Finally, there is a television show that shines a hot spotlight on the real lives of women living with paralysis. Called Push Girls, this 14-part reality TV show stars four glamorous Los Angeles women wheelchair users. The first full episode airs Monday, June 4, at 10 p.m., on the Sundance Channel.
Photo by Nicole Wilder-Shattuck
Mia says she never thought she’d hang out with other women who use wheelchairs since she felt it would attract too much negative attention.
Shows dealing with disability often either downplay or sensationalize what it means to use a wheelchair, but Push Girls is much more holistic. Yes, photos from the car accidents where Angela Rockwood and Tiphany Adams became disabled are shown, as is the emotional aftermath of dealing with a traumatic, life-changing injury — but that’s real life. A person can’t suddenly lose friends and family, let alone sustain a spinal cord injury, and have it be of no more consequence than, say, getting a new hairdo. So the accidents and rehab stays are portrayed, and photos of teenaged Mia Schaikewitz dancing with a smaller child — before a blood vessel ruptures and injures her spinal cord — fill the screen. And then, the camera moves on.
Moving on, too, is shown for what it is. The women live independently, but that means a certain interdependence, too. The camera doesn’t blink when sophisticated fashion model Angela Rockwood’s legs spasm at the worst possible time — as she tries to convince a fashion photographer to treat her as a serious model. Angela and her attendant tap and pound on her legs to try to release the spasms as Angela calmly explains that sometimes they can lead to dysreflexia, which is very dangerous. Meanwhile the uncomfortable photographer quips in a private aside that Angela wanting to model is akin to a man with no arms wanting to pitch baseball.
The camera is neutral. It captures it all — both how the women want to be seen and how they are sometimes seen by people who see only wheels.
First Came Friendship
Auti and Angela became friends first, and their common bond was they each were in the beginning stages of successful careers in entertainment when they had their accidents. Auti, a fiercely energetic Hip Hop dancer who was injured in 1992, had performed with Ludacris and even danced on stage with Milli Vanilli the night they won their Grammy in 1990. Angela, an actor and model, had recently appeared in “The Fast and the Furious” before her own injury.
Photo by Chris Ragazzo
Auti, the only Push Girl currently married, is a stabilizing force within the Push Girls. For example, she cautions Tiphany to not be so impulsive when it comes to relationships.
After Auti’s car accident in 1992, she went to Ranchos Los Amigos for rehab. Then came years of struggling with alcohol and crack cocaine, and a high-speed chase by the Los Angeles Police Department. She lost the race. “I was in a prison, on a ward with women with mental illness — there was nowhere else to put me,” says Auti, who was the first woman wheelchair user incarcerated in Twin Towers County Jail. “I said, ‘OK, God, I know I got my butt in here. But why am I here? All I want to do is be able to touch your people.’ I believe personally that God allowed me to go through things so I would understand how to relate to people in that situation so I could help them out.”
Auti recovered from addiction, rebuilt her life, and then in 2001 decided to give back to Rancho by starting up a performing arts program. Participants demonstrated various forms of art, and Auti danced and sang for them, and then a friend told her of a young girl named Angela who reminded him of Auti, and could Auti come meet her?
“I rolled into the room, the curtains were pulled back. I couldn’t see her, but could see the photos of her on the wall and thought, wow, she is gorgeous. And here comes rolling in the room in a power chair this bombshell — with a fierce Mohawk — who couldn’t even move her arms. We had an instant connection.”
They became friends, and then about six years later Mia took part in one of Angela’s acting classes. Four years after that they met Tiphany.
“We became very close, like sisters,” says Auti. “Shortly after that we all began to manifest Push Girls. It became bigger than we imagined, but every time we got together, we realized we had a kindred spirit of reaching out, inspiring, encouraging and motivating people. And we all have different walks of life, so much to share. Like myself, I’ve been molested, raped, abused ... it’s so much more than just the chairs,” she says. “Push Girls are strong women who have pushed through adversity and the limits of life.”
