Zach Anner sure has it going on. Through his hilarious travel-show entry for Oprah's "Your OWN Show" contest, the world has fallen in love with this handsome improv actor from Austin, Tex., who calls his cerebral palsy "the sexiest of the palsies."
Leading the online category with over 8.9 million votes (as of this post), Zach, 25, stands a great chance of scoring his own TV show. We had a candid conversation with his theater-professor mom, Susan, about what it's been like raising such an inspiring, awesome son.
momlogic: What's the latest on the contest?
Susan Anner: Zach's in the lead for the online category. Voting ends July 3rd, so we should know what the next step is very soon. The top 10 contenders are going to be in a reality show where they compete for their own show.
ml: When a contestant named Dr. Phyllis suddenly gained on Zach by getting an astounding 300,000 or 600,000 votes in an hour (depending on who you talk to), a number of news outlets questioned whether or not the contest was rigged against Zach because of Dr. Phyllis' skin color. What are your thoughts on that?
SA: It didn't make any sense! The fact that four substantial news outlets picked it up really surprised us. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, but when the Huffington Post picked up the story, we were like, "Why?" It totally came out of left field. I think it's because anyone can say anything anonymously on the Internet. There's so much positivity coming out of this contest, and to see this negative spin was really surprising. It's about a TV show, yet it became much bigger than what the original intention was.
ml: You literally just got back from seeing Zach in Austin?
SA: I got a message from "ABC World News Tonight" looking for Zach, and that was it for me -- I had to go see him because this was all getting so big. None of us knew what might happen next. It's a lot for him to field phone calls from everywhere and go through his everyday stuff, which is hard anyway. I wanted to be there to support him and protect him from some of the stupidity. One radio interviewer told him how lucky he was that he didn't get aborted, because they were trying to use him to push their anti-abortion agenda. But CP [cerebral palsy] doesn't happen in utero! It was ridiculous!
ml: When was Zach diagnosed with CP?
SA: He was born prematurely -- at 31 weeks. There was no diagnosis then. Throughout that first year, he wasn't meeting the developmental milestones that my first son did, but he could speak very well -- he started at 10 months. Everyone kept saying that he'd catch up, and because I wanted to believe that, I did. I was in denial because I really could see that there were differences about him: He would combat crawl; he always had trouble holding his head up. But he was so smart and funny that we thought he'd be fine, and he is -- just in a different way [from what] we expected him to be. Sometimes when we'd be out, people would look at me a certain way when they saw his wheelchair, and it frustrated me. This is my child. This is the one that I want. This is the one I'm supposed to have. I think every parent feels that way. I didn't choose to be the parent of a child with a disability, but that's what I am, and I'm so lucky to have this person.
ml: Your son is completely hilarious. We loved how he said, "When life gives you wheelchair, make lemonade." What an amazing attitude!
SA: He credits me with saying that! What made him feel more normal is that he had a brother who was a year and a half older than him, and they always played together like any two kids would. One time I discovered them wrestling, and Zach was a little banged up -- but his brother was worse! We didn't treat him like he was really fragile. When he was in a preschool program with other kids who had CP, some parents kept their kids in strollers forever, but we didn't do that with Zach. His intellectual functioning was so high, he wasn't behaving like a person who couldn't tie his shoes. So we really encouraged him to be as independent as he wanted to be at a very early age.
ml: Was he always so creative?
SA: Yes! From the time he was born. I was a single mom for a while, so we didn't have a lot of money or plastic junk kids like to play with. So Zach and his brother engaged in a lot of creative play, making up stories -- and I encouraged that. And their dad also put them on video all the time, so they're comfortable being on camera. He was always in physical therapy for his CP, so during conferences, his therapists would recruit him to help teach others. Once, when he was around 2, his shirt got stuck on his head when they were pulling it off and he said, "I'm a nun!" He always loved women, and his female therapists would be physically close to him during therapy. One was doing things on his legs and he looked into her face and very sweetly asked if he could kiss her breasts. I'm crawling under the table like, Where did that come from? Mind you, he was 5! Weird things would always come out of his mouth. He wrote his first play when he was in fourth grade. It was called "Twinkie-Lover's Blood" -- his version of "Interview with the Vampire." His teacher thought it was completely inappropriate, but it was so outrageous for a fourth grader to write his own play that his teacher wanted to reward him for it, so they shared it with the class. I guess it all shaped him, because now he does improv videos and sketches with his group, Lark the Beard.
ml: If he doesn't win the show with OWN, we bet he'll get a show elsewhere. Have you guys been approached?
SA: If this doesn't pan out, we're hoping that he gets something else. I could see him on Comedy Central or the Travel Channel! He wants to crawl a marathon. As his mother I hate it, but he's going to do it anyway. He also wanted to skydive. He told me he was thinking about it and I told him no, but he did it anyway and didn't tell me until afterward. I can say no, but that's about it. It's not my decision. But I still have those protective parental feelings, even though he's 25 and too old for me to protect him!
ml: What advice would you give a mom whose child also has CP?
SA: I would say, "Celebrate all the things your child can do; try not to focus on what they can't do." One of the really big things for me was letting go of the image of the "perfect child." This is the perfect child that you have right now. But that whole idea of what a fulfilling life is has to change. It's about relationships and enjoying life, not about what you can and can't do physically.
ml: Does he have a girlfriend?
SA: No! But he's getting lots of offers.
ml: He will after this -- trust us!
SA: I hope so! He'd really enjoy being in a loving relationship. It'd be great to get a wonderful daughter-in-law out of this!