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Do You Mind if I Put My Hand on it?: Journeys into the Worlds of the Weird

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      Do You Mind if I Put My Hand on it?: Journeys into the Worlds of the Weird
Mark Dolan

Mark Dolan meets the world’s most extrordinary people. Previously published as The World’s Most Extraordinary People… And Me.Looks aren’t everything. But what if, like the owner of the world’s biggest enhanced breasts, the man who turned himself into a cat or the seven-year-old who can benchpress his own bodyweight, they mean you are totally unique?Inspired by his hit Channel 4 series, Mark Dolan is determined to find out more about these extraordinary people.This is the story of that quest: an intelligent, heartfelt and moving account of the lives of some of the most special and unique people the world has to offer.


Journeys into the Worlds of the Weird

Mark Dolan

This book is dedicated to anyone who doesn’t ‘fit in’.

Table of Contents

Cover Page (#ud1b71877-5ecd-52bd-be35-68bf0e2d978e)

Title Page (#uee9889df-2937-5061-9d47-947f8e415882)

INTRODUCTION (#ufcc9a327-4077-53e4-a045-580d8bbf7789)

CHAPTER 1 The World’s Most Enhanced Woman and Me (#u868734cb-85a4-5a58-bbfe-58e5881dde80)

CHAPTER 2 The World’s Tallest Woman and Me (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER 3 The World’s Biggest Family and Me (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER 4 The World’s Cleverest Child and Me (#litres_trial_promo)

CHAPTER 5 The World’s Smallest Man and Me (#litres_trial_promo)

EPILOGUE (#litres_trial_promo)

Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo)

Copyright (#litres_trial_promo)

About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo)

INTRODUCTION (#ulink_0445dcb7-1877-531c-8b55-5226f59c70ea)

Over the last three years, I’ve met some of the world’s most extraordinary people. Normally, the term extraordinary is used with more than a generous dose of poetic licence. Not here. The human beings I’ve encountered are some of the rarest examples of what nature has to offer up, both in the physical and the mental form. People so utterly alien to what is familiar, that they make a hopeful on Britain’s Got Talent look almost normal. I’ve been in the company of the tallest woman on earth, the smallest man, the cleverest child (according to their parents at least), the largest families, and the most enhanced women (yes, OK, largest breasts). I’ve examined at close range the hair on the face of the hairiest man on Earth, and I’ve even embarked on a road trip with a man so hooked on plastic surgery, he has literally turned himself into a cat.

There was a fierce debate about whether some of these individuals were really record breakers. Some, such as the diminutive men, had their claim for being shortest confirmed in seconds, with the help of my B&Q tape measure. But whatever the measuring technique, which sometimes boiled down to good honest judgement, I gained unprecedented access to a whole range of human beings who are officially extraordinary. People whose physical attributes, whether God-given, or courtesy of a dodgy plastic surgeon in Brazil, mark them out as true one-offs, in the strict definition of the term. Phenomena of nature. People born or butchered to be so demonstrably different from the norm that the footprints they make on the human story are indelible.

Alongside the people I met who were born different were those who chose different. Like the appropriately named Mohammed Daad, a sexed-up, one-legged pensioner in the Emirates who, at the time of writing this, had spawned his 84th child. Reassuringly, more than one exhausted woman was involved. This man was the Hugh Hefner of the Middle East, even though, under the unforgiving Arabian sun, his harem looked more bunny boiler than Playboy bunny. People like Mr Daad are unique because they have opted for a lifestyle which, for most of us, would at best be described as absurd, and at worst as undiluted hell. And they have made choices which take an iron will, money, tears, blood and a massive amount of human fortitude. But why do they do it? And how do they do it?

Examining motives proved to be a central question in my journeys. Not only the motives of the person at the heart of the story, but more tellingly, those around them. The drunken brother-in-law claiming to be the unique person’s agent, the ‘loving husband’ who struck me as a glorified pimp, the proud parent eager to get his seven year old out of school and into university.

