YouTube phenomenon Zach Anner became a household name five years ago when he co-won Oprah Winfrey’s Reality TV competition, Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star. Though his wheelchair travel series, Rollin’ With Zach, was short lived, Anner has kept it moving. His YouTube channel has more than 300,000 subscribers, and tens of millions have seen his zany, fast-paced videos. Recently, ABILITY’s Lia Martirosyan, Zoya Minasyan and Chet Cooper sat down to lunch with the Austin, TX-based media star at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Universal City, CA. They talked about his new book, his flurry of projects, and life itself.
Zach Anner: What’s great about this hotel is that I stayed here for a month when I was competing on the Oprah reality show. So it’s like coming home. Everyone who was here when I won still works here, so the two biggest moments in my career are intersecting. It’s so cool that I can say “hi” to everybody.
Lia Martirosyan: They’re like family.
Chet Cooper: Did your publisher choose this hotel?
Anner: They chose it, and I think I’m staying in the exact same room as I did during the competition.
Cooper: And I don’t think they’ve cleaned it since!
Anner: Yeah, I just found an old pair of my underwear.
Martirosyan: What are you doing while you’re in town?
Anner: We’re having a book signing and an event at United Cerebral Palsy Los Angeles (UCPLA). I’m getting—this feels weird to say—their Trailblazer Award.
Cooper: Trailblazer. Sounds like a snack.
[Anner picks up a canister of M&Ms on the table]
Anner: With these, we’re halfway to trail mix.
Martirosyan: The Trailblazer Award, that’s interesting.
Anner: Yeah, it is.
Cooper: So you’ve met Dr. Cohen [who heads up UCPLA].
Anner: Yeah. He’s a really good guy.
Cooper: He took out my appendix. I’m joking. He’s a PhD.
Martirosyan: Where’s the award show?
Anner: At the Globe Theater.
Cooper: [to Lia] Did you ever perform at the Globe? Oh, no, that was the Apollo.
Anner: Really? I thought maybe you were a famous didgeridoo player or something.
Martirosyan: Only in China.
Cooper: Yeah. Lia sings opera.
Anner: My ex-girlfriend, who’s also my writing partner, came out here with me. She’s a singer-songwriter-harpist, but she trained to be an opera singer for a while.
Cooper: She’s lives in Texas, too?
Anner: No. Berlin, Germany. They have about four opera houses.
Martirosyan: Europe is riddled with opera houses.
Anner: How long have you been performing?
Martirosyan: A couple of years with that genre.
Anner: That’s great.
Martirosyan: But enough about me… tell us about that chair.
Anner: This is a chair that I got as I was traveling to Berlin to visit Gillian. We’d done a couple of road trips with my big chair, and it was such a hassle if we didn’t have the van with the foldout ramp. I figured: There’s got to be some option that I can use on the go. Now I can go anywhere with my friends, which is a big, life-changing thing. I can sit on it for as long as I need to. In Berlin it’s all cobblestones, and this has, like, no suspension. It comes with a cushion that’s not great, but then I put my normal chair cushion in it and it just collapses and goes in the back of my trunk.
I can grab an Uber now. I wasn’t able to do that before. Especially with international travel. Every time my normal chair travels on a plane, it’s a big ordeal, and things break off. This is pretty low, and it hasn’t broken yet. I would definitely recommend it.
Martirosyan: Sounds like you have a greater sense of freedom with it.
Anner: Yeah, and that’s what I’m always looking for. You want the world to be set up for you, but sometimes it just isn’t. It’s up to us to make the accommodations for all sorts of different travel scenarios. It’s amazing how many companies aren’t really in tune to the needs of different travelers. There’s just so many embarrassing situations that you go through when you travel. You have to have a sense of humor about it and take it in stride. My whole approach is to embrace spontaneity.
Cooper: Do you need an aisle chair when you get to a plane?
Anner: Yeah, and I do my whole Hannibal Lecter crossing my arms thing.
