By Stuart Hughes
She's wowing audiences in the US version of Strictly Come Dancing and confounding her critics, but is Heather Mills an inspiration or irritation for other amputees?
Mills has impressed the judges
The spectacle of Heather Mills, amputee, activist and estranged wife of Sir Paul McCartney, shaking a (prosthetic) leg on the US television show Dancing with the Stars is shaping up to be the American TV hit of the spring.
Nearly 22 million Americans tuned in to watch Mills make her dance-floor debut.
Dressed in a flowing sequinned pink and yellow dress with pink elbow-length gloves, she wowed judge Bruno Tonioli with her foxtrot.
"You've got more guts than Rambo," he gushed.
Ironically, and perhaps not coincidentally, it was her upper rather than her lower body movements that were singled out by the judges as being wooden.
I should probably admit here to having something of a personal interest in how well Mills fares in the contest. Like her, I am also a below-knee amputee - the result of a landmine explosion in Iraq in 2003.
Even when I had two legs I was no dancer, so the idea of fox-trotting, tangoing or cha-cha-cha-ing in front of an audience of millions is unthinkable to me.
And aside from the issue of whether she is merely trying to rebuild her tarnished image after her bruising separation from Sir Paul McCartney, I admire her determination to take on the bipeds at their own game.
One gambling website is taking bets on whether Mills' leg will fall off during the series, pointing out her prosthesis "must fall off, not be purposely taken off, during a dance routine for all Yes wagers to be graded a win". If you want a betting tip from me, put a tenner on her prosthesis staying firmly attached.
The current generation of prostheses are secured with tightly-fitting silicone liners fitted with pins or suction seals, which roll onto the skin like a sock. The chances of Heather's flying into the audience during a high kick are precisely zero.
Mills told TV viewers she hoped her appearance would inspire others with a disability. "A little kid sitting there who's just lost a limb - I hope they're gonna go, 'oh, I can,'" she said.
Heather Mills' appearance on Dancing with the Stars is dividing US public opinion. The internet message board linked to the series is abuzz as her fans and detractors trade insults.
But is a dancing amputee on primetime television a genuine attempt to change attitudes - or just a TV freak show designed to boost ratings? Fellow amputees can't agree.
"My personal experience of Heather is of a kind and caring, ballsy, confident, perhaps sometimes outspoken lady, but her heart is in the right place," says Kiera Roche from the Douglas Bader Foundation, a charity which helps people who have lost limbs.
"Heather does a lot of good behind closed doors. I feel that her passionate and caring personality doesn't allow her to ignore the negative things that are said and written about her.
"I actually feel sorry for Heather because I genuinely believe that whatever she does she is going to receive negative publicity."
Mills campaigns for animal rights
Dan Sheret, an amputee and endurance cyclist from Wilmington, North Carolina, also believes Mills deserves credit.
"That she can do what she does and do it with grace and style is an inspiration to all amputees," he told me. "I don't care about her past. I just hope she'll continue helping others who are dealing with an amputation."
But others are less enthusiastic that Mills has propelled amputees into the media spotlight.
No lifestyle choice
"The problem is most people dislike Heather Mills - she almost gives amputees a bad name," says Margaret Tyson, who set up an amputee rehabilitation project in Manchester.
"I think she's a publicity seeker out for her own ends. It's a pity it isn't someone with less of a reputation than Heather on the programme."
"My feelings towards Heather Mills are mixed," says Steve Middleton, an above knee amputee from Vancouver Island in Canada.
"I'm expecting friends and acquaintances to say to me now 'I saw Heather Mills dancing, why can't you?' I'm a very, very active amputee so that does bother me a little. Pride gets in the way.
"I am sure none of the judges understand the differences between above knee and below knee amputees and what each is capable of."
While some may seek to portray Heather Mills as a symbol or role model for a whole community, there is no more unanimity of opinion about her among amputees than there would be among arthritics or asthmatics.
To us, missing one or more limbs is an unavoidable annoyance and not a lifestyle choice. Love her or hate her, the only person Heather Mills can ultimately represent is herself.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
When my father lost his leg and part of his hip through cancer in 2001, I wrote to Heather for advice on how I could help him, and she was brilliant and inspirational in her response and put me in touch with The Limbless Association, who were a great deal of help. None of us are perfect in our personal lives and I think Heather should be commended for giving her tim to help others, regardless of her private life.
As a double below knee amputee, people have in the past compared me to other amputees, normally seen on TV or in the media, and asked why I cannot run like them, walk as far as them etc. I think Heather Mills does remarkably well but her prosthetic limb is not typical of those provided via the NHS and she probably has various limbs for different occasions. Myself, I walk reasonably well, coach a successful local junior football team and hold a private pilot's licence. So I think I do OK.
