A Conversation with Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls”

You don’t find me covering much reality television. And there’s a good reason for that. There’s a large portion of it that I find perfectly pleasant, but simply 1) don’t watch and 2) don’t cover. There’s an even larger portion of this genre that I find odious and outright offensive. But Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls” breaks that mold. When I attended the 2012 winter Television Critics Association press tour back in January, I had circled many panels as “must see.” But the one for “Push Girls” may have been the most surprising, most moving, and most fulfilling of my brief time at the tour. As such, I made it a point to keep tabs on it as the show approached its premiere date.

With that date finally set (it premieres Monday, Jane 4th, at 10 pm), I got the chance to talk to the four stars of the show. Angela Rockwood, Auti Angel, Mia Schaikewitz, and Tiphany Adams are four friends with one thing in common: they all live life in a wheelchair. But rather than resign themselves to their situations, they have each broken the mold in their own, unique ways. “Push Girls” is a reality show for people that usually swear off reality shows. Rather than explain to you the concept of the show, and what life is like for each of them, I’ll let the ladies speak for themselves. Consider this an oral pre-history of “Push Girls.”

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On how television producer Gay Rosenthal got “Push Girls” off the ground and onto the air…

Angela Rockwood: Gay Rosenthal is an amazing woman on so many levels. What sparked it: I felt that the show wasn’t about me. Originally, it was going to be about my love story with my husband. And I felt that there was a bigger story. It wasn’t just my story. It was every woman’s story. There are so many women that I’ve met through my journey of paralysis. I had girlfriends going through a divorce. I had girlfriends who had just lost a loved one. Or whatever the case may be. But I noticed that the majority of these women were limiting themselves, where they were letting themselves go, letting their bodies go, walking around like zombies and losing that essence of being a woman. So I used that as a mirror reflection to look at myself and think, “I don’t want to walk down that road. I want to regain my essence of who I am and allow that to carry me through.” And that’s the one thing that the girls and I share: that camaraderie. It’s about our wheelchair, but it’s not about our wheelchair. It’s about our spirit.

And I spoke to Gay passionately about my girls, and she was very interested. She had the opportunity to meet all of us, one-on-one. And she saw the energy and the relationships between us. She saw that it was real. She saw a connection and a bond that is very rare. And she thought the world needed to see it.

On whether or not everyone was on board with the concept…

Auti Amber: No, I was one of the ones that did embrace it. I’m like an open book. I like to share my life story so it can teach somebody something about their own life. So I was excited to have the platform to reach the masses and say, “Look, whatever obstacles you have in your way? You can overcome them.”

AR: Out of the four of us, we’re open books except for Mia. Mia is a little bit on the shy side, and was very private. But because she shares the same vision we do, in the sense of wanting to give back to the world, she knew that being a part of this with us, she would be able to use it as a gift. Because what we do with our life is a gift, and that’s something the four of us have in common. Since we’ve started this journey, we’ve been able to share with others and educate them…we felt ultimately this was a definite honor and a blessing to show the world our lives, in a tasteful, respectful, and real way.

Mia Schaikewitz: Yeah. It was something that I accepted before taking on the show. And it wasn’t a deal breaker for me, it’s just that I am, by nature, a really private person. So, originally, I thought, “Wow, this will be a wild ride.” And my friends told me, “Great, now I’ll know what’s going on in your life!” So it was more of a natural instinct for me at first to be hesitant, but I knew it wasn’t going to stop me from doing the show. From the moment that I became paralyzed, I dreamed of this opportunity to educate on any level. And I always thought if this could be in the mass media, and help educate somehow–not in a preachy way but in a natural format–that it would be the most powerful thing. So, ironically, here we are, and it’s a reality show with me, so when it came along I thought, “Well, my privacy’s out the window!” But it’s all a trade-off for me, because this is for a greater purpose.

Even though they didn’t initially brand themselves “push girls” before the show, they grew to love the moniker…

Tiphany Adams: You know, that’s something that Sundance came up with. And it’s fabulous. It’s great. I think it encompasses exactly who we are: We’re push girls. We push through life, we push through adversity, and we push the limits. And we push each other. Literally.

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Unlike many reality shows, the friendships onscreen were formed long before the cameras rolled, even though the bright lights can undo the best relationships…

AA: Don’t get me wrong: We were sisters before we were ever approached about this show. So we bicker like sisters. But we also show how sisterhood resolves things. So that’s what we’ll do. We’ll bicker, over the silliest things. Tiphany has these cute little glitter fingernails that I wanted to do, and she said, “No, that’s my thing!” But we resolve things, and that’s what I love about showing people our world. You can have a sister without tearing each other apart. But we also edify one another, and lift each other up as needed. If she’s about to fall on her face, we catch her.

