Heather Mills, eat your heart out, says Carol Speight, the double amputee who has just embarked on a “modelling” career.
A modelling job? Bubbly Carol Speight was stunned into unaccustomed silence.
All her life, she has been determined to be treated like everyone else.
And despite losing her legs in infancy, this determined and fiercely independent woman had pretty much achieved her aim.
The 46-year-old from Manor Park had never let her disability be her label. She had always done her damnedest to work and raise her kids.
And while she prided herself that when she was wearing one of her trouser suits no onlooker would guess she was disabled, she was stunned when a modelling agency decided they wanted her on their books.
For the first time in her life, though, her handicap was about to get her work. Her stint in front of the camera was entirely dependent on it.
Thirsk-based company Trauma FX, one of the UK’s leading trauma scene enactment companies, needed more real-life amputees to help them in their task of preparing Forces personnel and medics for the terrible injuries they might see in a war zone.
Daughter Jessie had mentioned her mum’s condition to her boss at DK Model Management in Chapeltown - who immediately realised Carol could be just the woman Trauma FX were looking for. Says Carol: “All my life, employers have tried not to see my handicap as a disadvantage. Bosses were always so wary that my mobility might affect my work. And then a job comes up specifically for someone who has missing limbs. Talk about positive discrimination!”
Carol was nervous about signing up, but then realised this was an opportunity to use her handicap to potentially help save people’s lives.
“I had to go to an Army training centre for 12 days. I cried when I got there; I felt all alone and was about to do a job that seemed so bizarre,” she says.
“But I needed to be taught to mimic reactions that people really go through when they are severely injured and shocked - reactions their comrades and rescue workers have to be able to deal with.
“On the first job, I was asked to lie helpless in a field for hours as a war scene went off all around me. They had removed my own prosthetic legs and fitted me with a silicon pair that were covered in fake blood and gore. It was really weird, looking down at them and I felt so vulnerable because I couldn’t move.
“There was the sound of gunfire and bomb blasts; hundreds of soldiers were swarming about. I played a civilian whose legs had been severed in a blast and I’d been told to scream in pain. It was like being on Casualty on the BBC.”
“I feel I am doing something really valuable. I was surrounded by young servicemen and women who might actually end up the victim in a situation like that for real.
“The re-enactments are meant to take away some of the shock factor and make them less afraid, so they can act quicker to help someone whose life could be at risk. Afterwards, soldiers came up to me to thank me and tell me how useful it had been to them. I couldn’t help but think that they might be in my situation one day just because they were doing their jobs,” she adds.
Carol used to have only one thing in common with the world’s most famous amputee Heather Mills.
Now Carol is a professional ‘model’ it’s two, thoughs he doesn’t envy the mega-rich ex of Paul McCartney for anything. Carol doesn’t want fame or fortune, designer clothes and shoes. She doesn’t even want perfect prosthetic legs like Heather’s.
“Just look at the state of mine,” she laughs, flashing a pair which have definitely seen better days.
She’s had them for years and regularly turns down offers of nicer ones, even a bit of a refurb of the old ones, every time she goes for a check-up.
“When I was young I’d have given anything for prosthetics as realistic as Heather’s,” she admits.
“But now I love my tatty plastic legs and wouldn’t swap them for the world. They are really comfortable, which matters more than the way they look - and they give me the life I lead.”
The youngest of five, she was born with severely deformed lower limbs.
It came as a total shock to her parents, but after being told the problem was not genetic, they chose to throw their time and energy not into searching for someone to blame for their daughter’s birth defect, but into giving Carol confidence and an independent spirit.
They took advice from a specialist flown in from America and, as soon as Carol was old enough to cope with major surgery, her tiny, useless feet were amputated so that, at two years old, she could be given false limbs and learn to walk.
“Before I got my legs I’d climbed about like a little monkey,” grins Carol, recalling how she was never treated any differently to her brothers and sisters and grew up “not realising I was different”.
She says: “My parents were fantastic; they never wrapped me up in cotton wool. If I fell down I got myself up. My legs would fall off while I was out playing football or riding my bike but I’d just pick them up and put them back on.”
It was only when the little girl from the Wybourn estate got to junior school that the name-calling started.
“I was Plastic Legs; Steel Legs. My older brothers in the next playground would come and stick up for me, but I very quickly learned how to do it for myself.
“I got into a few fights,” she says, eyes sparkling.
“But I think all of that made me the person that I am. It toughened me up. I have never felt sorry for myself.”
It was only in her teens that Carol ever felt bitter about her condition. “I realised I didn’t want to be a tomboy any more. I wanted to be like all the other girls and wear pretty dresses and date lads. I absolutely hated my false legs.
“I remember meeting boys in pubs and them not realising there was anything different about me.
“I used to worry what they would think when I had to tell them. I met Desmond, my husband-to-be when I was 23 and a single mum of one.
“I didn’t tell him about my legs for two weeks,” she admits.
But Desmond, like other boyfriends before him, wasn’t daunted by Carol’s condition; her cheerful, determined and ever-positive personality shone throught. The only time she has ever felt afraid was when she was pregnant with son Jake, who is now 25, and Jessie, now 20.
“Even though I’d been told there was no genetic problem to pass on, I didn’t really believe it until they both arrived healthy and perfect,” she reveals.
She reckons her disability has taught her kids greater compassion for others. “But they don’t run around after me,” she says. “I run around after them.”
Trauma FX need more people like Carol. If you are disabled and interested in modelling work, call DK Model Management on 0114 2573480.