No small feat: Dwarfs wrestle with perception, performance
Perhaps not unique in that the reasons for both its popularity and its controversy are intertwined like the limbs of two grapplers struggling to gain the advantage, dwarf wrestling provides jobs where they’re scarce, boosts local economies with events and promotes positive examples of how dwarfs aren’t so different from their average-sized peers.
Not everyone, however, sees it that way.
People of short stature — another preferred term is “dwarf,” plural “dwarfs” — have struggled for centuries against misinformation and discrimination, and one major interest group says the sport evokes the “days of the traditional sideshow and freak show.”
But as far apart as the two sides of this issue may now appear, like any good twist at the end of a professional wrestling story arc, it turns out that instead of going to the mat over this beef, the two sides could instead end up together, as tag team champions.
Amidst all the challenges faced by dwarfs, perception is perhaps the greatest.
“I think that we worry so much about how we are portrayed overall, [dwarf wrestling] just doesn’t help,” said Michelle Kraus, advocacy director for the Little People’s Association. “I don’t think it’s a portrayal or a representation that’s positive.”
Legendary Hollywood actor Billy Barty founded the Little People’s Association in 1957. Over his nearly 70-year career, Barty was a first-call dwarf who appeared in well-known movies featuring little people, like “Willow” and “Under the Rainbow.” Barty mostly portrayed impish jesters in comedic relief roles, but even played babies, appearing as one at age 11 in the 1935 Boris Karloff film “The Bride of Frankenstein.”
The first organization in North America for dwarfs, the LPA now boasts almost 7,000 members in 70 chapters across the 50 states. In addition to celebrating the diversity little people bring to communities, the group also “strives to bring solutions and global awareness to the prominent issues affecting individuals of short stature and their families.”
That awareness starts with the condition itself, which is widely misunderstood.
Dwarfism is defined by the LPA as “a medical or genetic condition that usually results in an adult height of 4’10” or shorter.” The average adult height is about 4 feet, but can range from less than 3 to almost 5, in both men and women.
The most common cause of dwarfism is a genetic condition known as achondroplasia, which results in shorter arms and legs than usual, but there are a number of semi-related medical conditions like abnormal bone growth or hormonal deficiencies that also result in reduced height.
As many as 1 in 10,000 newborns are affected by more than 200 different diagnoses that produce dwarfism, and more than 8 in 10 have parents and siblings of average height.
Most dwarfs can look forward to reasonably good quality of life considering the myriad medical issues that often accompany the condition; intelligence, lifespan and reproductive development are usually normal, and while it does vary on a case-by-case basis, dwarfs can even have children of average stature.
In a couple where both members have achondroplasia, for example, each member has one dwarfism gene and one for average stature. After genetic mingling, there’s a 25 percent chance the child will inherit both “average” genes and grow to average height, but also a 25 percent chance the child will inherit both achondroplasia genes and die before or shortly after birth.
That leaves a 50 percent chance the child, like the parents, will be born with the condition, which isn’t strictly considered a disability, but is associated with some disabling mobility effects and is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The LPA does point out that even the healthiest of dwarfs deals daily with situations — like accessing an ATM — that can certainly make it seem like a disability, but many dwarfs are active and athletic and can participate in sports like bicycling or swimming. There’s even a Dwarf Athletic Association of America (DAAA), which organizes competitions at Little People of America’s annual convention.
Wrestling isn’t one of them.
It took 14 years, but 27-year-old Mississippi native Jacob Brooks is now living his dream as a professional wrestler.
“When I started out, I got paid hot dogs,” said Brooks, better known as Lil’ Show the Redneck Brawler. “I was lucky if I got gas money. Nachos. Mountain Dew. Then I started getting bumped up to $25, and then $50, and then $75. It took a long time to make what I’m making now. It took a long time.”
Even after five knee surgeries, Lil’ Show still does 200 shows a year with the Cincinnati-based promotion Micro Wrestling Federation, which will visit the Haywood County Fairgrounds on Sunday, June 10.
“I got really lucky,” he said. “I feel like I’m blessed because I get to go to work and I get to do a job that I love to do instead of going to a job that I hate like so many average other people.”
Jack Hillegass, who is not a dwarf, has owned the Micro Wrestling Federation for about a decade.
“I used to be a supervisor at UPS and I was running a Chippendales show back in the early ‘90s,” Hillegass said. “I was running 200 shows a year across the country.”
