Aimee Mullins"I went from trying to blend in to the complete opposite."
Portrait by Cass Bird
Was it a totally different running experience?
Oh, yeah. It took me a full month to be able to run 100 meters on it. But you get used to it. It was all about coming back and being a member of this nationally ranked track team.
But on a different level.
Yeah. I would go out every weekend and just invite stares as I was literally trying to figure this thing out. It was intense, a major shift. When I was able to reflect on it later, it was really a metamorphosis. I went from trying to blend in to the complete opposite.
They’re really beautiful in comparison to the flex-foot.
They’re so striking. Realizing there’s something beautiful about these was a real moment. Today, it’s 20 years this month that I was running in the Big East Championship on those legs. And it would still be another couple months before they would really make the magazines.
There was a big media splash?
First, there was a double page thing in Life magazine. That kicked off a lot of interest from all over the world. The phone just started ringing incessantly, but mostly for things I wasn’t interested in …things that felt very sensationalist to me in their presentation. It got to the point where I was just saying no. The phone would ring and it was like, “this is blah, blah, blah from Inside Edition….” I quickly became very cognizant of the certain kind of trajectory that was completely expected for somebody with what people perceive as a disability, that you’re “inspirational.”
That was the pitch?
It was often framed as story about A Girl Who Overcomes All The Odds, and the prevailing attitude was that someone in my “position” should be grateful for any media exposure they were offered. It was patronizing and infuriating to be relegated to the human-interest pages instead of being covered by the sports pages — I wanted to be of news interest based on the content of what I was doing, from a sports perspective yes, but also design, engineering, aesthetics...
When did you turn this around?
In ‘97 I was offered 10 pages in Sports Illustrated, which helped turn the tide of the kind of media offers that were coming my way… in a short time I was doing covers of design magazines, fashion magazines, magazines devoted to biomechanics. That kind of varied media exposure was more interesting to me, not only because it genuinely reflected the things I was interested in, but also how I was trying to shape my career going forward.
You spoke about that in your TED talk in ‘98.
After that TED talk, for the rest of the conference, I was having all these people approaching me, architects and designers, people that deal with aesthetics in a way I never had really examined. That led to talking to Chee Pearlman who, at the time, was the kind of wunderkind editor of ID magazine, which led to the cover story. Which in turn led to the cover of Dazed and Confused.
How did that happen? That was Nick Knight, Peter Saville and Alexander McQueen?
Peter Saville, the graphic designer, had given that issue of ID to Nick Knight and McQueen. Then they called me and sent me their press kits saying they loved what I was talking about, and would I get on a plane next week to come to London and be photographed…? Which I did. That shoot for Dazed and Confused was where Lee showed me the full-scale blueprints for what became the carved wooden legs.
That you did with McQueen?
Yeah. After that shoot he asked me to open his show that fall. I had the summer to basically go from being an athlete who had taken weight gainer to put muscle on because I naturally was scrawny, to a model watching carbs. I was a complete neophyte in that world, but like we talked about earlier, it wasn’t the first time I jumped in to the deep end of a new career path.
But this was the beginning of your modelling career.
Yeah, I shot a lot of amazing photos with lots of awesome people. My frustration was that working models get paid basically because they disappear in the clothes. Everyone wanted to write an article about me, so it was weird - I was never going to be a good clothes-hanger. The irony is that I had the press that any model wanting to become a ‘name’ would want, but all I wanted was to earn a paycheck, which didn’t happen, because you don’t get paid for press. It was not long after that that I started working with Matthew Barney.
How did that start?
He wrote me a bunch of letters and I didn’t respond. I guess he sent one to my agent, because called me and was like “this guy’s legit.” I was getting a lot of interest, from people who ran the gamut from interesting to totally crazy, and the truth is I often hid from my own mailbox. I was overwhelmed.
What did he want?
He wanted me to play three different characters which ended up being seven, I think. We could never quite end. After I had supposedly wrapped, he would inevitably call me asking what I thought about this idea for a new character. It ended up being about 2 years. We had such good fun but it was very hard.
Like physically exerting?
Absolutely. But there was a strong connection because we had both been athletes, so we were very symbiotic from the start. I will go to my limits, and past them, with someone that I trust.
OK I have a few more questions: How did you get your first pair of heels?
I was 19 years old, in London for the first time, and and saw Jerry Hall replicated at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. And I was like “you can do that?” Then I found this company in England called Dorset Orthopedic, run by a prosthetist named Bob Watts. I just saw him the week before last when I was there. Dorset took that that kind of wax museum technology and improved on it to where they use intrinsically painted silicone. They layer-up paper thin sheets of silicone and they impregnate each one with pigment, then add more specific detailing by hand throughout the layers. They pioneered this technique for prosthetics.
And they made it a heel?
Yes, those legs were made for a two-inch heel, very sweet. I still have them. Then I started really going for it, three and a half and four. They said it couldn’t be done. “You’ll never be able to walk on that kind of an angle.”