Cooper: You bring a mask?
Anner: Yeah, and I’ve done the Hannibal Lecter speech in the aisle.
Martirosyan: Ftftft… fava beans.
Anner: Yeah, but it can be weird for people who haven’t seen the movie and don’t know what I’m doing. Nothing like quoting Silence of the Lambs for people to question what kind of disability you have.
So what else is on the menu besides the UCPLA event and book signing?
Anner: Just going back to Austin to do a keynote at South by Southwest, and then onto New York for an event with another author. We’re doing a book conversation or something.
Cooper: You’re so prepared.
Anner: I find it best to wing these things!
Martirosyan: Did you get the title If at Birth You Don’t Succeed from the Aaliyah song [Try Again]?
Anner: No, but I’ve been contemplating doing a cover of the song, and replacing it with the title of my book.
I was humming it yesterday and thinking, “I should put out a video.” But it would be much better if you sang it.
Cooper: Do you sing?
Anner: No, but I just put out D’Angelo’s “How Does It Feel?” parody video.
Martirosyan: That’s a lot of skin.
Yeah, I did a 16-week fitness show on TV, where one of my goals was to recreate that “How does it feel?” video and be naked. And we did it! They didn’t tell me that I was gonna have to sing. I was like, “I’ll just lip-sync.” And they were like, “No, you have to come up with your own lyrics and sing them.” I have one of the worst voices in the history of recorded time.
Anner: So we did “How Does It Wheel?” instead of “How Does It Feel?”
Martirosyan: Funny stuff.
Anner: How could we do the cover for “Try Again?”
Martirosyan: Skype works wonders.
Anner: Yeah! Are you guys based here in Los Angeles?
Anner: I plan on coming back. I have too many friends here. It’s callin’ me. Usually the weather is really nice, but when I showed up, it was like, “Oh, El Niño’s here.”
Martirosyan: Did you just see somebody you know?
Anner: The waiter just flashed me something that said, “Chew bubblegum.” Every morning, when I was about to go to the Oprah competition, my friend used to say this line in a video game to me: “It’s time to kick ass and chew bubble gum.” There’s a strict policy that you can’t encourage anyone on a reality show, that would give them an edge.
Martirosyan: That’s really sweet. I read that in your book.
Cooper: I read different parts. I have a tendency to skip around.
Anner: We structured it so that if you want to just skip around, you can.
Cooper: I like what I’ve read so far. I don’t like the things I haven’t read so far.
Anner: Those are the worst parts!
Cooper: How did this trip come about?
Anner: We booked the UCP event first, and then we booked the bookstore. They contacted me because UCPLA was looking for somebody to give the award to this year, and I’d worked with Cohen’s nephew Brandon on a show I did called Riding Shotgun, where we asked Reddit where to go and what to do. Google helped fund that show.
Martirosyan: Google helped fund a Reddit show?
Anner: Well, it was on YouTube, but all of the suggestions and the people we hung out with were from Reddit. The co-founder, Alexis, did the foreword for my book. We just did an AMA (Ask Me Anything), where Redditors can just ask questions, and it got on the front page.
Martirosyan: That’s big.
Cooper: After the book, what’s next with your career?
Anner: I’m currently doing a Soul Pancake show called Top of the Monday, which is basically a good morning news show. It’s just me being silly, telling people about good news that’s going on in the world, putting them in the mood to start their week. We just got renewed for a second season.
Cooper: Once a week? What do people do the rest of the week?
Anner: They fall into a pit of despair and then we try and yank them back out—
Martirosyan: — the following Monday. Get them started on a good note. I like that.
Anner: And then, this is down the road, but I would love to get an international version of Riding Shotgun going, because that’s what I’ve been angling at ever since I wanted to do a travel show in the first place. My experiences of traveling abroad and going to Italy with my father, having to break down a gigantic electric chair to get on trains. You’ve got three minutes. You go to Pompeii and there are shockingly few accessible hotels in a city that was covered in volcanic ash.