I'm a through knee amputee, losing my left leg in a road accident in Zimbabwe in 1988. The prosthetic limb I use is nowhere near as hi-tech as her leg, and neither is it held on with straps. I have danced while wearing the prosthesis, and it has never fallen off. I personally don't like to draw attention to my disability - in fact the greatest compliment I can receive is when someone doesn't realise I am an amputee. In fact I can do almost everything I could do before my amputation. I personally feel Heather Mills uses her amputation for a lot of publicity. She seems to enjoy drawing attention to her disability, and I'm sure I'll be taken to task for this, but is the publicity for herself or her good causes? She certainly isn't my role model.
Sarah Todd, Izmir, Turkey
My husband, a below knee amputee, would love to be able to dance - but most of his day is spent in constant pain and just walking a small distance can cause him pain. The last thing he needs is someone saying "I saw Heather Mills on TV last night doing a high kick why can't you?" Every amputee's needs are different and I wish Heather would promote that more.
Kay Wakefield, Chippenham
I didn't think I'd appreciate her (too soon after the "whole divorce mess") but I am pleasantly surprised to find her fun and gracious. Most of all she can dance! Not just the "flip" thing - I'm talking about her grace and flow, her footwork and her sexy mambo hip and shoulder work. She's having fun and it shows. Go Heather.
Kris , Whitingham, VT, US
You don't need to like Heather Mills to find her inspirational. Also, what is so wrong about her using her celebrity to get publicity? After all, is that not what the other contestants are doing? At least she uses her celebrity to highlight disability issues and animal welfare charities.
Gavin Park, Manchester
We just can't avoid it, can we? Despite all the PC talk and the disability discrimination legislation, here's another story that defines a person in terms of a disability. Heather is first an amputee, then an activist, then someone's wife. It's just the same as racism really. First see the colour, then see the person.
Bruce Hogg, Edinburgh, Scotland
At last, a disabled person who isn't automatically granted sainthood just for getting up each the morning and getting on with life. Shame the judges are so patronising, but at least the rest of us can see her as a person rather than a disability.
I am a Brit living in North America and have been watching Dancing with the Stars. The judges don't patronise, Bruno's comment about having more guts than Rambo was caveated with "I just want to say this and not mention it again". She has certainly changed my opinion.
Juliet Stone, St John's, Newfoundland, Canada
A lady loses a limb and still has the strength and courage to move on - even to get up and dance in front of millions of viewers. Yet there are people who are uncomfortable with this. Heather Mills has just gone up a notch in my estimation, and she is a true inspiration for a lot of people: those with AND without two full legs! Rock on, Heather.
Kwemah Addey, NJ, US
My brother lost his left leg above the knee in 1979 due to a bone cancer. Not only he regained completely his walking skills with a prosthesis, but he was driving his Vespa (in Italy), then the car and he participated in a racing car school driving with the ex-F1 pilot Clay Regazzoni. He then turned his attention to skiing and became a good skier with the so-called outriggers, a mix between ski poles and small skies to keep balanced. He was also a break-dancer at the time this style came in fashion. Some people with an handicap can overcome them with their desire to feel "normal".
Massimo Zuban, Holtsville, NY, US
I think anyone who dances on these shows is admirable. To do it with one leg, is not, I think, more special, as she has the latest legs which are well fitting and is obviously a talented lady in the first place. The amputee part, while headline catching, is largely irrelevant - are we just ghoulishly watching her because of her prosthesis? My dad learned to walk again in his 60s after a lower leg amputation, and his achievements in regaining his mobility and lifestyle are no less spectacular than those of a high profile amputee.
I have yet to grasp what Heather Mills has done wrong (other than the fact that she is divorcing a saint, apparently). Pick up any magazine off the shelf in a newsagent and you will find hundreds of attention-seeking celebrities, most of whom will be promoting their latest album, calendar, perfume, fashion range or whatever else. I can understand that making the disability the story is a bad thing, but if Heather Mills really is using her disability to garner attention, is that any different to the countless other celebs shoving their cleavages, pecs and crotches at the eagerly awaiting cameras of the paps?
Heather Mills is simply marvellous and puts us to shame when people don't like her simply because she split up with Paul McCartney. She is inspirational, hard working and a gutsy lady who is not afraid to speak her mind. Hopefully, she will receive the true recognition she deserves from everyone regarding her charity work.
Tricia Barratt, Manchester
Despite Heather's past, I am impressed and it's a distinction to her. This will obviously give hope to the other amputees. When things like this happens to one's life, there is always no hope for tomorrow and for her to perform in a such competition, it's a great courage. We need such people in our society they always give a meaning to life again. Am proud of her.
Maureen Karen Makoko, Lilongwe, Malawi
If Heather Mills' dancing gives inspiration to other amputees then that is a good thing, but all the entrants to Dancing with the Stars should be judged equally and fairly on their ability, regardless of their physical appearance, personality or popularity. It has been said that Heather Mills gives amputees a bad name; I would say that that will only be the opinion of stupid people who are going to view all amputees on their little knowledge of one famous person.
So it turns out she can dance better then most able-bodied people, and was shown doing some sort of back flip. Kinda cool, but should she still have a disabled sticker on her car?
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