I’d expected a more luxurious address. Maybe one of those highly-polished skyscrapers on the Upper East Side with a revolving door, entry desk and white-gloved doorman. But at the house on Second Avenue there’s just a dirty entry-phone, and when I ring number seven a man’s voice answers.
“I’m here to pick up Aimee Mullins,” I say doubtfully.
“We’re coming,” replies the voice that I assume to be an assistant’s.
Then it goes quiet.
After a 20 minute wait, when the taxi driver begins to complain that he can’t stay parked in the middle of Manhattan’s rush hour traffic for ever, I have to explain that the person we’re waiting for doesn’t have any legs.
Or rather, she does have legs. In fact they come down before she does.
The first thing revealed in the cramped and rundown corridor is the man with the voice, a young man in a cap with a large, wheeled, travel-bag in his hand.
“These are her legs; they’re really valuable. I’ll be down before long with Aimee,” he says, and carefully lays the bag in the trunk.
Is she coming out on crutches? Should I get out of the cab and help her somehow? Or is it better if I’m already in the taxi when she comes down – would she take offence at being babied?
For several seconds I’m filled with exactly the uncertainty that, a little later at her usual restaurant in Soho, Aimee Mullins tells me she encounters her entire life.
But then I remember that the person I’m waiting for broke the world record for sprinting on a pair of prostheses modelled on the back legs of a cheetah.
She can look after herself.
When Aimee Mullins turns up, she looks like any-other superstar. Little body in expensive clothes, little head with big sunglasses.
The difference is that she’s impossible to categorise: olympic athlete, supermodel, artist, actress… By infiltrating all imaginable worlds, Aimee has changed our understanding of what is beautiful, what is normal and what is physically possible.
“Impossibilities bore me,” she says suddenly over minestrone soup at the restaurant. “My entire life, people have tried to tell me what I’m never going to be able to do. But I realised early on they were wrong. I learned to shut my ears when people made grand pronouncements like ‘It’s going to take three months to walk with with these prostheses,’ and I did it in 20 minutes.”
With “people” she means the countless doctors she encountered as a child.
Aimee Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia, a condition where the lower leg doesn’t grow out completely. Parents Brendan and Bernadette were faced with a tough decision: to let the tissue that was there remain, and therefore doom her to life in a wheelchair, or to amputate. They chose the latter and, when she was one year old, both her legs from the knee down were amputated.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, Aimee never met another amputee. She refused to use crutches or a wheelchair, and competed with the other pupils in skiing as well as softball on her plaster prostheses. She says she quickly learned that she wasn’t one of the herd.
“I’ve got really good memories until maybe fifth grade,” she says. “Then everyone began dividing into cliques. It was about being popular, and you were judged by how much money you had. We were working class – I hate that expression, but you know what I mean. It was a tough year.”
What she couldn’t win in the schoolyard, she took back in the classroom. With her top grades, Aimee won a scholarship to respected Georgetown University in Washington. She majored in diplomacy and history, and at 17 became the youngest in the country to be admitted to the USA’s defence headquarters, the Pentagon. There she worked as an intelligence analyst over the summer vacation.
But just as she was on her way to becoming a cog in the American military complex, the first turnaround came in Aimee Mullins’s life.
“I was bored,” she says when I ask how it happened that, aged 19, she decided to try sprinting for the first time.
“When I was growing up I competed in sports the whole time, and now I hadn’t had structured training for three years. I heard that they arranged track competitions for the disabled and was sceptical, but decided to give it a try”
The history of organised disabled sports begins after the Second World War, when sport was used in the rehabilitation of invalided soldiers. Rehabilitation training gradually developed into competitive sport, and in 1948 the first event for the disabled was held, the International Wheelchair Games, in the UK. The event coincided with the Olympic Games, but 1960 was the year that the first official Paralympic Games was held, which was now open for non war-veterans. Since then the Paralympics, where events are divided into different categories depending on disability, have grown to become one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
Aimee Mullins had always competed against non-disabled people and felt a resistance to organised disabled sport – she didn’t want to let her disability limit her as an athlete. But her curiosity won out and, in 1995, she booked a flight to a track and field competition for disabled athletes in Boston.