All four have some ties to performing arts, and eventually they caught the attention of executive producer Gay Rosenthal, whose list of successes include “Hot in Cleveland,” “Little People, Big World” and “Ruby.”
Photo by Nicole Wilder-Shattuck
Getting back into a pool — let alone competing again for the first time since her AVM — is one of the gifts the show has given Mia.
It is important to the women for viewers to realize the friendship came first, and then the show concept grew organically from their love for one another. “A lot of people think it’s been cast, but it’s not that at all,” says Mia. “Part of the beauty of the show is it shows our friendship and the dynamics about it.” But if one person in the group should be credited, it is Angela. “Angela thought it was a good idea to have a group of friends with the same mission of helping others to be given a platform.”
But, adds Tiphany, “It’s not about how we could get onto national TV, but about how we can inform people about SCI, paralysis and life in a wheelchair in general. It’s about crossing paths with the right people at the right time, and we crossed paths with Gay Rosenthal. There’s no way this can’t be an amazing show, to open the eyes of those who have no idea what it’s really like to use a wheelchair.”
Rosenthal, who could not be reached for an interview, released this statement about her newest venture: “It’s real, it’s outspoken and it’s from the heart. I am delighted to share their story on a network that prides itself on authentic, bold and respectful storytelling.”
And Sundance Channel’s general manager Sarah Barnett said something similar: “The indomitable spirit of this series will give viewers permission to stare at a world that they may previously have been too polite — or too frightened — to explore,” she says. “Sundance Channel allows the ‘Push Girls’ to convey the stark reality of their lives, something our broadminded audience will appreciate.”
“The common denominator with the four of us is our wheelchairs, but the show’s not about our wheelchairs,” adds Angela. “It’s about our spirit and our lives and how we live life to the fullest. We are four women living in this world trying to have a normal life.”
There’s never been anything like Push Girls on television before, and — let’s face it — the disability community can be critical of how wheelchair users are portrayed in the media. But when it comes to Push Girls, the critics are being unusually gentle, even enthusiastic.
“I was impressed with the sneak peek ... there hasn’t been anything else focusing solely on real women who use wheelchairs on U.S. television,” says Beth Haller, who directs Towson University’s communication management master’s program. “Also, Push Girls gives no indication it will focus on negative drama, which I like.”
Haller also runs the “Media dis&dat” blog (media-dis-n-dat.blogspot.com), which monitors how disability is portrayed in the media throughout the world. “It is nice to see happiness on reality TV, too. I guess my only ‘concern’ is that they are all supermodel beautiful, but that is who is on TV, so it’s expected. All in all, a fabulous step forward for TV images.” Haller says she likes the in-between scene quotes as well. “Even those got it right. I think it speaks to having actual women with disabilities involved who can tell the production crew when things are wrong.”
Haller’s point about whether drop-dead gorgeous women can speak for everyone is well-taken, as is her overall enthusiasm for the series.
As New Mobility contributor Jeff Shannon, who reviews movies for Roger Ebert’s blog, says, “I’m sure it’s a positive step forward simply because it exists! You can sense big changes in store — this is just the beginning of more inclusion. Even if it’s not unanimously embraced, it’s still an important pop-cultural milestone.” Like Haller, Shannon, a quad who lives in Seattle, Wash., notes that super-beautiful women aren’t necessarily representative of all wheelers. “That fits into the history of images of people with disabilities that are publicly ‘acceptable’ — so what society as a whole is comfortable with is the Murderball image of disabled men being very macho and aggressive and ‘not disabled,’ and now the Push Girls image of highly desirable women who are disabled.”
Photo by Chris Ragazzo
“We can’t toast enough,” says Mia, in this scene. The Push Girls say their friendship with each other means everything to them, they’re like sisters. All four are strong individually, but together they’re “like dynamite.”
