A bod for sin

Jacqueline Tellalian has spent her life in a wheelchair. And she still doesn't understand why men see it as a mechanical monster that threatens their manliness.

Topics: Sex, New York City, Disability, Love and Sex,

A bod for sin

Until today, the hunky, struggling actor had only spoken to Jacqueline
Tellalian by phone, so he wasn’t expecting to meet a partially quadriplegic
woman in a wheelchair. That’s why “he had that deer-in-the-headlights look”
throughout their interview, Tellalian says, ushering me into her apartment
shortly after his departure.

The bewildered beefcake left tantalizing photographs of himself in his
wake; they await the eyes of someone lascivious, such as Tellalian or myself.
It probably wasn’t only Tellalian’s appearance that threw the young actor; her
home-office decor, she concedes, is “not exactly the most professional
environment.” In seeking representation from Vesta Talent Services — i.e.,
Jacqueline Tellalian, personal manager to a small stable of fledgling, unknown
or disabled actors and models — surely the newbie didn’t anticipate
multicolored walls, the kitchen floor inlaid with a giant question mark, the
collection of skull-and-skeleton-theme tchtochkes, the Jimi Hendrix
silkscreen, the autographed photo of John Wayne Gacy (among other
serial-killer memorabilia), the transparent toilet seat encasing a crown of
barbed-wire or the ceramic penis that once functioned as a bong but
presently serves as a vase.

And in interviewing her prospective client, Tellalian surely didn’t expect
to hear that her pad reminded him of the apartment on “Friends.” Still, the
galling remark won’t influence the decision she makes several days later not
to represent him. Nor, surely, will the photo of the chiseled actor in his
skivvies: “It’s a very compelling picture,” Tellalian deadpans. Indicating
his crotch, she adds, “Not bad for a white guy.”

When most people think of what the protagonist of “Working Girl”
described as a “bod for sin,” they envision a physique like the young
actor’s, not like Tellalian’s. In fact, hers is a bod that lies so far outside
conventional beauty standards that it thwarts much of the sinning she’d like
to do. A botched breech birth left Tellalian paralyzed, with a spine so curved that she leans significantly to the
left, looking as though she’s about to shift in her chair and say something
stunning, which she often does. She can move her arms, but nerves in her left hand are damaged.



At 46, Tellalian hasn’t had a nonplatonic relationship in several years —
a fact that has nothing to do with her libido (this is a woman who vacuums to
porn). Nor, she claims, does it have to do with her own body image, but with
others’ fear and prejudice.

“Because I grew up with the wheelchair, it was just there,” she says,
insisting that she’s “never had a why-me period.” Regarding the snubbing
she’s received from various men and employers, she says, “What’s their
problem? I have all these things to offer, and they don’t want it? I don’t
get it. That’s why I’ve got a question mark in the middle of my floor.”

Raised in Hialeah, Fla., Tellalian’s misadventures in the “primitive
rehab world” proved that even so-called experts had few satisfactory answers:
“They had a giant contraption that keeps people standing who can’t. Think
of an iron lung, only standing up. So there you are, fake-standing and
encased. It made me want my wheelchair. ‘I can’t walk! Why are you trying to make me walk when you know I won’t be able to?! Just sit me
down!’” One doctor told Tellalian’s mother, right in front of the child, that
she wouldn’t live past 18.

But as a teen and young adult, Tellalian managed myriad experiences that
most people didn’t expect she would. She was an avid rock concert-goer and
still boasts about seeing Jim Morrison get hauled offstage in Miami for
lewdness. She self-published a rock fanzine. She not only had sex, but
enjoyed it, thank you. (Granted, she says, partners need to be more
assiduous, “just to get the nerve endings a lot more jazzed. If you don’t
get someone who’s aggressive, it’s pointless.”)

But purely sexual fulfillment was easier when she was younger, she says,
because she wasn’t as averse to casual sex back then. Nowadays, if there’s
no emotional element, she’d “rather have a piece of cake.” Besides, during
the hippie era, “it was easier for people to not feel self-conscious about
being with someone who’s imperfect” because “there was nothing about body image … You were taken for what you were. That was the beauty of living during that time. The idea was not to conform.”

