Entering the home of Loreen Arbus, almost all senses are tickled at once. A never-ending color palette of combinations not typically seen under the same roof, and yet reds, pinks, gold, turquoise, patterns, polka dots all living in perfect harmony. Her love for vibrant energy shows in the pieces of art and sculptures she has chosen to display throughout each room, hallway and, yes, bathroom. Initial thoughts circle around whether or not someone actually lives in this comfortable museum. A subtle aroma fills the home from incense softly burning by a window. The flavors she paints her environment are important in understanding her dynamic character of experiences, desire to connect people and tireless advocacy for inclusion.
Arbus is the daughter of Isabelle Goldenson, co-founder of United Cerebral Palsy (UCP), which became one of the largest health organizations in the US. Her father, Leonard H. Goldenson, was founder and chairman of ABC. She serves on over a dozen non-profit boards, is currently the President of The Loreen Arbus Foundation, The Goldenson-Arbus Foundation and Loreen Arbus Productions Inc. and is the first woman to head programming for a national network, including Showtime and Lifetime Television. She has a penthouse in Los Angeles and an apartment in New York—where we chatted overlooking the enchanting Central Park.
Lia Martirosyan: In your TEDx talk, you pretty much announced you were going to be different from birth…
Loreen Arbus: I was the biggest baby born in the history of the White Plains Hospital. I weighed 11 3/4 pounds.
Martirosyan: Did they give you a plaque?
Arbus: There is one! It was an auspicious birth: my mother never forgave me.
Martirosyan: In your talk, you mentioned that there were three disruptions in your life.
Arbus: There have been too many to recall, but lately I’ve been talking about marginalization a lot. I had these long lists of causes that would make people’s eyes glaze over, but when somebody asks, “What does your foundation do?” I couldn’t give a simple answer. You can’t do that many things and have anybody pay attention. I’m interested in so many things, and I can’t possibly narrow it down, and I’m not about to.
Anything, everything and everyone who’s marginalized potentially has interest for me, and all the areas I focus on have that element of people or animals being marginalized, whether it’s women and girls, issues to do with public policy, animals that cannot fend for themselves… The lack of women artists’ representation is a very big area interest of mine: on every wall of every museum in this country, women have done less than five percent of the paintings and sculptures.
Martirosyan: That’s unbelievable.
Arbus: I can understand museums having a problem with their statistics because going back hundreds and thousands of years, women had no place in the world, so to speak. But it’s still so shocking that it has hardly changed. In the media, women are totally marginalized. There are a lot more women anchors and reporters, but the percentage hasn’t changed. When you look at producers, directors and writers, when you look at people with a disability having a role in television, being portrayed in television, whether they’re acting or not, it’s much less than one percent. And the disability population is over 20 percent of the country. So that’s my elevator pitch.
Martirosyan: Ding! Your elevator ride is over.
If I were drilling you about what to do about that, how would you say one could help, beyond simply being concerned?
Arbus: While it’s important that people do give to capital campaigns, this is something that I never do. To me it’s like sending a bottle into the ocean and hoping it will reach a shore somewhere. My giving is very targeted to a few people within various initiatives, such as research, where there’ll be documentation and statistics. As an example, research I’ve commissioned revealed that over 70 percent of all children in foster care have a disability is not something that is well known, talked about or publicized. Now we have to find different ways government authorities, foster-care agencies and others utilize this awareness to make a difference in the programs that we have.
Another great interest of mine is fashion design and art, but I’ve never understood why so few people are coming up with designs for people with disabilities. Now there are two sides to this: some people with a disability don’t want something specifically designed for them. My feeling is that there should be a lot more universal design in the market—for people with and without disability. When I’m struggling to get dressed and have to go down to the lobby to find a woman, and there are none on staff here to help me zip up my dress, I’d be so grateful if somebody came up with a design to assist me with that.
Martirosyan: Tell me about your recent Design for Disability event.
Arbus: We did a search throughout the country for designers in association with the Fashion Institute of Technology. We had 12 finalists, and each one had an assignment to design for a woman with a disability. Every one of the models was in a wheelchair, on crutches or used a walker. It was pretty darn exciting to see. They were so excited to present, and the audience was so enthusiastic. Every designer got something, but the number one person got a bigger amount of money.
Have you heard of Rent the Runway? Anywhere in this country, if you have a graduation coming up or a wedding, but don’t have the budget—this company, started by two women, has items for rent by over 500 major designers: Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger. It’s a who’s-who of designers. They have four million members. It’s all virtual; you go online.
Martirosyan: That makes so much sense.
Arbus: So for the event they said, “We’re going to tag everything for people with disabilities, and how it can be utilized.” That was over 50,000 garments! My personal goal is to start a for-profit fashion line with designers who create for people with disabilities and/or people with disabilities who are designers. Rent the Runway is currently only for women, but my line would be for everybody.
Martirosyan: That is so needed.
Arbus: I met a lovely woman at TED four years ago. It was the last day, the sun was shining, and we were at a wonderful picnic for those who didn’t leave right away. We got to talking, and she told me about her online business. Her name is Carrie Hammer.
