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The Columbus Dispatch

Singer wins movie role during illness
Sunday, October 29, 2006


Jenifer Menedis, center, on the set with Denise Bella Vlasis-Gascon and director Clint Eastwood

The timing couldn?t have been worse.

Six months after a mastectomy and in the midst of chemotherapy for breast cancer, Jenifer Menedis landed her first movie role.

"I was bald and with one boob," the Reynoldsburg native said of her condition in October 2005.

On the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif., she filmed two scenes for Clint Eastwood?s World War II drama Flags of Our Fathers.

"I was scared to death," said Menedis, 33, best-known locally as Jennifer Nicole. "I thought I?d be running back and forth to the bathroom" with nausea.

The former Ohio State University voice major plays a member of an Andrews Sisters-style trio that serenades the troops.

Her 60 seconds of screen time includes portions of two songs and several reaction shots. The appearance earned her a closing credit.

Menedis? family burst with pride when they saw her big-screen debut at the Easton 30 theater on Oct. 20, the movie?s opening night.

"It was hard to keep my emotions in check, especially knowing what she had been through," said her father, Nick Menedis, director of human resources for the Franklin County Engineer?s office.

His daughter has been chasing stardom since she was a teenage sensation in Columbus. She wasn?t about to miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

"When I wanted to feel good, I pretty much did," she said. "I think we can talk ourselves into being sick or well."

On the set, the makeup, hair and wardrobe departments styled her wig and tucked her prosthesis into two costumes to transform her into a 1940s crooner.

"She looked fabulous," said her sister, Natalie Stocker of Lewis Center. "You have no idea that she was battling cancer at the time."

Menedis, a Reynoldsburg High School graduate, became a local phenomenon in 1990 as Jennifer Nicole. An OSU freshman at the time, she recorded There?ll Always Be a Christmas with 25 singers from Walnut Ridge High School.

Phil Wallace, the Walnut Ridge choral director, wrote the song for U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Shield, which preceded the Persian Gulf war known as Operation Desert Storm.

"I heard this one-of-a-kind voice singing Mozart?s Hallelujah at the high-school district solo and ensemble competition, and said, ?That?s the one.? She was flat-out good," Wallace recalled.

The recording sold tens of thousands of copies and was played on 400 radio stations and heard in 170 countries through Armed Forces Radio.

The Pentagon requested permission to tape 250,000 copies for the troops, Wallace said.

The song remains on Christmas playlists today.

Menedis left OSU early to pursue a professional career on the West Coast.

"I still sing it out here when I get invited to a Christmas event," she said. "It is still a beautiful and meaningful song, and it always brings a tear to someone."

The military and patriotism have been recurrent themes in her career. She landed her first professional job, singing songs at a Columbus convention, at age 12. She performed The Star-Spangled Banner at sporting events and sang for a prisoner-of-war rally at 16.

It is fitting that Menedis would sing for the troops in her movie debut.

The military connection was "nothing I intended to do but part of my destiny," she said. "I was born on Veterans Day."

"At a young age," her father said, "she told us she was going to make a living with her voice."

She has recorded commercial jingles and performed in stage shows and at conventions and parties, including the farewell cast party for the TV hit Friends.

Recently she toured with Bjorn Again, an Abba cover band.

"I am never going to be the pop star that I wanted to be, but my career is not over," she said. "I am going to keep going for it, write an album and make some music. My illness has made me more positive."

Menedis lives in Glendora, Calif. ? outside Los Angeles ? with her husband, musician Dwayne Condon, and their children, 1 and 2.

She noticed a lump while breast-feeding her first child.

"Cancer has made me appreciate life more," she said. "When my kids are driving me crazy, I am happy to be there. One of my biggest fears was that I would not be there for them when they were crying."

Menedis has composed You Are Not Alone about her experience and is considering an inspirational show for young breast-cancer survivors.

Cancer awareness might also be part of her destiny: The disease has been a plague upon her family.

Her grandmother and greatgrandmother died of breast cancer. Her mother, Jane, died in 1998 of cancer, but the primary site was undetected.

Genetic testing revealed that Menedis inherited the mutated BRCA2 gene from her mother?s side of the family. Her sister Natalie tested negative for the marker.

To help prevent a recurrence, Menedis had a hysterectomy and second mastectomy.

"Sometimes I wonder, ?Am I still a girl?? " she said.

Menedis is cancer-free for now, but not her family.

In September, her father began treatment for multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer.

In the fight against his disease, he knows where to turn for a role model.

"Jenifer is giving me encouragement, support and the right attitude," he said. "We have to be strong for each other."