"You haven’t seen sexy in a wheelchair," says one of the stars of the new Sundance Channel reality show, Push Girls, about a group of telegenic best friends in Los Angeles who are paralyzed from the neck or the waist down.
Premiering June 4, the 14-part documentary series follows Angela, Auti, Mia and Tiphany, a band of struggling Hollywood dancer/model/actresses, as they doll up in high-heels and make-up, work out, drive themselves around town, talk about sex, relationships, career aspirations and personal goals, flirt with strangers, debate the pros and cons of having babies with boyfriends and husbands, and navigate the daily challenges of life in a wheelchair.
The idea of making a docu-series about a bunch of uninhibited, camera-ready women in wheelchairs struck producer Gay Rosenthal a few years ago when she met Angela Rockwood, a 37-year-old former lingerie model and actress who became a quadriplegic after a 2001 auto accident.
"I met Angela and her spirit, her energy, her perspective, I thought, ‘Oh my God she’s fantastic, I’d love to tell her story,’" says Rosenthal, creator of the Style Network’s Ruby, a reality show about an obese woman’s quest to shed hundreds of pounds, and TLC’s Little People, Big World, a documentary series about the family lives of dwarves.
Angela introduced Rosenthal to her circle of friends. "They just had such an impact on me, four women, beautiful, spirited, full of energy, best girlfriends," Rosenthal says. "Nothing stops them, and it’s so universal, you know, in terms of ‘Oh my God, if they could overcome their adversity, then hopefully you could overcome yours.’ Part of my brand and my mantra is about overcoming."
Even fictional characters in wheelchairs, like Artie on Glee or Joe Swanson from Family Guy are few and far between on television, and Rosenthal says that a show representing some of what the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation estimates are 5.6 million Americans living with paralysis was a hard sell.
"Executives aren’t familiar or think people might be afraid or uncomfortable with it," Rosenthal says. "To me it’s all about shattering perceptions. Sundance is very progressive and broad-minded and open and really embraced the story that I’m trying to tell and how I wanted to tell it."
Sundance Channel Executive Vice President and General Manager Sarah Barnett says that the show is emblematic of her vision for the network, whose mission is to make programming with both entertainment value and substance.
"We try to show our viewers a world they haven’t seen before or a familiar world in a fresh way," she says. "We felt that Push Girls was terrifically fresh and vital. It fits the Sundance Channel remit in that it lifts the lid on an unexplored world. For us this was a great example of the kind of nonfiction show that could be distinctive and could be really genuinely doing something to open up perceptions of people in a wheelchair. And at the same time you have four very talented, entertaining subjects, which is necessary or nobody will watch your TV show."
Barnett stressed that Push Girls is "genuinely unscripted television." But the first few episodes struck the occasional false notes inherent in most reality television, in which attention-seeking people play themselves in a staged on-camera performance of their so-called real lives.
"You can’t fake the genuine issues of living in the chair," Barnett points out.
Fair enough, although you have to wonder if Auti Angel, whose hip-hop dancing career was cut short at 22 after a car accident severed her spinal cord, would have entered a ballroom dancing competition with only two days of preparation of her own volition. When she gives a valiant but mediocre performance, and wins first place, it’s impossible not to wonder if the judges were giving her an A for effort, or felt compelled to reward her with cameras watching.
Nevertheless, the show does offer candid glimpses of more ordinary moments: Auti’s husband lifting her on and off the toilet, Mia lowering herself into the tub.
Tiphany Adams, 29, a bubbly blonde who was briefly pronounced dead at the scene of a car accident and has spent the last decade in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down, flirts with men while pumping gas and kisses another woman on the dance floor of a nightclub. She talks to the camera about the general cluelessness that leads strangers to ask what is "wrong" with her, and if she, for example, can have sex.
"Yes, I can have sex," she says. "Lots and lots of sex."
The women say that people are often surprised to learn that being in a wheelchair doesn’t prevent you from giving birth, either. Auti is 42, married to an able-bodied man, and wondering if her age, not her disability, will prevent her from conceiving, or if she is ready to make the sacrifices that motherhood requires.
Mia Schaikewitz, 33, is the only show participant to have become disabled due to an illness, rather than a car accident, that cut her competitive high school swimming career short at age 15. She is a college graduate who works at a graphic design firm when she isn’t dancing or playing sports in her leisure time. Mia says that people are surprised to learn that she lives alone. When asked if she dates guys in wheelchairs, she answers: "I prefer to date able-bodied guys." When she and her able-bodied boyfriend break up on camera, it’s seemingly because she wants a family and he doesn’t.
Angela is the only show participant who is partially paralyzed from the neck down, unable to live alone and needing more assistance than the others. Recently split from her actor husband of 10 years, she’s worried about paying the bills for home care and decides to try and break back into modeling to earn some cash. It’s a prospect that would be difficult for any woman of her age, but seems even more daunting when her leg starts to spasm violently during a photo session for a new headshot, and calls to modeling agencies asking if they represent disabled models yield dumbfounded replies.
"Through the show you do find out a lot about the specifics of what it’s like to be in a wheelchair," Barnett says. "But that’s not in a way the defining thing about these four women. It’s this really interesting notion that it may be their disability that is pushing them to live their lives in a really full way. I think in a chair it’s sometimes easy not to make difficult choices. These women are doing things in spite of the chair, although the chair provides some of the conflict. But I think what happens when you get to know these four very different very individual human beings is you stop seeing the chair."