Viktoria Modesta is a British model, singer/songwriter and amputee who played the role of the ice queen in the closing ceremony of the London Paralympic Games. David Donaldson talked to her about disability, her career and the Paralympics.
Right Now: I read that you’re from Daugavpils, Latvia, and that medical negligence when you were young led to chronic problems with your leg, resulting in voluntary lower-leg amputation in 2007. Could you tell us some more about your background?
Viktoria Modesta: I was born in Latvia while it was still part of the USSR. I had an accident at birth through doctor’s negligence, resulting in my leg having damaged nerves and restricted growth. This set off a whole series of reconstructive surgeries from the ages of 6 to 12. In that period while treating some of the issues (for example, three lengthening operations) various other problems would arise – leading to more surgery, totalling 13 operations in 6 years. As this was all happening in a post-USSR country, there was no legal system in place and everybody involved and responsible for my situation walked free. They probably damaged the heath of many other children. That’s just the nature of many cases in Eastern Europe at that time.
After moving to the UK with my parents in 1999 in search of a better life, medical care and a more open-minded society, I spent 3 years mostly ignoring my health situation. At that point I had hardly attended school and had no chance of having a lasting social life, due to spending all of my time in and out of hospital. I was desperate to get on with finding myself and adjusting to the new possibilities.
At the age of 15 it all came to a head with the realisation that in order to live the life I wanted and to realise all my aspirations, I had to spend some time fixing my body. I decided that a life of reconstructive surgeries with many risks and no guarantees was not something I was prepared to go through, and it was time for me to take back control of my body, future and health. Five years later, after numerous appointments with doctors, I had finally convinced them with the support of my own research that [partial amputation] was the only option for me. It’s fair to say I have never regretted it or looked back since.
Right Now: How did you get into modelling and singing?
VM: I managed to catch a few years of drama school back in Latvia, which initially got me into singing and piano. During my early teens while experimenting with fashion I was a very confident person despite the uncertainty of my health, and started getting a lot of attention from photographers, video directors and promoters. I started modelling for alternative lifestyle brands and clubs from the age of 15, mostly because of my face and style. However I certainly held back a lot, as I didn’t want to disappoint people – most of them didn’t suspect I had an issue with my leg. Following a few years doing that, I returned to having an interest in casually pursuing music, which at that point was mostly singing lessons on the side. It wasn’t until I was 21 that I started working with music producers and writers and got into it on a more serious level.
Right Now: What has your experience been with the community’s perceptions about people with different bodies? Do you see yourself as disabled?
VM: Absolutely not, I never have. To me, being disabled means you are limited in your life and assume there is a barrier between you and achieving the things you want. I simply don’t see it that way. It’s about making the best out of yourself and concentrating on what you can do, enjoy and achieve. My personal experience has been that when you carry yourself in a positive way, people don’t react to you in any cliché kind of manner.
Right Now: Do you think community perceptions about people with disabilities have changed over the years?
VM: It’s very sad that a majority of the world is still stuck in an old fashioned, patronising way of thinking about disability. I think it’s the people with disabilities – or however you want to name it – that hold the power of change. By being positive with a strong spirit and not showing cliché signs of self pity, victimisation or demanding special treatment, I really believe there is a chance for disabled people to get the respect and acknowledgement they most desire.
What the Paralympic events have re-confirmed is that most physically disabled people are just as intelligent, creative and modern as any other person. Most of the time the differences are simply superficial, and can be adjusted with new science and technology. To me, that’s the first step in the right direction. I know that, judging by what I had to grow up with in Latvia, people used to associate physical disabilities with mental incompetence – which is simply nonsense in most cases.
Right Now: Does this present any challenges for you in your modelling and performing, or has it even helped you, perhaps?
VM: I guess my view of equality between people plays a bit role, and so does my belief that no matter what country or background you come from, everyone holds the power the change themselves into the person they want to be. When I work in the fashion or music industry, I simply compare and judge myself with my competition in the business. It’s a point which a lot of people misunderstand when approaching the subject of physically disabled people in the real working world. Being good at what you do should have no exceptions, whether you are missing arms and legs or not, it’s about your skills. So I would like to think that my success so far has been attributed to hard work and general determination in life – and not my limbs, real or not.
Right Now: How was it performing in the Paralympic closing ceremony?
VM: Performing at the ceremony was an absolute honour. Being involved in such a powerful and global event will most likely never compare with anything else I might do!
Right Now: What do you think about the public reception of the Paralympics this year – has it changed the way the public see people with disabilities?
VM: I think it broke so many taboos about what people are like, what they look like and what it means to have a physical disability in the twenty-first century. It was positive all around. I think it should be a kick up the backside to other industries to take the hint and allow more people to function in other industries on a public level. That’s the way of spreading the acceptance.
Only when normal jobs and events are filled with a mix of people, disabled and not, will it be fully integrated. But for a now even a specialised disabled event with public exposure is still a way forward. I hope that in the near future there will be more people acting as role models in fashion, TV, music and other creative, image-conscious industries, and not just sport.