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Viktoria Modesta: bionic woman

The world's first amputee pop star confronted the public when she invaded the The X Factor final. She tells us why the illuminati rumours only add fuel to her fire

Taken from the spring/summer 2015 issue of Dazed:

Viktoria Modesta is leading an alternative revolution. After storming the London Paralympics closing ceremony, the world’s first ‘bionic’ pop star gatecrashed an ad break during last year’s X Factor final with her video for “Prototype”, where she did a ballet with a knee-high black metal spike. Due to an accident at birth, Modesta grew up in and out of hospital before moving from Latvia to England at 12, later opting for a lower-leg amputation. Today she models, plots shows inspired by Matthew Barney and Throbbing Gristle, and fends off batshit religious groups convinced she’s pop’s own Illuminati messenger.   

Your performances can be quite confrontational. What was your earliest exposure to shocking art?

Viktoria Modesta: When I was really young in Latvia, there weren’t any film regulations. So I saw Blade Runner and all the horror movies like Aliens and Hellraiser. My favourite movie was Demi Moore’s Striptease, which I saw at a crazy age. (laughs) It’s not my mother’s fault, that’s just how it was. It was quite barbaric. 

Were you happy growing up in Latvia?

Viktoria Modesta: I understand now that I’ve never had a normal existence. There was a lot of anarchic energy around, post-USSR. Being different, looking gay, being too rich or too poor – it was extreme, because the whole Soviet mentality was about people being the same. And from the age of six till 11, there were all the hospital trips; the physical gruesomeness of everything. So I was kind of shielded in my own fantasy projection, watching movies and thinking about the world outside. 

Was it a smooth transition to the UK?

Viktoria Modesta: The first thing they did was send my dad to prison for two weeks. They thought it was dodgy because he’d been to England six months before. So they just sent me and my mum away, and we had, like, £200. We ended up in the equivalent of Elephant and Castle, but near Croydon – just the worst estate you can imagine. There weren’t many smooth times. It was either really great or really terrible. 

What was exciting about England?

Viktoria Modesta: I started exploring London nightlife really, inappropriately young – by the time I was 14, I was going to (celebrated fetish club) Torture Garden. Once I discovered Camden, I was off on an express journey through every cultural, musical, fashion influence there is in the city, from raves to metal clubs, retro parties and electro gay stuff. I wanted to understand how people connected their lifestyles with fashion and music. It used to be an almost religious experience to be into certain styles of music: you had to dress a certain way, hang out with certain friends. I suppose brands do that instead now. It’s like, ‘Are you a PC or a Mac?’ 

With government cuts targeting the vulnerable, do you think that prosthetic services will improve in the future?

Viktoria Modesta: Before, if you were a young, mobile person, they would give you a sports leg and a cosmesis so it looks natural, but so many things have been cut in the past five years. But we also need a social change in people’s mentalities. People always think, ‘I have to be physical, I have to be able to walk’ – but do you really? How much can you apply yourself, be creative and study with the power of the internet now? And once you’re confident in this new power, something like missing the end of your leg becomes really quite small. We’re not in the jungle any more. 

“I’d like to rebrand the whole thing that’s called ‘disability’. It’s an unsuitable title in the modern world” – Viktoria Modesta

Your Channel 4 team-up for ‘Prototype’ was a huge success. How do you feel about it in hindsight?

Viktoria Modesta: It set an ideal. I’m aware it’s a novelty – eventually I’ll get bored talking about prosthetics – but it’s rare to be told that what you’ve just done is the first of its kind in the world. I’d like to rebrand the whole thing that’s called ‘disability’. It’s an unsuitable title in the modern world. Someone sitting next to me could be healthy and fit, and they might not be contributing anything at all. And then there's somebody with a missing limb living the most full, productive life. What does that mean? Who's disabled here? 

What would improve young amputees’ confidence?

Viktoria Modesta: The reality is that there needs to be a support system for kids. I’m working with Hugh Herr, the leading guy in bionics, as well as one of the biggest 3D-printing companies, and they’re all talking about the future of making prosthetics accessible at a super-quality level. When I made the decision to get rid of my natural limb, I was just like, ���Why would I keep that? It’s a domino effect, it makes my body and my entire life so miserable. I could just have an artificial part.’

How do people perceive your prosthetics?

Viktoria Modesta: People are scared that an artificial part changes your humanity. That you become an Illuminati transhuman. (laughs) There are some great videos out. There’s a new one, the Vigilant Christian group – they think I’m an Illuminati pop star. It’s really entertaining, I recommend watching it. It’s just fear – they feel like the body is what makes us human, but it’s not. 

What else should change about our preconceived ideas of ‘disability’?

Viktoria Modesta: The default expectation is that (as a disabled person) you’re feeling sad and people should be careful what they say. But when you think of somebody missing a leg, you shouldn’t have to think of somebody in beige slippers in a wheelchair. You should think of somebody running around with a carbon-fibre, super high-tech, 3D-printed leg. Paralympians aside, the idea that somebody with a different body could be considered a trendsetter makes people’s heads explode. 

What have you drawn inspiration from lately for your live shows?

Viktoria Modesta: A key moment was when I saw Matthew Barney’s work, and also Marie Chouinard’s Body Remix at Sadler’s Wells. Those two blew my mind completely. My favourite-ever concert was Throbbing Gristle at Tate Modern. I’m not the biggest fan of industrial music, but it was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen. Everyone was sitting on the floor – it felt like some sort of postwar gathering. And the bass frequencies were just coming up and choking you. I always have a duality with my taste, where I’m influenced by extreme, avant-garde references, but at the same time I grew up in post-USSR Latvia, so I’ve always got that love for pop music. 

How would you like to influence young people?

Viktoria Modesta: As trivial as it is to have celebrities out there who have prosthetic limbs, it contributes to a feeling that everything is possible. The only thing stopping anybody – especially kids – from getting a breakthrough is the repressive environment around them. Nobody encouraged that crazy little voice in their heads. I come from a completely dirt-poor background. I was a school dropout, and I still wish I had more encouraging individuals around me. For young people who are getting their first prosthetics, thinking, ‘What can my life be like?’ it’s really important for them to see somebody who is fashionable, cool and doing wicked things. Something they can be excited about.

Hair Kim Roy at One Represents using Davines; make up Lan Nguyen-Grealis using M.A.C; photographic assistant Jack Symes; styling assistant Nathan Henry