Beautiful, smart, opinionated and … paralyzed? It’s certainly not your typical docuseries cast, but that’s what caught the attention of Sundance Channel as it looks to shatter stereotypes by documenting the lives of four dynamic women — Angela Rockwood, Auti Angel, Tiphany Adams and Mia Schaikewitz — in its new series Push Girls, which debuts Monday, June 4 at 10pmET/PT.
Unfiltered and very, very personal, the series follows four confident and inspiring Los Angeles women who are paralyzed from either the waist or neck down. The series is the brainchild of one of its stars — Angela Rockwood — a model and actress who became a quadriplegic in 2001.
“My life was practically perfect. I just got engaged to my best friend and my soul mate [21 Jump Street actor Dustin Nguyen]. I just signed with a modeling and acting agency. I just bought a new house. I was about to get married,” Rockwood says, when she completely shattered her C4-C5 vertebrae and severed her spinal cord in a car accident one week before 9/11.
Paralyzed from the neck down, Rockwood was not a quitter. She wanted to document what life is like in a wheelchair — not just the physical part of being in a chair, but also the mind, body and spirit. “Two years ago I was in my room cleaning a closet out, and I don’t know if you believe in The Secret or law of attraction or manifestation – but my girlfriend told me that you need to do something edgy. ‘You need to get out there and do a reality show or something.’ She came across this business card from this producer I had met a year prior, and I said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah put that aside.’ The next day, lo and behold, that producer – who I never had spoken to before – contacted me on Facebook.”
The producer asked Rockwood if she would be interested in a reality show. Originally the story was suppose to be about Rockwood and her then husband’s – Dustin Nguyen – love story, but, at that the time, their divorce was already in the process. “And I also knew that there was no way I would be able to carry a show doing a love story if he’s in Vietnam and I’m here.”
When producer Gay Rosenthal met Rockwood, she found her and the stories of three of her friends just as compelling.
One of those friends is Auti Angel, who was paralyzed in 1992. Angel had just finished dancing with LL Cool J at the Grammys in New York City when she came back to Los Angeles and, while on the 101 Freeway, was clipped by another car. “I lost control of my vehicle, slammed on my brakes, and I hit the center divider head-on. I snapped my back in half and severed my spinal cord and became paraplegic instantly, paralyzed from the waist down.”
That hasn’t stopped her from dancing, though. The series follows her career as a dancer, singer and actress, as well as her life with her husband. “My husband and I are recording an album together right now, in the midst of recording and producing that baby, my husband and I are actually trying to have a baby,” she says. “I’m a 42-year-old woman who is working towards having a child while being a paraplegic.”
Another friend, Tiphany Adams, was paralyzed in 2000. “I was 17-and-a-half, in my senior year in high school, when I was in a head-on vehicle collision caused by a drunk driver, hit at 130 miles per hour. We were all pronounced dead on the scene, and I was in a coma for three weeks, and when I woke up I was like, ‘I’m going to get through this, and I’m going to live my life to the fullest.’”
She certainly demonstrates that on camera as well, as Adams is probably the most provocative of the group, frequently talking about sex and relationships. “I think it’s definitely a self-discovery path that I’m on,” she says. “I’m young and I’m going out and just celebrating life. I definitely don’t like to be held down so I’m definitely into experimenting in my relationship arena. You’ll see me going on dates and what chemistry works best for me.”
Mia Schaikewitz was instantly paralyzed at the age of 15 when an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) ruptured in her spinal cord. “I was a swimmer on my high-school team and the day I went to get a physical done for the new season was the day I got paralyzed, so being an athlete at heart I’ve always had it instilled in me to keep doing things,” Schaikewitz said. “Since being in a wheelchair I’ve done other adaptive sports, but the one I never went back to was swimming, mainly because of the emotional impact it would have on me. [The series documents] me going back to swimming… and where I can take it.”
As for Rockwood, the series follows her separation from her husband, her return to the modeling world, and becoming financially and personally independent after 13 years in a relationship. “The other story is the fact that I was the third American to have stem cell surgery and it helped me tremendously from going from a power chair, from controlling everything with my mouth, to now a manual chair,” she says. “I’m very deceiving. I look like I’m a paraplegic, but if I lean forward and try to give you a hug, I’ll fall out of this chair.”
The series is equally as moving, fun, surprising and compelling as it is inspiring. It truly changes and shatters perceptions about what life is like in a wheelchair — a dream all of the women shared.