What It’s Like to Be a Little Person in a Very Big City

By
Photo: Photos: John Choi; Getty Images

Achondroplasia (or ACH) is the most common type of short-limbed dwarfism, affecting between 1 in 15,000 to 40,000 newborns, according to the NIH. The term literally means “without cartilage formation” — those who have ACH, which is caused by a gene alteration, cannot properly convert their early-childhood cartilage into bone, especially in the arms and legs. The result tends to be an average-size trunk, short arms and legs, and especially short upper arms and thighs.

In the United States, the average height of an adult man is five feet nine inches, but little men average four feet four inches (their female counterparts are slightly shorter, averaging 4 feet 1 inch). While it can be detected in utero, official diagnosis typically occurs shortly after birth.

In the entertainment industry, little people are famously typecast as spectacles or quirky sidekicks defined by their height. Keenan Rance Sephus Nix II is a little person from Atlanta and an aspiring actor determined to change the way little people are represented and thought about. Recently, having taken control of his own image online using YouTube and social media, he moved to the biggest city in America to find fame.

How tall are you?

I’m 24 years old and I am 4 foot 6 inches. I stopped growing when I was in high school. I have achondroplasia, which is the most common form of “dwarfism.” Even though I’m short by average standards, I’m on the taller side in the dwarf spectrum. I was the firstborn, so I was the leader. I was raised just like my little brother and sister. I’m the only person in my family who is a little person.

How do you self-identify?

The term that isn’t to be used, ever, is midget. It’s like the N-word. It has a terrible history. The preferred term is little person or person with dwarfism. But I just say my name is Keenan Rance Sephus Nix the Second. “Midget” doesn’t define me, “little person” doesn’t define me — none of those words define me.

How’d you develop such a positive attitude about it?

Early on, I knew I had prove to people that I’m human. I’m little, sure — I’m very, very little for a man. But I am a cool guy. So I’ve had to make a real effort to be positive. I have met so many little dudes who have short-man complex. They’re defensive and very aggressive because they feel like they have to prove themselves. They have to be aggressive to feel big. Every now and then, I’ll encounter a bitter shorter person and I think: Just chill. You don’t have to compensate. You don’t have to prove yourself. Not everybody is looking at you.

I used to be aggressive about it, but I realized over time that it’s much easier to embrace my difference.

Where has that led you?

I want to be the first little person in New York Fashion Week. So last February I tried to be in Kanye West’s “Yeezy Season 3.” I didn’t think Gucci or a Louis Vuitton would make sense because they have an aesthetic that’s not really … me. I did my research: I don’t have representation, so I can’t go to casting calls. So I was like: I’m gonna network this.

How?

I emailed all his creative associates. Hit them up on Instagram. I looked on LinkedIn, and anyone who said they worked for Kanye West I emailed. I Facebook-messaged some people. I set all my alerts for when people on his creative team tweeted. I ended up finding out where the casting was. I just hopped right in line, and as I stood there, I was blown away. All the models were diverse. It was the most diverse group of models that I’ve ever seen — all so beautiful. Different ethnicities, different hair colors. A rainbow! But in a room full of all this diversity, I was the most diverse. There was no one in the room who looked like me. I out-diversed them. I’ve always been proud of who I am, but in that moment I was especially so, because I realized that there isn’t anyone like me in the whole world. There’s no other confident, cool, 24-year-old, African-American entertainer who happens to be a little person. I said: Whether I get this gig or not, I better milk that until the day I die, because there’s no one who looks like me at all. I’ve always stood out. I get that, but when I was in the room, it was a real epiphany. I said: “Rance, anything that you create, anything that you do, is going to be unique because there’s no other person like you.” It was such a proud moment.

Did you get a role?

No, but when I walked out I cried tears of joy.

Why?

Because I achieved what I wanted. And what I wanted was to be seen.

I’m guessing you didn’t stop there.

