In 2007 I featured in a BBC documentary that followed myself, Lee and Shah on a road trip that changed all of our lives, well definitely mine!
I went to Newman School in Rotherham UK, this was and still is a school for people with physical disabilities. Once I got to the age of around 15 I started to think about what all teenagers start to think about once they hit puberty, SEX! Having a disability and thinking about sex brings a few problems to the table. First and foremost fact that a lot of people in society don’t even realise people with disabilities can have sex never mind the fact that we (people with disabilities) have sexual thoughts and thoughts of wanting to be loved like every other human being.
I enjoyed school, I had some great friends with awesome camaraderie, my best friend at school was Andriano or Andy for short. Andy was born with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, for those of you who don’t know what this is it’s a group of muscle diseases that results in increasing weakening and breakdown of skeletal muscles over time (Reference Google). But our conditions didn’t really matter to me and Andy, we just enjoyed life to the full. We went out to the cinema, I got invited to his house for dinner where his mom cooked us a beautiful pasta dish one day after school. Andriano’s family were Italian, so a very close knit family and of course amazing cooks! As we both got to the age of 17 we started to talk more and more about sex and relationships, as any normal lads of that age would! We talked and toyed with the idea of hiring an escort because we were both so fed up of seeing other people our age walking around holding hands in cute relationships. Andy explained to me that he had broached this subject with his mom as I had also with my parents. Andy’s mom unfortunately didn’t quite see it like we did, it was an outright no to an escort or even Andy broaching the sex subject again.
On my 18th Birthday, my mom and dad asked me what I’d like to do, I loved swimming so I asked them if they would take me swimming and then I’d planned to meet Andy if he was feeling better – Andy had been suffering with the flu. I had finished swimming and I saw a physiotherapist I knew at the leisure centre, she approached me and my parents with quite a sad demeanour. She then told me what broke my heart and made my birthday completely meaningless. Andriano had passed away the night before, he struggled with flu which then turned into pneumonia and he couldn’t battle through any longer. I cried for days, I had lost my best friend without being able to say goodbye and once more we hadn’t conquered the sex and relationship conundrum. Time went on and I slowly adapted to the fact that I wouldn’t see Andy again. This is where my mission in life began.
Later that year I went on a Summer holiday with my parents Brenda and Dermot and with my uncle John and late auntie Julie. We decided to go to the Costa Brava in Spain by car (make it a bit of a road trip). My dads colleague at work at the time owned a villa there so we were able to get mates rates! We would all do the usual things on holiday, swim, eat food, drink and find an Irish Bar, what holiday would be complete without an Irish Bar? It was Bar O’Higgins, right on the sea front. We got to know the owner really well, who was called Alan O’Higgins, with a thick Irish accent he most certainly resembled a real life Leprechaun. Alan was so friendly and made us feel very welcome when we visited his Bar, one day we visited I will never forget. It was one late afternoon we decided to head down to the bar for a Guinness or two, Alan must have overheard me and my family talking about how I desperately wanted a sexual experience and just to be held by another woman. He said to us, do you know there is a nightclub just down the road called Eclipse? Obviously we said no and obviously I was very excited! Not only could we go for a dance but this might just be my chance to actually see if I could meet a woman. I pleaded with my family to visit the Eclipse Nightclub that night and after much persuasion they caved!
It was 8pm when we all piled into our specially adapted vehicle that my dad drove. After driving what seemed a lifetime I started to see glowing lights in the distance, I was so excited! As we got closer there appeared to be a neon flashing woman on the top of the nightclub and lots of heavy looking security on the door. We parked up and all got out of the van, we approached the doors to get in thinking we were all going in and having a dance and drink. Security told us that my mom and Julie weren’t allowed in because it was a brothel! Well, my eyes lit up and I was overcome by excitement and nerves as this would be my first real encounter with another woman and also a chance to explore whether I could have sex or not. Mom and Julie agreed to wait outside, promising them that we wouldn’t be long. As I entered the doors, dad and John had a cheeky smile on their faces. We entered a large bar area where there were lots of scantily dressed women all staring at us, well it definitely felt like they were all staring. I was SO nervous!! We progressed to the bar and my dad and John bought a drink for us all. Women from different countries were coming up to me, stroking, hugging and talking to me. I started to feel like a normal human being, the feeling was incredible, I’d never experienced these emotions before. Anytime that I’d been out in the UK to nightclubs any attention I got was always that of pity with most people asking me in a patronising tone “Are you having a nice time out love”. The Eclipse nightclub was huge, there was an area where there was a pole dancer, there were quite a few other guys in but most of the attention seemed to be around me, like a swarm of bees around a honey pot! Then came the time where I had to apparently choose my lady, well, let me tell you that this was a tough decision. I had about 2 minutes to choose from 20 of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. I had an attraction to a lady called Paola, a Chilean beauty that seemed to really want to spend more time with me, so of course I gracefully accepted.