She had competed in many sports but never tried running. Some weeks before the competition she tried out on a dirt-road, to see how far she could run on the thick plywood-prostheses she’d grown up with.
“It wasn’t the most comfortable thing to do, but luckily I didn’t know anything else. When I came to the arena, all the others, who had modern shock-absorbing versions in carbon fibre, looked at my legs and I could see they were thinking ‘Okay, you’re not going to win this race.’”
Aimee Mullins didn’t just win the race. In her first attempt she broke the national 100 meter record by three hundredths of a second. Leaving, she’d already decided to become the world’s fastest women on prostheses.
Through all the golden opportunities that Aimee Mullins seems, at first glance, to have stumbled into run two themes.
One is the power not to be satisfied with established truths, to be able to imagine what was earlier considered impossible.
“If you look at my grades from when I was young, I had mostly As, but there was a column for attitude and focus, and there my grades were below average. ‘Aimee’s never really here with us, she’s always somewhere else,’ wrote the teachers. The power of imagination came to mean a lot to me as a way of transporting myself. I’ve always had wild and unrealistic dreams, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I realised that they were considered unrealistic.
“Einstein said that his greatest strength and his most important tool was his imagination. We often try to teach children to have goals and then be realistic. No, I say. Set up goals and imagine wildly. Be unrealistic! Nothing that’s on my resume is there because I was realistic.”
The other theme is her power to bind to herself people who have the same focus as she does: people who are just as interested in testing conventional truths.
One of these people is former sportsman Van Phillips, who’d lost a foot in a water-skiing accident, and decided to seek the aid of flight-material engineers in developing the next generation of protheses. Phillips witnessed Aimee Mullins’s first sprint-race and gave her his card. Aimee, who as a child had already tried trimming her primitive protheses in her father’s workshop, called immediately.
“Having both legs amputated is unusual, and I’d always been a headache for the prosthetic technicians. Those with one leg left can have a prothesis modelled after it. Everything: length, weight, foot-gradient. With me there was nothing to follow. But what was a headache for a prosthetics maker became a challenge for an engineer.”
Aimee became the guinea pig for a completely new type of running prosthesis: bending blades that don’t look at all human.
“I thought: If I’m going to be the fastest woman on prostheses in the world, why are we looking at human legs with calves and feet? Why aren’t we looking at what runs fastest – the cheetah?”
The flexible sprinter-legs that Van Phillips developed for Aimee Mullins are today used by 90 percent of Paralympic athletes. But in 1995 no-one had seen anything like them.
With her sights set on the Paralympic Games in Atlanta the following year, Aimee made contact with another master in her field – the legendary running coach Frank “Gags” Gagliano.
Gagliano, who’s known as “the godfather of track and field,” was behind Olympic stars like John Trautmann and Rich Kenah. The first time Aimee came into his office, she saw the pictures of all the famous athletes he’d trained. None of them had been disabled.
“She rang me up and presented herself. And said she wanted to do sprint training,” relates Gagliano. “When we’d arranged a meet at the track she told me ‘I just want to say that I have prostheses.’ I said it didn’t make any difference, she should just come there so I could take a look. Then I hung up. I didn’t know what prostheses were. So she turns up the next day with a pair of worn-out gym shoes and those heavy old-type of protheses.”
Frank Gagliano agreed to train Aimee at lunchtime, between the professional training-sessions. And when autumn turned to winter, she got to join his track team.
“She had talent but most of all she had heart,” says Gagliano. “The young woman wanted to be a champion, she knew that already from the beginning, and she was willing to work hard for it.”
Aimee herself describes it as if she’d taken the Olympic victory for granted.
After just one year’s track-training together with non-disabled athletes, during an attempt in May 1996 she had already broken two world records – 100 meters in 15.77 seconds and 3.5 meters in the long jump.
But what should have been the race of Aimee’s life became her life’s great failure instead.
