saint.
“It was Humpty Dumpty,” Gail says of her cancer odyssey. “So, you know what I focused on? It was Madonna. Her whole shtick was that she reinvents herself every 10 years, so I thought I’ve got to reinvent me, because I’m gonna come out looking different and feeling different. I wanted to put the cancer behind myself and reinvent myself into whatever the next iteration of Tammy was gonna be.”
What that turned out to be was a woman who’s helped hundreds of South Floridians navigate the trauma of the disease — and she’s done it with an outrageous style that would make The Material Girl proud.
“Madonna did things on her terms,” says Gail, also a dynamic personality. “I grew up in that genre of young women being able to think they can do anything because of her. She was a disrupter and I believe, in life, success is about disruption. You can go with the flow or you can make people stop and pay attention.”
And thousands have been paying attention — and money. Glam-a-THON, the sassy charity Gail created just two years after her treatment, has raised over $500,000 in donations to Broward Health Foundation for mammograms, testing and other needs brought on by breast cancer treatment.
“That’s what Glam-a-THON is,” Gail says. “Don’t let these women worry about finances. Let them focus on healing. And we pay for everything. We got you.”
As an example, Gail recounts a recent SOS from a team member at last year’s Strut, the flamboyant Fort Lauderdale spectacle that’s Glam-a-THON’s signature event. “She was in remission, but her cancer came back with a vengeance. She’s the mom of two young kids. I immediately contacted our board and we are paying her rent and a few other bills over the next couple of months so she can focus on healing rather than stressing about living. What a blessing to be able to help.”
Transitioning from a radio advertising career that began at K-102 in Tamarac in the mid-’80s, Gail launched Florida Marketing Research in 1995. Benefitting from her seven years as grocery association president, the Tampa company specializes in marketing, branding and event production, and since 2011 has staged and curated popular “Uncorked” food and wine festivals in Clearwater Beach and Cocoa Beach. Plans are under way for a similar foodie festivity in Broward in the near future.
Gail now lives on a 40-acre farm in Central Florida with longtime partner Christopher Youhn. In a recent conversation with PRIME, (see Online Bonus, below), she discusses her life before and after breast cancer, her dedication to help others survive it and her determination to not be defined by it.
Glam-a-THON’s signature event is the Strut on Oct. 14, the sassy team “parade” that paints the town pink — precisely — at Esplanade Park in downtown Fort Lauderdale. “Official Glambassador” Lynn Martinez of WSVN-7’s Deco Drive “invites everyone with panache, flair and a sense of humor to join the most heel-arious STRUT this side of fabulous.” This year’s Lipstick Lounge, the chic cocktail party hosted by WSVN’s Shireen Sandoval which normally precedes The Strut, has been rescheduled (due to Hurricane Irma) to Oct. 20 at the Gallery of Amazing Things in Dania Beach. For more information please visit glam-a-thon.com.
Our interview with cancer survivor and Glam-A-THON founder Tammy Gail – a woman who’s helped hundreds of South Floridians navigate the trauma of the disease – continues:
Tammy Gail remembers how, after her diagnosis, her son tried to help her. “He wanted to shave his head in solidarity,” Gail says of the boy, then 17, who’s now a physics engineer. “I said, ‘David, one of us has to lose our hair, not both of us.’ So he got this enormous tattoo on his ribcage of the tree of life with a huge pink ribbon in the middle. It was the only thing he could think to do to help.”
City & Shore Magazine: For the Strut [the sassy charity event Gail created just two years after her treatment], teams dress up in outrageous fashions and high heels, a kind of Fantasy Fest for charity. Why that approach?
Tammy Gail: The whole concept behind Glam-a-THON is when I was sick, the only thing that made me feel like me was shoes, because I’m a shoe fanatic. Didn’t matter if I gained a few pounds, lost a few pounds, had hair, didn’t have hair — the shoes still rocked. So Glam-a-THON is very fashion forward.
And I wanted it to be a celebration. I wanted an event that didn’t segment people in a different category just because they were sick. I wanted to celebrate them but I didn’t want them to be singled out as you’re here because you’re a cancer survivor. There is some recognition but the base of it is not all about being a survivor. It’s about a level playing field. We’re celebrating our femininity, our womaness. Just embrace yourself. We’re here to celebrate what’s the next chapter for all of us, instead of it being doom and gloom.
I personally didn’t want to be constantly reminded of my disease. And I didn’t want to be called out as a hero or a survivor. I wanted to use the cancer as way to help somebody else that might be scared also, but I didn’t want cancer to identify who I was. I had a lot of other things I was proud of that were way more important than that. Because I’m still just Tammy. It shouldn’t just be, ‘Tammy who had cancer.’ I just happen to be the poster child because I did. And that kind of rallied the troops to get behind what the mission was. But it doesn’t mean you are the illness.
I’ve had girls come to me and say, ‘Oh my God, I did your event and I’ve been putting off doing a mammogram and then I had one and they found something.’ Just that feeling of, holy cow, you have this power as a team to say, ‘OK, don’t be afraid, just go do it. And if you find something then we can handle it.’
C&S: So the tone of the Strut is also about not being afraid?
TG: Absolutely. Our whole model is to take the fear out of cancer. If you’re wacky and you face it head on, and you know there’s a lot of people supporting you, it’s not as scary. If you wrap it up in black, it’s going to be really scary and creepy. We’ve never gone that angle.
C&S: Why did you create Glam-a-THON?
TG: It’s the simple concept of putting good stuff out there — throw it out there like a boomerang — and ultimately it comes back to you when you need it. I do believe it’s why I’m here. Glam-a-THON has been a great model for me — to be able to do something, even if it’s just a little something, or to be a shoulder to lean on. I’m somebody who’s been there. Listen, I don’t carry a scalpel but I can make calls with the best of them.
The hospital has told me that we have saved lives, that there were women that had no earthly idea that they had cancer, but that because of the funding they were able to do some advance testing and found that they were advanced cancer patients. And that’s an amazing thing, that we’re able to fund something like that. You can’t buy that.
And Glam-a-THON is a party. I like parties. My job is actually staging parties. Whether for food and wine, health and wellness or breast cancer, we have parties. It’s very stylish versus creating advertising. It’s been working. It’s been 18 years with the company.
C&S: How did it begin?
TG: The company morphed into marketing and branding in 1999, specializing in national consumer packaged goods — the Budweisers and Krafts of the world. I developed a really close relationship with Publix. And I decided to become president of the grocery association for Central Florida. We ended up the statewide Grocery Manufacturers Association.
I joke now that when you don’t know that you can’t do something, you can do anything. I didn’t know calling on the president of Publix was taboo, so I did it. And I became well-known in the industry, which helped my business grow tremendously. It was great. I was working like a fiend, but all the good stuff was happening.
And then I got sick.
I held it together for over the year but it was tough. And I figured I just have to start doing things I want to do. I like being around people, there’s a sense of community. So we ended up six years ago kicking off the ‘Uncorked’ food and wine festival series, which allowed me to continue working with my grocery clients and stage important events for fellow foodies and excitement-seekers. Every year more brands want to be a part of it because it’s a fun way to sell something in a non-sales environment.
C&S: How has surviving cancer affected your philosophy on life?
TG: I realized I’m not going to be here forever and everybody has something they’re supposed to do while they’re here. I had this thing that could’ve been a really serious problem had I not found it, which was completely by accident because I was never a doctor person. Had they had not found it, I probably wouldn’t be here today.
It was such a wakeup call for me — what are you gonna do on the back half?
–Interview by Greg Carannante