Alison Lapper is a woman without arms and with only the shortest of legs but I was confident I would not stare at her when we met. After all, I had prepared for this by looking at photographs and sculptures of her nude body - Lapper is an artist who often uses herself as a subject - and so I figured I had pretty much seen it all. I was wrong.
"So how did you feel?" she asks, interviewing me, once we are both sitting on the floor with cups of tea. I tell her that, for some reason, I didn't expect her to be short, even though someone with tiny legs could hardly be otherwise. She laughs. "I know. People stare at me but they don't know what they are staring at. People actually come up to me and try to shake my hand!" She drinks her tea by tipping the mug up with her teeth. I worry for a minute and then stop: Alison Lapper, age 32, has no trouble at all drinking tea.
We are sitting in her bungalow in Shoreham-by-Sea in Sussex, surrounded by bodies of all shapes and sizes. "Oh, yes, there are bodies all over the house." We start to count. In the lounge alone there are lots and lots on shelves - naked, cloaked, classical, modern - and an exceptionally beautiful one in the fish tank. Outside there are eight. "Do you think it's weird?" she asks. "People probably think I collect bodies because they think mine isn't very nice - that I surround myself with them to make myself feel better. It's not like that at all. I am just fascinated by the human form, be it like me or anyone else."
There are only a few men. "They are hard to find!" she exclaims and says the disabled are, too. "The reason I don't have figures with bits missing is because they don't do them. They are very difficult to find." But isn't there a Venus de Milo in the front garden? "Oh, yes, of course there is a Venus! I've got myself in the garden!"
Alison Lapper is on first-name terms with Venus and refers to it as a person. "She was really my starting point," she says. We are looking through her portfolio and have stopped at one particular photograph in which she is naked from the waist up, her lower body draped, her hair caught up in a band round her head. "This picture was just a happy accident. I just had this drape and we were messing around. It took someone else to point out to me that I looked like the Venus de Milo. When you are living with a body that you are told is unattractive, disabled, ugly, you just do not think of yourself like that. Actually, let's be honest, no woman in our society does unless you are Naomi Campbell!"
We look at Lapper as Venus a little longer. It is easy, and acceptable, to stare at her in this way: objectified and beautiful, too. "This is one of the reasons we're doing it, to show people that being disabled isn't being ugly. Who says we are ugly? Deformed? Look at Venus. Who calls the Venus de Milo disabled? Nobody! But me, I'm seen as this disabled lady over there." She mimicks the voice of a stranger pointing at her. "OK, I know that I don't appear stark naked in the shops in the Venus de Milo pose. But I just think people should see beyond their own blindness."
Lapper is passionate on this subject and is willing to speak of things most people would stay silent on. It cannot be easy: the woman sitting on the floor with big blue eyes, short blonde hair and a nose stud may seem so very normal (a word she hates) but she has had a bizarre life. At times, I feel like a voyeur when asking my questions and she cannot help but feel a bit of a specimen. But, as it becomes clear, she is rather used to that.
Lapper was born in Burton on Trent in 1965 to a mother who was told her baby was ugly and probably wouldn't live. If she did survive, she'd be nothing more than a cabbage in a wheelchair. At six weeks, Lapper was sent to Chailey Heritage, an institution in Sussex, where she stayed for 17 years.
It was the age of Thalidomide and Lapper had plenty of company (though she doesn't know why she was born as she was). The 200 children at Chailey were called "strange little creatures" and, from the moment of arrival, they were filmed and photographed wearing a variety of experimental artificial limbs. As an adult, Lapper retrieved these photographs and has organised them into a book. Each is labelled by her exact age. At seven months, she was already fitted with a rudimentary set of arms with little wisks instead of hands. By the age of two, the arms had hooks and were gas-powered. "See, there's the cylinder on my back," she says. "I hissed whenever I moved."
"When I first saw these I was really shocked," she says and the images do seem like something out of a Diane Arbus photo shoot. The gas cylinders got bigger as Alison grew and her real legs and feet dangle above the knee joints in her metal legs. She looks directly at you but it is only when she does something like stick out her tongue - as she did at age six - that you see a real child.
"They wanted us to look normal and yet they made us look like Daleks," she says. "We were strange little creatures and all of this was to make society feel better." Some children had their feet removed to fit the apparatus better. At the age of four, Lapper had an operation to make one of her shoulders fit the arm better. She shows me the scar.
"We were photographed wherever we were. I was 10 years old and being photographed in my knickers in the middle of the dining room. People were coming and going around me," she says. At age 13, she looks out of the page above her fake arms and legs, vulnerable to her core. In one photo she is wearing a long tartan skirt that clashes wildly with the stripey top. Then the skirt is taken away, revealing knickers and the real legs inside the fake legs that seem to go on forever until they hit the ground wearing a pair of trainers. Lapper glances at the book: "God, how I loved those legs. I lived in them. I wouldn't take them off. I really thought I had to be five-feet-one."
To Lapper, Chailey was the world. She saw her family three times a year but all real life went on in this parallel universe. Here were friends, school, fun, water fights. She did not even realise that she was different from the rest of the world until she was a teenager. By then, though, she was having to cope with her own medical catastrophe. Her right foot - the one she used to draw and paint and write with - could no longer support her weight and the doctors wanted to turn it around. She would regain mobility but lose dexterity. She had the operation but had to relearn how to do many things. The whole process set her back two years.
