Miss You Can Do It

Last month’s coronation of Miss Iowa, Nicole Kelly, was very exciting as Kelly will be the first one-armed contestant for Miss USA.

Kelly, however, cannot claim the title of first disabled contestant on Miss USA. That title goes to Abbey Curran, the 2008 Miss Iowa.

Miss Iowa Abbey Curran at Miss USA

You read that right. I triple checked; they were both crowned in IOWA. There is something very special in the state of the wild rose.

Abbey Curran has a mild case of Cerebral Palsy and has some trouble with muscle coordination required for walking. A high-school teacher told Curran that she could not compete in beauty pageants because of her disability, and that was motivation enough to prove them wrong!

In her royal wake, Curran founded a non-profit which allows girls ages 5-25 to compete in a special pageant: Miss You Can Do It. This year marks the 10th annual pageant for disabled women built upon Curran’s belief that you can accomplish great things when you try.

And boy is Curran an example of that! She was told that disabled girls cannot participate in beauty pageants and she turned that idea on it’s head!

Miss You Can Do It - Big Dreams, Little Wishes, Major Triumphs

This incredible pageant and it’s beautiful founder are featured in an HBO documentary airing this summer. Here’s their summary:

Miss You Can Do It highlights the extraordinary work Curran is doing with the pageant she founded. Curran and a team of enthusiastic volunteers give participants a chance to be celebrated for all they are inside, not just defined by what the world sees on the outside. For one special weekend the young girls, along with family and friends, some who have traveled far distances, spend time in an oasis of fun, femininity and celebration.

No one leaves the pageant empty-handed, with each girl receiving a special award. The real winners of the pageant might be the families and friends, who proudly cheer them on from the audience.

Watch Abbey Curran’s interview with Ellen Degeneres to get a glimpse of how awesome she is and all things she touches. I introduce the original Miss You Can Do It!!

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Starstruck: Elizabeth Taylor

While studying up for our previous Starstruck article on Mila Kunis’ eyes, I heard Natalie Portman give an interview on the topic. Portman–demonstrating once again that she’d rather be smart than famous–said “[Mila’s eyes] was incredibly beautiful. It was like an Elisabeth Taylor thing that she had.”

I was curious by what she meant with that comment and the world wide web parted for this surfer…

Elizabeth Taylor, in her infinite beauty had violet-blue eyes. It is an extremely rare color, often reserved for people with albinism. Whether this is what Portman was talking about, I’m not sure, because Taylor also had a genetic mutation of her eye lashes: she had an extra pair.

Elizabeth Taylor's eyes

When she was born, her doctor tactfully (*sarcasm*) told her parents that she had a genetic mutation. Any parent would be distraught over hearing this but when he finally explained that distichiasis means simply extra eyelahses, Taylor’s mom said “Well now, that doesn’t sound so terrible.”

Though distichiasis itself means extra eye lashes, it can come with other complications. It is not simply a cosmetic effect, though it is associated with ptosis (droopy lid) and strabismus (cross-eyed). The extra lashes tend to grow inward and damage the cornea. Further, there are associations with congenital heart defects, lymphodema (extreme swelling of extremities), and mandibulofacial dysostosis (facial deformity).

The only issue I could find regarding her distichiasis was when she was a young girl, acting in Lassie Come Home, she was sent back to hair and make up for having too much mascara on. She wasn’t wearing a drop.

Taylor was clearly blessed genetically, not just for her rare violet eyes, but for her mutatiously beautiful eye lashes. Her distichiasis  (in the public eye) was isolated and did not lead to any of these very serious outcomes. However, it is worth saying that Taylor was hospitalized over 70 times for various reasons (one of which was an ulcerated eye), almost died four times (by her count) and finally succumbed to congestive heart disease in March, 2011.

Just because Taylor did not share publically any health problems related to her distichiasis, doesn’t mean she didn’t face those struggles. Even the most famous and public of figures have secrets. So maybe she wasn’t as lucky with genetic roulette. I must admit though, she made a very beautiful mutant.

Defying gravity at Miss Iowa pageant

On June 8th Nicole Kelly was crowned Miss Iowa. What’s really special about that is that she will be the only one-armed contestant for Miss America. Kelly intends to discuss overcoming disabilities during that pageant in September.

Nicole Kelly Miss Iowa 2013

Kelly graduated last year with a degree in theatre and hopes to be a stage manager on Broadway.