You got it. I knew where his loft was from my internet stalking, so of course I waited outside to pitch him. It was February, and it was cold, cold, cold — in the 20s. There was another kid waiting for Kanye, and we waited together. It got so cold the doorman took pity on us: He said Kanye comes home really late. I was like — to my new friend — “Hey, man, let’s go see a movie”: The Room across the street. The doorman was nice and was like, “Yeah, I’ll let you know if you miss him so you don’t sit out here all night.” So we run across the street and watch one of the most dramatic movies ever and we are already nervous because we’re trying to meet Kanye West. But my new friend sat behind me in the movie theater! I don’t know if he didn’t feel comfortable around me because he didn’t know me or if it’s because I’m little. It was weird. After the film, Kanye pulls up in his Mercedes. I pull out my comp card, and as soon as he hit the pavement, I said, “Kanye, my name is Rance. I love your work. I love what you do. I’d love to be the first little person in Fashion Week in the biggest show in Fashion Week. Let’s do it.” And he’s on the phone and he graciously tells me that he has nothing to do with casting. I’m looking at him and my face is going What? I actually felt my face go “What?” Then he looked at my comp card and said this is dope. But then he did something that I’ll never forget: He gave it back to me. I just remember grabbing it from his hand thinking, Oh, no! He’s giving it back to me! Then he went up to his fancy apartment.

Why did you decide to move to New York?

I came here to pursue acting. I always loved being in front of people. But my high school only had a musical-theater program, and I can’t sing. In freshman year, I found a way to get onstage by doing the Hunks for Heroes male philanthropy pageant. I competed and won. That was pretty much the beginning — I challenged a football player to a pushup contest and I beat him and I’ll never forget the adrenaline rush. That led to me hosting more events at the school, and then I got asked to do a rap video for the football team and that went viral. I realized I thrive when I’m in front of other people: By senior year, I was hosting maybe two or three events a month. And then I started getting paid; people were giving me gift cards to restaurants you only eat at with your parents. I got a massage at a spa. In senior year, I hosted a sorority dance competition in front of 2,000 girls.

How did you get into doing YouTube videos?

The first video I made was a hype video for my college’s football team that was playing in the SEC championship that year. It went viral in the Southeast, where college football is everything.

Later I had the idea of doing a surprise performance at the student center the night before finals started. I convinced my roommate to dress up as Elf and we came up with the name Polar Opposites: I was Santa. You would think I’d play the elf and he would be Santa, but we switched it up.

When I did those videos and danced around in a Santa suit, I did it on my own terms. I didn’t dress up as the elf, and I was comfortable running around and making people smile. My friends and the people who knew me around campus thought it was dope and appreciated the videos. However, to strangers or people who didn’t know me, the videos came across as “that ‘midget’ running around in a Santa suit.”

Is that what made you stop making videos, that people who didn’t know you would see them so differently from the people who did?

I made a video called Cupid Rance. I ran around in some red-and-black Calvin Klein underwear with angel wings and lip-synced to “Happy Valentine’s Day” by OutKast. I did it because I’m comfortable in my skin and I think I have an awesome physique. Again, the video was well received by my friends and people who know me. For strangers, though, it looked really comical — the stereotypical little-person role. I got offers to be a leprechaun for St. Patrick’s Day and a male stripper at bachelorette parties. That’s definitely not the route I want my career to take. I realized I can’t do these comical videos any longer. I just have to be way smarter and not gimmicky.

Typecasting must be a real concern. Do you ever worry about that tension between celebration and exploitation or that you have a burden to represent all “little people.”

It’s difficult to book roles, and it’s difficult to audition. It’s very difficult to be taken seriously as an actor who just happens to have dwarfism. In Atlanta, pretty much every audition was for a little-person role. Little people have always been used in the entertainment industry as the joke, the sideshow, the freak, the funny character who’ll just jump around and do whatever. It’s very difficult to break that stereotype. If people aren’t feeling me and the industry’s not feeling me and recognizing that I’m a talented guy who happens to be a little person, I gotta show ’em what’s up.

I did a video called Cast Rance Nix, the premise being: Hey! When the directors and producers and people in charge in the entertainment industry appreciate diversity and produce content that includes a diverse cast, those shows end up doing 20 times better than any other show on television — whether that’s Orange Is the New Black, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Fast and Furious. All those shows with diversity, they kill it. It would be so much harder 15 years ago when there wasn’t social media. But now, the way I see it, I don’t have any excuses not to be creating and producing my own content. So — where are all the little people at? Why do little people still gotta be the dwarves and the leprechauns popping out of boxes?

When did you first become aware that you were different?

I was teased for the first time when I was in elementary school. People called me “big head” or “midget.” In third grade, I moved to a private Christian school where name-calling was strictly forbidden, but when I went back to a public high school, I encountered it again. In my senior year, this guy picked me up by my head. I couldn’t do anything. The bully was just laughing. It was very embarrassing. He apologized in the principal’’s office, but he didn’t get in trouble. But you know, I had totally forgotten about that until recently when Mom reminded me. I was like, Oh, yeah, that did happen and that hurts my heart a little bit. I guess I really block out the negative.

