Episode 42

Christophe Zajac-Denek has lived a fascinating life. Originally from Detroit Michigan, Christophe was born with a rare form of dwarfism called Cartilage Hair Hypoplasia. He has worked as a TV producer, a drummer in a rock band, an actor, a stuntman. Nowadays, he’s living in Southern California, where he is an avid surfer, photographer, freelance journalist, and the creator and host of the podcast “I’m Kind of a Big Deal,” which focuses on the unique lives of people with dwarfism. He chose the book “Little Legs, Big Heart” by Kristen DeAndrade. This episode is a perfect example of how a book can be a window and a mirror. Christophe related with Kristen’s life – down to the smell of the hospital rooms they’ve both spent a lot of time in. I was forced to reckon with the daily tolls of life with dwarfism that I had been blind to before. He is funny and raw and thoughtful, and I know you are going to love this episode.

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Host: Julie Strauss

Guest: Christophe Zajac-Denek

Books discussed in this episode:
Little Legs, Big Heart: One Girl’s Journey of Acceptance, Perseverance, and Growth by Kristen DeAndrade
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Kristen DeAndrade Instagram

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Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m so pleased to talk to Christophe Zajac-Denek. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Christophe was born with a rare form of dwarfism called Cartilage Hair Hypoplasia. He’s worked as a TV producer, a drummer in a rock band, an actor, and a stuntman. Nowadays, he lives in Southern California, where he’s an avid surfer, photographer, freelance journalist, and the creator and host of the podcast “I’m Kind of a Big Deal,” which focuses on the unique lives of people with dwarfism.
As you can tell Christophe lives a fascinating life, and I was thrilled that he had the time to join me today to talk about why the book, “Little Legs, Big Heart” by Kristin DeAndrade is the Best Book Ever.
If you’re looking for a way to help support this podcast that is free and takes up very little of your time. Why not leave a review on whatever podcast you use through some sort of magical algorithm system that I don’t fully understand, if a podcast has reviews, it’s suggested to new listeners more often. So do it right now. Just scroll down on your phone and hit the lever review button. It’ll take just a few seconds of your time and it really helps me out. I’m super grateful for your support. Now back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Christophe, welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast.
Christophe Zajac-Denek: Hey, thank you so much. I’m so excited to be here, Julie.
JS: When we first started talking about this show, you sent me a message and I want to quote it back to you. “I can’t believe I’m going to be in a podcast about books. Wow!” Given that you are an actor, and a rock musician, and a podcaster, I can assume that it’s not the being in public part of podcasting that’s intimidating to you. It must be the book part that’s unusual for you?
CZD: I have read very few books relatively to other people, I think, in the world. I just, I never grew up reading all that much. There would be times when I would sit down and read “The Catcher in the Rye” and just think, damn, this is such a good book. This is amazing. I should read more. And then two years go by and I don’t read a book. I can focus on something and I can get something done. But when it’s something that doesn’t have a deadline, like finishing a book or, uh, you know, just working on something that I want to complete at some point, it’s tough for me to sit down and do it. And I think of all these other things that I should do. And it’s funny, my dad is ill at the moment and I was talking to him recently and I was telling him I’ve been personally, I’ve been reading so many books in the past couple of months. When I told my dad about this book that I was reading recently, he said, Oh, that’s one thing I never really did in my life, was read books. And I’m like, Wow. That’s an impressive admission to say, I just never read books in my life. I’m loving reading books. I’m loving reading other people’s personalities and perspectives rather, and personalities as well, and just absorbing all of these different things, because I just feel like I can speak better. I can think better. I can be more empathetic. I can just function better and have better ideas. I moved to this cabin in the woods. I’m in Southern California. I’m on a mountain top and it’s snowy right now. And for the past couple of months, I’ve just been sitting on that couch behind me, reading a book every single morning. And it’s been awesome. I’ve plowed through 10, 11 books in three months, which is mind-blowing for me. I’ve never been like that in my entire life. So that’s why I said to you, Wow. Never thought I’d be on a podcast about books where you want to talk to me about reading.
JS: Is it the move, do you think? Is it being isolated in your space that caused the sudden uptick in reading?
