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Nite of Hope welcomes change this year

For the first time, the 14th annual gala will have live entertainment, Gene Simmons

Actress Shannon Tweed is right on time.

Although she's come down with a nasty cold, Tweed calls from her home in Los Angeles at exactly 11 a.m.

The former Playboy Playmate for the November 1981 issue is delightful and down to earth.

The 55-year-old Canadian-born beauty, who is married to Gene Simmons of KISS and stars in their hit reality show Family Jewels on A&E, is thrilled to be the guest speaker at Nite of Hope at the River Rock Casino Resort on April 4.

"My mom's sister and her daughter both died of breast cancer," said Tweed. "I don't know anyone who hasn't been hit by breast cancer - it's shocking really.

"My best friend Wendy and her sister also had breast cancer, so if I can help raise awareness and if women find it early enough, breast cancer can't win."

Two years ago, Tweed herself had a scare and underwent a biopsy live on an episode of Family Jewels.

"I found a lump and it was nothing, but then my doctor found another one and that's when I did the biopsy live on television," said Tweed, who added their family show is in its seventh season.

"I wanted people to know that a lump doesn't always end up being breast cancer, however, it's important to get any suspicious lump checked out."

Tweed said she hopes to show a clip from that episode during Nite of Hope.

"I'll talk about my biopsy and also show a blooper from the show that I hope will lighten things up," she said. "I want to keep things positive as well.

"Then, Gene is helping Howard (Blank, Great Canadian Gaming Corp. vice president media and entertainment), with the auction."

She added that she and Simmons are game for anything organizers ask of them during the gala soiree.

"Howard is a good friend, so whatever we can do to raise funds we will do," she said, adding they love B.C. and visit often as they have a home in Whistler.

This year's Nite of Hope gala soiree, dubbed Circle of Hope, has many firsts.

First off, said its founder Judi Miller, there is a new chair - businesswoman and longtime volunteer in the community, Shelley Leonhardt. She has been on the Nite of Hope committee for nine years and agreed to step in as chair after Peggy O'Brien, the chair for six years stepped down to "allow for new blood to step in."

(O'Brien is still a board member).

"Peggy did a tremendous job and I'm forever grateful," said Miller. "Shelley wanted to do things differently this year and we were ready to switch it up a bit.

"This is our 14th gala but our 19th event."

Miller believes Nite of Hope is successful in part because breast cancer is a "disease that still affects us all."

"It keeps touching so many lives." In 1994, Miller began this journey of hope after losing her beloved mother at 62, followed a few years later by her sister-in-law, 31, to this horrible disease.

With no experience in event planning but born out of plenty of love, Miller began raising money and awareness for the insidious disease to honour the two beautiful women in her life who died too soon.

Five years later, Miller's work outgrew her home and thus, the Nite of Hope was born.

"The Nite of Hope has been incredibly well attended every year but I felt we needed to change it up a bit to keep people interested," said Leonhardt.

"We are keeping the décor to go with our theme this year, which is Circle of Hope, so there will be lots of bling and sparkly decorations."

This year's Rose Ceremony will also be a little different. Instead of breast cancer survivors simply standing up at their table and receiving a rose, they will all be invited up on stage to receive a rose.

"Gene and Shannon will be giving out the roses," said Leonhardt. "Gene Simmons will also be singing a song to the women on stage."

In another first, Giovanni Amenta, who has been called Canada's answer to Josh Groban and Andrea Bocelli, will be entertaining the crowd.

"This is the first year that we are having entertainment," said Leonhardt, adding Amenta is a dear close friend of hers.

"Giovanni used to be with the Canadian Tenors, before they were called that, but he branched out on his own.

"He is an amazing Italian tenor and everyone at Nite of Hope will receive a copy of his new CD."

This year's auctioneer will be Howard Blank.

"It's going to be great as Howard has a way of adding extras to auction items," said Leonhardt. "He's very entertaining and very generous and I'm told Howard is also going to try to get Gene to help him with the bidding."

Last year's sold-out affair, dubbed Wings of Hope, was the most successful in its history; raising a whopping $215,000 in one night.

Since 1994, the Nite of Hope has raised more than $2 million for breast cancer research here in B.C.

The 14th Annual Nite of Hope Richmond happens on Wednesday, April 4 in the River Rock Casino Resort Theatre, 8811 River Rd.

The sold-out event includes a dinner, fashion show and silent auction for $150 per person.

For more information, visit www. niteofhope.com/richmond.

mhopkins@richmond-news.com