So you don’t harbor any ill feelings about that?

At the time, I wondered why he wasn’t expelled. Now I’m glad that they didn’t because they could have ruined his life. But what he did was very dangerous.

Did you feel vulnerable a lot when you were younger?

I was never sheltered or coddled or looked after in a special way, but I remember how I felt when I was told I couldn’t play contact sports. So I picked up golf — golf is a sport that doesn’t always reward brawn. My short game is impeccable — I say that to be funny, but in golf, they say drive for show, putt for dough.

Did you ever go through an angry phase?

High school was the hardest. I was very defensive. A classic example is when a female classmate asked me for a hug and I just screamed “No!” and walked away. Later, she asked me why I was so mean, so I explained that I’m not a teddy bear. I said: “Would you ask a tall person for a hug?” And she said: “No. But you’re so cute.” I told her that I’m a person, not a toy, and I would appreciate if you didn’t ask me for a hug. That’s when I realized it was more powerful to talk to someone and educate them. But there’s always a buffer period — I know that when I put myself in a new situation or go to a new place, people will stare, say things, or ask questions. When I started university, people would see me and ask for a photo. I said, “No!” This was before I learned that they are acting out of curiosity and ignorance. It’s unusual for them to see such a little man. I said to myself, Rance: Just be a cool little person.

Do you notice when people look at you?

I’m constantly asked to pose in photos. When people have been drinking, they get bold and say “There’s a midget!” If I get a chance to say something back, I’ll say: “Hold on. We don’t do that.” I make sure I say we — that gets them on my side. If I get defensive and scream: “No pictures! Leave me alone!” Then nobody learns anything. So I just say: “We don’t do that.” And then I shake their hand and introduce myself. I make myself human. And each time, I see how stupid they feel and then they apologize. If I’m mean and brush them off, my night is ruined and they win. If I can politely correct them, maybe they won’t say the same sort of thing to another little person later on.

So those encounters are always positive, in the end?

I have encountered people who are afraid of me. They run away or jump and scream.

Tell me about your first days and weeks in New York.

I moved here in the middle of July. I pulled up in my Uber and my roommate was sweating really bad and I’m thinking, What’s up with this guy? Did he just get back from a workout? Why is he sweating so much? We went up the stairs, and I realized there was no AC. We lived on the top floor. That’s when I knew things were real. I went straight to Bushwick. I didn’t go to Manhattan. I’m living in this warehouse-y, hipster part of Brooklyn just off Morgan Avenue.

What obstacles do you face getting around the city?

New York City is not very handicap-friendly; that can be difficult. Sometimes I’ll get on a crowded subway and my face is level with people’s more intimate parts, but I try and turn my head away or reposition myself just like anyone else would. I’m a master at maneuvering through a crowd. When I see a gap between people, like when a running back sees a hole in the defense on the football field, I take off! Oftentimes, when I’m out with friends and we head to the bathroom, which is usually in the way back of the establishment, I’m always the first to get there, because I’ve mastered the art of moving around people.

As a little person, you know that 99 percent of places aren’t going to be constructed for people of short stature. So I came to New York with my portable stool. It’s my very best friend. I use it in my apartment to reach things and to hop over the tub because it’s just a little too high. I also bought a stepladder so I could put stuff away in my closet, up top. Shelves are crucial when you don’t have a lot of space. But I don’t carry it with me. When I’m out shopping, I’ll sometimes climb up on the shelf like a monkey to reach things. I’ll do some scoping, and if the coast is clear, I will climb up; if not, I’ll ask someone who looks nice to help me.

Do you prefer not to ask because it makes you feel like you aren’t capable?

I always try to do it myself first. I always try to do everything I can by myself, so there’s a little bit of pride and a little hesitation when I have to ask someone else. But also let’s keep in mind in my neighborhood specifically — which is predominantly Hispanic — my main concern is finding somebody who speaks English.

Do people ever offer to help?

