Keah Brown loves cheesecake and Paramore and Usher and Demi Lovato. “These are things that matter to me just as much as conversations around disability and cerebral palsy.” mentions the journalist, writer and creator of the viral hashtag #disabledandcute. She has released two books, “The Pretty One” in 2019 and “Sam’s Super Seats” in 2022. Her new young adult novel “The Secret Summer Promise” in 2023. ABILITY Magazine’s George Kaplan spoke to Brown about her work and her life.
George Kaplan: You’ve been very candid in your writing and talks about growing with a disability, especially in contrast to your twin, who does not. Can you talk about that experience?
Keah Brown: When we were in high school and even when I went away to college, I was just hyper-focused on this idea that my sister was the more idolized version of me, that she had everything that she could ever want and that her life was perfect. That impacted our relationship because, instead of getting to know her, I thought “I don’t need to know her, she’s my enemy. She’s number one on my bad list.”
It wasn’t until I went away to college, and I was meeting all these wonderful women who made me laugh and they were funny and loyal and kind that I realized that all these things that I love about them, my sister has. All of our lives, I spent comparing myself to her and being like, I have to tear her down in some way so that I can feel better. I think it’s so funny now because, as an adult, I realized that it didn’t make me feel better. It just made me feel terrible because I knew the way that I was treating her, the things that I was saying in the heat of arguments or just to myself was really just hurting and hurting her. As an adult, I’m 31 years old, I now know that there’s room for both of us. Having somebody love you deeply despite the fact that you don’t yet know how to love yourself is wild. I’m grateful for where we are now because where we were growing up, I made a competition out of everything.
Kaplan: I think so many disabled people can relate to that feeling of having a sibling who’s not disabled and taking it out on their sibling and themselves. You said your family never let you feel different. How important was that upbringing to you?
Brown: Oh, my gosh! Most important! Of course, you never realize it at the time, but after learning about other disabled people who had guardians and family members and parents who sheltered them, to have the opposite has been—it’s gotten me to where I am today. Inherently, my mom always believed that no matter what it was, I could do it. If my older brother got skates or my sister got skates or a scooter or whatever, my mom was like, “We’ll figure it out. We’ll get you that. You’ll figure out how to do it. I’m not going to let you use disability as a crutch.”
That determination carried over to me and allowed me to be where I am today. I feel like I can do anything. I was talking to my friend Laura earlier, telling her, “People always ask me, ‘How do you do all the things you do? How do you write the books? How do you cope with all the ideas?” And I said part of it is delusion, like I’m delusional.
Brown: I think if I work very hard for something and I want it bad enough, it’s going to happen, no matter what it is. I don’t want to spend my life being a person who’s like, “I wish I had tried this or done that, wrote the thing, said the thing, tried this thing.” I want to make sure that I did it, and even if it doesn’t work out, at least I can say that I tried.
One of the biggest things, and I don’t think I’ve ever told this story before, is that I was desperate to ride horses. I was like a horse girl through and through. It was me and the Saddle Club. I don’t know if you remember that, I might be aging myself. My mom found a place where I could ride horses. I never stuck with it, but I remember being like, “I really want to ride a horse.” And her being like, “OK, we’ll figure it out.” That belief that she had in me absolutely translated, even when I didn’t think so myself, to me being able to do all the things that I’m doing today.
Kaplan: That’s great! And I love what you said about delusion! I feel like delusion is such a powerful tool! (laughs)
Brown: Yeah! It is! Listen, I tell people all the time, delusion is changing my life. To me, it’s like that and letting the universe know what you want. I firmly believe in speaking things into existence. I’ll be the first one to say, “I want to meet this person. I want to do this thing.” And when they happen, people ask, “How did you—?” And I say, “I just willed it into existence and worked for it.” Between delusion and thinking things into existence, it’s gotten me to where I am. That and hard work, but you know what I mean.
Kaplan: Of course. You’ve got to back it up with hard work.
Kaplan: What was the genesis of your viral hashtag #disabledandcute?
Brown: I wanted to celebrate feeling good about myself. I started thinking of four things that I like about myself every single day. By the time I got to February of that year, I was like, “I’m going to celebrate! This is the longest it’s ever stuck!” I don’t have any “you’re being ridiculous, you’re not pretty, or this or that.” I didn’t have any of that. I wanted to make sure that I was celebrating the small moments because any ounce of joy that I can squeeze out of something, I will. To make the hashtag was me being like, I’m disabled and cute. There’s no either/or situation. I had hoped so deeply that other disabled people would use it, and I’m so glad that they have. I wanted to celebrate us.