When the project first started, I was a little worried, only because of what I saw with other reality shows. But once I sat down with Gay Rosenthal and found out she produced “Little People, Big World,” I was so relieved. She did everything so tastefully on that show. I trust that she will do that and embrace our vision at the same time.

Even if they were OK having their lives on tape, others often found themselves in unwanted positions as well. Tiphany finds herself juggling two relationships…

TA: Well, having a wheelchair, you get kind of used to being looked at a little bit when you enter a room. So it was kind of second nature, just because we’re used to having people looking and staring. But for the people that I was seeing at the time, I am sure that was not as comfortable for them, because that’s not what they are used to.

…while Auti was trying to conceive a child with her husband…

AA: I’m 42 years old, so time is working against me. So I really don’t have the time to put my life on hold. My husband is a lot more closed off than I am. While I’m the open book, I have to learn to respect it when he says, “Babe, can we not talk about that?” But then I told him, “Honey, our relationship is going to teach a lot of people so many things. There are so many divorces happening right now that have to show people how to argue, how to fight, but then something that grounds you and brings you back to remembering why you fell in love with that person in the first place.”

Along with these human stories, “Push Girls” help illuminate specifics about their conditions…

AR: A paraplegic is someone who is paralyzed from the waist down. So, they have complete function in their upper bodies. They have dexterity in their fingers, they have their biceps, triceps, and abdominal muscles. So they are able to do things that quadriplegics can’t do. Now, a quadriplegic is someone who is paralyzed from the neck down. That’s what I have. That’s what I was “diagnosed” with. I’m a C4-C5 quadriplegic. So, depending on the paralysis of each individual–because everyone is different– quadriplegics usually don’t have complete use of their hands. I don’t have full dexterity in my fingers, and I don’t have use of my triceps. They are still sleeping from the paralysis. I have biceps, and I have my deltoids. I can’t roll up hill. I can move around on a flat surface, but not very fast.

MS: An AVM (arterio venous malformation) is a very rare condition. The best way to liken it is to an aneurysm. It’s a blood vessel that ruptures. And mine was in my spinal cord. It’s rare in and of itself, but even rarer in the spinal cord.  There’s no way to detect it other than an MRI. Some people have no symptoms at all. My symptom happened to be a stomachache. I was 15–completely normal life, very athletic–and then one day I had a stomachache.  When it got worse, I went to the hospital. I thought I had appendicitis. And it wasn’t until I had x-rays done that I realized my legs were heavy when I had to move them. So, at that point, they still didn’t really think it was neurological. They thought maybe it was psychosomatic. But they did an MRI they next day, and that’s when they found out it was an AVM. So at that point, they told me I had a spinal cord injury, and I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life.

Unlike the other girls, Mia finds herself in a wheelchair not due to a car accident, and in the premiere mentions this helps differentiate her mindset from her friends…

MS: Right. What I meant by that was that I can’t look back and say, “What if?”  Like, “What if I hadn’t done this?” or “What if I had taken a different turn?” I don’t feel that way. I feel like I didn’t have a choice, and it was going to happen no matter what. However, my mother feels differently. She feels that if they had an MRI earlier, or simply caught it earlier in my life, they could have gotten surgery done. However, that might have caused paralysis anyways. So, in my situation, I feel like it’s something that would have happened regardless. And that, I feel, is the easiest to deal with.

In addition to showing some personal struggles, a few will also encounter professional ones as well. Angela attempts to restart her modeling career, and Auti continues to seek opportunities in the world of dance…

AR: I got back into this because I got back into acting through a friend. But I couldn’t wait for a wheelchair role to roll in. Literally, there are one to two auditions a year for folks in wheelchairs. So I thought I should just open the doors up and get back into the modeling world. And why not? Of those women out there in wheelchairs, we would like to look cute and gorgeous and feel sexy. I think it’s important that we get that out there. I feel that right now I am basically paving the way so we can bring awareness and start putting people with wheelchair disabilities into ads.

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AA: Well, I always say, “Once a dancer, always a dancer.” I went through a lot of challenges before my car accident–such as child abuse, rape, almost being killed by my first husband–I fought through those. So when the doctor said I wasn’t going to be able to dance or walk again, I fought through those issues. I said, “Yeah? Watch me.” And it’s exactly what you said: a form of self-expression. And I’ve taught children in wheelchairs with different diagnoses, to the point where they can’t move anything except for their eye. But when I put on music, and look at those kids, and their eye lights up, and their eye is moving to the beat? They are dancing. And I’m so excited to show people that you don’t need legs to dance. You don’t have to have legs to express yourself.

“Push Girls” seeks to strike a balance between education and entertainment, something on their minds upon agreeing to do the project…

AR: I will definitely have to bow down to the editing folks, and with Sundance. The whole team. Cameras are there when I wake up in the morning, and don’t leave until I close my eyes at night. And you have four women, and they have to go through all this footage, and they have to cut all this into twenty-two minutes to create an amazing episode. I know they had to find a balance. At first, it was going to be about us. It wasn’t going to be about the wheelchair. But then, we would be like every other girl show that’s out there. So they would try and go back to the wheelchair. But they didn’t want it to be about the wheelchair. So they had to find that balance between educating and then showing who we really are. It was amazing how they were able to execute that.

