The first half of 2021 couldn’t have gone much better for Nicci Carr, the actor and former Richmonder who found sudden acclaim as one of the stars of the funny “Scoop, There It Is” Geico commercial.
“As far as exposure, that has been the biggest,” Carr said of the commercial, which recently was named by industry trade publication Adweek as the No. 1 ad of 2021. Last April, I wrote about Carr and the success of the commercial that left her, as she says, on “cloud nine.”
“All of a sudden,” she said, “this happens.”
“This” arrived in July when she felt a lump in her breast. In years past, she had been diagnosed with benign cysts, but, “This,” she thought, “feels different.”
In early September, Carr, 50, was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive form of the disease, and, as you might expect, the news hit hard.
“I was like, for real, God? This is how it’s going to go down?” she recalled.
It felt so overwhelming and so unfair and, well, like a “death sentence,” she said, acknowledging now she was in a “dark and scary place” back then. At first, she didn’t even want to proceed with treatments.
“I was so deeply depressed,” she said.
Her outlook has shifted entirely from that “initial panic,” as she describes it, when she was afraid of what people might think about her for being sick. “Which doesn’t make sense, I know,” she says.
Now? She is in a much different place. She is deep into weekly chemotherapy treatments, which will continue until surgery — likely in the spring — to remove what’s left of the shrinking tumor.
“Now, I’m just a woman who’s conquering it,” she said, part of a legion of women and men who are doing the same. “I’m stronger and more courageous than I thought I was.”
As I wrote in April, Carr moved to Richmond from New York when she was about 8.
She attended city schools, played piano at Mosby Memorial Baptist Church and participated in SPARC — the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community — where she played harp, sang and danced. She graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and earned a degree in political science at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville.
She taught school in Washington and moved to Los Angeles, where she scrambled to find acting jobs (which included roles as an extra in “Beauty Shop” and “The West Wing,” among other films and shows), completed a master’s degree in student development in higher education, worked at UCLA and the University of Southern California, burned out on acting as a career, moved to Atlanta and settled into a job at Georgia State University.
In Atlanta, she relaunched her acting career, landing gigs on shows such as “Atlanta,” “Good Girls” and “P-Valley,” which led to the Geico commercial. It was shot in November 2020 and debuted on Christmas Day.
The commercial opens with Carr as the apron-wearing “Tasha” in a kitchen, cutting vegetables, but by the end she has joined in the dancing with the hip-hop duo Tag Team as they joyfully scoop ice cream in a comical version of their 1990s hit “Whoomp! (There It Is).”
The upbeat commercial, which couldn’t help but make you smile, was produced by Richmond-based The Martin Agency, whose senior vice president and creative director, Sean Riley, said Carr “brought so much energy and humor to the spot. Just a perfect performance.”
Riley said in a follow-up email last week that “all of us at Martin are thinking about Nicci and wishing her the best.”
The success of the commercial left Carr “at the top of my game,” making her feel she was turning the page on a new chapter in her life.
At Georgia State, Carr was undergraduate coordinator in the biology department, but she was also a student, seeking a bachelor’s degree in film. She was planning to graduate in August after completing her final project: production of a documentary about James Solomon Russell, founder of her alma mater, Saint Paul’s College, and a major figure in the history of Southside Virginia. The college closed in 2013.
Carr is producing the film for the James Solomon Russell-Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives in Lawrenceville, which hopes to use it as an introductory orientation video for visitors, said Bobby Conner, a founder and vice chairman of the museum’s board who has become a friend of Carr’s in the short time he has known her.
“When she came [to Lawrenceville] to work on the documentary, everywhere we went … people recognized her from the commercial,” Conner said. “People may not know her personally, but they connected with her, and they just love that commercial.”
However, her diagnosis put the documentary on hold — and everything else in her life, which was already in a state of flux as she had quit her job, sold her house in Atlanta and relocated a 90-minute drive east to Athens, where she enrolled in a graduate theater program.
The dark days after the diagnosis eventually gave way to a more clear-eyed view. And hope.
“I shouldn’t have doubted myself,” she said. “Shouldn’t have doubted the process.”
A turning point proved to be in a meeting with one of her professors when she and a classmate were performing a scene from August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” As she immersed herself in a poignant part of the scene, she began to think of the “hard stuff” she has endured throughout her life — her difficult younger days, her divorce, fighting for her health in a new city — and the emotions poured from her.
“I felt so alone,” she said, “and I left it in that scene.
“In that moment, I thought, ‘I want to win an Oscar,’” Carr said with a laugh. “How crazy is that? But in order for that to happen, I have to live.
“It was the hope I needed in such a dark place.”
As she started treatment, she also remembered what her sister, Adrain Walls, herself a survivor of breast cancer, told her soon after the diagnosis: “Do you think for one minute that what you’ve gone through is just for you? It’s for you to help somebody else.”
At the time, Carr was having none of it. She had no interest in telling anyone, as she put it, “the Geico lady got cancer.” But everything is different now, and she’s pleased to use whatever platform a funny commercial has afforded her to provide encouragement and comfort or simply a little assurance to others.
She knew chemo was going to take her hair, so she cut it all off on Oct. 31 — after the first clump of hair fell out while she was on a Zoom call — and in late November she went public with her battle on her Facebook page.
She has been gratified by the support she has received and by those who say she has inspired them when it comes to their own health. She even enlivens chemo treatments by making fashion statements, wearing bold and bright clothes from Philthy Ragz, a company operated by a California friend and designer, and posts pictures on her Facebook page.
She is out of work at the moment and some days the chemotherapy leaves her feeling awful, but she is embracing the challenge and is able to look back on the roller coaster that was 2021 and say, “My year was pretty good.” As she enters 2022, she begins a new, even more intense round of chemo.
“I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “I just know I’m ready to live.”