Shannon is quick to add he’s not seen the show yet — he’s responding to promo photos and trailers. “I’d rather see a show featuring people with disabilities who are not conventionally appealing or attractive, so we could see how so many are ‘invisible’ because they’re marginalized by a society that prefers macho men and gorgeous women. In other words, I want more reality from reality TV. But still, the very fact that this show exists is big progress, in addition to the stuff that Teal Sherer and others are doing in Los Angeles. Awareness is definitely on the rise.” Sherer, an actor with paraplegia, is in the process of filming the first season of her sit-com Web series, My Gimpy Life.
We’ve never seen this many beautiful women in wheelchairs on television at one time before, but one thing to keep in mind is that these are grown-ups, hardly the girls just out of high school that are so often objectified and glamorized by pop culture. The youngest, Tiphany, is 26, and Auti, the matron of the group, is 42. Additionally, the women are racially diverse. Angela has both Thai and European roots, and Auti’s heritage includes European as well as Peruvian Indian and Mexican.
“We are just honored that we have this type of platform to reach the masses,” says Auti. “Not many are given this opportunity, and we are going to do our best to represent not only our own community, but also strong women. Because you are going to live life with us. You will experience heartache and frustration, challenges and most definitely victories.”
And anyway, outside of BBC, who would tune in to watch average-looking actors — disability aside? “No one watches a TV show because it is good for them or good for humanity, except for an occasional Bono hunger special,” says Hollywood insider and New Mobility contributing editor Allen Rucker. “To succeed, Push Girls will have to be dramatic, emotional, funny, and occasionally outrageous. People won’t watch because of the wheelchairs. They’ll only watch because they fall in love — or in love-hate — with the people in the wheelchairs.”
Beautiful, blond, ultra-femme and awfully curvaceous, Tiphany gives Push Girls viewers one of the most sensual girl-on-girl kisses on TV. But then, uh oh ... later on in the episode she gets a text from her ex-boyfriend, who she still has feelings for ... and delicious drama ensues.
So is she gay or straight, or somewhere in the middle?
“I do not like to label my sexuality at all,” she says to the camera. Besides, she’s having fun.
At the time New Mobility interviewed her, the episode was still embargoed and Tiphany, a T10 para, couldn’t disclose everything that was filmed. But she did have this to say: “I’ve shared very intimate things, and I just hope everyone will be supportive and understanding. There are going to be some surprises, some things I didn’t even know were going to happen and then, whoa ... that’s going to be on TV?”
She wasn’t kidding.
A hopeless flirt, Tiphany mocks the myth that women wheelchair users can’t be sexy. In one of the episode’s first scenes, she slides and bounces out of her car and out to the gas pump, finding ways to catch the eye of the guy one island over. He watches her every move, and she pretends not to notice. As she drives away, she waves at him, and he looks down, sheepishly. “I love flirting,” she says to the camera, with a sunny smile. Then, forcefully, “I have 26-inch-rims on the side of my ass. It’s hard not to get attention.”
Most reality TV shows have issues their stars must wrestle with or overcome. Tiphany’s is going to be her sexuality, as she struggles with whether she even needs to define it, or if she can just be with who she wants, without the encumbrance of labels.
But also, she had some unfinished business to deal with from the drunk driving car accident that left everyone dead but her — and she was pronounced dead at first. With America looking over her shoulder, she takes her father to visit the accident scene for his first time. “It was pretty calm going there, but then when we actually got there, it was a whole other story,” she says. “It’s like a palette, the colors that were so bright, the shades, they weren’t so bright when we got there. But in the end it was rejuvenating and refreshing. It was something that needed to be done.” Her father had avoided that highway for many, many years. “So this gave him kind of a closure in a sense.”
It’s brave, being so vulnerable on screen, and Tiphany acknowledges this. “My being open and sharing these deeply intimate parts of my life awakens people to the reality of who I am as an individual,” she says. “We are all searching in ourselves for who we are and who we strive to be, and Push Girls shows that. We are all human, we all have the same blood, we are all the same, we are beings. When you can get beyond the physical and truly look inside someone else, it’s like, wow, that person has a soul, too.”
