Editor’s note: Every Friday, HLN brings you the "My First Time" series, which explores the first time your favorite celebrities did something significant or memorable (so get your mind out of the gutter!).
In this installment, “Real Housewives of New York” cast member Aviva Drescher -- who is a philanthropist working with Boston Marathon amputee victims (she is an amputee herself) -- opens up about finding time to give back and the drama of the new season of RHONY. Drescher is on Twitter and her new book, “Leggy Blonde,” comes out this fall.
HLN: When was the first time you decided not to let an amputation define who you are?
Aviva Drescher: My accident happened when I was a child, so from the very beginning when I walked into second grade on crutches and missing part of my leg, I wanted to be like everyone else. I did everything possible to fit in. I didn’t want to be stared at or coddled or treated any differently. When I had to go up and down stairs to art or science class, I didn’t want to take the elevator -- I wanted to walk with the rest of the kids. I think it’s a combination of my instincts and survival of the fittest, and it’s carried throughout my entire life. I’m a regular girl who is just missing a leg.
HLN: You had your leg amputated when you were only 6 years old and then again when you were 26. Was it scary the second time around? How did you overcome the fear?
Drescher: The second time around, I really needed to amputate for physical and cosmetic reasons. It was before I had a husband or children, and I didn’t want to be a slave to my leg when I brought children into my world -- I wanted to run around with them and not be derailed by the leg. That’s what gave me the strength to do it. For those first 20 years, when I had a prosthesis after an awkward amputation, the quality of my life was not as good. That changed when I amputated my leg: I had less abrasions, more function, and I was able to do so much more.
I was speaking with one Boston Marathon victim who was faced with a similar choice of having a very mangled leg that would not be usable or amputating it below the knee. She amputated, which was a tough choice, but she’d have more function. And I told her, “You made the right decision.” If losing a part of your limb will improve your life, it’s not a tough choice -- it’s a gift on a silver platter.
HLN: Why do you use your experience to empower other amputees?
Drescher: When I was a child, I didn’t have confidence, I didn’t know if I would be able to work or have children, or if anyone would love me and want to marry me. I didn’t have anyone to look up to in a way that if she’s doing it, so can I. It was a hush-hush subject when I was growing up -- no one was talking about it. But now people write to me, “I saw you jumping in the pool on ‘Real Housewives of New York’ and I know I’ll be ok.” That makes the headache of doing the show worth it! The show can be a pain, but these letters make it worth it.
HLN: You work with amputee victims one-on-one. How do you find the time for that?
Drescher: It’s so much more intimate and powerful that I make the time. It’s a priority because I feel like I can offer people hope in a situation that often seems hopeless. I brought another Boston Marathon survivor to a gala in New York and introduced her to an athletic amputee community, and she asked me how often I have to use crutches. I told her I haven’t used them in 20 years. She couldn’t believe it! After what she’s gone through, she realized there’s a light at the end of the tunnel where she can live a life without crutches. So I feel that if they see me in person and see me take my limbs on and off and watch me run around acting silly, it’s proof and not just talk that they’re going to be OK.
HLN: What else can you tell us about working with the Boston Marathon amputee victims?
Drescher: I met only women, and they had only met military men before me, so when I came in there as a woman, it was very timely. More importantly, I met people I’d want to be friends with -- they are so strong, positive, dynamic and fabulous.
HLN: You were just named the national spokesperson of the So Gay So What campaign for equality. Why did you decide to get involved with this organization, and what are your thoughts on the Supreme Court decision to overturn Prop 8 and DOMA?
Drescher: The decision is fabulous! Because of my status as an amputee, I know what it feels like to be different and to hide that difference and to be ashamed of that difference. It’s obviously very different, but I feel a complete connection to all human beings who go through the challenges of being different, whether it’s physical, sexual, religious, etc. We should love our differences, not fear them. So I feel a responsibility to stand up for these individuals -- it’s an honor to stand behind this group. We love people because of what they have in their hearts, and they have a right to love whoever they want.
HLN: You’re in the process of filming the new season of RHONY -- can you tell us what to expect?
Drescher: It’ll be great for you all, but not great for me. Whenever you get involved in the drama, which I seem to be at the forefront of, it’s a double-edged sword. I always call it gladiators with lipstick: Half the stadium agrees with you and the other half doesn’t. But this season is going to be one of the most exciting you’ve ever seen. It’s making massive changes, taking major turns and there’s so much going on, I can’t even believe it myself.