I really wanted to uncover why someone would choose such a wildly different lifestyle from the norm, and why, if you look different because of an incredibly rare genetic or medical condition, you would choose to make a career out of that. All too often I found it was the influence of someone else, whether driven by lust, pride, financial opportunism or just an instinctive desire to be around someone that is, for want of a better word, special. But were these other, shadowy figures well meaning, assisting that person to profit from their rare talent? Or were they no better than the bejewelled ‘assistants’ who guided Elvis to his last loo break?

It wasn’t enough, and it wouldn’t be enough, to get to the tallest woman in the world – allegedly Yao Defen in Shanghai, China – say hello, get the tape measure out, and then go home. Or to have my eye nearly taken out by the largest breasts in the world, congratulate their owner and then politely leave. The whole purpose of the endless air miles I notched up (Al Gore hates me) was to know the real person behind the well-distributed photo or YouTube clip. Who is this person? What are they like? How do they feel being different? Are they extraordinary, or surprisingly normal? And is this human fascination with people born different, or who have made extremely unusual choices, actually indicative of something freaky in us? I was convinced these are people we can learn from and must learn from, because their journeys as people, whether self-inflicted or genetic, are completely unique. They haven’t just taken the road less travelled in life, they’ve got down on bended knee and built the road themselves. That’s primarily why I embarked on this journey. That, and I love those nuts you get on airplanes.

On revisiting these amazing stories, one of the most difficult parts of the process has been deciding who not to include. I was so moved by those vulnerable and brave individuals living life with terrible obesity, like 88-stone Manuel Uribe and 46-stone Michael Herrera; Michael thankfully later found a solution in the form of dramatic gastric surgery and Manuel can be incredibly proud of himself, having lost 28 stone since his peak, and in the process earning himself a Guinness record for his astonishing weight loss. Then there were the other big families I met, including the charming Postigo family in Spain and the equally engaging Shepherds in England. There was Angela Bismarchi, the human Barbie doll from Brazil, Adora Svitak, the 10-year-old literary genius, and the Malms, two sets of married twins who live under the same roof – a typically dysfunctional set-up on paper which appears to work beautifully in reality.

The exciting thing about all of this is that as I retread these steps into the worlds of the extraordinary, I am going to take you with me. I hope you enjoy. I’m a reasonable travelling companion. My socks are always clean and I tend not to snore. Just one thing though, please eat with your mouth closed when you are sitting next to me, and also, may I politely ask you bring your own supply of chocolate. I share everything, but not chocolate. And finally, before we go any further, you ought perhaps to know just a little bit more about me. I’ll spare you the lengthy CV and instead, given its relevance to these journeys, will just briefly speed you back to my seven-year-old self…

I’m an unlikely traveller. I grew up in London and until the age of eighteen I’d mainly been to Tenerife, Ireland and Scotland. Does Scotland count as travelling? Probably only if you walk there. In a gorilla suit, for charity. So all in all, it wasn’t the most impressive travel CV. But my people CV, on the other hand, is a little bit better. Though I hadn’t clocked up many air miles by the time these journeys into the extraordinary had started, I had spent my life genuinely preoccupied with people.

I was born in and grew up above a lively and friendly public house in Camden, North London. In it, I had access to a steady stream of characters, some sober, some not, who generated an astonishing amount of colour into the early and formative part of my life. As a child, I would come home from school at half past four in the afternoon, satchel round my shoulder and enter my home via the public bar. As I made a beeline for the door (next to the crisps) marked ‘private’, I would invariably be sucked into a chat with a pensioner or a builder or a taxi driver; take your pick. At that moment I would be entreated to regale them with tales about what I’d learnt from school that day. I remember being roundly, but warmly, lambasted for having English lessons, given that I could clearly already speak the language.

Invariably, however, the great tales being regaled were coming from them. As a child, I suspect I was a somewhat unthreatening figure to whom the most revealing and emotive things could be said. And given this was a public house, the various tipples my father had on sale doubtless helped loosen their tongues and lengthen their memories. Given my parents are from the Republic of Ireland, Sir Robert Peel public house had a slightly Irish skew, though in fact the clientele was a fairly authentic cross-section of the London public.

