This morning I had a conversation with model and art student Heather Kuzmich, a girl with Asperger's who appeared on America's Next Top Model and won Cover Girl of the Week eight times in a row.
Read on for the interview.
Listen to the audio recording below!
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Alex Plank: Hey, How are you doing?
Heather Kuzmich: I'm doing good. How are you?
Alex: I'm pretty good. So are you relieved that you can finally talk about the show?
Heather: Uh... Yeah I am. I mean before it's like I had to tell everyone you're going to have to watch the show. I can't really talk about much of it. Now finally I'm going to be like "hey, yay!" I can speak up about it all I want.
Alex: That's cool. How did you get involved with getting onto the show. Did you go to a tryout? If so what happened?
Heather: I sent in an application and they called me back and I was one of the few girls who had a private audition. From there they kinda chose me from that. The original way I was convinced to do the show was basically my friends and family bugging me to do it. At first I'm like, I really wasn't wanting to do it in the first place. I really did want to go into modeling but was concerned if the show was the right thing. And it wasn't until my friend like sat me down and made me watch a marathon of the season with CariDee that I finally realized that if I'm gonna learn modeling, I might as well go on a show that has some of the best in the industry
Alex: How did you feel about the way you were portrayed on the show. Are you happy about how it represented Asperger's Syndrome?
Heather: Umm, yeah I was. I mean they didn't make it seem like I had so much of a problem where it hindered my ability to do, like, the show but at the same time they did show that I had some problem and that it was there.
Alex: I was really wondering how many of the girls you're really close friends with. Who were you the closest to?
Heather: I was closest to Victoria and Sarah, and Janet (she was my roommate on the boat) and like a little bit with Bianca. Me and her actually did get along, we just bickered like old women.
Alex: I was just going to say it didn't seem that way when they edited the show...
Heather: Ah no, they didn't. We were close. It was quite surprising when I saw it. But, who else? I actually got along with all the rest of the girls pretty equally.
Alex:Have you actually met anyone with Asperger's in real life?
Heather: in real life?
Heather: Umm, if I have they haven't mentioned it to me but I believe I have.
Alex: so just those people who didn't say they had it but you could figure it out by how they acted?
Heather: I could figure it out, yeah.
Alex: How does Asperger's affect your creative process as an artist and a model?
Heather: Well in a sense it didn't really effect it that much but it did make me; it does make you kinda concentrate and, you know, focus on one thing. And I have a tendency of being very nit-picky and very, you know, perfectionist when it comes to my art. So I have a tendency... It takes a long time for me to do any drawings or anything like that. Other than that, like, the creative process... it doesn't really effect it too much.
Alex: That makes sense. My girlfriends an artist and she spends hours and hours on a painting and if its not just right, she'll start over.
Heather: Yeah that's me. I do the exact same thing.
Alex: How has being on the show affected your life.
Heather: Well I've gotten a fan-base which still puzzles me but it is quite nice. What else? It has showed me that I can, like, I can do what I want and that I can overcome certain things about my Asperger's.
Alex: so do you actually get recognized in public. Like do strangers come up and act like they know you?
Heather: OH. All the time. All the time. Yeah. Like there'll be moments where people will be like "hey you look exactly like that girl from top model." and I'll be like "Yes. I kinda am." And there will be moments where they just shout out my name and see if I react to it and then I'll look around like I'm a confused meerkat.
Alex: [laughs] that's funny.
Alex: I was wondering when you got diagnosed with Asperger's exactly.
Heather: I actually got like, I got diagnosed when I was fifteen. Ah, they got the thing for it wrong [they got the age wrong on the show] but I didn't want to be like weird and correct them. So I was a teenager. And at the time I was going through a pretty hard time in my life and I was still... I was still trying to deal with my awkwardness. My father had just passed away so i was feeling very alienated from a lot of things. it was actually a very hard time. It just wasn't easy since I didn't know anyone else who also had it. So it was not the easiest time in my life when I did get diagnosed.
Alex: So do you think there's a difference between girls and guys with Asperger's that you can see.
Heather: No. they're pretty much the same. They're a bit awkward around approaching like anyone. they're very much to themselves. they have problems speaking. they have certain habits and hobbies that they're close knit to. They have close knit friends. that kinda thing. so I don't see a difference like between sexes when it comes to Asperger's.
Alex: OK. What have you struggled with the most in your life.
