Breaking Character

Model and Musician Rachel Romu Stars in New Docu-Series

Story by Ayano Hodouchi-Dempsey, Photo by Bishwesh Uprety

If you haven’t watched Breaking Character, you should. 

The first show helmed by a showrunner with a disability to create a documentary series for cable TV in Canada, Michelle Asgarali’s Breaking Character follows six people with disabilities as they navigate their lives and careers on the stage, screen, and runway. One of them, the model and musician Rachel Romu, is from Thunder Bay. 

As a teenager, Romu was a long jumper, representing Canada in the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010. With their sights on the Olympics, they accepted a scholarship to University of Toronto, but “my health had other plans for me,” Romu says. 

A spinal tumour required two surgeries, and Romu found themself struggling in their day to day life. They were eventually diagnosed with a genetic connective tissue disease, hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. The diagnosis helped Romu come to terms with the fact that they needed a cane to prevent their hip from dislocating.

Modelling came after Romu became a “full-time cane user,” they say. They were feeling alienated by the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the entertainment industry, where fake representation was the norm. “Able-bodied people would put [a disability] on for a photo or acting job. Then they take it off,” Romu says. 

Modelling was something that pushed Romu’s physical limits, and brought back the confidence they had as an athlete with control over their body. “I was the first mobility aid-user to walk in Toronto Fashion Week, and one of the first globally,” they say. “Twenty-two per cent of Canadians aged 15 and older identify as having a disability. So why aren’t 22% of models disabled?” 

Romu admits that they often feel compelled to overcompensate for their disability by trying to exceed expectations. “When it comes to my runway walk especially, I know I put this pressure on myself. My walk has to be five times as good, my quick changes have to be perfect. The dresser who’s helping me backstage says, ‘You were so great, I didn’t even need to help you,’ because I fear that I won’t be fully considered in the same way.”

The producers of Breaking Character invited Romu to the show after seeing a segment about their runway debut at Toronto Fashion Week on TVO. Filming took place last summer, and Romu says knowing that Asgarali has a disability gave them confidence that they would be portrayed as a multidimensional person.

“A lot of people are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing,” Romu says, explaining that every disability is different, and without having a conversation, you can’t know what a person with a disability needs. “So asking somebody what they need to do the job is coming from a good and caring place. Assuming they can’t do it without having the conversation is coming from a place of fear that can be yucky at the end of the day. I want an opportunity to prove myself, like everybody else.”