And then, at 17, she had to leave Chailey. "I was head girl. I knew all the staff. I really did not want to go." She went to an assessment centre. "I think they thought I would go there and then into sheltered workshops." Lapper had other ideas: she started to learn to drive and decided to get her O-level in art at a local art college. It was the first time she had ever done anything with able-bodied people. "It was bloody frightening. Horrible. I hated it. Nobody spoke to me and I came back and cried because it was so awful. I thought there was something wrong with me. Why can't I interact with these people? Why are they staring at me? Why are they so scared of me?"
She didn't want to go back to class. "But I knew I had to. What else was I going to do? Then I came to my senses and thought I am not going to let this beat me. I went back, made some good friends, got a taste of freedom. I used to get into terrible trouble because we'd be out until two in the morning, clubbing or whatever. I thought, I like this!" The assessment centre wanted her to go to a further education college for disabled people. "I thought, I am not going there. Nor am I going into industry and spending my life painting tiles. I am going to live in London."
And she did. There she got her A-level in art, was married at 22 and divorced a year later, and adjusted to a world in which she was stared at wherever she went. She gave up her artificial legs at age 23 (the arms had long been discarded) and at about this time she also decided to go to university. "Things really started to change for me when I started pre-foundation. It opened a whole new world of art that I never knew about. It was brilliant, wonderful, an exciting time. It was like an awakening."
The turning point would not come for a few years yet. Then, one day, one of her tutors at Brighton University asked her a question that would change her life. "I'd been there a year and a half and I was still experimenting with the figure. One of my tutors challenged me and asked: do you paint beautiful bodies to make up for the way you feel about yourself? At first, I was very pissed off. It was like, how dare you? Then I thought, well, you've got a point. I had never been on a journey of discovery, if you like. I'd been so busy trying to fit into what society wanted me to be that I hadn't had time to really look at myself, let alone think about it. It was a weird question but thank God she asked it."
She decided to make some casts of her upper body and asked a few friends to help. "It was quite embarrassing. There was me, stark naked, in the bloody cold room in the university getting my friends to slap me in oil - very kinky - and then plaster and modroc." She hung the casts up on a wall and was thrilled. "I just couldn't believe how non-disabled the casts looked."
She decided to take photographs of her body. At first, she kept these hidden. "I would sneak them out and think, that's not so bad, and then I thought, what the hell, let's show everybody. The response was incredibly positive. People kept saying, look how sculptural this body is. Look how beautiful it is."
She wanted to contrast these photographs with something and this is when she went back for her medical photos. "I wasn't in control of those but I was beginning to have some control over the new ones." Did she think that her art was brave? "No, it was just too exciting. I had never seen myself in this light. Suddenly my body wasn't this blob. I was actually quite attractive. I was a sexual being!"
This gave her a new confidence. If someone started to chat her up, she no longer got suspicious or worried why anyone would be interested in her. "I just started to go with the flow and to believe that people could find me attractive. That was a hard thing to believe. I had taken on board all those things people say about disability: ugly, deformed. You hear it all the time." She mimicks other voices: "Look at that funny lady. She'll never get a boyfriend because her body isn't right but she's got a nice face!" I interrupt her: who says that? "Joe Public. They deny it profusely. They say they've come a long way and people don't say things like that. Excuse me? Hello! I deal with them every day of my life. People do treat us like that."
Alison pays the mortgage - she shares the bungalow with her boyfriend, Dan, an engineering student - by painting rather beautiful landscapes for the Mouth and Foot Painting Artists' Christmas cards. She uses a be- ringed foot to help arrange slides of her work on a lightbox. She also does striking figurative work and, of course, there is all her photographic work. I knew that she had just finished some new body sculptures - they are featured in a BBC2 programme called Strange Little Creatures - and asked if we could go to the gallery to see them. Alison and her friend and collaborator, Sharon Mee, look puzzled. "Where? It's very hard to get gallery space." I find the casts in bubble wrap at the back of the spare bedroom.
The latest photographs show Lapper and Mee together. They are naked and their bodies seem to blend together, making it difficult to see individuals, much less disabilities. "People's first reaction has been that we are lesbians!" they laugh. "Isn't that so bloody typical!" Maybe so but it is hardly surprising. What about voyeurism? "It is there, isn't it?" she says. "How do I get away from it? It is there. It will always be there. When I'm 95 and wrinkly, it will still be there. I can't control the way other people choose to think or look at me. All I can control is the images that I choose to put out."
And so we are back to the question of staring. "Sometimes I don't mind being stared at but other days it's like 'Get out of my face'. But I want them to look at the art for as long as they want. I don't have to be there, do I? I can give them a statue or a painting or a photograph and say: this is me, this is the real me, look at it. People are still so uncomfortable with disability, be it dressed or naked, but put it into art and they've got to look at it in a different way. It's almost like, with art, you can get away with anything."
So how does she feel when she turns herself into a piece of art? Like a woman named Venus? "No, like Alison. It's quite difficult to put myself in her shoes - well, she didn't have any - but I don't know who she was. She did have arms once upon a time and they fell off. So how does she feel about herself without arms? Who knows?"
In 'Strange Little Creatures', Alison Lapper revisits Chailey Heritage to say goodbye before the bulldozers move in. You can see the programme, which is part of the 'Over the Edge' series, at 11.15pm on Wednesday, 15 October, on BBC2
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