CZD: Absolutely. It’s being alone at 6,500 feet with no distractions. You know, I sometimes don’t leave the mountain for a week because I have enough food and I have stuff to do here. And I got a bunch of books. I bought a bunch of books and, you know, I got to read, so I got to stay here. It’s been awesome being in the cabin and building those skills. And you have to write for a podcast all the time. I write my scripts, I write my intros and outros and my descriptions and all those other things.
JS: Since you mentioned it, tell me about the podcast.
CZD: Yeah. So I started a podcast about a year and a half ago. It’s called “I’m Kind of a Big Deal,” and it’s about dwarfism. I’m four foot, four inches tall. I was born with a rare form of dwarfism called Cartilage Hair Hypoplasia. I’ve had two reconstructive leg surgeries and a spinal fusion to help with skeletal dysplasia as a result of the condition. And my life is very different from other people, you know? With the surgeries, you have medical issues and you have to go through that whole process, but then there are social issues that are heaped onto that as well. And you don’t necessarily think about those. You know, the medical issues are of extreme importance. I would have been crippled or I would be in pain if I hadn’t had those surgeries. And you know, my limbs are still short. I still look like a different person than an average height person, you can visibly see my disability. And so, I get pointed out, I get name-called, I get shunned, or people want to scurry away from me because they just don’t want to deal with this. And so that is a different experience in itself and it takes a lot of time. I discuss all of these issues on my show. And I like to brag that it’s not a clinical show. It’s not a sterile depiction of dwarfism. It’s a very human, very funny, very real, sometimes sad, you know, topical podcast and I’m having so much fun with it. And I never ever thought I would have been discussing dwarfism and my life and other people’s lives. Like all these people that I interview are so beautiful and they’re just, they’re so strong in ways that people in the world don’t know or understand.
JS: Y got the most interesting bio I think of anybody I’ve ever met.
CZDL Yeah. Thank you for that. I went to college and I got a degree in film production and audio production. I graduated from college and couldn’t find a job. So I promised myself that I would get better as a drummer because I would be upset if I turned 40 and never tried to play in bands and have a career as a drummer. At the same time, I ended up getting a job working as a local TV producer for government television. Then I started a rock and roll band and I was working in government TV and touring the U S and Europe planning and a rock and roll band for six years, barely made any money, but the band and my face was plastered all over Detroit, Michigan publications for a very long time, we sold out big shows, big local shows and played with some really big name bands at the time of my life. I mean, I got to see the country, and go out of the country, playing drums on stages. I mean, come on. That’s so rad as a 20-year-old and in your twenties. Then I left music. I left the government job and I left the band, moved to California with the intent to play more music, but because of my size and ability, I ended up getting hired on movies. I still played music. I played drums on the Ellen DeGeneres show and I’ve also played in the band in the house band at Jimmy Kimmel Live. But in between there, I’ve played so many different roles on screen and I’ve been an actor and a stunt man and a costume performer and all of these different things that have just come. Not because I’m a skilled and talented actor or went to school for acting, but because of my size. And trust me, it’s great. When you get paid 10 times as much as an actor than you would learning 40 songs for a cover gig, you know, at a bar or something like that. It’s like, well, of course I want to make 10 times more in the costume, whatever. And I don’t have to, you know, spend two days learning this repertoire of music. So I really enjoyed being an actor. And then I realized, Hey, nobody’s seeing your face. You’re not getting any equity on your face. Like everybody wants to cover you up, put you in prosthetics, put a ton of makeup on you. Except one production. I worked on Twin Peaks and I play a brutal murderer on the show, which is the highlight of my career. I got to work with David Lynch. It kind of doesn’t get any better than that. I murder some people on screen in a very brutal way. And he put me in almost no makeup. You see my face on the whole thing and, I think that was a little bit of a nudge, a wake up call. Like, Hey, what’s going on? Like, you never see this. And I am not ashamed to be that costume character, but I also want to be seen as just a guy, you know, like just play the role on Twin Peaks is a guy who is a murderer. But it’s a guy it’s not a furry monster or an alien who’s a murderer. No, he’s a bald little guy on a show and he’s got some zits on his face and some messed up teeth. And like, that was it, you know? And so that’s me. It, that was the time when I wanted to pull back from working in productions as a costume performer or an elf or a leprechaun or all of these really just pigeonholed roles that do not serve the dwarfism community in a good way at all. It’s really just tough. And for a really long time, I tried to say, Oh, well, you know, we’re making a living or we’re having some sort of visibility for dwarfism. But I don’t know. I’m really kind of starting to roll down the hill that, yeah, that is not the case, you know, it’s, um, I’m pulling away from that in a big way. So should I continue down this road? I did write an article for a publication called Iponder and I’m discussing the instance of the very first little person to ever be depicted in a commercial as herself. In the fall of 2020, there was an Amazon commercial that came out and it’s the first time myself or any of my friends who’ve worked decades longer in the industry than I have – no one has ever seen a little person. Just in her own clothes and her own hair and in her own, whatever she wants to look like.