I was the recipient of endless pieces of advice about the philosophy of life – what’s important, what’s not, what mistakes not to make and what mistakes to make. Pubs are reflective places, where people put their tools down and leave their troubles at the door. It’s a haven from all of life’s sharpness, even though it may be the very thing responsible for some of life’s sharpness too. It’s an environment in which to wax lyrical, escape, and, of course, to dream. So to be a bystander to all of this was not only a great privilege but rather addictive. Myself and my brother and my two sisters had access to a whole world downstairs, beneath our home. In fact downstairs was home as well; it was just a bit smokier. And I don’t know what it is about pubs, but you seem to get the best ‘characters’ in them. I’m not sure what defines a ‘character’; you will have your own definition. But we can probably agree it’s someone who has something about them that is so unique and quirky and a bit dysfunctional, that makes them both engaging and perhaps amusing. There are plenty in showbusiness; it’s a haven for oddballs, but it’s often hard to judge how genuine their quirkiness it is, and how much of it is a career move. But in any pub in the land, like the one down the road from where you are right now, there will be one or two people in there that are just different. Tragic, funny, insanely clever, weird, rude or, if you’re damn lucky, all of the above.

And while I find every person interesting – much to the opprobrium of anyone who happens to be with me when I’m getting on a bus, buying a coffee or just walking down the street – clearly there are those splendid few who have that certain something that turns our heads; something that makes you listen up, and that sometimes makes you want to run away. On one of my many flights recently, this occurred to me. I am doing now, what I did then, when I was seven years old. I am mooching around the place, looking for interesting people, keeping my mouth shut and letting them tell me their stories. I couldn’t tell you now, and I couldn’t tell you when I started the journeys, precisely how it’s done. I only know that my approach is to keep an open mind and hesitate to judge for as long as possible. And to see the best in people wherever possible. The World’s…and Me television series is a souped-up version of those early childhood journeys I made around the saloon bar of Sir Robert Peel pub. Then, as now, meeting a new person was like opening the first page of a new book. You are engaged enough to pick it up, but have no idea how it will play out. This I find immeasurably exciting, and it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. My life became my job for a while, which is cool. Now, with your help, and with the glorious power of hindsight, I’m going to go back there, to revisit these people and these places, and to look again. With fresh eyes, and without the jetlag. I sincerely hope you enjoy the ride. First stop, Vegas…

CHAPTER 1 The World’s Most Enhanced Woman and Me (#ulink_d47187db-500a-5b40-9b56-f02a67da94bf)


‘The boobs were my brainchild’ Minka’s story

I arrived in Las Vegas Nevada, and although a glance at the calendar on my Blackberry would confirm it was 2008, on arrival at the airport, it quickly became apparent that in Vegas it always was, and always will be, 1982.

I’m barely off flight BA766, and having bid farewell to UK civility and proper tea – and having tricked myself through passport control by trying to make the nature of this particular documentary sound as dull as possible so as not to stir the notoriously scabrous US customs officials – I’m greeted by a whole land of slot machines and crap tables. In fact it feels like you’ve come off the plane and walked straight into Trump Tower. There must be people who have fluttered away their fortune before even getting their bags off the carousel.

And the airport sets the tone for the whole town – fusty, chintzy and a little bit dog-eared. This airport, like Vegas itself, was genuinely glamorous and gilded and shiny, but a rather long time ago. I’d say it was around the time Peter Duncan was doing his screen test for Blue Peter, and when Margaret Thatcher was putting together her first cabinet. The airport carpet tells the whole story. It’s an Eighties psychedelic take on the kind of rich pile variety enjoyed by patrons of a typical Wetherspoon pub in the North of England. A heavy, dizzying pattern that feeds into the sense that a visit here will be eye-catching but neither pleasant, nor pretty.

Out of the airport, I experience three seconds of dry, dead Nevada heat hitting my pale, jetlagged skin, before jumping into my hired Toyota SUV, a machine that has been air conditioned to sub-Arctic levels. In fact, they have clearly solved the issue of global warming – and the answer, is for all of us to sell our houses and move into US-built Toyota cars. I’ve never been colder. My visit to the snowdrifts of Inner Mongolia to meet the smallest man in the world, where temperatures sank to below minus 20, felt like a beach holiday compared with my commute into Sin City. In fact my travels have given me a mild phobia of air conditioning. If you are going out for a night on the tiles in Vegas, or Hong Kong, or Dubai (I’m showing off now), may I suggest you dress for a particularly harsh Edinburgh winter.