These days, she notes, image is everything, and aging hasn’t helped.
“You’re out of the marketplace after a certain age. And being in a
wheelchair just compounds the issue,” she says. Disabled women have it
tougher than disabled men, Tellalian insists: “All the disabled guys I know
are either married or have girlfriends. Whereas only one woman I know in a
wheelchair is married. I’m talking about mixed marriages,” she qualifies — i.e., relationships between able-bodied and disabled partners.

Female “walkers,” she believes, are more nurturing and less visually
oriented than male counterparts: “Able-bodied men are very conscious of how society perceives them” and often feel that a disabled partner reflects
poorly upon their own virility or ability to score a desirable babe. Also,
“they’re more afraid of what they think I can’t do [sexually] than being at
all interested in what I can. … It’s very myopic.” Tellalian plans to make a
short film in which “a bunch of guys jerk off on my empty wheelchair to
express body image and how I’m perceived sexually. In this literally seminal
film, she adds, “I wouldn’t show their faces.”

Tellalian has been making experimental short films and videos since late
adolescence. (She’s proudest of “Die-O-Rama, ” a comedically grisly meditation on the connections between sex, pornography, butchering, death and food consumption.) In fact, her filmmaking aspirations were primarily why she moved to Manhattan in 1975. She wangled an interview with New York University’s prestigious film department, but her interrogator “rejected me because I couldn’t walk,” Tellalian claims. “He said, ‘Well, how can you hold a camera?’ — while I was holding a film I’d made! He wouldn’t even look at it.” She wound up studying film history instead, which “completely altered the entire direction of my life.”

After college, Tellalian worked as a media buyer at an ad agency, and then
as a talent agent and casting consultant. In 1985, just after she founded Vesta, she located two deaf teenagers for
starring roles in a landmark, closed-captioned McDonald’s commercial. She
quickly became known among casting directors as someone who could reliably come up with whatever type of “crip” (as she calls people with disabilities) they might require. She has landed wheelchair-bound, sight-impaired and hearing-impaired actors and models guest spots on shows such as “Law & Order,” “Spin City,” “Sesame Street” and “Guiding Light” as well as TV and print ads.

“Ironically,” Tellalian says, “there’s a nondisabled criteria that applies to
disabled talent.” She adds: “Someone like me would not be acceptable. I’m
not thin and my spine is curved. … They want someone who looks like they used
to walk, someone who’s not all scrunched up and drooly. They want the
disability in name but not all the stuff that comes with it.”

One person who doesn’t shy away from physical difference is legendary
photographer Joel-Peter Witkin, who is renowned for his stylized nude
portraits of amputees, hermaphrodites, pre-op transsexuals, dwarves and
other people with bodies that are deemed freakish by most. When a mutual
acquaintance introduced Witkin to Tellalian at the 1984 Biennial at the Whitney (where some of his work was on exhibit), he was artistically smitten.
Tellalian was wearing black lipstick and a winged silver leather and velvet hat covered in blue
bunny fur from Patricia Fields. “I looked like an Edwardian nightmare,” she says cheerfully.
Witkin says that he “saw her face and lips and I’d never seen anybody like
her. She was just unique.” He asked if he could photograph her, in the same
hat.

Until now, leers from drunken men and thoughtless remarks from people who liked her face but felt it was “too bad” she was in a wheelchair were the
closest thing she’d received to compliments on her physicality. Witkin’s
aesthetic interest in her constituted the first time that Tellalian had ever
felt herself so overtly regarded as a thing of beauty. And she was impressed
with how Witkin’s work “emphasized the strength of disabled people. They’re not coming off as pathetic creatures.” She also found some of his
photographs macabre and humorous, a sensibility that appealed to her. During a follow-up conversation, Witkin remembers, he discerned that Tellalian was “an incredibly intelligent person, very sensitive. She was very exotic, with a sense of wisdom and profundity that came through pain.”

“Woman in the Blue Hat, New York City” (1985) now hangs in Tellalian’s
living room. Clad in only undergarments and the crazy hat, Tellalian sits
before a weird pastoral backdrop with her hands clasped, her legs drawn up in a way that seems at once self-protective, prayerful and tender. Her
semi-fetal pose suggests vulnerability, but also great inner calm. You can
barely see her eyes; her lips are slightly parted.