Only when they see me climbing on the shelf or it looks like I’m about to hurt myself and they’re like, “I got you. What do you need?” Most people respect that I’m an adult and I got it and I’ll take care of it. If I’m on my tippy-toes or if I have to jump for multiple items, someone standing near me will politely ask, “What do you need, dude? Oh, I got that for you.” And I’ll say “Thanks.” It’s nothing malicious. It’s nothing embarrassing. But when I do climb on shelves or sketchily reach for something, I look and make sure no one’s around, just so I don’t get yelled at. One lady told me, “Young man, you really shouldn’t do that. It’s not safe.” And I just laughed and said, “Okay, my bad,” and hopped down, but in my mind, I’m like, Ma’am, I do this. Let me live. You know? This is my thing, trust me. Don’t get it twisted. Don’t come after me. I do this everyday, I’m little but I know what I’m doing.

Are there things you have to avoid or can’t do?

Movies can be tough. If someone’s a little taller and I can’t see, I’ll move over. Or I’ll sit in a booster seat. I don’t care. I’m trying to watch the movie. I’m going to do what I have to do to make it work. Baby seat and all, who cares? You have to adapt — anyone with a disability will tell you what certain things you don’t have to think about become second nature to us. Rather than get mad at the tall person for blocking my vision, I’ll happily sit in a booster seat.

What’s it like for you in terms of personal safety? Do you feel okay walking around the city at night, for instance?

I live cautiously, but I don’t live out of fear. If I was ever physically attacked, I probably wouldn’t be able to fight back. That’s a fact. I’m just being honest. If I’m walking home late at night, I’m watching my back, making sure to watch my surroundings and be alert. Just like anybody else. I’ve read stories of little people who have been picked up in bars and tossed by some drunken person. Fortunately, that has never happened to me.

Were your parents worried about you going to New York alone?

They were all about it. They have never limited me. The minute I told my dad, he was like, “You gotta do it. That’s too big of an opportunity, a huge opportunity.”

Where do you shop for clothes?

I can wear a lot of the shoes that are exclusive to kids, which is very cool because I don’t have the same thing that other guys are wearing on the streets. All my pants and shorts I get hemmed. Shout out to Ms. Kim in Atlanta; she’s been my tailor for the past eight years. The key is to find a good tailor. I love fashion, so you won’t catch me in adult shorts that are meant for an adult. I’m not too proud to go into the kids’ store and buy some kids’ shorts and then go take them to the tailor. Crew Cuts by J.Crew, H&M, Zara, Abercrombie Kids for their more versatile stuff with no logos. I really wish I could wear the Nike Air Yeezy 2 Red Octobers, but they don’t come in my size. I really wish I could have capitalized on those.

Tell me about dating: Have you had any relationships?

Being little makes it difficult to date. Usually, I have a friend who is female and I ask them out and I get friend-zoned. I was really trying to pursue girls in college. I wanted a relationship. It was very difficult for me to constantly get told I’m a good friend all the time. I just want to be able to take a girl on a nice date and be able to have a friend that’s not a guy. But lately I’ve matured and told myself that there is a girl out there for me. She’s doing her thing and I just have to trust that and not get worked up when friend-zoned. But of course there are times when I just do not understand. I think: Why don’t you want to date me? Why won’t you let me take you out on a date? What I didn’t realize is maybe they’re just not feeling me. And that’s totally fine. And you know, in New York sometimes I go out and I’m so happy I don’t have a girlfriend because I wouldn’t be able to afford it. I mean really, I can’t afford to date right now. This city is expensive.

Are you attracted to other little people?

If I’m totally honest, I’m more attracted to average-sized people. But I know that height is just one aspect of a person, so I don’t discriminate. My future girlfriend could be six-foot-two or she could be little. It doesn’t really matter so long as we share the same interests and she can handle some stares from strangers.

Did you grow up with any other little people?

I actively stayed away from the little-person community. I always thought people create those communities ’cause they aren’t confident enough in their own skin, so they feel the need to hang out with their people. But last summer, after moving to New York, I had a change of heart. So I went to the Little People of America national conference. There are dances in the evening, activities in the city. I remember arriving and thinking, Man, look at all these little people! And I was like, Don’t stare, don’t stare. But it was just cool to see all the different types of little people all together.

How has your race shaped your life as a little person? In a certain way, you’re kind of a “double minority.”

I have always used that to my advantage. When I applied to my advertising internship, they only had a minority-scholarship internship. I could hear the woman’s voice over the phone kinda like, “Uh, sorry, it’s only for minorities.” And I said, “As an African-American who also happens to be a little person, I think I’m pretty diverse.”