Driving into this bizarre experiment of a town is indeed a surreal experience. It goes something like this: airport, then arid desert, then rubbish suburban bit (imagine a very hot Ipswich) and finally a version of Blackpool on a combination of crack cocaine, crystal meth and a particularly strong mug of builders’ tea. It’s like nothing you’ve seen in your life. But so is downtown Kabul – that doesn’t make it a good thing.

Vegas is a debauched, energy-guzzling, dollar-shredding party that runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and has been throbbing in the desert for about the last sixty years. It is the dark heart of the American dream, flying in the face of the USA’s predominantly evangelical Christian, puritanical culture. It’s like LA in that it’s a very wrong place, but like so many wrong things in life (liquorice, crushed denim, Russian pop music) it’s strangely comforting to know it’s there.

Vegas is all about scale, and inspiring awe. Just in the same way that churches and mosques and synagogues, and whatever it is Quakers hang around in, are designed to make you feel small and create a sense of a higher power, so here in Vegas you feel dwarfed by the size of everything, and the blinding brightness of it all. Driving the Land Cruiser into this adults-only playground, you are struck by a number of familiar sights – a mini version of the Eiffel Tower, a shrunk-down Venice and of course a pint-sized copy of New York City. The message to Americans outside Vegas is: shred your passport, everything that’s good about the world is right here. What a relief to know you’ll never have to worry your pretty little head about going to Paris ever again.

The huge problem with Vegas for me is that I’m not a gambler. So it’s like being a child in a pub – what’s the point? If you don’t gamble, you bypass the whole purpose of the place, rendering the experience utterly meaningless (once you’ve been to the mall, taken in the Bette Midler Show and bought an Abercrombie polo shirt designed for someone ten years younger than you, and considerably more ‘ripped’). It’s like going to Disneyland but not going on the rides, or going to Florence and keeping your eyes shut.

But then, I wasn’t here for the gambling. I’m here to meet the most enhanced woman in the world. But what does that mean? Well, it’s a polite euphemism for the female that’s had the largest breast implants on Earth. In fact, as I pored over some images of such women on the internet – by way of research you understand – it became quite clear that it was anything but ‘enhanced’. Butchered, inflated, almost exploding would be better terms. We all know that boob jobs are now widely practised across the globe. In the UK alone, the best part of 30,000 women a year build on what God has given them, resulting in varying degrees of Dolly Partonness. In the States it’s 340,000. That’s a lot of breast.

Up till now I’ve been fairly agnostic about the issue of fake boobs. I tend to adopt the crooked nose rule, which is that if you feel the way you look is abnormal, and you just want to fix that, and it will boost your confidence, it’s pretty loathsome for someone to say you can’t. I’m imagining the equivalent to the crooked nose in the chest region would be a feeling of being so small that there’s the absence of a so-called feminine figure. A bit of well-placed silicone might balance things out a bit. In which case, good luck to you.

The women I’ve come to see are not the thick end of the wedge. They are off the wedge. They are on another planet. They are their own species. They occupy a chapter of their own in the big book of human madness. Minka is one such woman. And of course, she lives in Vegas. Elsewhere, with her matching 4-litre-enhanced breasts, she might be an embarrassment, or worse, a freak. Here in the neon-lit desert, she’s a national treasure – she’s Vegas’s answer to Rolf Harris. She, along with a few other ageing, living ‘legends’, plies a trade here as a porn star, glamour model and semiprofessional tennis player. From a glance online, it’s very much in that order. And it’s time to meet her.

I’m staying in one of the Pyramids – the gold-leaf Egyptian paradise that is the Luxor Hotel. It’s a Pyramid on the outside, but rather more Travelodge once you get to your room. After having breakfast at one of the hotel’s 870 branches of Starbucks, I fired up my trusty mini space rocket on wheels and drove to Minka’s home – an upmarket residential district a mile or two from the Strip. Minka clearly likes to be near the shop. It’s a glorious, dry, sunny day. But that’s not a story here. And my attempts at weather small talk in this town are met with death stares. Granted, good weather-related small talk relies on the weather having some kind of narrative. Stuff has to happen. The weather here is like listening to a Westlife album, it’s more, and more, and more, of the same.