JS: Now that you’re saying that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it.
CZD: Yeah, no one has. You’ve seen little cowboys. You’ve seen aliens. You’ve seen monsters. You’ve seen little people in suits around a round table of other little people that are like being assholes. I mean, please show me that it’s happened before, because I want to know, I have a podcast about dwarfism. I need to know these things. I mean, I’ve searched and scoured and I’ve worked in the industry and I know a good number of the actors, at least in LA, who are little and nobody that I know has ever seen this before. So, it’s incredible. It’s awesome. And it’s – damn, it’s sad. It makes me so happy. I have these really elevated emotions on both sides where it’s like, okay, this is awesome. She’s a hero. That’s super cool. Why has it taken until 2020 for this to happen once? It’s big, you know? It filters in. I’m trying to grow the podcast and I want people to average sized people and little people to just feel comfortable about listening to these stories. People say, you know, how do you call a little person? How do you refer to them? And I tell them, you know, little person or little people, or someone with dwarfism or short stature or something like that. But then I say, okay, honestly, it’s their name. Go and get their name and that at least triggers a spark, like, Oh, if I want their name, I have to walk up to them and introduce myself and say hello. And so that, that’s my whole reasoning for doing that is because that’s where it happens. Right? And that’s where it’s interaction and, exposure and having the quality time with somebody.
JS: When I hear stories of people who set a boundary or a standard for their life, my first thought is always, it thrills me to think that the work that you’re doing makes you happy and changes your outlook. But it also thrills me to think of the example that’s being set for children, young people, teenagers who were trying to figure out their next step in life. It’s fantastic because they’re going to set their boundary based on what they see you do, which is thrilling.
CZD: Julie. I can’t think about that, because it’s going to get me emotional.
JS: It’s my goal to make people cry.
CZD: It might happen still because this book that we’re talking about, it gets me.
JS: So tell me, how did you find this book of Kristen’s that we’re talking about today: Little Legs, Big Heart.
CZD: I remember seeing a photo of Kristen on Instagram and I was interested in seeking out new people to interview for my show. I don’t totally remember, but I do know I reached out to Kristen because she posted something she wrote on her arms. #notyourentertainment or something like that. I read her post and it was really powerful. I looked her up and found the book and then I reached out to her and just said, Hey, I have a show. Would you be interested in talking with me? And then, you know, we, we had a great discussion. And then I thought, damn, I got to get that book and read it! So Kristin was born with achondroplasia, which is the most common form of dwarfism. And she started seeing a specialist early in her life that helped people with dwarfism. Kristin had learned about limb lengthening and she was very interested in how that operation would straighten her limbs. Not give her the length on the outset, but that the length was kind of a, it was the icing on the cake. or a side benefit of these operations. And so with dwarfism, I always say it’s a mixed bag because you can have achondroplasia and not need any surgeries and you can have achondroplasia and have over 11 surgeries. I mean, there’s no rhyme or reason. Right or wrong, you just have to go through it, you know? And so, you know, she learned about, about limb lengthening and did a ton, her family did a ton of research. She found a doctor, I believe it was Dr. Paley, who performed these surgeries. And, um, so at the age of 12, she started her limb lengthening and she started on the tibias and then went to her humerus in her arms. And that was so that she could. Look more proportionate and then also be able to take care of herself as a human being better with longer arm limbs. And then she did the final operation was done her femurs. It seems like such an archaic, brutal surgery to go through. You have, she describes them as birdcages, they look like scaffolds that are on your legs, with pins that go through your skin, to the bone, to stabilize the bone, and then the contraption allows you to turn a screw with a wrench and pull your – Oh yeah. I forgot to mention her legs were broken in two places. So the screws allow the contraption to pull apart very slowly. And because bone is living tissue, the bone continues to heal and lengthen, all at the same time while she is doing physical therapy. You can’t just sit on the couch for five months. When you’re doing this, you have to walk, you have to swim, you have to move, you have to exercise and do everything. She went through all of these operations in amazing detail. She writes about these operations and her, her social struggles and her mental state and everything like that, that, and she completes these operations and is able to walk around and live life in a more comfortable way on her terms. She gained 10 inches in length, which is mind-boggling, in my opinion. And then she’s still criticized by not only people who have never seen someone with dwarfism, but other people with dwarfism. Who don’t believe in the operation or don’t accept her having limb lengthening operations.