That expanded into booking comedy reviews and other common nightclub fare, but after running into a little person named P.O.D. [Pissed Off Dwarf] who happened to be a wrestler, Hillegass saw the potential in the business.
“I had a database of thousands of clubs and I thought, wow I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he said. “I was sick and tired of male strippers, and I hated comedians because the comedians are bigger bitches than the strippers were, bitching about this, bitching about that.”
Hillegass began booking P.O.D. and saw immediate success.
“He was used to doing 20 to 25 shows a year,” he said. “When I took over the first year, I booked 65 for him.”
That expanded to 150 shows the next year, when P.O.D. sold the company to Hillegass. Since then, it’s done nothing but grow.
“I won’t even take nightclub bookings anymore,” he said. “We were doing 300, maybe 400 people a night, but some of these fairgrounds average between 1,000 and 2,000 people.”
In an entrepreneurial sense, there’s no longer a middleman between Hillegass and fans of the sport.
“There’s two kinds of nightclub owners, stingy ones and broke ones, and my show is way too expensive to be arguing and fighting over drinks and money,” he said. “So now what I’ve been doing is I just book my own venues and do my own promotion.”
His company employs upwards of 15 people, including stagehands and a rotating stable of dwarf wrestlers.
“I keep them all out on the road for six to eight weeks at a time,” he said. “I fly them in, we tour in a 31-foot RV with a 14-foot trailer, and I fly them home. I try to get them home as much as possible. A lot of these kids have families and kids of their own and a home life. They’re not going to be any good to me, or my company or to themselves in this profession if I can’t make their home life happy. They’re all making plenty of money.”
Plenty of money and, like Lil’ Show, living the dream.
One dwarf’s dream, however, can easily be another dwarf’s nightmare — Lil’ Show recalls an incident in which he was confronted by another dwarf about his occupation; she asked him why he was degrading himself.
“I said, number one it’s how I put food on the table for my family,” he said. “And two, I’m going out there proving that we can do the same things the big guys can do, if not better.”
Kraus and the LPA are clear that they don’t oppose Lil’ Show’s choice to perform as a wrestler, but aren’t exactly pleased with what they say are the effects of that choice on the dwarf community as a whole.
“I think there’s many things that little people do that could show that we are just like everybody else and that’s just like working in the regular world, or driving, or getting married, having kids, owning a house. I mean, they’re just sort of regular mainstream things. We do not stand in judgment, and we cannot tell people what they can and cannot do. We don’t think less of anybody who chooses to engage in this and do this as either sport or for their livelihood,” she said. “We would advocate that there would be more employment or livelihood opportunities for little people than just the stereotypical leprechauns or elves at Christmas.”
The LPA’s advocacy over perception isn’t new; the group took a strong stance against “dwarf tossing” in the late 1980s and even petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture to revise standards regarding the labeling of several varieties of processed raisins in 2013. The problem? The “m-word.”
According to the LPA’s website, “The word ‘midget’ is used as a derogatory slur to refer to people of short stature. Whether or not the intention of using the word is to bully and to demean, or just as a synonym for small, the term has been deemed a slur by those within the community and should be eliminated accordingly.”
After a membership survey, the LPA said that 90 percent of its members “prefer to be referred to as dwarfs, little people, people of short stature or having dwarfism, or simply, and most preferably, by their given name.”
Even though considered offensive by most, the “m-word” is not so far removed from the collective cultural lexicon as to have yet become obscure, which is why the LPA issued a statement in 2015 denouncing the word.
“The term dates back to 1865, the height of the ‘freak show’ era, and was generally applied only to short-statured persons who were displayed for public amusement, which is why it is considered so unacceptable today,” reads the LPA’s website.
That’s a major reason why the LPA also denounces what used to be — and still is, in many cases — called “midget wrestling.”
“It perpetuates the stereotype of a person with dwarfism being somebody whose purpose is to entertain,” Kraus said. “Like a jester or somebody who is not necessarily thought about or looked at as a person that is multidimensional or that they’re a person of short stature who because of their short stature is there to entertain.”
Whatever others may choose to call it, the LPA still calls it harmful.
“With micro-wrestling or midget wrestling, there is somewhere a diminutive [descriptor] that describes the wrestler,” said Kraus. “Language has been very important to the LPA. It’s something we wanted to bring awareness to, the word ‘midget.’ It for some period of time was thought of as OK. We don’t think that’s OK and we don’t think any word describing us in a pejorative or dehumanizing way is OK.”