TA: [I wanted] all of the above. Education and awareness as well as the genuine authenticity of our friendships and living our lives in Los Angeles (are on display).

MS: A lot of people don’t know about [AVM], definitely in the public and even in the medical field.  It’s something people are looking for now, but we could use way more awareness. Even in cases such as mine: I mean, they didn’t do an MRI right away.  I think that helps, in any kind of diagnosis. But I also think it helps the patient. I never met people with AVM, but through the press, people have reached out to me and said, “I have an AVM,” or “I know someone that did.”  And that’s helpful for people who are looking for support. So I am very enthused to get my story out to help others.

Many pointed to the advances (yet limitations) that come with increasing technology…

TA: There have been some major advances. Going from aluminum to titanium, for instance. But the part that saddens me is that they are still so expensive. In all reality, I doubt it costs as much as they are marketing these chairs for. I don’t know. Then again, I don’t run a business.

AA: Absolutely. I’m always saying, “Thank god for technology!”, because if it wasn’t for technology, we wouldn’t have these really, really cool wheelchairs. I don’t know what they had back in the day, but I am sure it would have squashed my diva style! So, I’m still allowed to be a diva because of technology. But to me, it’s not about walking. Walking is overrated. To me, it’s all about the self-expression of your soul. And you don’t have to be walking to express yourself.

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The “Push Girls” expect that first-time viewers will be surprised by many things they see onscreen…

AR: That we can do almost anything and everything that those who are not paralyzed can do. I mean, one of the biggest things people ask us is, “Can you have sex?” Of course we can have sex! As Typhany says, we can have lots and lots of sex. For me, it’s that we do have a life. People think that when you’re paralyzed, your life ends. That you’re sad. That you’re miserable. That you hate the world. But that’s not the case. We actually have a very fun, action-packed, amazing life. We just embrace it, in every way. The audience will be able to take that away, and be educated about our world.

AA: They are going to be shocked that I dance. That I’m a professional dancer. I shocked a lot of people when I danced with Ludacris onstage at the Vibe Music Awards in my wheelchair. I shocked Russell Simmons. And Russell Simmons is a hard person to shock. When I got off the stage, he said, “Oh my God, girl: You blew the roof off this place!”

TA: That we drive…well, that we DON’T drive. But if we do drive, then we drive mini-vans. I like something with a muscle engine. I don’t want anything less than a 4.0. I know all about cars. My dad was a single dad for a while, so it was me, a little girl, in a body shop learning about torque and all that fun stuff.  People ask me, “How the hell do you know what an alternator is?” I say, “Hello! I might have blonde hair, but I do know about cars.”

I would love to take my chair to a whole other level. But I haven’t had the opportunity to do that yet. You have to work a certain number of expos to get the chair you really want. But I definitely have some idea in mind about what I want to do with my next chair, for sure.

MS: Through everything, I hope people realize that we’re not secretly unhappy underneath our smiles. A lot of people think that we’re being fake. Some people have mentioned to my friends, “Well…she can’t be all that happy. She’s in a wheelchair!” But it’s not all about that. It’s not the focal point of our lives. Everyone goes through obstacles in their own lives, and they are all something that is made for them so they can become more of who they are as a person. And that’s exactly what’s happened to us.  These situations of paralysis have only made us more of who we are as people.  That’s something you’ll see in the show. And I think everyone can relate to that! Also, I think everyone has a moment in their lives that they aren’t sure they can get through. And they certainly can. So I hope people realize that. I hope they learn to laugh a little bit, you know?

AA: There are relatable stories. It’s not all about the wheelchairs. People in wheelchairs will relate to the wheelchair stories. Able-bodied people will relate to the human stories. A forty-two year old woman trying to have a baby. Angela separating from her husband. Mia being single and fearful of commitment. Typhany struggling with her sexuality and her career goals…So everyone is going to understand, relate, and grasp onto something in this show.

And what about the “Girls” themselves? Did they learn anything?

MS: Completely, yes. I feel like I’ve opened up emotionally. And because I’ve done that, life has opened up a little bit more. Life is about experience, and experiencing everything I can. I’m not saying “no” when I see something that’s a limitation. People can tell you that you can’t do something, or insinuate that it’s difficult to do. However, that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the limitations you put on yourself. And I don’t think life is here for that reason. I think that life can be lived to the extreme, and that you can take advantage of it.

“Push Girls” premieres Monday, June 4th, at 10 pm, on Sundance Channel.

One Comment

  1. Ryan
    Posted June 3, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    God yes I’m so glad this show is being made. I just wish it was on a network more than 5 people have.