I wanted initially to celebrate myself and to finally be like, “It’s happening, guys!” My sister was like, “All this time we waited for you to see what we see. Now you do!” I think the hashtag was me being openly excited about the fact that I had begun the journey of loving myself, that I had done the work to make sure that I was celebrating the moment. I was like, “OK, Keah, you’re cute! It’s good! Have that. Live in it for a second.”
Kaplan: I love that. I feel like we’re so keen to tear ourselves down just because of the messages we receive from the world, we internalize that and we become our worst enemy.
Brown: Absolutely! When you don’t see yourself represented properly or with nuance, does this mean my stories don’t matter, that I don’t matter, that I hold no value? Why am I not getting the opportunity to tell my story? Why do people think that disability is just sad people all the time who end up dying before the movie or TV show is over? I think that we as disabled people often have to do the work of being like, “This is not how disability is.” I think it’s getting a little bit better now, but we have so few ounces of representation that I think we end up getting the short end of the stick.
Kaplan: In 2019 you released your first book, “The Pretty One.” What inspired you to be a writer and to tell your story?
Brown: I’ve been telling stories all my life. The very first thing I ever did, I was eight and I used to write songs and I was convinced that I would be like Taylor Swift. I used to write poems about boys who didn’t like me back. To me, writing has always been the way I express myself. I wanted to be a journalist. I got a degree in journalism and nobody would hire me. They didn’t want me. As soon as I disclosed that I was disabled, all communication/offers were off the table.
I was like, what am I going to do? I’ll have to write online. I’ll just have to figure it out. For me, wanting to become a writer was at first about wanting to talk to people and figure out who they are and why they are. I thought journalism would be the best way. I’m a naturally nosy person, and I was like, I can talk to people for a living and write about it. It’ll be great. I realized post-college and when I was writing these articles and talking to celebrities and all these people I love, that I can write and tell my own story. It was a combination of telling the stories of other people, it’s fun, it’s amazing, but also people seem to be interested in how I live my life, how I navigate the world. I took “The Pretty One” as an opportunity to talk about the things I never get to talk about when I write articles for other people. I talk about love, hardship, pain, grief, the ways people show up for you, my love for music. I would put every topic I could think of at the time in an essay to put together in “The Pretty One.” I wanted to be able to talk about the things that people often don’t allow disabled writers to talk about.
Sometimes if it’s not about disability, they’re not interested. I wanted to show that I was a fully realized human who had conversations about disability and wanted to talk about it, but also had other things that she wanted to explore. “The Pretty One” was me saying, “Here’s who I am so far. Here are the things that matter to me. And yes, disability is a part of it, but it is not the sum of all of it. It’s just a way I see the world, and here are these other things about me.”
Kaplan: You also entered the children’s book space last year with “Sam’s Super Seats.” I love the message about how important rest is. I feel like as young disabled people, we’re always trying to catch up with everyone else, and we end up putting ourselves through so much harm.
Brown: Yes, we do! “Sam’s Super Seats” is so special to me because Sam is a kid I wish I had known when I was that age. She’s precocious, she’s sure of herself. She feels fine asking for help. I was never that kid. I wanted to keep up with everybody else, keep moving, never wanted to admit when I was in pain or when I was hurting because of disability. Sam was the wish fulfillment in some ways, the girl I wish I had known and I wish I had been friends with. She’s very assertive. She knows when she needs to stop. She has an idea of herself, she’s sure of who she is. She has a really great community. She has best friends. Her parents love her. She’s excited about school.
People always ask me, “What part of you is in the book?” It’s the excitement about school. I loved school. I loved going back-to-school shopping. I loved buying clothes and books and all the supplies. It was my favorite thing. Sam is only possible because the editor I worked with, Sidney Monday, on “Sam’s Super Seats,” read “The Pretty One.” In the book there’s an essay about chairs. I talk about the ways in which I give my chairs personalities and thoughts and ideas and names. She said, “I want you to be able to talk to children about the need for rest.” That’s how “Sam’s Super Seats” was born because I wanted to talk to kids and let them know that rest is also an adventure. You don’t have to push your body past its limits to be seen as worthy or a functional member of society. It’s OK to take a moment, take a breath and sit with the people who care about you and let them take care of you.
To me, Sam is a dream come true in that even I take from the characters I create. It’s the idea of interdependence, letting people care for you, letting people care about you, telling people what you need. I loved creating that book, thinking I need to be eager and excited to tell people what I need instead of looking at it like, “I don’t want to burden you with my problems.”