For several days after she first received the portrait, “Every time I walked by I had to look at it. I called everybody up and said, ‘You’ve got to see this,’ so I had a big parade of people coming in and out for a week. Someone once called it kind of ‘Mona Lisa’-like.”

When I ask Witkin whether he’d ever considered shooting Tellalian in her
chair, he answers emphatically in the negative. “I hate wheelchairs. Why
didn’t Frank Lloyd Wright design a wheelchair? They’re disgustingly ugly.”
Besides, he says, “when (Tellalian) thinks of herself, she thinks of herself as
a woman — not in a wheelchair, I’m sure. If you take a woman out to dinner,
you don’t look at the wheelchair.”

Unfortunately, Tellalian counters, most men do, and don’t like what they
see. “They don’t see [the wheelchair] as a nice car to drive around in.
They see it as some sort of mechanical monster that impedes their own
manliness.” She supposes that’s why the graphic artist who came to her apartment
at night for over three years never consummated their relationship or took her out in public. The two would often stay up till the wee hours of the morning talking, and the man even “swore undying love” to Tellalian (who reciprocated in feeling), but he declined sex. “He was there all the time: ‘I worship you.’ That made it that much worse. You worship me but won’t sleep with me? That’s really nice. What was the big line he gave me? ‘I don’t sleep with anyone I respect.’ That’s a copout! Why not just say, ‘I don’t want to do it with you,’ and then I could say, ‘Leave’? Instead he
perpetuated [hope] in little ways — gifts and deep glances and heartfelt
talks.” Eventually Tellalian confronted the man, saying she suspected her
disability was the true reason he didn’t want to sleep with her or go out
with her in public. He denied it.

She is sure his denial was bogus: “I can tell when the disability is an
issue and they don’t say it is. Anybody disabled gets a sixth sense about
those things.” But she says that similar evasions from others have taken
their toll: “You start questioning whether you’re even thinking straight or
not — whether anyone’s saying anything truthful or not.”

Plus, she says, many disabled women are caught in a Catch-22, since many of
the few men who aren’t turned off by the chair are just after “a freak
fuck.” Has Tellalian herself encountered any potential partners who tried to
fetishize or exploit her disability? “No, I’d like to!” she jokes. “Where
are they?!”

After the demise of her quasi-romance with the graphic artist,
after she began to work for herself as a talent manager, Tellalian began doing
phone sex for a few agencies to earn some extra cash and channel her
creativity simultaneously. “Since my self-esteem was so low, I figured it
was one way I could regain my power — pretend I had sexual power over
someone else. And it helped me tremendously,” she says. The work left her
with a residual affinity for dirty pillow talk.

It wasn’t long before she decided which calls she simply couldn’t
stomach: pedophiles, bestiality freaks, testicular-torture aficionados and
men who “got off shitting in diapers.” She liked domination calls “because
it was the easiest thing in the world, yelling at people.” Tellalian’s other
callers constantly amused her, too, although they did little to raise her
view of the other gender. “Is this what men do in their spare time? It’s
tragic!”

One of Tellalian’s regulars was a “really nebbishy” man who apparently
sounded like a deranged cross between Lucy Ricardo and a braying goat. She pinches her nose to illustrate: “‘Put the tiiiit clamps oooonnnnn. Hang
your tiiiits over the side of the beeeeeed.’ Like he had a clothespin on his
nose. You could imagine him with greasy, pockmarked skin and thick
coke-bottle glasses. It was sick. It was a beautiful thing.” To this day,
Tellalian often calls friends at work and greets them with, “Put the tiiiit
clamps oooooonnnn!” or some other phone-sex salutation.

Even the more “normal” callers placed demands on Tellalian’s imagination.
She had to play the role of not only a pneumatic bimbo but an able-bodied
one. “They always wanted a Playboy girl: ‘I just got out of the shower and
don’t have a towel on,’” she breathes, then laughs. “They had no idea I was
a chubby, olive-skinned Armenian crippled girl” who was doing jigsaw puzzles or visiting with gay male friends (which she has no shortage of) as she
moaned and cooed.