I thought this should be a travel show, because a lot of people with physical disabilities get discouraged. It’s the same with this country. Even if you have an ADA room, every disability is so different that people need different things. A lot of times they’ll put something on the toilet to make it higher, and for someone transferring from their chair that’s fine, but I transfer from the floor so it causes more problems. But public transportation in Berlin is so good. Trains everywhere.
Cooper: And they’re on time.
Anner: Always. If you ask somebody the time in Germany, they won’t say, “It’s quarter to seven,” they’ll say, “It’s 14 minutes to seven.”
Cooper: I was thinking of Japan’s bullet train. If you miss one, you miss it by seconds. It’s so regimented, and also really accessible. South Korea’s really good, too.
Martirosyan: In South Korea they run with ramps to whichever bus you’re in.
Anner: Germany was like that, too. It had individual, accessible bathrooms, not a big stall at the end of a row. It was like, “This one’s just for you. We’ll only open it if someone with a disability is here.” That was huge. As awesome as this country is, there’s some things where Europe has us beat. Like in Europe, you’ll find bidet toilets. When I got my Oprah money, the first thing I bought was a really nice electronic bidet toilet seat. It just feels like this is what we should be doing. For everybody who uses it, it’s like there’s no goin’ back.
Cooper: They’re happier people. On your show you say, “Happy Bidet to you all.”
Anner: And “Take it day bidet.”
Martirosyan: Funny. How are you documenting your travels? Do keep a journal?
Anner: I’d never kept a diary before. Writing was not my medium. I preferred to do video. But I ended up meeting Gillian at the same time that we were getting together a book. We ended up working on it, and she recognized that I had a flair for certain things, and we’ve worked through it together so that the writing could be really good. It was the perfect partnership, just finding my literary voice and figuring out how comedy translates to the written word.
Cooper: And you still work with her?
Anner: Mm-hmm. She’s here now.
Cooper: Visiting or she lives here?
Anner: Visiting. We both came out for the book. She’s coming to my party, but there’s another one afterwards. She’s pretty connected wherever she goes.
Cooper: Does she tour?
Anner: Yeah, all over Italy. She’s getting ready for a tour of Scotland, and has a new EP coming out.
Martirosyan: Original songs?
Anner: Yeah. She’s done two EPs and two albums. That’s how I was introduced to her. She tweeted at me, and I clicked on her music, and I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is great!”
Cooper: What did she say?
Anner: I was comin’ out to LA at the time, and she tweeted at me, “Oh, LA’s lucky to have you. I love Riding Shotgun.” Like I did with all girls, I got her profile to see if she was cute and I was into it. And then I found her music, and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before and so cool.
I just love all the music. My grandma was a church organist for 40 years, and she got me into jazz music and great songwriters, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, all those folks. I can’t do it, but I have a profound respect for it.
Martirosyan: That’s neat. Have you done stand-up?
Anner: Twice. One was for Rollin’ with Zach. It was so crazy, because I was supposed to do a five-minute set at Caroline’s, which is the big club where Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K. go. They wanted the set to be based on my experiences from the two previous days of filming the show. So I had to write a comedy set and film a show at the same time. And it’s the second time I’ve been up on stage as a stand-up comedian with untested material. I was saying it out loud for the first time that night. It didn’t go how I expected, but in the best possible way.
Martirosyan: Hey as long as you got laughs. How long did the book take to write?
Anner: A year and a half. Writing every day across nine time zones because Gillian was in Berlin, and we were working together via Skype. It was pretty intense. I’m really happy with how it turned out.
Martirosyan: So is Lena Dunham. She gave you a nice review. Who’s filming your YouTube series?
Anner: My friends from the University of Texas. I’ve had the same friends for over a decade. My brother films a lot; he usually edits my Workout Wednesdays. All the people who work on my projects are amazing.