Kaplan: It’s so cool that it’s teaching kids how to advocate for themselves because especially if they’re going through medical stuff, being treated by doctors, they might be experiencing pain and going through certain things, and having the language for that, learning to advocate for yourself is so important early on.
Brown: Yeah, I think so, too. I always tell parents of disabled kids, when they ask, that you need to make sure that you’re not just speaking over your child but you’re asking them for what they need. When they get older, you won’t be in the room, and they should be able to speak for themselves in whatever way that is, not just verbally, but whatever way they can speak for themselves, you should teach them that at an early age. Doctors and the like will try to steamroll you if you don’t. I wanted Sam to be a sort of guiding light in that way, whether you’re disabled or not, but specifically if you’re disabled, to ask for what you need. To me, Sam is a really good example of the ways in which we should teach children how to care for themselves, how to trust their instincts, and how to speak up for things they need.
Kaplan: You’ve gone viral, you’ve written books, profiled people like Brie Larson. When you look back on the career you’ve built for yourself, what are you most proud of?
Brown: Ooooh! I think I’m most proud of the ways in which I’ve been able to connect with people. As a person who loves to tell stories, I’m a storyteller in any way possible, I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to connect with people, people like Brie, or I did the Town & Country cover with Selma Blair or any other profile I’ve done, any person I admired that I now speak to or am friendly with. I’m very proud of my ability to connect with people, whether they’re disabled or not. I always tell—poor Mandy. For many years Mandy Moore has been one of my favorite people. I used to always want to be friends with her so bad. She’s brilliant, funny, smart, so cool. She is all of those things. And when we became friends, it was because a bunch of people reached out to her saying, “Hey, there’s this girl named Keah. We can vouch for her. She’s a normal person. She’s not weird. You should be following her.” So she did. I remember the first three weeks of us being mutuals, she was so kind and so funny and so sweet, and I was so nervous. I was like, “I can’t say the wrong thing.”
Once we had a conversation when we did an Instagram Live for “Sam’s Super Seats,” and she said, “You never have to worry about being annoying to me.” And she said all these kind things. It’s really nice to have people who care about you share with you the things that they care about and why they care about you. Out of all my career things, personal and professional, I’m really proud of the way that I can communicate and the way that I allow myself to be myself. That seems to be good for people, to be the thing that people want to be my friend because of, my natural excitement, my eagerness, the way I smile all the town. I have been able to tell stories about real or imagined people and have still been able to communicate the importance of being just who you are.
Kaplan: You have a new book being released later this year, “The Secret Summer Promise,” a young adult novel. Can you give us any kind of tease about it?
Brown: Oh, yeah! I am a fan of the romcom. I love a romantic comedy. One of my favorite tropes in the world is friends to lovers. People are always like, “Oh, my God, friends to lovers, it’s so tired!” No, it’s not. It’s wonderful.
The book is about a girl named Andrea who has spent all of her last summer in bed after a surgery. She wants to make sure that this summer she has the best summer ever. So, she and her best friend Hailey make a list. It’s called “The Best Summer Ever List.” They do things like go to a thrift shop pop-up, a Lizzo concert, the amusement park. They go skinny dipping at one of their friends’ lake houses. They’re creating this list. And Andrea realizes that she’s falling in love with Hailey, her best friend. She’s so eager to have the best summer ever and to keep it a secret. So, she meets a boy named George, and there’s this whole thing. It’s very cute. I’m so proud of it. It’s all the things that I’ve always wanted a novel to be. It’s got the friends to lovers trope. I’m queer, so it’s got this LGBTQ representation that I personally have longed to write, but now that I’m out, I can actually write it. It’s a story about our connection to people and the ways in which we love ourselves and love each other and the ways in which life can happen in just one summer.
It’s all of the things I tend to talk about in my real life, but in a way where you meet these characters you fall in love with. Drew Barrymore is my favorite person in the whole wide world. Do I know her? Not yet. It will happen. Again, delusion. We’ll meet. We’ll be friends. She’s going to love me.
Brown: It’s an homage to her in so many ways, in the ways she has created characters that you instantly fall in love with, you root for, you care about. It’s a sort of homage to romance and my desire to see as many romantic people, romantic characters who are disabled, get their happy ending, and also just tell a story about friends who are figuring it out along the way. The ways I love to tell stories is happily ever after. We don’t know what will happen with Andrea and Hailey, but we know that Andrea will survive until the end of the book, that she’ll thrive, that she’ll figure it out. That’s very important to me. I’m so proud of this book. I’m proud of my other two books, obviously, but there’s something special to me as a romcom love and a YA lover to be able to tell the story and hope that people like it. I think they will. I might be biased. I’m very biased. But I think that they will! (laughs)
Kaplan: (laughs) I think will, too, and I might be biased because you have a George in there.