We walk out into a summer-warmed Soho. On Bleeker Street, Aimee flags down a yellow taxi. In the cab – on the way to the photography studio – she manages to show me a new mobile app that finds empty taxis, give me a tip about an underground blues club in Paris and, after catching sight of my Irish ring, tell me that she’s the first of the Mullins family not born on Irish soil.
“My mother is an… odd bird. Against her parents’ wishes, she chose to become a nun in a Franciscan convent. It’s pretty hardcore – you swear an oath of poverty and are completely isolated. But when she was about to swear her last vows, she had second thoughts and moved to the Bronx.”
When we arrive in the large, light, photography studio, it’s obvious it’s not the first time she’s been photographed. She greets the team as if they’re already friends, and at once begins unpacking the two pairs of legs from her bag, together with her own clothing suggestions.
She entered the fashion world 14 years ago when she held the first of three talks (till now) at the international inspiration-conference TED.
“In my lecture I spoke about how normal it was for both men and women to come up to me and say they thought I was beautiful, and that I didn’t actually look disabled. ‘You don’t seem like one of them, Aimee. You seem like one of us.’ I’m glad they were this honest, it’s better than them running round assuming things. And it got me thinking about our bizarre fixation with beauty. Why do we have such a narrow view of what’s beautiful, when the best fashion is actually a fantasy, an escape from reality?”
In the back row sat the then editor-in-chief of I.D. Magazine, Chee Pearlman. It became apparent that she had had the same thoughts as Aimee Mullins herself.
“As editor-in-chief of a design magazine, I want to broaden and deepen the idea of what design can be,” says Chee Pearlman. “My vision for I.D. Magazine was to discuss what a big role design plays in our lives, how it touches us so deeply in every way. When I met Aimee, it was exceptional, because she understood all of this intuitively, she understood precisely the interplay between design and her own body. She had taken unbelievable risks and she was, in a way, her own research-lab.”
Three months after the TED Talk, Chee Pearlman put Aimee on I.D. Magazine’s cover.
“She already had several pairs of legs then and was already quite experimental with them. So we did an article about how she literally designs her own person, as a self-definition project.”
Soon the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen and photographer Nick Knight got in touch with a request from magazine Dazed & Confused.
“I was suddenly sat on a plane to London, feeling that I was really in over my head,” says Aimee.
Several months later Aimee Mullins did her first fashion show for Alexander McQueen, in a pair of boot-shaped wooden-legs made of mountain ash, with hand-carved grapevines and magnolias. The audience didn’t know she was an amputee until after the fashion show, which was followed by big headlines in the press. McQueen was criticised for exploiting her and making the catwalk into a freakshow. Aimee was hounded by British journalists and had to hide in her hotel room.
Once the first shock had blown over, and especially after Alexander McQueen’s death in 2010, his daring choice of model has been celebrated for permanently changing the fashion world.
What was your experience of the fashion industry?
I was blessed, because I landed in that little family with Nick Knight and McQueen who really took care of me. I definitely felt like an outsider; the first day the hair and make up people ran away because they didn’t know how they were meant to behave. Just like in sport, the first reaction was that I was a passing trend. But this was why I had already chosen to be very careful with which media I appeared in; I said no to all the cheap TV shows, and waited till I got ten pages in Sports Illustrated. It was a privilege, if you’re going to go headlong into the fashion world, to get to do it with the best in the industry. To take photos with Nick Knight… he’s a real gentleman. The whole of my life I’ve aimed to work with the absolute best. Because I don’t need praise; I want to learn something.
Atlanta, August 1996. At the Centennial Olympic Stadium over 10,000 athletes from 197 countries have gathered for the Paralympics.
Among the spectators sit Aimee Mullins’s parents, who’ve bought a minibus and driven all the way from Pennsylvania. The new cheetah legs have become a tourist attraction in themselves, and in her home town of Allentown, Aimee’s already become front-page news in the paper she gave out at school.