Basically, anything that would be physically difficult for me to do, we’re just like, “Okay, do it.” I come up with about 70 percent of it, but then I’m like lazy and we spitball a lot of things. My work is collaborative, which is awesome.
Martirosyan: Have you thought about getting into movies?
Anner: When I was a kid, I thought I would be an action-movie hero. I was like, “They’re gonna be able to CGI my legs by that point.” And then I realized that it was probably better if I stayed a little closer to who I actually am rather than trying to be Bruce Willis. I also realized that I was a really, really terrible actor. I was like, “I’d better be myself.”
Martirosyan: That’s a good thing to find out.
Cooper: So what you’re doing is reality?
Anner: Yeah. I haven’t found anything that I’ve wanted to say that I couldn’t do through either the Internet or the reality shows that I’ve done. Most of my work is comedy; it’s meant to inspire empathy in people and help them find joy. I used to be an insult comic, and I didn’t end up liking the way that I felt about myself. I didn’t feel like I was putting anything good into the world, even though it was funny. I wanted to do something more positive that would have an impact. So even when I’m doing naked push-ups or whatever, it’s astounding to see how people respond to it. We did a book signing and people came up to me. There was an expectant mother who was like, “I think we might name our child Zach because of your work.”
Anner: When that happens, it’s like, “Wow, I’m just getting naked and doing push-ups,” and it has a real-life effect on people.
Martirosyan: Because it taps into people’s inhibitions.
Anner: Yeah. That’s what I’ve tried to do. There’s a tendency to treat anyone with a physical disability as inspiring. I call it a pedestal of prejudice, in that you’re lifting people up to dismiss them. My whole thing is bringing us down to everyone else’s level and saying we’re all the same. The struggle is the same. You may not have a physical impairment, but you have things, whether it’s finances, self-esteem, it doesn’t matter. It’s cut from the same cloth.
Martirosyan: Disability is part of the human fabric.
Cooper: Eventually everyone acquires a disability in life, unless you die instantly.
Anner: The biggest disabilities are when you sabotage yourself mentally, those personal demons that get on your shoulder and you can’t shake ’em. Like, I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 29, and I thought it was because I’m in a wheelchair. And I realized that it’s not that, it’s because I listened to what the dismissive part of society was telling me and accepted it as truth. There was nothing that was keeping me from dating or falling in love other than the fact that I was scared of being rejected. And everybody has that fear. That’s a universal thing. The CP was a scapegoat for that. There’s a whole chapter about my unfortunate manscaping accident. I was so focused on, “I’ve got to look this certain way and do this to be ready for this.” So I missed out on a lot.
It’s so discouraging to hear people with disabilities who’ve given up say, “It’s because of the CP.” It probably has to do more with your attitude towards CP. That’s what I didn’t know for the longest time.
Cooper: We just saw a screening of the movie Margarita with a Straw, where the main character, who has CP, finds that all the things she went through were a result of her low self-esteem. It’s a good moral to the story, but lots of people are upset that they didn’t cast someone with CP in the role.
Anner: Was the movie good? Was she good in the movie?
Martirosyan: Really good.
Anner: I think you go with the best actor. Who’s to say they didn’t audition—
Cooper: I don’t know if people with CP got a chance to audition.
Anner: There’s obviously an issue with casting, but there’s also an issue with good roles. In my book, I talk about Breaking Bad being the most brilliant show ever, and even minor characters have subtle nuances and are fully drawn. But Walt Jr. [who has CP] is the only character who’s a device for all the other characters around him. Having a son with a disability helps makes Walter White a more sympathetic character. There’s no story line that shows Walt Jr. going through the things that you go through as a teenager with a disability. It’s always his relationship to other characters. That was my issue with it.