I found my passion within a world where I was giving people permission to stare: the stage

She performed Defying Gravity from Wicked for her talent. I’d have loved to see that!

Read more about Kelly here and about other disabled contestants in Miss America pageants.

Wheelchair mermaid

Last night ABC aired a story about the first wheelchair mermaid.

No, I’m not talking about Lady Gaga’s alter-ego Yuyi the Mermaid. And still not her predecessor Bette Midler’s Mermaid in a Wheelchair singing act.
Though I will echo the sentiments of the Lady Gaga article: ” Personally, I’m in love with her new persona. I’ve always contested that mermaids are a natural to combine with a wheelchair because they would need one if they ever went on land. Plus,…she’s making it a breeze to cosplay her if you can’t walk”.

Sue Austin wheelchair mermaidBut I’m not talking about them, I’m talking about the deep sea diving enchantress Sue Austin.

She lost her mobility after battling cytomegalovirus. When she finally got her wheelchair, she felt so liberated. She regained so much, but others viewed her chair as limiting. Through art she is trying to change this misconception. She started diving a few years ago after she consulted some engineers who told her it was impossible. That motivated her more than anything and now she’s swimming with the fishes.

Let her take you on her journey and become part of the art; watch her TedTalk.

Starstruck: Mila Kunis

If you are at all like me, you might assume that the glowing perfect faces of smiling A-list celebrities are indicative of an equally beautiful and perfect life. Look at the lovely Ms. Mila Kunis:

Mila Kunis - dichromatic eyes

If she doesn’t make your top 5 for most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen; you should see a doctor–you and Mila might have something in common. Mila Kunis has chronic iritis, or inflammation in her eye. It is responsible for her being blind in one eye for years.

When I think of Mila’s story–coming to the US at age 7, without knowing a word of English, with her parents and brother with only $250 to their names and then becoming a super talented international superstar–I think there is blockbuster-levels of excitement and drama; she didn’t need anything else to make her story more extraordinary. Yet she one-ups herself has this rare eye condition that makes her all the more amazing.

Though Mila had her blindness surgically corrected in 2010 (around the same time of her breakup with Macaulay Culkin, as numerous articles are quick to point out), she still has a lasting effect: two different colored eyes. As Natalie Portman so aptly puts it, “it was incredibly beautiful. It was like an Elisabeth Taylor thing that she had

Mila kept her condition a secret until after she had it corrected. At that point, no one would ever have to know but she chose to share her story and that too makes her even more awesome.

She sums up the experience like this: “I was blind in one eye for many years, and nobody knew…I’m not blind anymore. I had surgery a couple of months ago. They cut it open and dropped a new lens in there.”

We’re reaching dangerous levels of  awesomeness–this post needs to end before someone gets hurt.

Happy weekend!

Dress up your abilities

We make so many choices about our appearance every day from the temporary (like outfits) to the more long term (like hair cut/color) to the more-or-less permanent (like tattoos).

When you lose control of one of those things, you really lose a little bit of your identity. Imagine if someone else chose your outfit, make up, and hair. You could be utterly unrecognizable.

I imagine this loss is one of those overlooked for amputees. Suddenly you lose that choice. Even the simple choice of what color to paint your nails.

The problem with most prosthetics is that they really aren’t unique. They are cookie-cutter solutions that lack individuality. They often deny the wearer even the natural form of their missing limb, so it can be difficult to feel connected.

Bespoke fairing

A fairing to be fit over a prosthetic leg.

Bespoke innovations is changing that. This start up is pretty incredible. They use 3D printing technology to print “accessories” for artificial limbs, called fairings. They scan the remaining limb (or a stand-in for bilateral amputees) and create custom pannels that fit over existing prosthetics to give back the shape the wearer lost. They can do this with a camera and a laptop.

Free floating tattooThis fairing can be customized not only by shape, but by design! The wearer gets to participate in the creative process as it is supposed to reflect their individuality.

You can 3D print tattoos into different materials or laser tattoo a leather panel.

These fairings are not meant to imitate a natural limb but reflect the individual.

Our goal is to be apologetically man made…make it something that someone can’t wait to show the world.

lace fairing leg prosthetic

“We’re just giving form, shape and contours that were hers to begin with.” –Scott Summit

Of the estimated 1.2 million amputees in the United States, many are showing off their limbs–more than ever before. These artificial limbs allow wearers to express their individuality to a degree many cannot attain. And some argue its the fusion of man and machine appeal that has people openly baring some titanium:

The line that has long separated human beings from the machines that assist them is blurring as complex technologies become a visible part of people who depend upon them. Unlike pacemakers and fabricated heart valves that are embedded in the body, these technologies are, so to speak, worn on their users’ sleeves. —NY Times

fairing on artificial leg

When I see this man with his fairings, I see a whole person. The artificial limb ceases to be just a mobility device and starts being part of the person. What I’m curious about is…do these fairings, by restoring the human shape and the connection to the limb, diminish phantom sensations?