JS: Tell me a little bit about that. Why is it a controversy?
CZD: I brought this up to her, because I just released an episode with her. Um, she and I kind of both see it as being, you know, other people who aren’t able to have the surgery. She was a very good candidate for the surgery. And so, you know, with her condition in whatever way that she was, that’s a pretty intimate discussion, I think, uh, with her doctor, but in whatever way she was a good candidate for having success with this and maybe other people aren’t good candidates. I think other people, I don’t know, maybe they just don’t want to go through the surgery at that age, and then later on they have regret. Maybe it is denial of oneself. I mean, as a little person, I’ve denied myself for years and tried to say what I’m just like everybody else. Come on, let me fit in just like everybody else, I want to be on the basketball team. Nah, man. You’re not going to be on the basketball team for a number of reasons. Okay. Maybe that’s it. Maybe they’re jealous. I don’t, I don’t really know.
JS: First of all, it’s nobody’s business, even if it is purely cosmetic. That’s my opinion. Like, we don’t get to say those kinds of things to other people. But second of all, she shouldn’t have to justify it with the medical aspect of it, but there is a medical aspect of it. Right?
CZD: Yeah, it was paid for by insurance. It was covered by insurance.
JS: It improved her quality of life.
CZD: And she knew she wasn’t going to be five foot five. This isn’t, you know, you’re not gaining a foot and a half of height on this. She gained a ton, which again is another mind-blowing situation, you know, but the straightening was her bow leg, reduced her swayback, fixed her hips, her ankles, everything, all that stuff is connected.
JS: And then she went on to be a yoga instructor, right?
CZD: Yeah. She went on to be a yoga instructor.
JS: Which is just incredible to have that kind of bone and muscle control and strength that is required for that job, given what her body has gone through.
CZD: Yeah. And the thing I kind of want to just go back and touch on is the little people that have said stuff about limb lengthening. I’m meeting more and more little people who have had limb lengthening. And now I’m realizing that it’s so much more common. That’s how time works, right? Things become more common. But you know, as a dwarf, my disability is so visible. You can’t look at me standing up somewhere and say, Oh man, like, is he disabled? Yes, he’s disabled. He has short limbs. But if you look at Kristin, little people who are around all these other little people, you can discern, you know? You can say, Oh, I can tell, she’s lengthened. It’s a, it’s a thing. And I, it just makes me sad that, that is that that may have been something that was used to criticize her or anyone, you know. We’re all just struggling with being accepted and just having people see us as who we are, and to have people who are – I mean, she can’t cure her dwarfism. She’s never going to get rid of it. Like. We’re all people and we’re all just doing the best we can. I don’t, I just don’t understand how ridiculing her or criticizing her for what she’s done to help herself – I don’t know how that gets anybody anywhere.
JS: This was not the surgery, that path that you went through. Tell me why you connected so much with her story and her voice in this book.