There was an agent who wanted to book me for Glee. He lied and said I could sing. He was like, “If you need a guy in a wheelchair who has a great voice, I’ve got your guy!” I was like, “What are you talking about?” When I read the script, the whole premise was that all the high school kids were being cruel to this kid in the wheelchair, and then the quarterback comes along and has a heart of gold and takes him out of a Porta Potty. That’s too often what I see in media, that the characters with disabilities are there to make other people seem like heroes for treating the character with a disability with respect. Those are the kinds of roles that are out there.
Martirosyan: Which makes what you’re doing even cooler. You’ve branched off into your own thing and you’re avoiding all that nonsense.
Cooper: When do you think you’ll come out to LA?
Anner: Probably in May. There are so many people out here, like the co-winner of the Oprah show, Kristina Kuzmic, who is one of my best friends.
Cooper: How did her show go?
Anner: I guess as great as mine; we were both canceled after three weeks.
Cooper: Not much time to build an audience.
Anner: We shot six episodes, but they aired them in hour blocks.
Martirosyan: Did you hear anything from Oprah after it got canceled?
Anner: No. I did get a call telling me it was canceled, and they’ve been really supportive as far as letting me out of my contract early so that I could pursue other work. And any time I’ve needed promotional materials, they’ve been really gracious. They’re cool people. But I haven’t spoken to Oprah herself. She had so much going on, since her network show was wrapping up at the time we were shooting. I can’t fault her for that.
Cooper: She’s a busy lady. So she hasn’t said anything about you stalking her?
Anner: Not so far. I try to tuck myself down into the shrubbery.
Getting back to the magazine, what are some of the issues that are in the disability community now that I’m not tapped into? I remember a few years ago, we might have actually had this debate about person-first language, that I didn’t think that it should necessarily be the focus. I think people should be able to refer to themselves however they want to. I think the thing for me is always, if the emphasis is on language and people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, then it stops then from initiating a conversation or asking a question. I got into trouble with some people for saying I was a wheelchair-bound lady magnet, ’cause they said I’m not bound—
Martirosyan: But that is funny.
Anner: I think it’s funny. And for me it’s true, because technically I can get out of my wheelchair and crawl around and do things, but when I’ve traveled and they’ve lost my wheelchair in transit, I feel like I need to be bound to it. My functionality and autonomy are often bound to this. And I never want to make it seem like if somebody says the wrong thing, coming from the right place, that I’ll shut them down because of a word choice. I’ve been to conferences where people are almost antagonistic because they were saying you have to use these certain words. If we all have to say the same thing, then it sort of takes away some of that personhood we’re fighting for. Which may be an unpopular opinion, and I may be missing part of the argument, but it’s what I’ve experienced. Call yourself and define your relationship to your chair the way you want to, or your disability the way you want to.
Cooper: What you’re saying is the individual describing it. What they’re saying is that they’re trying to change society from using the disability as the primary identifier of a person, such as “that disabled person.” That’s why they’re trying to switch the language, putting the person and their ability first, and their disability down the line.
Anner: The most important thing is to have the conversation, and let people who do make mistakes feel comfortable enough to continue the conversation.
Cooper: You’re right. There’s so much fear around disabilities and different modalities of fear. One of them is language. We deal with employment issues as well. There’s fear of litigation, fear of peers. Will they accept somebody who might be looked at as a token hire?
Anner: I think that’s where it comes into play, when you are just looking at a document or whatever and you see the word “disability.” Does that automatically trigger something in you that denies someone their personhood? I always say, once I get in a room, I can sell myself just fine. I know that not everyone who has a disability has the social skills or cognitive skills that I do, and it may be harder for them to navigate through.
For me, if I can get a job interview or get in a room, it’s fine. I feel a lot of personal responsibility to undo the negative stereotypes. I know that it’s not coming from a bad place. It’s coming from an ignorant place. I can sort of be an ambassador in a subtle way to say, “This is what I am: a comedian, a show host, a writer.” It will still always be part of the conversation and people will want to focus on it because there is a culture that is so embedded that if you have a disability, you’re someone to be either admired just for living, or be pitied for having to struggle. CP is a struggle, but it’s also been quite the tool for me to find success and deliver a message. It’s something about me that’s unique, so it’ll open a few doors as well as keep a few closed. If you have the other tools that you develop as an individual, talents, things like that, you can harness this to do positive things in the world.