There are so many words that could be used to describe Push Girl Auti Angel. Fierce is one. Warrior is another. Hip Hop dancer, obviously, as well as tough, loving, strong, motivational, challenging and feisty. Soon she hopes to add a new descriptor: Mom.
“My husband Eric and I have been married for almost five years and have been trying to have a baby, no contraceptives or anything,” says Auti, a T10-12 para as a result of a car accident. “We’ve had two miscarriages in the last couple of years, so now we’re looking toward getting help, making sure I’m OK and he’s OK. I’m 42 going on 43. Maybe I should have tried sooner, but my career was in the way, or I didn’t find my true love or wanted to develop the relationship first.” Auti says she and Eric are also open to adoption. “We are praying for whatever God has in store,” she says.
It’s been a long road from growing up in gang-infested Torrance, Calif., where Auti felt caught between worlds, with a white mom and a dad who was both Peruvian Indian and Mexican. “I gravitated toward dance as my escape,” says Auti, who taught herself by watching videos on TV. “I would watch Michael Jackson, James Brown and Janet Jackson, but my dad said, ‘Don’t just study one style, but study other styles, too.’ So I’d find stations that played Hawaiian music and dancers, and watch ballet on public television ... Thai dancing, Chinese dancing. Plus my dad was a martial artist, and my hip hop became influenced by all I saw.” She says some of the fierceness in her style comes from Bruce Lee, since that was the type of martial arts her father studied.
Before her injury, Auti danced with some of the biggest names in her genre, including Ludacris, N.W.A. and Eazy-E. “Once I had my accident, I was still hip hop, but of course it was different. I had to incorporate the chair into it, and the chair is more fluid than my legs.” Her moves with the wheelchair are smooth, but it’s the kinetic way she rolls her arms, shoulders and head at breathtaking speeds and then hops her chair from side to side that is so original and creative.
You can catch some of her moves in the newly released film, Musical Chairs, which is about a dancer who becomes spinal cord injured and learns to appreciate wheelchair ballroom dancing as a way of reclaiming her life. Auti plays a feisty, leather-clad rehab compadre — the only main character who uses a wheelchair in real life. The movie, a sweet “date-night” confection, would have been better if it had shown more of Auti’s dancing. Fortunately, Push Girls will make up for this, as Auti’s wheelchair hip hop troupe, Colours-n-Motion, which fellow-Push Girl Mia Schaikewitz dances with as well, will get its share of the lime light.
Mia Schaikewitz, 32, is not shy about her body. Perhaps you remember the nude couple on New Mobility’s cover back in February 2005? Yes, the woman is Mia, and she’s shown inside the magazine, too. In one shot she’s lying on a bed, nude, with rose petals and the word “sex” superimposed on her body. Two Februaries later, she was on NM’s cover again, nude, looking over her shoulder at the camera, with a hot red and black background.
"The New Mobility covers with Chris [Voelker] were very sexy. They helped me to realize how a lot of people feel when they have something different about their bodies,” says Mia, 32.
“Often sexuality becomes a secondary need, but really it’s about embracing your body and loving it no matter what. The show touches on that, too, how there can be sex appeal even when in a wheelchair. It’s not something that has to be thrown by the wayside once you become paralyzed. It’s about confidence and acceptance of who you are.”
Mia’s confident ease with her body helps Push Girls viewers adjust to some of the realities of what it means to have an SCI. She is shown getting up in the morning with her boyfriend, Dave, then transferring, nude, into the shower, while she describes how her paralysis is a little bit different than the other girls, since hers was brought on at age 15 by an AVM, or, ruptured blood vessel in her spinal cord. It’s a brief scene, done tastefully, that highlights that women with SCI are women, no more or less.