3D printed legAccording to Scott Summit’s Ted Talk (below), one person who uses fairings said his soccer team stopped thinking of him as an amputee. Watch to see all their design capabilities and their ultimate goal: to develop this process to print entire legs, not just the fairings to dress up the underlying prosthesis. It’s so, so interesting!

How vanity makes the world a better place

Not to brag, but my family has some outrageously gorgeous people in it. And my friends? They’re all ridiculously beautiful too! Wayyy better looking than the general population. I’m not talking about personalities here, I mean beautiful in the most literal and shallow sense of the word.

Before you judge me, take a moment to think about the people you love and how good looking they are. I bet you’re realizing that you must be shallow too.

For me, the vast majority of the masses are just meh, average, nothing special. My acquaintances usually tend away from average, either really nice looking or a bit of an eye sore. Maybe it’s a karma thing–if you take the time to be nice to people, they take the time to notice how smooth your skin is or how shiny your hair is. If you take the time to be mean to people, they take the time to notice your flaws. And by this magic, all your friends are exceptional looking.

The interesting thing is this growing movement to show the beauty in people with disabilities. To the friends of these models, they’ve always seen the beauty and it’s the most obvious thing in the world. But in a culture where disabilities are hidden away, people don’t know how to recognize that beauty for themselves; they must be shown. And that is what is so important about the efforts of people like Debbie van der PuttenAimee Mullins and Ali Stroker: including disabled models and actors in mainstream media. Because when someone takes the time to appreciate and share the beauty of another person, it’s easy to see the person behind the appearance. And that goes for any sort of demographic. I’m sure that if you’d never seen a guy taller than 6 feet before, you’d think he’s pretty funny looking and have a hard time looking past it to see him for his personality. Think about how long it took people from the history books to look past people with a different color skin than they were used to seeing.

Last year’s Fashion Week in Ukraine was a massive step for this country for not only embracing but also integrating the disabled community. One night they hosted a special fashion show, Fashion Chance, featuring models with disabilities.

Blind model at Fashion Chance

Models in wheelchairs preparing for Fashion ChanceBlind models in Fashion Chance

Living in Ukraine with a disability is shockingly different from that same experience in the US. The lack of ramps, elevators and accessible transportation cuts off all connection to the general public. After WWII, many disabled citizens and injured soldiers were locked away in institutions or on remote islands to isolate them from the general public. Even children struggle with this: there are only about 10 inclusive schools Kiev, in a city with tens of thousands of disabled children!! And these struggles only continue as 75% of disabled adults are unemployed.

These are some major issues! And efforts like this fashion show will prove to be among the most powerful weapons we have to right these wrongs! It’s about so much more than vanity.

In a place where disabilities are so hidden…

When I roll in my wheelchair, people stare at me like I am an alien and it wounds. –Yulia Kozluk

…no wonder people react this way.

It’s hard to see beauty or value in the foreign, the unknown, the alien, but it’s hard to miss when you take the chance to look. Fashion Chance for many Ukrainians was their first chance to look.

When we look at a disabled person, we are not ready to see a person in them… we should first be seeing a person and only then notice their peculiarities – are they tall or short, do they have blond or dark hair, do they have disabilities or not   —Natalia Skripka, Director of Ukraine’s National Assembly for Disabled

Do you think the media has affected how you see disabilities?

Starstruck: Halle Berry

The incredibly talented and beautiful Halle Berry


Starstruck: Halle BerryIt’s hard to put her name and disability in the same sentence. She is the picture of beauty, success, and what every little girl hopes to grow up to be. But did you know she’s diabetic (type 2) and spent a week in a diabetic coma. How do you make sense of this woman who is so full of life and seemingly healthy and who also has this very serious disease?

Like so many of the Starstruck Saturdays before, today’s star doesn’t let her disability limit her in any way. In fact, she says “that little disease has really been a good thing in [her] life“; it has made her more health conscious and she looks the same as she did…well, since I can remember!

The way she talks about diabetes, it sounds like she considers it a blessing in disguise in her life.