Paola lead me to the lift at the other side of the bar, the rest of the women and my dad and John went to have a drink at the bar after the swarm! Once reaching the first floor of what looked exactly like a hotel we entered a room full of mirrors, a desk and a bed. Because this was an experience I had never had I was absolutely bricking it. I had already decided with dad and John that if I was going to have sex, I’d do it in my wheelchair. Although the brothel was fully wheelchair accessible there were no hoists in the bedrooms to lift me out of my chair so I thought staying in my chair was the best decision. The next stage was the language barrier, it took me about 5 minutes to try and explain how to remove my seatbelt, we were both laughing though so it was all light hearted, which in turn really eased my nerves. Paola was very kind and funny and I didn’t feel awkward at all. She eventually removed my seatbelt, she then realised that I would be staying in my wheelchair. She took of my polo shirt and started kissing my chest. She then went to unzip my trousers……. an hour later I left the room and I felt like a completely different person, totally elated, happy, smiling from cheek to cheek. I had finally achieved something that those ‘normals’ were doing in society, that something that me and Andy talked about before he passed away, I felt like I instantly slotted into what appeared to be society’s remit of what we should all be doing. I headed into the lift back down to the bar area where my dad and John were waiting. I need to note at this point that they also looked quite happy!! I could hardly speak, I was totally overcome with emotion. That night in Eclipse, because of a ‘Leprechauns’recommendation, I was a new guy.
One week later and it was time to go home, we dropped John and Julie back off at the airport and me and mom and dad started to make the long journey back home to the UK. Whilst travelling I was thinking about the amazing experience I had in the Costa Brava, I also thought a lot about Andy, wishing he could have had that experience with me. I started to talk with my mom and dad, I really had the burning desire to help other people in mine and Andy’s position and I was racking my brain on how I could set about doing this. At the time both my mom and dad and I worked for ITV in the UK. ITV was and is, one of the biggest broadcasters in the world. I worked in the regional news and programmes department. I said to my mom and dad I think we should make a documentary that follows me going to the Eclipse nightclub highlighting the problems people with disabilities have getting relationships and having sex. When I was sat in work one day I was telling my good friend then Rob who also worked with me in the same department about my incredible experience and the idea we had. He suggested to me that I should make it into a road trip with two other disabled virgins. I thought it was a great idea. We wrote up the idea and approached a Leeds based production company, Daisybeck. Rob and I had a meeting with the development team of Daisybeck and guess what? They absolutely loved this idea! They told us that they wanted to pitch it straight to the BBC under the critically acclaimed ‘One Life’ strand. One a rainy winters evening I got a phone call from the MD of the production company, Paul Stead. He said Asta guess what? I said go on with baited breath. Paul told me that the BBC want to make your documentary and a BBC crew will be following you and two others on a road trip to the Eclipse nightclub on the Costa Brava. Well, I was blown away, this was the start of my global ambition to change the mindset of society when thinking of people with disabilities, sex and relationships.
I won’t go too much into the documentary because it really needs to be seen to fully appreciate it and get the story. However, I will say that this experience was also pretty life changing. I boarded a 26 seater coach one early morning with my mom and dad, Rob, a Director, cameramen and sound operator to meet Lee and Shah. Lee is registered blind and Shah was a paraplegic who had a motorcycle accident in Malaysia when he was younger. To say all of us got on really well is a complete understatement, it’s like we knew each other forever.