How was it to find a day job when you first got here?

It was hard to find a flexible part-time gig. I worked at a quick-service biscuit place, and I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do — whether I was even going to stay in the city long term. But I needed an eye exam for the indie film that I was doing. I saw that Warby Parker does eye exams in the Soho store. When I went there, I checked in and started chatting with the people at the front desk. They seemed cool, so I asked for some candy — it was just after Halloween. They said, “Yes, but you have to answer the question of the day: If you could bathe in a food, what would it be?” I said, “Well, hot sauce, but that isn’t a food, so hot wings.” I decided that it could be a cool place to work. I asked, “Hey, are you guys hiring part time?” They called me in for an interview, and I got the offer the next day.

What’s it like working there? Do you like sales? Do you ever draw attention to your height when dealing with customers? I also imagine there’s a lot of reaching up high to get stock 

I don’t address it unless it’s raised. Sometimes when I approach people from behind and say, “Excuse me, is there something I can help you with today?” they’ll look over their shoulder and miss me. People rarely look down, so I have to raise my hand. I find that pretty funny. I just let my confidence glow. I give a firm handshake. I let my articulate answers shine. You see I get it. People are always going to notice. “Oh, that’s a little person,” or “Oh, he’s short.” As soon as I open my mouth, as soon as I give them that firm handshake, as soon as I tell a joke, my height goes out the window. I’m grateful for the personality that I have. I really try to avoid ever going into a new situation thinking Oh, man, I wonder how they’re going to react when they see me. When I was hired, I said, “Look, I see that the glasses are kept up quite high. I can bring in a stepladder.” When I arrived on my first day, they had ordered five step ladders and stools for the store and for the break room. As soon as they came in, I knew they were for me. They wanted to make me feel comfortable. And my teammates have always got my back. Sometimes it’s a little too crowded for me to pull out one of the stepladders to put the frames up. I know that I can go to any of my fellow advisers and go, “Will you put these back for me?” They’ve got it, no problem.

How do you find children react to you, and how do you react to children?

I coach golf camp over the summer for kids 5 to 13. Kids are very curious and very outspoken. Sometimes I’m a little nervous when they see me for the first time, because they’re trying to figure out if I’m a boy or a man or a little man. They see that I’m their height, but my facial features, build, make me look adult. That’s a big conundrum. Usually, they’ll ask questions: “Why am I taller than you?” or “Why are you so short?” They’ll walk up to me and do a little hand motion to indicate they’re taller than me. I know they’re curious, so I always say, “God made me this way.” That’s all I say. Their faces show that they are trying to figure out why I don’t care that I’m shorter than them. I can see it cooking: He doesn’t care that he’s shorter than me — what? But the beautiful thing about kids is when you give them an honest answer, they accept it. “I’m a little shorter than you, but that’s okay. Everybody’s different.” Then we have awesome relations: I’m literally on their level. I love that bond we have. Whenever I would buckle down or kind of enforce a little bit, they’d be like, “Why you suddenly being a boss? I thought we were homies!”

How do you fit in in Bushwick?

I live in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood, and when I pass groups of gentlemen, they’ll go “Hola, Papacito!” I’ll laugh and say, “Hey, hey, how are you all?” and they laugh too. They often call me Seniorito or Papito. It’s very good humor. I love it. I think it’s awesome. They see me as a little man. Papacito, or Little Papi. I’m cool with being Little Papi. But I will say that it’s been a struggle building deep friendships. Everyone’s so busy I definitely have my work friends at Warby — but with acting, you’re hopping around from production to production. It’s hard to make consistent friends.

How do you feel when average-sized people complain about their height?

Usually, I’ll joke: “I’m four-foot-six, get over it.” Or if it’s like a girl and she’s like “I don’t date short guys,” I’m like, “Hey now!” Or “Oh, so I guess you’re counting this boy out?”


Men who worry about their height to the point of obsession could learn a lot from you.

I’ve had my struggles, I’ve had my disappointments, but there’s no reason to be bitter, there’s no reason to be angry. Being negative is so much work. It’s a waste of time. Trying to change something you can’t change will just make you sad. I’m short, that’s it. I’m very grateful for parents who always made me feel “normal,” I’m grateful for my faith in God, and I think everyone is created for a specific purpose, and I know exactly what mine is. People always ask: “Hey, would you rather be taller? And I say, “Nah, I don’t think so.” Well, I mean maybe for a day…