Aimee Mullins is used to winning. At school she won five gold-medals for slalom against non-disabled competitors. In everything she’s done, she’s come first; and, with the records she’s broken in trials, she’s sure she’ll go home with the gold-medal.
Preparing herself for her first international race – 100 meters, to which she already holds the national record of 15.77 seconds – she asks who she’ll be competing against.
“I wanted to know what times the other runners had. ‘We’ll get back to you with that information. Take it easy,’ is all they said.”
20 minutes before the starting pistol, Aimee first gets to see the other sprinters’ trial times. Track two: 12.8 seconds. Track three: 12.3. Track four: 12.2. All are more than two seconds faster than the national record on prostheses that Aimee set during trials.
“I couldn’t understand it. But when they were pushing us onto the bus to the arena, I saw that the other countries’ sprinters were just missing a hand!”
Obviously it was permitted to compete in sprinting at the Paralympics with two fully functioning legs.
“Ladies, you have one minute,” calls a voice over the loudspeakers once the sprinters have got to the track. When Aimee puts on her prostheses and gets onto the starting blocks, she hears mummers and photo-flashes from the spectators sitting nearest.
The starting-pistol fires and, with tears in her eyes, Aimee comes in last of all.
“It was my first real failure, and so it had to be epic and enormous and public. You know, life always outdoes the stories. It was crushing. But it made me see that it wasn’t about being a champion in the way I’d thought. It knocked a hole in the delusion that life is a ladder with steps or a list to check off; it’s a roller coaster.”
Did you get that insight immediately ?
“I realised it six months later, after being deeply depressed. I’ve gone through that a few times.”
The attention that Aimee got with her revolutionary legs after the Paralympics in Atlanta, she used to contact more developers outside the world of prosthetics.
“Quite simply, I traded my legs for PR. I looked up who made the robot constructions for science fiction films like Terminator. And when I went to Madame Tussauds waxworks in London, it struck me that there’s not a single artist in the prosthetics lab. That’s just criminal! I was tired of everyone coming up with a whole list of reasons for why things weren’t going to work. I didn’t want to hear it. I wanted to find someone who didn’t have a clue if it would work, but was willing to try.”
The heat in the studio is oppressive, and the thin, white, curtains that flutter over the big windows don’t let much oxygen in. Aimee Mullins sits in front of a big mirror. The make-up artist trims her false-eyelashes, and the hair-stylist puts in hair-extensions. In one of her lectures, Aimee pointed out that fashion models often have more prostheses than she does, but no one calls them disabled.
Against one of the clothes rails stand two of her twelve different pairs of legs.
“Can I get a shot of your legs?”
“Of course! Feel them,” she exclaims, excitedly. “I found a company in England that make these beautiful silicon legs.
I lift up one of the legs. It’s heavy and has a rough, slightly rubbery surface. Close up, it’s almost frighteningly like a flesh and blood leg with all its imperfections. The artificial skin has brown birthmarks and hair follicles, the sole of the foot is slightly blushed and the skin tone is exactly matched to Aimee’s own.
“Push the foot down so you see it! Do you see, they crease just like real toes? Apparently we’ve got varicose veins in the family, I’ll escape that. And I can choose how tall I want to be,” she says, a little like a child talking about her new toys.
The cheetah legs, which were pioneering 16 years ago, were just the beginning of Aimee Mullins’s long work developing new prostheses.
“When I was growing up, there was just one option. You simply got a wooden leg, and you could choose between black or white skin tone. The leg covered by health insurance is the one that takes you from the bed to the bathroom. And my family had no money. But I refused to believe that the leg I got was the best there was.”
The legs I get to inspect, she calls her “sweet legs,” and are made to be as much like human legs as possible. But after the Olympics, Aimee had already begun to think on a completely new tack.
“I want to get people to understand that a prosthesis doesn’t necessarily need to look human. It can be a leg that you yourself consider beautiful,” she says.