Heather: Being able to approach. Going into interviews and not knowing someone and like having to trust my confidence that I'll get the job and hope that I won't mess up because I do actually say umm and err and chop a lot and have to think things through and that really has hindered me. It isn't the best. I Don't have the best speech skills.
Alex: Right. You certainly don't have the worst speech skills ever.
Heather: I don't have the worst but I don't have the best. I've been working on them very hard.
Alex: What do you recommend for young people with Asperger's Syndrome who want to overcome the social problems that come along with this condition? Do you have any advice for them?
Heather: Umm... Yeah. Make sure that you keep don't keep a losing mentality. It's very easy for those with Asperger's to be... or see something and be really like stuck on it. Either it's going to go good or go bad. and be really stuck on it. and just not think that you know, its going to be positive no matter what. Another thing is it really does help to practice your speech in front of a mirror and to you know. It also helps to really force yourself to put yourself in social situations. Because shunning away... I mean, I know it's hard to get into social situations but shunning is just not going to help. It's better to just bite the bullet and go through it than not doing it at all and not changing.
Alex: I agree with that.
Alex: There are certainly times where I wish I had just gone in there and talked to people.
Heather: Yeah. It really does. It really does help because it's just. It's a little like fear mentality that you think that people are just going to look at you weird. That. That rarely does happen. It rarely rarely does happen.
Alex: actually, one of the members of WrongPlanet wanted me to tell you something. She wrote
"Tell her an old lady with Asperger's Syndrome started posting her weekly pic on her desktop on her computer at work. This led to an open discussion of AS as many other co-workers watched her progress week to week, living her difficulties and challenges and victories. Nothing else has been more relaxing and healing to that old lady than to finally be able to chat openly about her own AS because Heather's beautiful spirit was shining through for us all. "
Heather: It's just great to hear how I'm affecting other people because honestly, I was, you know, I was going on the show just to bring awareness of Asperger's but didn't know how much it was going to affect people. I really didn't know and I was really, like, taking a risk when I did go on. I was very afraid that, you know, people would just be like "Umm. OK. Another person with a disability." I didn't really think that people would be so positive about it. "
Alex: So, how did you feel about the disability becoming public knowledge. How did you feel about having Asperger's attached to who you were... as being part of who you were when you just came out. Did you worry about being defined by it?
Heather: I was worried about being defined by it. At the same time I was just thinking, you know, there was very few people, examples who really were myself when I was a kid and I wanted to change that. I wanted to. If there was going to be another girl, or kids out there who were like me, I wanted someone to have a better experience than I did when I found out. So I just. I just did what I was taught to do, a selfless thing and just come out with it and hope for the best.
Alex: so do you recomend people with asperger's that they let people know about that or does it depend on the person?
Heather: It depends on the person, you know? I mean its like if you have friends and every once and a while, they do notice. You should tell them, you should like explain it to them. I highly recommend that. But when you first meet people they may be put off if you just automatically tell them.
Alex: So don't go. So don't just go up to random people and say hi I'm Alex and I have Asperger's.
Heather: Yeah... It's like more of, you know, you need to know that not everyones going to take it as well as they did with me. I got very very lucky.
Some people will actually just be like "OK. so what?" But people still should be brave about it. And they shouldn't be ashamed that they do have this. It's not like it's the end of the world.
Alex: Let me ask you something. This seems to be a big issue for a lot of people with Asperger's... Relationships. Did you have trouble dating when you were a teenager?
Heather: I didn't date period when I was a teenager. Period. No dating.
Alex: But you do have a boyfriend now. Is that right?
Heather: Oh yeah. I actually. He was very.... I don't know how it happened. I just did the only thing I was trying to do, practice my social skills. Like putting myself in social situations. and it turned out good in this case. You know, not worrying too much about if I'm saying the right thing, if he's taking it the right way. You know. Being careful but at the same time being aloof.
Alex: You're in art school?
Heather: Yes. I am in art school. I'm a Game Art Design major.
Alex: Ohh. Game art, so you like playing video games?
Heather: Yes. Yes. I love playing video games. I'm a video game nerd.
[fire alarm fiasco... ]
[Ok. I've been given permission to continue with the interview]
Alex: Heather. What do you plan on doing after being on the Show. Do you plan on pursuing your art or are you interested in modeling still? Do you have any contracts?
Heather: I have no contracts with anyone yet but I want to keep on modeling. I actually do love it. I've had the most fun on this show. So I'm going to keep on pursuing. I'm going to still do my art but I'm going to do modeling as well because I consider it as a form of art.