I’m always a bit nervous about meeting people for the first time, particularly if they are the first contributor in a new film. Meeting the people who I’ve spent weeks or months trying to get hold of, and deliberating as to whether in the world they occupy they are the right choice, that’s the scary bit. So as I walk up Minka’s driveway, past her gleaming white Mercedes-Benz E Class, paid for no doubt by her army of online fans, I’m tense. There’s a lot riding on that first moment. We have to hit it off. I’m going to spend a number of days with this person. They have to like me. They have to open up the outer and inner workings of their life to a 6 ft 5 in, bespectacled Limey they’ve never met before. Try as I might to make a good impression, it’s all futile – it’s not in my hands. The door knocker is, and I whack it. Then I ring the doorbell. Then I hammer the wood of the door with my knuckle. I always like to take advantage of the myriad solutions by which those inside a house are alerted to the presence of someone on the outside. In the same way I will select the up and down buttons while waiting for a lift, even though I’m only going up. I like the idea the lifts are working for me.

Dogs, many of them, have heard my hammering. They are yapping away. The person the other side of the door chides them and unlocks a seemingly endless series of locks. The door opens fractionally, just enough for what looks like a squirrel in a wig to bomb it through the gap, into the front yard and onto the road. I chase across the road, dodging a postal truck, and aim to get this little canine runt back to its owner. We can’t start this encounter with the death of a beloved pooch – not on my watch. Dog in hand, I hurry back along the driveway and through Minka’s ornate, fauxantique front porch. Minka closes the door behind me. There are dogs everywhere. They are all small, loud and identical. At least six, but who knows…There might have been twenty. It was in a blur of dog. But, not being indelicate, this is the perfect way to meet a woman as notoriously chesty as Minka. Because as she bent over, and tried in vain to gather her screeching flock, her breasts perambulated like two lead-filled beachballs, glued to a tanned broomstick. There is no photograph which does adequate justice to the sheer scale of Minka’s swinging décolletage. And where do you look? Hitherto I have summoned up every ounce of my Irish Roman Catholic guilt to avert my gaze at the sight of a woman’s cleavage. But now it’s impossible. This is the breasts equivalent of a twelve-car pile-up on the M1. You’re not going to not look. Minka’s hunched position and a hopelessly low-cut lycra sports tube conspire to produce a sight which makes the collapse of the Berlin Wall look a tad uneventful. Eventually she stands up. That in itself is a sight to behold.

The dogs safely locked behind a child safety gate, it’s time to properly greet Minka.

‘Hello Minka! Great to meet you!’ Minka seems nonplussed at what I thought was an uncontroversial opening remark. There’s an awkward pause. She then helloes me back. But that’s all I get. This is playing out like an audience with the Queen. Minka is very tanned, and surprisingly slim. In fact she’s tiny. Her delicate East Asian frame, complete with a waist like a serviette ring, plays host to what may be the largest enhanced breasts on God’s Earth. But does Minka want to meet me? Does she want me to be there at all? The opening vibes suggest not. This is very troubling. Minka is passive, almost not with it, and seems to have tuned out of this encounter before it’s even started. Luckily there was someone who clearly did want me there. And as I turned around in the hallway of this rather tall house, he was walking down the grand, curved staircase. In his slippers. It was time to meet Hank…

To add to the surrealism of Minka’s utterly incongruous body was the arrival of a man who would introduce himself as Minka’s ‘manager’. Curiously, unnervingly, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the Hollywood screen idol Humphrey Bogart. Everything, down to the dark, slick-back hair, the full eyebrows, the massive man’s head on a tiny man’s body, and the general air of lugubriousness. Also like Bogie, Woody has a set of shoulders that seem to be in an almost permanent state of shrug. And both men even share the same watery, tragic eyes. Though the tears come from different places.

I rush to the bottom of the staircase.

‘Hi, I’m Mark,’ I say enthusiastically.

He extends his hand. ‘I’m Hank,’ he says dryly.

‘Hi Hank.’

‘I mean Woody,’ he says.

This is a confusing start. I’ve fallen at the first hurdle. His name.

‘So Woody is your real name?’
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