CZD: Um, I was just interested. I had a discussion with another guest on my show, earlier on in the, in the first season, and we had talked about limb lengthening in what I would call a pretty crude way. I think we weren’t as sensitive as we could have been on the show. And when I spoke with Kristen, I bluntly said, Hey, I think I may not have been as sensitive about your topic because I just don’t know anything about it, you know? And if you find that to be the case, call me out. I don’t know if she listened or, or found it insensitive or not, but she didn’t say anything to me about that. But I’m still open, Kristen, if you want to say something to me! But at the same time, you know, we had the same specialist and I’ve just been interested in people that have seen Dr. I’m just genuinely curious. And that’s a huge aspect of little people is why wouldn’t you be curious about why someone’s limbs and hands and arms and feet and body is different than yours? I mean, I want to know. Doesn’t mean I want to know because I want to make fun of you. I think knowing means that I don’t want to make fun of you, honestly. If you think about it, like that’s the way that I have kind of voiced it. And it just clicked in my head that like I tell people when people make fun of a little person, I feel like it’s a defense mechanism. You know, it’s a you’re misunderstanding the person and the situation. And so you set up a defense mechanism and that makes you either run away or hide or walk the other way or laugh or point or whisper under your breath or whatever it is. I don’t know. You want to take a photo of them with your friend behind them, pretending that they’re putting their arm on your head or something like that.
JS: Oh my God.
CZD: Yeah. Yeah, it still happens. So I mean, defense mechanism is a very nice way to put it. And then reading the book, she describes the going into the operating room for the first time in such detail that I had to put the book down because I started crying. Because that was my experience, you know, like going in at six and seeing all of these faces come in and out of your plane of view and being scared and also knowing that you’re being taken care of in such a high level way. You know, they’re going to cut your legs open, but you’re going to be able to walk again much better in four months. It’s it hit me really hard.
JS: You know, when I have thought of the challenges of dwarfism in the past, I always think sort of big ticket things. Like it’s probably hard to drive a car, find a comfortable car. I guess you can never be a Rockette. I guess you can never be an astronaut because they’ve got height requirements. I’ve thought about sort of big things like that. And she points out so many of these tiny, every day hassles that made me realize the mental toll of things not fitting. Like, she says, her mother was an expert seamstress, but it’s impossible to shorten snow clothes.
CZD: Snow clothes suck.
JS: Or like how there’s no such thing as a hospital gown that fits her. And I thought. Are you fucking kidding me? We can’t make smaller – as if hospital gowns aren’t humiliating enough?
CZD: I think that that is you, you bring up such a great point because that occurs and that just happens. And it’s something that as little people, you know, having to, having to always reach for things and never having anything fit and being so frustrated, going to the department stores. Think about every public bathroom. Think about doors that you can’t push open. It’s so prevalent and it’s so regular. And to think that it doesn’t take a mental toll is insane. You have to realize that that takes a huge mental toll on everyone.
JS: We cannot end this without calling attention to Kristin’s family, which I think is the most charming part of this book. I want there to be a reality show about that family, except not a gross one. Like not a Kardashian kind of one, but like I genuinely, I closed that book and went, I want to be in that family. They are just, the love just pops off the page. Don’t you think?
CZD: I know, yes, 100%. I thought the same way. I was like, man, there’s so much life that’s happening. There’s that one chapter where it starts out and she just lists for a page and a half all of the things that she did over the summer in just, I think it’s the longest sentence ever written in a book ever.
JS: They just struck me as such a unit, you know? Such a team. And you can just tell in her voice that she’s got that background of the support. It was really, really a delight to read.
CZD: Yeah. I’m so glad you liked it. That’s awesome.
JS: Why don’t you share now where my listeners can find you?
CZD Yeah, absolutely. You can find me @BigDealPod on Instagram, and you can also find “I’m Kind of a Big Deal Podcast wherever you get your podcasts.
JS: Good luck on the job you interviewed for today. I hope you get it. Audition! Sorry, I forgot. I’m talking to an actor. And I want to thank you for introducing me to this book and for taking the time out to talk to me today, it’s really been a delight to talk to you.
CZD: Oh, this was so much fun. Thank you for having me on a podcast where I never thought I would ever be a guest on a book podcast. This was awesome.

Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website BestBookEverPodcast.com, or follow the podcast on Instagram @BestBookEverPodcast. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me everywhere @JulieWroteABook. Remember when you’re doing your book shopping, please help support indie bookstores and this podcast by using my affiliate link at Bookshop.com/Bestbookever. 

Thank you for joining me today and I will see you at the library.

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