“There are a lot of things people want to know about us. They want to know the right thing to say, or how to help without coming across as pushy,” says Mia, a senior account manager for the graphic design and branding firm, DISTINC. “It comes down to the simplest questions. People don’t even know that we can drive. We can get around, we’re pretty independent.”
You’d think most of Mia’s charisma would be sex appeal, but actually it’s not. She’s sexy, yes, but almost in a country girl way. She’d fit in comfortably at any kitchen table anywhere in middle-America with her soft tones, open smile and genuine kindness.
In keeping with the reality TV formula, all of the Push Girls have a challenge, and Mia’s was to get back in the swimming pool. “I was a swimmer when I was 15, and was paralyzed on the day of a tryout, and when I first got paralyzed I was afraid sports would be taken from me. There are so many adaptive sports, but swimming was the one I didn’t want to go back to, since there’s so much emotion affiliated with it. In the show I’m going back to swimming for the first time, and competing again,” she says.
“Sometimes you feel being paralyzed is it, that’s your big challenge. But life is as challenging as you make it, and the more you challenge yourself, the stronger you become. It’s all about pushing yourself to the next level.”
Being a beautiful celebrity doesn’t do much to make daily life with quadriplegia any easier, as Push Girl Angela Rockwood, 36, a C4-5 quad, knows too well. “I used to have 20-hour nursing care, and that allowed me to have a schedule. But right now, I’m in a battle between who is my primary and secondary insurance, and so I have my aunt who is taking care of me and a couple of friends who care for me as well,” she says. “I don’t have trunk control, I can’t roll over, or cath myself as I don’t have the dexterity that paraplegics have. And for everything else — bathing, putting lotion on my body — I need assistance.”
Push Girls is a good platform to share these realities of quadriplegia, which Angela recognizes is important. Still, she thinks about how her openness may affect others who aren’t as comfortable with their routines. “There are a lot of people [with SCI] out there who are very private,” she says. “I read a comment about one of the articles about the show that I’m quoted in where the person said, ‘oh no, they’re going to talk about catheterization, I don’t want my employees knowing I need to do that.’ There’s that very fine boundary [between public and private] about what we’re putting out there, but on an educational level, it’s important. But then I’m a very open person and for me it’s no big deal. To joke, I say I wear Victoria’s Secret Depends.”
Angela is open about her heritage as well, and plugs her work as an ambassador for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s minority outreach campaign: “In a lot of Asian cultures that I know of — Vietnamese, Chinese, some Filipino — people are still old-school in how they look at disability,” says Angela, whose mother is Thai. “They see us as bad karma, especially if they’re Buddhist, and are ashamed of disability. So it’s about going out there, speaking and educating, and letting them know it’s OK, that disability is no big deal and doesn’t make us any different.”
It seems what Angela wants most is for people to understand each other better, especially nondisabled and disabled. On the show, Angela uses her sophisticated, understated style to gently draw attention to unequal access. In one scene she calls a modeling agency to ask if they have open calls. Sure, says the receptionist, just walk in. Angela hangs up and laughs, “Just walk in.” So next she calls and asks whether they’d be interested in a model using a wheelchair. The receptionist is less than positive, but invites Angela to submit her photos. “Or I can just come rolling on in?” asks Angela, mischievously.
“There’s a staircase,” says the receptionist.
“Oh, so you’re not wheelchair accessible,” asks Angela.
“No, we’re wheelchair accessible ... just, there’s a staircase.”
In the next scene, Angela discusses this experience with her housemate, fellow Push Girl, Tiphany Adams: “I’m like 36 years old in a frigging wheelchair and I’m jumping back into the modeling world again,” notes Angela, with just a slight twinge of wistfulness in her voice. As the season unfolds, she’ll share with us how that goes.
All Studio Photography: Christopher Voelker/Voelkerstudio.com
Makeup: Melanie Manson/Melaniemanson.com
Hair: Melissa Vega Fashion Styling: Mike Sam/Enlglshclientele.com
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