Martirosyan: She had a fashion show recently, right?
Arbus: You read about it?
Martirosyan: I did.
Arbus: Great! Four years ago I said to her, “Have you ever thought to design for women with disabilities?” She said, “No.” I talked with her about that. She became interested.
Martirosyan: So you were behind that?
Martirosyan: Very cool.
Arbus: And so at my next Women Who Care event, I sat her next to Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, who is a wheelchair user and a psychologist with a very interesting practice, because she can do therapy via Skype, which is pretty cool. She was named Miss Wheelchair New York a couple of years prior. They struck up a really good friendship.
Martirosyan: We met her at ReelAbilities.
Arbus: Exactly. So Danielle was the first model Carrie had in her fashion show. She had never been at Fashion Week. It was spring two and a half years ago. And shortly after that she made the commitment that she will not do a Fashion Week—twice a year, spring and fall—without at least one “role model,” who can be any size, any age. They are role models because they’re doing terrific things in their lives and should be known. Danielle was the first one with a disability, but not the last. And I’m sort of obsessed with that world because image is so much a part of the obstacles, the aspirations and an area that has to be challenged. We see very few commercials with people who have disabilities.
?I think the concept that you cannot be what you cannot see is really valuable. We need to see on television, in print ads, in all media, in the workplace, on the street, people with disabilities who are functional in ways that for many are unexpected. I have a goal to get the first woman with a disability on the cover story of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Playboy did do, to their credit, a centerfold like that [Ellen Stohl], but Sports Illustrated hasn’t so far. So I put together a list of ten women who have a disability. I think three of them, maybe two of them, were in the Olympics, and the others were in the Paralympics. Stunning women. I’ve spoken with the former head of ESPN about it. I mean, why not a stunning beautiful woman with a disability?
Martirosyan: Very nice.
Arbus: I think it’s exciting. In answer to your earlier question, a lot of the research that I underwrite is seminal. Dr. Michelle Ballan is studying violence against women with disabilities. This has been her life’s work. She’s at Columbia University, is brilliant and has become a great friend. She is not only exposing this horribly taboo area, but she is also coming up with proactive information and recommendations, so that people can look for signs of abuse, violence and rape against women with disabilities. It’s estimated that one out of two women with a disability has been abused. That’s staggering! It’s unknown territory, much like bullying before people finally recognized it.
Martirosyan: You bullied others?
Arbus: I came forward as one of the perpetrators. There may be others who have come forward.
Martirosyan: When did you become aware, “Wow, I was the bully”?
Arbus: I was a bully because I had so much pent-up anger, and I had nowhere to go with it, until I had two amazing people in my life who helped me channel it. And I was so angry because I personally was marginalized, many times over. I was the only girl of my faith at my school, and the discrimination was rampant. For a long time, I did not realize I was being discriminated against. I didn’t know why I wasn’t being put in the front row or given a solo as a dancer, when I was the best dancer in the class and probably the school.
I overheard girls on the school bus talking about the older brother of one of the girls, “You can’t date him. Wrong faith.” And I thought: “That’s my faith.” Also, my mother was bipolar and schizophrenic. But because she was the wife of the chairman of the board, she was considered eccentric, which is a pretty interesting phenomenon. How many people are treated differently by virtue of their birthright and/or circumstances? People used to draw straws as to who would have to sit with my mother at company dinners. Many times over she was abusive to my younger sister and me. That’s another area where I was marginalized, because no one would come to my house. Every mother said, “we’re not going to let you near that woman.” I didn’t blame them; I didn’t want anybody coming over. It was scary.
Martirosyan: That was a lot for you to have to deal with
Arbus: And probably the biggest reason people didn’t want their children to come over was my older sister’s disability. We’d go into a restaurant, and if we got seated—and most often we did not—they would put us back near the kitchen. Wherever we went, we were discriminated against; it was probably like what it must have been during the Civil Rights Movement in this country.
Martirosyan: We call it a civil rights movement.
Arbus: And it’s not that it’s totally changed; it’s just slightly better. As we traveled the country, Howard Johnson’s was the only restaurant and/or motel willing to accommodate us. Unfortunately, Howard Johnson’s is down to so few locations. I love that company, and I’m so grateful to it. My sister would sit in a wheelchair....
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from the Itzhak Perlman Aug/Sep 2016 Issue:
'Born This Way' — The Cast from A&E’s Reality Series
China — Art Sets Us Free
Itzhak Perlman — Interview
Loreen Arbus — Fighting for the Marginalized
Chris Fonseca — Comedy & The Million Gimp March
in the Itzhak Perlman Issue; VOICEYE — It’s Free; Ashley Fiolek; Mini Vacay and Biking!; Humor — Beach Day; Geri Jewell — Tick Tock; China — Art Sets Us Free; Long Haul Paul — Battling MS Symptoms; Loreen Arbus — Fighting for the Marginalized; 'Born This Way' — The Cast from A&E’s Reality Series; Itzhak Perlman — Musician, Maestro, Advocate; Fonseca — Comedy & The Million Gimp March; ABILITY's
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