Cooper: I talk about ignorance a lot and how it’s curable.
Anner: Definitely. The thing to do is just make sure that as part of a disability community, we’re not isolating ourselves by drawing differences for the sake of progress. If everything was perfect, it would always be a person-first conversation, but whenever I have the opportunity, I lead with my personality. If they’re looking and seeing the disability first or the chair first, I know that I have the ability to change that.
Cooper: You do have a great personality, intelligence, wit, but not everyone does, so they have another roadblock when they encounter people’s attitudes. We deal with it in our employment program, abilityJOBS. Some companies are reluctantly hiring people with disabilities, but I don’t think enough of them are embracing the talent out there irrespective of the disability.
Martirosyan: Do you do anything with nonprofits?
Anner: I do a lot of conferences, and I did a campaign with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation called “Just Say Hi.” They get celebrities to record little messages about how you start a conversation with someone who has a disability, which is to “Just say hi.” I’m going to do some events with Easter Seals. I’ve come to be pretty selective about the type of advocacy that I do, because I kind of feel like it’s stronger to just do my work and let it speak for itself. I make funny shows and put a positive message out there, showing people who have body image issues that… you don’t have to look a certain way.
Cooper: I think a lot of entertainers who have disabilities struggle with where to make appearances. They get invited to disability-centric events, where they’d just like to be the entertainer, the talent, in a mainstream way.
Anner: Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to that many kids who had disabilities. I was mainstreamed, which was great, but I never felt like I had a disability. I realize that in not having anyone else with CP to talk to, there were certain things I missed out on. My support system was mainly family and friends. Now I’m finding as an adult that there are certain things that it would be nice to know how to do a better, to be able to talk to other people and ask, “How do you do this?” Like how to have a family and things like that. My whole family is in the Zach bubble. We just do things the way we do things. It’s one thing to take care of yourself, it’s another to be able to be depend on someone else, which is something I learned very late in the game with my first relationship.
“Now I need to be the somebody someone else counts on.” I never had to worry about that. It’s always been that I’m the center, and didn’t even realize it. It’s a real learning curve. If I had met other people who had started families, who were living independently, and the ways they make that work for them, things would be easier for me.
Cooper: What do your parents do?
Anner: They’re both semi-retired now. My mom’s a theater teacher. She does this thing called arts in healthcare where she works with kids in the hospital. She does art projects with them. My dad was a bartender most of his life. He’s also an inventor. He made a bag on my big electric wheelchair that is on a pulley system, so I can yank it around and whoosh it back. So many people in wheelchairs have backpacks, and whenever you need something, you have to ask somebody for help. He was like, “How can we make the world more accessible to you?”
Cooper: How do they feel with the Zach bubble dissipating with you being out on your own and maybe even moving to LA?
Anner: I’ve lived with my brother for the past decade or so because we do the same thing. We’re both filmmakers. We help each other out in different ways. But now that I’m 31, I’m thinking, “What do I have to do if I want to start a family?” How do I make the rest of this life work? I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I’m pretty happy with where I’m at. I think people know what I stand for. They really respond to my work. But there’s still some living things I haven’t quite figured out.
Cooper: Don’t let society pressure you on, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend and a family?”
Anner: But those are things I want. It’s something that has never been on my radar before. I have these ideas about what that would be like and say, “I’d be great at that.” And yet I don’t know how to be supportive as a parent or spouse.
Cooper: In the beginning nobody does.
Anner: And I’m such a space cadet that I could totally run over a kid and not notice.
Cooper: That’s why they have vocal cords.
Martirosyan: Just tie a bell around their neck.