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Meet Viktoria Modesta, the ‘bionic’ woman who is changing the conversation about art, science and disabilities

Meet Viktoria Modesta, the ‘bionic’ woman who is changing the conversation about art, science and disabilities
Viktoria Modesta lost her leg when she was 20, but that hasn’t stopped her from establishing a career as a model, artist and musician, whose prosthetics have become part of her “bionic” persona. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Viktoria Modesta doesn’t want to talk about the accident that occurred during her birth. The one that left her with a damaged left leg. She doesn’t want to talk about the dozens of reconstructive surgeries she had as a child, or about the hours — the days, the weeks — she spent in the hospital while other children played.

Nor does she want to discuss the five years she spent in her late teens trying to convince her doctors to amputate her leg below the knee — how she told them she felt it was the only way she could reclaim her health and her life, and how when they finally granted her wish, she felt free to become the person she was aching to be.

You can read all about it, she says. It’s in every article ever written about her. It’s the only thing anyone seems to want to ask her, which is frustrating because she has so much more to say.

That doesn’t mean she is relinquishing her role as a groundbreaking image-maker — one who is challenging the way disabilities are perceived and physical beauty is gauged in the modern world. It just means she wants to get to that conversation, rather than the tired one about what led her to this moment.

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Viktoria Modesta talks to The TImes about the soulful side of art and science.

At 30, the model, singer, avant-garde performance artist, futurist and science enthusiast has recently relocated to Los Angeles and is in the process of putting down roots in this city — a place that she says represents the ideal intersection of her many varied interests, particularly when it comes to the collision of art, technology, entertainment and science.

Modesta plans to say her first public hello to the city with a performance during Lucha VaVoom’s Halloween spectacular at the Mayan Theatre, Wednesday and Thursday nights. The long-running cult variety show features masked Mexican wrestlers, burlesque dancers, comedians and a number of cutting-edge performers like Modesta.

“It’s an event that is close to my heart since it represents the things that have been important to me throughout my life,” says Modesta, sitting in the freezing-cold cafe at Walt Disney Concert Hall on a recent afternoon. “I really like the idea that they have a whole host of different performers. It’s about wildness and expression and having a really good time.”

Viktoria Modesta
Viktoria Modesta poses in front of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. She says the setting is apt since she spent a lot of time watching Disney films as a child while recovering from her many reconstructive surgeries. Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

Modesta wears a black jacket wrapped around an angular black dress that looks as if it is made of springy plastic. Her face is smooth, wide and pale, her hair black and pulled tightly back. Her prosthetic leg is a vintage piece. It’s at least 10 years old, and is one of the very first alternative limbs she had made. Its dotted up and down with hundreds of silver body-piercing pins.

Modesta examines it, a small smile playing on her lips.

“It feels like I’m coming full circle,” she says.

Full circle does involve singing and dancing, but Modesta stresses that although she has been dubbed the world’s first “bionic pop artist,” she does not consider music her first or only love.

“I like music, and I love performing and art directing,” she explains. “But I want to be able to tell a bigger story about identity.”

I was so moved by the fact that what seemed so natural and obvious to me was so shocking to other people

Viktoria Modesta

Modesta, whose birth name is Viktorija Moskaļova, was born in Daugavpils, Latvia and relocated with her mother to the United Kingdom at age 12. Whereas Latvia was about sickness and surgery, London was about rebirth. She threw herself into the underground nightlife scene, with its numerous sub-cultures guided by wild fashion, explosive music and experimental art.

It was a place where being an outsider made you an insider, and it was there that Modesta began to realize the ephemeral nature of identity — that she could mold herself into anyone she wanted to be.

By experimenting in a variety of disciplines she discovered that she had a knack for art direction, and after her amputation she became her own best project. Teaming up with the Alternative Limb Project, Modesta helped design a series of prosthetics that she wore in a 2014 Channel 4 video titled, “Prototype,” which was featured during a commercial break of that year’s “X Factor” final.

The video immediately went viral — to date it has been viewed more than 10 million times — and is has been considered a touchstone for those looking to recast how society perceives disabilities.

In one of the more arresting segments of the six-minute video, Modesta dances provocatively against a blood-red background while wearing a prosthetic shaped like a spike — its razor-sharp tip cracking the ground each time it touches down.

“I was so moved by the fact that what seemed so natural and obvious to me was so shocking to other people,” Modesta says of her experience in the pop-culture limelight. “All I was doing was expressing my basic rights of femininity, of sexuality and of style.”

Viktoria Modesta
Viktoria Modesta is a bit of a Renaissance woman, with varied interests at the intersection of pop culture, art, technology and science. Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times

This revelation hit home after Modesta was picked to perform in the 2012 summer Paralympics closing ceremony in London. Although she saw many amputees at the Games, she saw none that presented the raw, sexy edge so often associated with mainstream entertainment.

After “Prototype” rocketed to international acclaim, Modesta was bombarded by offers from agents and managers, but they just wanted to feed her back into the Pop machine.

“I came to realize that wasn’t the right path for me,” she says.

Her road was to be more baroque — gilded as much by the rich culture of art as it was by the wonders of science and technology. In 2015 she joined the MIT Media Lab as a director’s fellow — a program that invites innovators from disparate areas of expertise to collaborate.

It was there that she met her boyfriend, Benjamin Palmer (not a fellow, just a self-professed “big nerd”), who she describes as a “super internet wizard who has done a lot of entertainment marketing things.” The pair traveled extensively, eventually moving for a time to Mexico City before landing in L.A.

“I think the story of the future is going to be told here,” Modesta says.

All I was doing was expressing my basic rights of femininity, of sexuality and of style

Viktoria Modesta

Modesta and Palmer are currently working on developing a TV show that they hope will make science sexy. They are actively pitching so they can’t say more than that, but both appear greatly excited by the possibilities.

Making music will remain a part of Modesta’s game plan, but she’s not sure how much of her time she will devote to that aspect of herself. Lucha VaVoom will be a good litmus test for how L.A. audiences respond to her.

Lucha co-founder, Rita D’Albert says she felt Modesta was a natural fit for the show because she is in keeping with Lucha’s mandate to present the most innovative and unusual performers to a large audience of fans eager to discover exactly that.

“We’re a band of outsiders,” D’Albert says. “Everybody in the cast and crew is so diverse that you don’t bat an eye, and that’s how I like it.”

She adds that Modesta has not placed any emphasis on her disability in preparing for the show. Her sole focus, D’Albert says, has been making sure the right artistic elements are in place for opening night.

That’s not surprising considering that Modesta says she wants to totally upend traditional thinking — to make it so a person can define themselves rather than having their disability do it for them.

To create a space where the body is just that: a body. Nothing less and nothing more. And where we are united — rather than divided — by our differences.

‘Lucha VaVoom’ (featuring Viktoria Modesta)

Where: Mayan Theater, 1038 S. Hill St., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 24 and 25.

Tickets: $40 to $75, 21+

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