Together with the famous artist Matthew Barney, Aimee Mullins allowed her imagination to run freer than ever, and prostheses became sculptures. They made glass legs inspired by Cinderella, legs crafted in earth with flowers growing in them, a pair in transparent soft-plastic that looked like jellyfish. In an installation that honoured her athletic carrier, Aimee was transformed – after 14 hours of prosthetic surgery – to half-woman and half-cheetah with paws, claws and a tail she could wave. The artwork was exhibited at the venerable Guggenheim in New York.
“Suddenly I found myself at this crossroads between design and aesthetics, and the athletics world… in other words, things that people have tried to keep separate for a long time. But a prosthesis no longer has to represent the need to restore a loss; it can be a symbol that the bearer has the power to create what she or he wants to create in this gap. People who were earlier seen as disabled can become architects of their own identity.”
In the middle of make up, the man in the cap turns up again. In his hand is an Ikea bag with Aimee’s new loves – hypermodern bionic legs in carbon fibre, with motors and microchips which can read her biological condition and physique.
“I tried them in the lab on Long Island yesterday. For the first time in my life I can stand completely still,” she says.
Bionic prostheses have transformed the condition of amputees entirely. Now many with malformations choose to amputate more than necessary in order to get increased movement. But it’s not cheap. A bionic prosthesis costs around 500,000 Swedish krona.
The man gives Aimee a kiss on the mouth, and I realise that he’s not an unusually cute assistant, but Eric Treiber, her boyfriend of many years. They met at high school, where Eric was captain of the football team. In the beginning, he didn’t know that Aimee was an amputee. It took several dates before she told him.
“248 months,” she answers quickly when I ask how long they’ve been together.
Several minutes after Eric leaves, Aimee shows me an MMS. He’s photographed the sign outside the photo-studio that says “Aimee Mullins. Icon.” and added “Damn right. xxx.”
But she doesn’t want to be an icon herself, and although she speaks admiringly about the legendary female sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner’s spectacular style (“Flo-Jo rocked some serious bling”), she has never had idols.
“People try to make me into a model, and they mean well, but I don’t believe in models. I have to retain the right to make mistakes and be a person that does crazy or stupid things. That’s what’s beautiful. What’s been carved away from the stone says as much about the sculpture as the finished result. To be honest, what you don’t see on my CV is what made me who I am.”
What’s been left off your CV?
“The number of things I’ve turned down because it was necessary to keep the long view. Every day turns up new examples of people’s willpower and extraordinary life stories – someone is blind and climbs Mount Everest, then someone who’s blind and paralysed comes along and climbs Mount Everest. Of course you want to hear about them, but I don’t want to become a professional amputee.
“My dream has always been to be an actress, but I have to turn down so many roles each year because I know they just want me as a prop. It’s difficult and terrifying to turn down big directors and co-stars. But it’s been rewarded. And this is a real tension in my life, between the impatient girl and she who knows that what she wants lies more in the long-term. I want to retain the right to continue exploring and meeting exceptional people around the world. And these things decrease when you take the fast and simple way.”
Something Aimee Mullins hasn’t turned down is collaborating with massive beauty company L’Oréal. As international ambassador for the trademark, she appears in advertising campaigns and at events that L’Oréal sponsor. When we meet she has just been at the film festival in Cannes representing the brand.
The choice to collaborate with L’Oréal shows itself to be, just like many other choices in Aimee Mullins’s life, to be equal parts curiosity and goal-orientation.
“To begin with I got an offer from a smaller and a little more exclusive beauty brand, whose campaign and aesthetic were really to my taste,” she tells me. “But I decided that I’d already done things like this. The cover of Dazed & Confused in 1998 was pretty groundbreaking for many. What’s interesting, at this stage in my life, is doing something more mainstream and commercial, something that’s going to be seen in the drugstore in Kansas and Bogotá and Udaipur and is accepted by lots of people. Then something interesting can actually happen, and it has so far. People are fascinated. Many, who maybe can’t identify with supermodels, seem to feel that someone who represents them has got in; ‘We’ve got someone on the inside!’”
She talks about a telephone conference with L’Oréal.