Now, I know some people may feel a little uneasy calling either Halle or diabetes disabled/a disability. Where is the line drawn? Is a stubbed toe a disability? How about carpel tunnel syndrome?  Or a good old fashioned zit?

Here’s my answer to you: Diabetes definitely causes a drastic change in lifestyle adds new concerns to your daily life. Complications can easily add new limitations such as amputating feet. In the context of travelling, diabetics have to be concerned (at the very least) about having a refrigerator available for their insulin. So I think it can qualify as a disability. But not necessarily.

Intrigued? I hope so, because that’s just the conversation you can look forward to on Monday!

PS. It doesn’t count as a conversation if I’m talking to myself. Think about what ‘being disabled’ means to you, and let me know if you think I’ve got it right!

Happy Starstruck Saturday!

Update: You can read the follow-up post here.

Starstruck Motivation

I haven’t been able to get something from one of my previous posts out of my head: people believe you can’t be both disabled and beautiful.

That is so incredibly untrue that it was painful to write it. It’s been so unsettling, so I’m doing my part to show anyone that believes that statement how wrong they are.

Just take a look at any of the celebrities featured on Starstruck Saturday–they are all inspiring, strong and beautiful!!

So, this Motivational Monday I’ll leave it to one of those incredible stars to try to explain…

She is was born without fibulae, one of those important bones in your legs, and by her first birthday, her lower legs were amputated. 

She excelled in academics, winning a Foreign Affairs internship at the Pentagon while studying at Georgetown–she became the youngest person (17) to hold top secret clearance at the Pentagon. She also excelled in sports, was the first to double amputee to compete in NCAA Division I track and field. She broke 3 world records in the 1996 Paralympics.

She then excelled in modeling, acting and motivational speaking.

I am so Starstruck for Aimee Mullins!

Her speech at the Ted talks will completely change the way you see “disability” and beauty. She argues, very convincingly, that disability is fashionable; and, she will make you question what “disability” really means. No one says it better than her!

It’s a little long, but so very worth the time!! Please watch this, it’s so important!

Have a wonderful week my beautiful readers!

Starstruck: Debbie van der Putten

I am so starstruck for Debbie van der Putten and you will be too!

Meet Debbie

Look at this photo and I challenge you to find a single imperfection.

Debbie became a model after a freak accident and a totally unpredictable chain of events. She has graced the pages of Elle Magazine, Playboy, and Cosmogirl. Still haven’t spotted her disability? I’ll give you another chance:

Maybe you caught it this time. Debbie lost her arm in a bus crash before she ever thought of becoming a model, but  her photos prove that she is first a model and then an amputee.  When I look at this picture I see an absolutely stunning woman with an expression on her face that completely draws you in. It’s only when your eyes drift away from the picture that you might catch the missing arm–a complete afterthought.

It all started in 2005… During her rehabilitation, her doctor encouraged her to participate Holland’s upcoming beauty pageant for disabled women: Miss Ability. This is where she walked her first catwalk, and though she did not win, her life would be forever changed. From this exposure, she was given the opportunity to pose for Dutch Playboy as the first amputee in Europe! (She did it!)

She continued modeling for charities until she was asked to be part of the Britain’s Missing Model–a reality show where 8 women with disabilities compete for the title. She didn’t make it too far in the competition, but it did start her on a new leg of her journey. Through this experience, she became the spokesperson for Models of Diversity–a non profit in London that advocates for all types of models regardless of their ethnicity or their physical abilities.

As the above video shows, Debbie was part of the Paralymic coverage in London last year. She is still modeling while pursuing her current endeavors to make disability more mainstream and to change perceptions.

She is also focusing on her own campaign: IM-perfect (it looks like the new site is under construction, but you can check out the old blog)

Initially I found it hard to accept. I now belonged to a group of people who I thought were lonely. I thought I could forget about ever feeling pretty again; I was disabled.

But then I looked up the word ‘disabled’ in the dictionary. The definition lists words such as lame, defect, weakness and lack; words which definitely do not describe my personality!

Knowing I was so much more than a label that society lumps people with; I wasn’t going to hide away. – Debbie

Debbie never felt comfortable wearing her prosthetic arm, so she doesn’t. She walks down the street unapologetically and models on an international stage; she  faces her disability in such a public way so she can be a role model for others, to let them know you can be disabled and beautiful. Or rather, first beautiful and then disabled.

You can follow Debbie on her blog twitter or facebook.