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Lauren “Lolo” Spencer on the Importance of Authentic Storytelling

Winner of the 2019 Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship, Media Access Awards

two African American women wearing dresses seated in wheelchairs

Tatiana Lee, last year’s winner, with Lauren “LoLo” Spencer, this year’s recipient of the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship

Beverly Hills, California, Nov. 26 – Earlier this month, actor, model and content creator Lauren “Lolo” Spencer was honored with the Christopher Reeve Acting Scholarship during the 40th Anniversary of the Media Access Awards, which was presented in partnership partnership with Easterseals Southern California. The ceremony honors media and entertainment trailblazers advancing disability awareness and inclusion.

“I didn’t see it coming, which was an even greater surprise when I got the news initially,” Spencer said in an interview with RespectAbility’s Tatiana Lee, who received the scholarship in 2018. Spencer plans to use the money from the scholarship for acting classes to further her career.

Spencer recently starred in Give Me Liberty, which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Like many films starring actors with disabilities, the film struggled to find initial funding for the project. “Investors didn’t want to invest in the film because, one, they didn’t know if characters with disabilities in lead roles was gonna work, and two, if they weren’t going to cast an able body-like a popular able body actor in the role, they double thought that it wouldn’t work,” Spencer said. “So there were a lot of investors that they passed on for the sake of wanting to keep the story authentic.”

Lolo Spencer with her costar in Give Me Liberty looking at a record on a record playerIn terms of creating her own content, Spencer talked about the opportunity to steer her own narrative. “I think the most important part about that is being able to authentically be black, and authentically have a disability, and knowing that the two can exist in the same space,” she said. “At the end of the day, as long as you’re your most authentic self, then nobody will be able to take that away from you, and nobody’s gonna be able – people will judge, but people are gonna judge regardless. So it’s like, if you’re gonna judge me then judge me for exactly as I am – versus a representation that I believe the public wants to see, in order to be careful and preserve everyone’s feelings, because I might just want to say something a certain way, or do things a certain way. So I think that’s the part that was the most important for me is being able to be authentically who I am.”

Just one week following the Media Access Awards, Spencer was nominated for the Film Independent Spirit Award in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role in Give Me Liberty. The film received a total of four nominations.

Watch the full interview below, which was shot and edited by Nick Weiss. The video includes captions and a full transcript is found below the video.

Full Transcript

Tatiana Lee: So I’m sitting here with my girl Lolo, aka Miss Sitting Pretty. She is an amazing actress, content creator, model activists – so many other things and the list goes on. I’m so excited to sit here having this conversation with you.

Lolo Spencer: Thank you, I’m excited!

Tatiana Lee: You started sitting pretty, and it’s – it has done so great for content creating, but also as representation for women of color and for representation for people with disabilities is very very important and I feel like you and I both got our start with creating our own content because we didn’t have access to telling our own stories, nobody wanted to tell our stories.

Lolo Spencer: Right. Exactly.

Tatiana Lee: Tell me, what was your inspiration behind starting Sitting Pretty?

Lolo Spencer: So, initially it started off because I was having some trouble with a previous employer. And it was in that moment that I realized, if that person didn’t like me enough, they had the power to take my livelihood away. And so I had to start thinking about what is something that I could do to control my lifestyle, and who I was and the things that I wanted to do. Given that I have a TV production degree I was like, “okay what can I use with my degree towards what I want to do?” And the idea of YouTube popped in my head and the ironic part was I had no idea what I wanted to talk about on YouTube. I was like “well, what am I going to say? What is there gonna be?” Out the blue I just kept getting like these visions or like, just remembering all of these memories of people saying “Lola you need to tell your story, tell your story, tell your story.” So I was like “Okay, well, I’ll just start telling my story on YouTube.” And it’s been history ever since.

Tatiana Lee: That’s amazing. I feel like with social media we’re able to tell our own stories finally, because a lot of people aren’t even thinking about us. When it comes to disability inclusion in media, they’re just now starting to think about the white person with a disability. They haven’t even really gotten to us yet. So it’s like, you know to steer your own narrative and I think that’s very very important in the modeling you’ve done.

Lolo Spencer: I think the most important part about that is being able to authentically be black, and authentically have a disability, and knowing that the two can exist in the same space. And that was the biggest thing for me was I caught myself trying to be PC about it, wanting to be careful, wanting to be mindful of, “oh is somebody gonna be offended if I say this? Is someone not gonna like that if I talk about this topic?” Or whatever the case was and I was like, “you know what, at the end of the day, as long as you’re your most authentic self, then nobody will be able to take that away from you, and nobody’s gonna be able – people will judge, but people are gonna judge regardless. So it’s like, if you’re gonna judge me then judge me for exactly as I am – versus a representation that I believe the public wants to see, in order to be careful and preserve everyone’s feelings, because I might just want to say something a certain way, or do things a certain way. So I think that’s the part that was the most important for me is being able to be authentically who I am.

Tatiana Lee: So after Sitting Pretty, and that’s going great, you have your clothing line stuff that are really really cute, Sitting Pretty and all of that. So then after that you ended up in “Give Me Liberty.”

Lolo Spencer: Yes.

Tatiana Lee: So this is amazing – you are the first woman of color with a disability to have a lead in a major film.

Lolo Spencer: Yes. Because we premiered at Sundance and Cannes Film Festival this year, and then so many different other prestigious festivals, and having a theatrical release – we’re definitely you know in talks for some some pretty major things coming up next. So we’re just kind of riding the wave right now, seeing what happens keeping blessings up and and hoping they come raining down.