After three years, she focused on her business. While opportunities for
disabled models and actors were never exactly plentiful, Tellalian recalls the
early to mid-’90s as a boom time, in relative terms, for Vesta. “It was a
minority freak show,” she recalls. “Every few years [Hollywood] picks up a
minority and propels them into the front ranks of the mainstream — like what
they’re doing with gay people now. ‘Let’s show lesbians kissing to boost the
ratings.’ They pick a minority and make them look as next-door-neighborish
as possible.”

Now that it’s other minorities’ turn in the limelight, work for disabled
talent is pretty scarce, says Tellalian, who now represents more able-bodied
clients than disabled ones. While able-bodied actors are often cast as disabled
characters, Tellalian says that she’s never seen an instance in which a
disabled actor has been considered for a role that wasn’t specifically
written for a disabled character — say, a generic mom/office-worker/teacher.
“That’s the Holy Grail,” she says.

Tellalian will pipe up when she feels she (or a client) is being
discriminated against or mistreated, but she is hardly a “crip-diva.” She
despises politically correct terms like “handicapable” and has never joined
the ranks of disabled activists. “If I’ve needed to fight a fight,” she says,
“it’s been for me. I don’t feel the need to solve everyone’s problem. It
would be great if I had that greater concern, but I don’t think I do.”
Neither does she share the public’s reverence for Christopher Reeve.

“He’s a good example of someone who’s become disabled and really feels the need to live for the purpose of being ‘normal’ again. He’s not doing a bad thing: Spinal cord research is definitely in order … [But] I know disabled activists who are not as famous who get a lot more stuff done. They’re not necessarily campaigning for a cure. It’s more, ‘Hey, let’s get Radio City cleaned up and make sure there are accessible bathrooms and seats.’ It’s more about making our lives more like everyone else’s rather than just, ‘Yeah, make me walk again.’”

Despite its cosmopolitan sophistication, New York City is still a tough
place for a disabled person to get around on her own, Tellalian says.
Sometimes ostensibly wheelchair-accessible public bathrooms in restaurants
are so small and useless that she must go to the local emergency room to use
its facilities. Many streets have curb cuts on one side but not on the other.
Potholes are so treacherous that she’s had several “dumping-outs” which have proven nearly lethal. She’s had three surgeries for a torn rotator cuff: a
souvenir from a speeding taxi that hit her as she was crossing the
street. Taxis, by the way, don’t always stop to pick up people in wheelchairs
– a point she made in a letter to the editor of the Daily News after reading
about actor Danny Glover’s complaint that cabs bypass African-American men.

Sometimes, she observes, immigrants — many of whom are driving New York City’s cabs — harbor cultural beliefs that disabled people have evil, supernatural powers. She once attended the Easter Day Parade, and a homeless man trailed her down Fifth Avenue, screaming, “SHE’S THE DEVIL!”

Tellalian’s daily obstacles on the streets spawned her dream for a gallery
installation that will remain unrealized unless she “wins the lottery,”
because she doesn’t have the funds to execute it: “I’d like to have someone
build a small labyrinth with no lights in it. The floor would be covered
with layers of bubble wrap. Each person would get in a wheelchair and roll
over the bubble wrap through the labyrinth, which would also have steps. You might not be able to turn around; you might get tricked by mirrors; you might not be able to get out. I’d like to see how people that walk could deal with four minutes in a wheelchair. The bubble wrap (would sound) like a machine gun — like, Hey, you’re going into war, baby.”

But if the urban streets are like a combat zone, in some ways Tellalian’s
disability has made her braver. “I don’t think I’m scared of anything. A
guy with a gun, a man with a knife — imminent death, I guess … If you can’t walk, what else is there to be afraid of?”

Contemplating how life can so drastically change in a matter of seconds, I blurt out that it would be almost unimaginably frightening to have to adjust to a life like Tellalian’s. I realize what an insensitive and painfully gratuitous remark this is as soon as it’s out of my mouth.

But Tellalian’s not offended. She just looks me in the eye and replies, “It would be very frightening for me to live the way you do all of a sudden.”
She laughs, probably because she knows she’s surprised me — then reiterates, “It would be just as scary for me to be in your shoes.”

Jennifer Kornreich is a freelance features reporter, a sex-and-relationships advice columnist for MSNBC Interactive News and a dating columnist for Cosmopolitan.

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