By Nathalie Bonney @NathalieBonney
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Videographer / director: Colin Weatherby
Producer: Nathalie Bonney,Ruby Coote, James Thorne
Editor: Athina Chatzidaki
‘Crippled’, ‘midget’, ‘disabled’, Lila Hart has heard them all. The 27-year-old was born with Spina Bifida and Scoliosis, undergoing seven major surgeries before the age of 14, and is just 4 ft 6 ins tall.
But while these words used to make her cry, she’s now reclaiming them. In her comedy sets Lila uses the same words that used to make her cry, to make other people laugh. The stand-up comedian says the reason she is now so confident is precisely because of the difficulties she underwent in her earlier years.
Lila told Barcroft TV: “Having a disability and doing stand-up comedy, I feel like it is a responsibility for me to talk about it and to give a voice to people who might not be comfortable speaking about it.
“I really want to normalise disability because for a long time the word itself disabled used to make me really uncomfortable.
And now I'm on stage saying ‘disabled’, ‘crippled’, ‘midget’, all of the words that used to give me so much anxiety and now I just feel so free. Nothing upsets me, I'm the baddest midget bitch.”
Born with Spina Bifida, a congenital birth defect where the spinal cord doesn’t form fully, it’s common for sufferers to use a wheelchair.
Lila said: “I describe it as being born with a spinal cord injury. You're born with a hole in your back and the doctors have to go in and try to close it.
“They told my mom that I'd never be able to walk and that I would have learning difficulties
“I had seven major operations, all of which were before the age of 14, in and out of the hospital, a lot of check-ups because they were worried about how my spine was growing and that I would maybe not be able to walk as I got into puberty.
“I'm so grateful, that I am able to walk and that I am very mobile and I can do a lot of things for myself.”
Always the smallest in her class, Lila realised that if she was going to stand out, she’d need to overcompensate for her small stature with a big personality.
“I was always the smallest kid in my class. I specifically remember being in the fifth grade. and I was smaller than the first graders.
“It was very upsetting; I came home from school one day and I was like, “Mom, I need to run for student body president so I can get respect. My slogan was, ‘I may be small, but I can make a big difference.’”
Lila won. But as she got older and her classmates started dating, Lila’s confidence took a hit that would last into her college years.
“When you're so much smaller than your peers it's difficult because everybody's getting taller. And I'm still small and I was still kind of feeling really uncomfortable with the fact that I had spina bifida,” she said.
“I would never wear skirts or shorts, because I was very insecure about my skinny legs.
“I literally had guys tell me ‘Lila you're really pretty, but I can't date you because you're a midget.’ And that really hurt me growing up and really played a large role in hindering a lot of my confidence.”
At college Lila put all her hopes into entering a sorority house, calling it “the ultimate form of acceptance” but she was turned away by all 15 houses she applied to. Describing the rejection as “devastating” Lila found ways to escape the pain.
She said: “In college it's normal to drink a bunch. But then out of college I started drinking more, and just drinking to kind of fill that void. When I drank, I didn't have to think about being disabled.”
Lila’s discovery of comedy coincided with her going sober.
She said: “It wasn't until stand up and I got sober that I really looked inwardly for my own self-worth and validation and not looking at outside factors and really loving myself that I attracted all these different people into my life who now fulfil that.”
Supported by her boyfriend Eric, also a comedian, Lila has started a series of comedy performances at her local comedy club Skiptown Playhouse, in Los Angeles. ‘Small Talk with Lila Hart’ will see the diminutive comic do stand up, perform skits with other comedians and interview people as well.
Lila said: “For a long time the word disabled made me so uncomfortable because I didn't want to accept that I had a disability. I didn't want to accept that I had spina bifida.
It just made me feel like there's something wrong with this word when in reality there's nothing wrong with being disabled. In fact I have to try and work 10 times as hard and I feel like I should be celebrated. Yeah I'm disabled and I'm also sexy and I'm also fun.”
Asked about her future, Lila is aiming high.
She said: “My ultimate dream would be the first disabled comedian to host Saturday Night Live, that is what I would love to do some day.
“My backup plan if comedy doesn't work out? There is a place for me here and if comedy didn't work out I would just … there is just no, it is going to work out.”