Tatiana Lee: Yes, I love it, I love it. I’m so excited because we often don’t get those opportunities, and sometimes they aren’t even thinking about disability, so to even have a black woman with a disability in the lead for that – that is huge and you are breaking huge barriers, so congratulations. So tell me what the process of was doing “Give Me Liberty.”

Lolo Spencer: I guess – very long story short – my agent called and was like “hey, there’s this independent film that’s specifically looking for a young black woman in a wheelchair. Would you want to audition?” And I was like, “yeah, I mean, might as well” Like, you know, when does this ever just fall into your lap?

Tatiana Lee: Right? Rare.

Lolo Spencer: Right, exactly so I did a self tape, the producer and the director. The director is Kirill Mikhanovsky and the producer Alice Austen. They really liked what I had done. And so we were corresponding for about two years off and on via Skype before we even went into production.

Tatiana Lee: Wow.

Lolo Spencer: The story of indie films. As we were doing Q&As for our festival runs and stuff, I started hearing stories of behind the scenes of what was happening, and they were saying stuff like, you know, investors didn’t want to invest in the film because, one, they didn’t know if characters with disabilities in lead roles was gonna work –

Tatiana Lee: Oh my gosh, here we go…

Lolo Spencer: – and two, if they weren’t going to cast an able body-like a popular able body actor in the role, they double thought that it wouldn’t work. Like there was there was all kinds of talks like “oh, well, if you don’t get someone like Lupita, then we’re not gonna give you our money.” And they were very adamant and being like “well, that would be great if we could get someone like her but she doesn’t have a disability, so that’s not gonna work.” And they like “well then you’re not gonna get our money.” And so they passed. So there were a lot of investors that they passed on for the sake of wanting to keep the story authentic.

Tatiana Lee: Which is so important, because that’s one thing that I think that a lot of people get wrong is – you think you can throw someone in a wheelchair, and that they understand our life experience. If you don’t understand our life experience or what it is to be us, you get to sit in that chair and then when it when it hits cut, you’re up and walking around. No, you don’t get to share my experience.

Lolo Spencer: Exactly.

Tatiana Lee: And so that’s why I’m really happy that certain films like “Give Me Liberty” and “Peanut Butter Falcon” decided to pass up on funding to say “no. I am gonna do this right. I’m gonna do this authentically. Y’all gonna see. I don’t need your money.

Lolo Spencer: Exactly.

Tatiana Lee: Deuces. We gonna make this happen anyway.” And I think that’s what it’s taking, and now, ’cause I’ve had conversations with some executives and stuff with a lot of work that I’m doing, and they don’t get it. They don’t see us being marketable, but we are. Like, you’ve been able to do modeling for Tommy Hilfiger –

Lolo Spencer: Yes.

Tatiana Lee: – so many other things and like, they don’t understand. They don’t understand that the value of tapping into the disability industry is a trillion dollars. Holler at us, we’re trying to get that money. And then not only that, there’s studies that show that black women bring in even more money, so when you have the amazing intersection, we make all that money. Come holler at us so you can get those coins and we can get those coins.

Lolo Spencer: That part. Exactly. Exactly!

Tatiana Lee: You just received the Christopher Reeve scholarship.

Lolo Spencer: Yes!

Tatiana Lee: I’m so excited! I was last year’s recipient and I’m so excited that now you’re winning it this year, it’s like yes – black girl magic all up and through the Christopher Reeve Foundation. Thank you so much.

Lolo Spencer: Thank you! There you go. There we go!

Tatiana Lee: So, what does it feel like winning this scholarship and what are your plans for the future?

Lolo Spencer: Well, I mean, I’m definitely very excited to have won. I didn’t see it coming, which was an even greater surprise when I got the news initially. So I’m just really excited. It’s gonna be such a big help, because there’s been kind of like short stories that I’ve been working on, short films you know – I want to continue acting and acting classes. That would definitely be one of the first places that I’ll be using it towards. And just really making sure that I just use it wisely and beneficially for my career. So I’m very excited that I even just get the opportunity to do that, so, it’s gonna be dope, and I’m hoping that it really supports me in a way that that it’s intended to, for sure.

Tatiana Lee: Okay, well I’m excited, so we’re looking for film projects with Lolo.

Lolo Spencer: Yes, absolutely!

Tatiana Lee: And you’re planning on directing, producing, starring in your own project.

Lolo Spencer: Yes, 100,000%, because I’m tired of reading the same stuff. I’m over it. Yeah, it’s definitely been a really great year for me so far, and I can see the things that are happening as a result of the things that I’ve been doing, just based on people’s comments and messages that they send me all day every day, which has been incredible. So I’m just trying to, you know, just keep the train going, for sure, to just keep it rolling, exactly.

Both: Literally!

Lolo Spencer: Exactly, literally! [Laughing]

Tatiana Lee: Well thank you so much for having this conversation, it was long overdue. Alright.

Lolo Spencer: Alright girl! Thank you!

Tatiana Lee: Congrats!

Lolo Spencer: Thanks!

Meet the Author

Tatiana Lee
Tatiana Lee

Tatiana Lee is a Hollywood Inclusionist at RespectAbility. She was a Communications Fellow in Spring 2019, participating in the leadership program to gain better knowledge and skills to be a more effective advocate in Hollywood for disability inclusion. Now, she helps represent RespectAbility in Hollywood. Like RespectAbility, Lee has dedicated her life to fighting for inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of mass media.

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