Interviewing the Actor with Flippers
By Keith Murfee-DeConcini
DSAB 602: Embodiment and Disability, Spring 2014
Mat Fraser is an actor with flippers in place of arms, born in 1962 in the United Kingdom. He has a rare disorder called Phocomelia, as a result of his mother taking Thalidomide (the infamous morning sickness pill) while she was pregnant with him. This disorder essentially caused his upper limbs develop in the shape of flippers like a seal’s, with similar bone structure and no opposable thumbs. Standing at six feet tall, with a handsome face, Mat still looks strange, even by his own regard. Many people probably find it surprising to learn that his chosen profession is on the stage, in the limelight.
Mat says that over the years he has gotten used to always being on display. When he is out in public, people always stare. In his own words: “People have gotten used to wheelchair users. They see them in the peripheral of their vision and their brain computes, ‘yeah, I know what that is. I don’t need to look.’ With me, they always need to look because they don’t know what it is.” Doesn’t that bother him? Instead, he seems fully accepting. “It’s fine. It’s just how it is. That’s how it affects my daily living. I am always on display.” So it would make sense that someone who is stared at 24/7 might as well get paid for it, as much as they can. Some may see this as a creative coping technique, but it’s more than that for Mat. It is working to help change perceptions about what people with disabilities can do, and being fearless and unapologetic while doing so.
I first saw Mat perform his play, Beauty and the Beast, the dramatic, explicit, somewhat autobiographical retelling of the classic fairytale, this spring after learning about it in class. By coincidence, my sister, who is a musician, already knew him personally and she connected us through a social networking site. I invited Mat to my apartment to conduct this interview.
Mat is not shy about the subject of sexuality and people with disabilities. He is a very sexual performer, confronting the issue head on, often performing nude. It is as if he is saying, “yeah, dudes, I’m sexual. I’m a cripple and I’m sexual.” But he does it with grace and a sense of playfulness, “because it is less threatening. It’s to help people not be threatened. In real terms, it means frolicking with your partner. It’s keeping it fresh.” It also disarms the audience because Mat is so comfortable displaying his body; aside from his “arms” and protruding clavicle, he has an otherwise beautiful, perfectly proportioned body. Beauty and the Beast was x-rated but it was also innocent and “extravagantly imaginative” according to the New York Times, and attracted a mainstream audience.
When he is not living in the United Kingdom, Mat lives in New York City with his beautiful wife, Julie. They met at Coney Island and although Julie does not have a disability, they both care about disability rights. With Julie being a burlesque star, Time Out London ran a story on them, entitled Strippers and Flippers,  a few months after they got married. They make quite the unusual couple but that is another part of their charm.
Day to day life is, of course, challenging for Mat. Because of his shortened limbs, he has to bend over often and he bumps his head a lot, as most things (i.e. door knobs) are built for people with “normal” length limbs. Mat rarely uses prosthetic arms, as he prefers his natural look. When Mat is backstage changing quickly from costume to costume, he requires other people to assist him. He enjoys cooking and cleaning at home but these tasks take him a long time to accomplish. In fact, when asked what he would want in terms of accessibility that would make his life easier, he smiles and says with a laugh, “a cleaner [a maid], pure and simple.” While certainly not assistive technology in the traditional sense, it reveals one way that his disability impacts his daily life, given how long it takes him to preform simple acts of daily living. He goes on to say, “You know, to get the little bits of cat litter underneath the shelf in the corner of the room, I mean I could do it but it takes me so long and it’s so much effort involved, so much time is wasted, not wasted but used. And a cleaner would really speed my week up, cause I like a tidy place.”
He is in the process of learning a voice recognition system to keep up with emails better, even though he does type well. Traveling around the city, he utilizes an automatic car and his bicycle has chopper handlebars. Although he finds that he has to be cautious about riding his bicycle around the city, he notes that it is not as bad in New York City as in London, where there seems to be a “standoff mentality” between the taxis and the bicyclists. He notes, “putting my bike lock on can be really challenging.”
Being an actor, Mat has to travel a lot, especially to the United Kingdom where he is “one of the UK’s best-known disabled performers.” He often wishes he had a personal assistant to carry his bags, given that he has no thumbs. Having no thumbs is the most bothersome part of his disability, he says and then jokes, “Having thumbs or one on one hand would be a useful upgrade.” But then he counters that and says, “People talk about upgrades, like ‘wouldn’t you like to have long arms?’ And in this stage in the game, No, it would really screw my life because I’ve gotten used to what I am.”
Mat has a harder time accepting the process of getting through United States immigration while traveling. It takes him an additional two hours or more to get into the U.S. because security always detains him as he has no thumbs and his fingers do not fit in the scanner properly. He elaborates “I don’t find that a good system….I feel that they have not really accommodated people with disabilities properly there. So I find travel really stressful.”
It is quite clear that as a performer, an activist, and a lover, Mat Fraser has not let Phocomelia hold him back. Instead he has used his differences in creative ways as a tool, an instrument to inspire, sometimes to stun and to shock, all with the purpose of changing social and cultural perceptions about what people with disabilities can do, given the chance. He states that “I try to be the ambassador, the unpaid role for life of the ambassador of disability, because every time someone interacts with you they are interacting with disability.” Mat is also a musician, a drummer, and has played with the well-known rock band Coldplay at the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony. He aspires to be a playwright and a script writer. He says, “My big aspiration in life is to write a good film that’s got some disabled people in it as characters.”
Mat has developed excellent social skills because of his disability. He did so to respond to the social model of disability. “When I first realized that I was going to be treated differently socially because of my impairment, I guess I learned to be better socially to counteract it, to become really good at social interactions with people, to become perceptive and intuitive, to be able to talk to people on their level rather than insist they come to mine, to get more from the interaction.” That has worked well for Mat, as his gentle, easy-going manner makes him easy to talk to. He is clearly comfortable in his own skin, and that allows people around him to become equally comfortable with him.
When addressing the question of the greatest challenge he faces in daily life, he replies, “To be good, to be a decent, calm, responsible, respectful man that values himself and understands that the people who love him value him equally. Because that’s difficult to do. I can fall into behavioral traps of the undervalued, which I have spent my whole life trying to escape.” He escapes this trap through “Perseverance and trying again, because I keep getting that wrong.”
Mat Fraser knows who he is. He is out there doing what he loves and that is performing, while helping to change how people view disability. When he was asked what he likes most about his disability, he replied, “As a performer, the second I walk on stage I don’t have to do anything. I’m always the most interesting person on the stage immediately, which is a great thing if you know how to use it to your advantage.” Indeed he does.
 http://matfraser.co.uk/news_pages/bandtb.php (bottom paragraph near reviews)