“One of the PR people on the other end said, ‘As the beauty icon you are…’ and I thought, ‘Who are you talking about?’ It very often feels like I’ve crashed a party and could be discovered and thrown out at any moment.”
Do you think that the idea of what’s beautiful and normal is changing?
“God, I really hope so, because normality is just bullshit. A single word that should be applicable to a billion people… that we buy this concept is actually a handicap that we cause ourselves.”
Have you never wanted to be normal?
Yeah, as a teenager, understandably. Then you think that it would make life so much easier if you could be like all the others and fit in. But the aim in life is getting over these conceptions as quickly as possible and understanding that to strive after normality is pointless; it doesn’t lead to anything interesting. You’ll never end up like all the others. You maybe think that you fit in, but really you’re just wasting away. I don’t want to talk down Pennsylvania, where I grew up, but in certain places it feels like people set the bar too low because it’s safest like that. ‘Don’t disturb the peace, don’t threaten the rest of us by trying to reach your own heights.’”
On her latest TED Talk, Aimee said how, perhaps now, she didn’t wish that she’d been born with complete legs.
“If you’d asked me when I was 15 if I wanted to exchange my protheses for legs of flesh and blood, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. But if you were to ask me today, I’m not so sure. And this isn’t despite the experiences I’ve had with my legs, but thanks to them.”
“There’s something wrong with the attachment,” Aimee says. The whole of her face twists with pain as she puts on the brand-new bionic legs that she was so excited about before the last photo.
Earlier at lunch, we talked about how she’s become a little kinder to herself in the last few years.
“I’m actually a much smarter athlete today then I’ve ever been. Before, a lot of my life was about ignoring pain, it was a test of willpower for me. I was quite… aggressive. Now I’ve got over the need to feel that I’m tough enough.”
She told me about sunday evenings at painter Francesco Clemente’s home where she eats pasta, drinks too much wine, and plays table tennis with Lou Reed, Salman Rushdie and “lots of other extraordinary people.”
“The first time I was there, it woke up the athlete in me. I thought everyone was so good at table-tennis that I was all set on taking lessons to be better. But Francesco said, with his Italian accent, ‘Aimee, please be careless. Just play for fun.’ And it was a real lesson, because it’s so irritating with people who always perform.”
At the same time, she admits that she still can’t let go and not test herself. And now, at the photo shoot, the stubborn winner in her has won again: she insists on having the last photo taken with the painful prostheses.
In the taxi on the way home, Aimee tries to describe for me the last few weeks, and I lose track somewhere between social events, ambassadorial trips, art projects and board meetings with the charities she works with. What she seems most excited about is a try-out for a role in a new TV series by David Fincher, the director behind, amongst other things, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
“I’m down to the final selection,” she says and we high-five in the back seat.
In August, she’s carrying the flag for the American team at the Paralympics, but she stopped competing in athletics a long time ago.
“I was ready. But of course, now when I’ve tried out these new legs … If something really innovative comes up that changes running completely again, then maybe.”
When I ask her if she has more dreams to fulfil, she seems most interested in renewing her helicopter licence.
“People often want to know what my five-year plan is. That’s very American. But I don’t agree with it. Why would you want put yourself in a cage like that?”
She talks about her family, about how her father, who’s a construction worker was anxious that his children would go to university.
“My brothers work in finance, so they have the real jobs,” she laughs, while simultaneously trying to ring Eric, over and over again.
“I’m too tired to make dinner tonight. Can’t we go to that Japanese restaurant instead?” she says, when he finally answers.
When we pull in to her front door, he’s standing there waiting. Ready to take up Aimee and her four pairs of legs. Before she gets out of the car, I ask what she’d say her job is.
“Bonne vivante, ha ha! Our work doesn’t define us anymore, anyway. The modern human is an explorer. But it’s hard, especially here in the US where “What do you do?” is the second question after “What’s your name?” It’s so offensive, and it really wears me out. So when people ask I come up with something: newspaperwoman or professional roller-skater, sometimes a glassblower. People always want to categorise you, but, you know, it’s been the exact opposite my entire life.”