The LPA’s website even includes a “toolkit” of sorts designed to help people of all sizes protest such events when they come to town. Included are talking points that point out that events are “defined by marketing little people as an entertainment spectacle” and reinforce stereotypes.
“Some people argue this issue is about choice,” the guide says. “The wrestlers have made the decision of their own free will to participate in the event. Yet, the choice the wrestlers make doesn’t only impact them. It impacts thousands of other little people and their families who are forced to address the stigma related to dwarfs being used as entertainment because of their physical stature.”
But talk is nothing without action, and the guide goes on to suggest that protestors contact one of 13 local LPA chapters and then work in concert to write letters to newspapers and the venue demanding performances be cancelled, using social media hashtags like #DwarfPride to help spread the word.
“I don’t have to deal with it that often,” Hillegass said. “Every now and again someone will be like, ‘Oh you’re exploiting these people,’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I dragged them over here on a boat from a foreign island and they’re stuck in a room being taught how to do headlocks and armbars.’ How can you exploit people that are doing what they love?”
Lil’ Show agrees with Hillegass.
“I love what I do and I don’t feel exploited,” he said. “If I did I probably wouldn’t do it. I don’t feel it. I’ve never felt it. When I’m in that ring, I feel adrenaline. I don’t feel nothing else. I feel sorry for my opponents sometimes, but that’s about it.”
Still, there appears to be a fair bit of hypocrisy in how Hillegass and his wrestlers are viewed.
“I booked a fairgrounds in Port Charlotte, Florida,” he said. “The minute that I put this up on the fairgrounds page, it sold 200 tickets. It went that fast. No advertising whatsoever.”
But then came an email from the fairgrounds authority referencing a complaint by a woman who called the performance discriminatory and a “hate crime.”
“Is it discriminatory that Vern Troyer was in a movie with Austin Powers sitting in a knapsack, on his back, being Mini Me?” Hillegass asked. “Why aren’t they saying that’s discriminatory? And they’re coming to our show saying it’s a hate crime? Come on now.”
Hillegass said that even online coupon site Groupon refuses to do business with him, but hasn’t exactly said why, even though it does promote events similar to the Chippendales shows he used to work.
“Midget wrestling has a negative connotation,” Hillegass said. “I hate it when I call people, trying to book a show and they say, “Oh, midget wrestling, that’s funny, ha ha.’ I say, ‘Why does that sound funny to you?’ Not one part of the show pokes fun at them for being little. When people come to the show I tell them they’re about to see athleticism on display, and they’re going to walk out of there with a newfound respect from what they’re about to witness.”
That respect stems not only from the incredible skill required to become a professional wrestler, but also the fact that none of the wrestlers in Hillegass’ operation started off with the same opportunities as other wrestlers of average size did.
“The people that work on our shows are disadvantaged people in life that are living their dreams,” he said. “These kids grew up and from the moment they were born they were told ‘Hey you’re not going to be able to do this, you’re not going to be able to do that, the professional world is probably going be off-limits for you,’ and now all of a sudden there’s a company like mine that doesn’t use the term ‘midget’ and is only promoting the athleticism.”
Despite the complexities of perception, Hillegass says he’s still searching for a way to bring even greater awareness to his athletes.
“One of the things I want to do is I want to get with the LPA and I want them to come out,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve ever even been to a show, or seen one.”
Lil’ Show also thinks that the experience of seeing him and his co-workers in action can help dispel a lot of the misconceptions both within and without the dwarf community.
“Anytime that anybody’s ever said that this is a freak show or carnival, I tell them, hey come to our show and if you think it’s a freak show or carnival, then you know what, we’ll prove you wrong,” he said. “And we prove them wrong every time.”
Krauss said she hadn’t been to a show before, but did react favorably to the offer.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “We’ve actually been talking about reaching out, we haven’t thought about owners, but we certainly wanted to reach out to the wrestlers themselves. We’ve been a little bit leery just because we’re concerned that they are interpreting our viewpoint as being judgmental and patronizing, but yeah, we’d like to sit down and talk with them about what the experience is for them and what the experience is for the community, and if there’s a way to kind of support each other in both of our goals.”
All Ages Micro Wrestling
• 5 to 7 p.m. Sunday, June 10
• Haywood County Fairgrounds
• Tickets start at $20 each