Brown: You’re like, “Yes! A George!” (laughs)
Kaplan: (laughs) That sounds exciting. And I agree with you about Drew Barrymore. One time I saw her in person and I just stared at her for five minutes because I was so nervous and I did not know what to do, and then she walked away.
Brown: And you were like, “OK, cool!” I would do the same thing. It’s so funny. I try really hard to manifest things. I don’t know when it’s going to happen, I hope this year, but I’m convinced myself that I’ll meet her and maybe go on her show and we would be friends. But I would do the exact same thing. I would be like, (whispers) “God, it’s Drew Barrymore, it’s Drew Barrymore!” I was on the “Today” show after “The Pretty One” came out, and I saw Venus Williams walk through the dressing room. My mouth was completely wide open, I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s Venus Williams!” It was me and my literary agent being like, (whispers) “Oh, my God, did you just see her?” (laughs)
Kaplan: (laughs) You’ve accomplished so much already. What do you have next on your docket? What’s on your bucket list?
Brown: Ooooh! I’ve been taking acting classes since the start of the pandemic. I desperately want to act. I want to be in a movie or a TV show. I want to sell a movie or a TV show. A lot of what I want to do professionally is in the film and TV space. I want to write more books, obviously, but I really want to give myself the opportunity to try. That’s next on my docket. I want to write another book. I want to travel to London and Paris and Rome and Spain. I want to be able to look at my life and think the sky’s the limit. That’s next on my docket, to do it all.
And at some point, I don’t know when, but maybe before my 50th birthday, I’m going to sky dive.
Kaplan: Oh, man! That is one of my biggest fears! (laughs)
Brown: (laughs) I want to do it so bad, and I’m not even good with heights, but I want to do it.
Kaplan: That’s great. It would wrong of me not to plug this, but we do have a site called abilityE that connects casting with disabled performers. If you are curious about that, feel free to hit me up. We have that. And we are expanding to jobs behind the camera as well. That’s something that we’ve been working on.
Brown: That’s so cool! My film and TV manager, shout-out to Rachel, she’s had to handle me being like, “It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, right” every five seconds. And she’s like, “Yeah, it’s going to happen. Just keep working at it.” I will definitely check it out. Any and every opportunity I’m looking for. I think it’s another way to tell stories. I love it so much. Every time I talk to one of my friends who get to do it for real, even though you’re really doing it when you’re in class, but to do it for real, they’re like, “I love how much you love it.” I don’t think I’ll ever stop. Again, it’s the Drew Barrymore fan in me, to be able to create characters who you instantly fall in love with and let that be across genres, whether it’s in a book or a screenplay, or I’m saying somebody else’s words. Any way I can do that is a dream come through. I hope to break into film and TV and have a show or a film catapult me to a place where I’m doing it for real.
Kaplan: I see that for you. I think you’re one of those people who can do it all.
Brown: Oh, thank you! I hope so! The more people can see people like me and like yourself doing the things that they want to do and trying, it makes it easier to say that we might not have the representation we need yet, but we can be our own representation. For me, oftentimes I am my own representation. We’ve got Jillian Mercado on “The New L Word,” and we’ve got Lauren Spencer on “The Sex Life of College Girls,” but it’s interesting for me because I desperately want to see somebody like me on TV or on film, people who don’t use mobility aids but are still disabled, invisible disabilities as well. It’s never to take away from those people doing the work right now, but it’s the idea that we have to treat disability less like a monolith and more like an opportunity to tell stories.
Kaplan: In “The Pretty One”, you said you grew up hating mirrors. What do you see in them now?
Brown: Oh, goodness! Do we have enough time? I see a woman trying her best. I see a woman who is excited and eager. My friends can all vouch for this, I’m the kind of person who if I’m excited about something, I’m texting you in all caps. I’m using exclamation points. The person I see now is a person who is trying her best, who looks great in a red lip, most of the time, and a person who just wants to be in the world and is excited about life for the first time. Before I hated mirrors so much because they reminded me of all of the flaws I knew I had, all of the things I thought were “wrong” with me. Now I see somebody who is a fully realized human being who wants to live her life and make herself proud and make the people who love her proud and who is a person whom, thankfully, people like to be around. Before, I never thought that. All I saw was things I thought were wrong, that I needed to fix.
Now when I look at myself, I see a person who is just a person. Sometimes I have good days, sometimes I have bad days. Having both, either/or, is a part of who I am. I look at myself and I’m like, “Yeah, girl, you’re doing your best. I’m proud of you.”