‘For One Night Only’ was aired on Wednesday 24th of October 2007 at 22:40 on BBC One and was seen by 3 million viewers on that night, since then it has been broadcast all over the world. It got a lot of press attention including the week before when me and my dad appeared on ITV’s This Morning and we were interviewed by Phillip Schofield and Fern Britton. The response was overwhelming, absolutely everyone loved the documentary and the story. One of the highlights for me was being interviewed on BBC Radio 2 by Jeremy Vine. Almost straight after ‘For One Night Only’ aired I was emailed by lots of different production companies around the world wanting to replicate the documentary. At first I was reticent to film with other broadcasters but then I thought hey, if this gets my message and ambition further out into the world, let’s go for it! I have filmed with National Geographic, ZDF, Channel 4 and Vice just to name a few. Just recently I was approached by Louis Theroux, he wanted to film another brothel trip but I turned it down as at the time I didn’t really fancy doing another film about sex.
A year passed and in 2008 I was emailed by a man called Mariano Vanhoof explaining that he had just seen ‘For One Night Only’ on Belgian television and that he really loved it. Mariano was and still is a Belgian Movie and TV producer, he then went on to say that he’d like my permission to tell my story in a Belgian movie. Well, as you can imagine I was completely blown away, so much so I didn’t really believe it at first, I thought someone was taking the piss. Mariano was very serious, two months later me, mom and dad traveled to Belgium to meet with Mariano and his business partner and film director Geoffrey Enthoven to see what their intentions were. Mariano and Geoff wanted to fictionalise my story of three virgin guys with disabilities going on a road trip to lose their virginity in a Spanish brothel. Well, Mariano came through and ‘Hasta La Vista’ was born. This incredible movie hit the cinemas in 2013, the movie was/is moving, emotive, funny and very sensitively told. It had an incredible cast and I had the pleasure of going out to Malaga on location to meet them all and appear in the movie as a wine taster, I never thought I’d get a cameo role in my own movie one day!
Hasta la Vista got shown at many film festivals in Europe and went on to receive 33 awards! The film was shown across the world including the UK, it was shown in a limited number of cinemas in the UK but it was shown and that was the important thing. The only country it didn’t get shown in was the USA, here’s where my next mission was going to come in.
It was always the intention of Mariano and myself to try and get the remake rights sold to the USA but this was no easy task at all. We finally got interest from a young amazing actor called Grant Rosenmeyer. Grant had been in talks with Mariano for a while and developing a script in the background for the American audience with amazing screenwriter Erik Lindhorst. It was in 2018, I was probably at my lowest point as I’d decided to try living independently in a residential care home but unfortunately it didn’t work out, it just wasn’t me, I felt very institutionalised, then I received an email from Grant Rosenmeyer introducing himself and explaining that he will be actually making the movie in the USA, the movie is called ‘Come As You Are’. It features an incredible cast; Grant Rosenmeyer (he plays me), Gabourey Sidibe, Ravi Patel and Hayden Szeto, not forgetting the rest of the amazingly talented cast. Me my mom and dad, my auntie and uncle Mark and Billy were invited and flown out to the SXSW Film Festival in Austin Texas where ‘Come As You Are’ had its premiere. This movie truly blew my socks off and does every time I see it. It tells an incredible story of how people with disabilities are normal human beings, it’s portrayed with great empathy. It is written beautifully by Erik Lindhorst and made into a true on screen masterpiece by director Richard Wong. I met the cast and crew in Austin and they were all full of love and glowing just to have been involved with this amazing mission. ‘Come As You Are’ gets released into cinemas in the USA in early 2020, other countries to be announced very soon. At the moment ‘Come As You Are’ is being shown at Film Festivals across the world with amazing reviews and glowing audiences. I have to thank Mariano and Grant for believing in my story and taking a risk, also to my mom and dad for their support with my dream, none of this could have been achieved without you.
I’ve done it, those amazing days where me and Andriano hung out together dreaming of what could be, well, Andy, this is for you Brother, I hope you are looking on somewhere with a big thumbs up. I love you man.