These Reality Stars Prove that Little People Can Get to the Top in an Average-Sized World
Jen Arnold’s infectious laughter echoes through the SUV as it creeps along Los Angeles’ dreaded Interstate 405, a gridlock magnet. She and husband Bill Klein are squeezing in a phone interview during their harried, rush-hour drive. Also in the car is their TV film crew. Klein, a natural jokester, who co-stars with Arnold on TLC’s reality show, The Little Couple, has just quipped: “A lot of people asked me whether or not I’d want to be tall. At this point, there are so many reasons why I’d rather not be. Who knows, maybe I would have been an ass—-.”
That’s when Arnold starts to cackle uncontrollably. Laughter seems to come easily to Arnold and Klein, who have each come up against many obstacles. Both live with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia, a rare bone disorder that causes dwarfism. Their condition led to taunts growing up, disappointments heading into the career world as adults and a series of more than 30 painful orthopedic surgeries between them.
But the reality-TV stars tend to focus on the positive side being little in an average-sized world. “I’ve learned a lot from it,” says Klein, who stands four feet tall. “I don’t think that I’d be the same person if I was six foot. I don’t take certain things for granted that I think in any other circumstance I might.”
Setting a positive example and breaking down barriers are the key messages behind the couple’s hit prime-time TV show, which premiered in May 2009. More than offering a glimpse of what it’s like to be “little,” it’s also a show about a newlywed couple negotiating their first few years of marriage, moving to a new city, building a home, nurturing careers, sharing laughs and dreaming of starting a family.
On this August evening in L.A., filming for their fourth season has just wrapped up for the day. It’s not hard to guess why the Houston, Tex.-based couple are in the City of Angels today. They have publicly struggled to have a child, and have featured that journey prominently on their show for more than a year. Their fertility specialist, who has been working with them to nurture healthy eggs and extract them, works out of L.A. Midway through the fourth season, which aired this past summer, the couple had gone through five in vitro fertilization cycles and two procedures that resulted in two embryos. They plan on using a surrogate to carry their child and were about to meet their possible host mother on the episode of their show that had aired just before this interview was conducted.
The couple chose to use a surrogate after carefully weighing the options and determining that the risk was too high for the petite Arnold to carry a baby naturally. While infertility is a struggle shared by little and average-sized couples alike, most couples don’t go through the process under the glare of the camera. “This is definitely reality,” Klein says. “There’s no BS. When we find out something, nine out of 10 times we don’t get a heads-up. We’re not prepared for it any more than the camera is. When the news comes across to the both of us from our physician that something good is happening, we’re elated genuinely. When something bad comes to us, we’re disappointed genuinely.”
The way that Arnold and Klein have been forthcoming about their fertility issues has served as inspiration for other couples who are trying to have a child. Arnold has received tons of supportive comments from viewers. “I think surrogacy is relatively new,” she says. “I’m hoping for us it’s the good option to have chosen to try to have a child. But I think it’s definitely something that’s not common. Most of the little people I know have carried their pregnancies and dealt with the struggles, the good and the bad.”
Trying to get pregnant is just the latest challenge for the couple, who thrive in the face of difficulty. There are the day-to-day issues that they’ve found ways to get around: they use extended pedals to drive cars and an army of stools help Arnold, a neonatologist at Texas Children’s Hospital, do her job helping sick infants.
“Neither Jen nor I have had a custom-built anything [before] when it comes to our living space,” Klein said in an episode of the TV show that aired in June. “We’ve always lived in a big world.”
Both Arnold and Klein have built successful careers in that world. Klein, 36, is a managing partner of a business-consulting firm based in New York City. Arnold, 37, is an accomplished doctor. Both say it wasn’t easy breaking into their fields. Arnold, who grew up in Orlando, Fla., says she applied to 30 medical schools, only two of which had her back for a second admission interview. On her applications, she had been up front and explained that she was a little person who had gone through several medical procedures, which, in her view, prepped her for life as a physician. Still, she found herself being quizzed about whether or not she could hack the physical drain of being a doctor because of her three-foot-two stature.
Arnold says that discrimination is fairly common among medical schools, which expect applicants to be “omnipotent” and able to take on everything from psychiatry to adult internal medicine. This is perhaps the reason, she says, that only two percent of physicians have a disability.
Finally, Arnold was accepted to attend Johns Hopkins University’s medical school in Baltimore. The faculty there got past her size quickly and judged Arnold on her grades, activities and personality. Throughout it all, Arnold’s parents, David and Judy, and the rest of her family and friends were supportive, but there was also something else driving Arnold. “The slightly abnormal psychology of my brain is that if somebody tells me ‘No’ or I shouldn’t do something, it only makes me want to do it more. That kind of helped me get through the process a little bit,” she says.
For Klein, image was the issue when he was trying to break into a pharmaceutical sales career after graduating with a biology degree from NYU in the ’90s. Many of the 50 or so companies he interviewed with made it clear that they wanted tall, blond, attractive guys and beautiful women with fierce attitudes selling their products. Klein says he just didn’t fit the bill. His breakthrough came when he interviewed for an inside sales representative job to sell medical devices.
The manager, Mike Sperduti, interviewed Klein over the phone and, impressed with his resumé and credentials, called him to meet in person. As soon as the secretary at the company saw Klein walk up, she went running to her boss to say that a midget was in the building. “Mike said ‘OK, give him the application, and make sure you don’t use that word anymore or you’re fired. Make sure on your way out that everyone in the sales group knows that Bill will be coming in for his in-person interview. And if any of them say anything derogatory, they’re fired, too,’” Klein recalls. Today, Sperduti is Klein’s business partner at Emerge Sales Inc.
It’s the partnership between Klein and Arnold that’s the glue of the TV show. The couple met in 2006 through a dating website and got married on April 12, 2008. At the time, neither expected to document their lives together on camera. Arnold had been approached by a production company to do a reality-TV show after appearing on Good Morning America for a segment on little people in professional careers. At first, Arnold and Klein refused, caught up in details of planning their wedding. But the production company, LMNO Productions, which the couple work with today, persisted. It was a chance encounter with a young girl at Bed, Bath and Beyond that sealed the deal for Arnold.
“[The girl] said, ‘You’re a little person like on Little People, Big World [a TLC show that also had featured a family with members who are little people],’” Arnold recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh.’ And I thought, ‘This is a good thing. Breaking down barriers.’ No longer is someone saying, ‘Look at the midget,’ which is what sometimes was the typical response that we would get. So, I thought, ‘Maybe we can do something good with this,’ and we decided to give it a shot.”
After being assured that the show would be educational and not sensational, Arnold and Klein signed on. And the fans have tuned in. “I think, in general, the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” Klein says. “It kind of feeds to the idea that the stuff we’re letting people [see] in our lives is having a personal impact on people. It’s relatable. None of the things that we cover really are alien to anybody. Anybody could have experienced them.”
But not everyone has experienced what it’s like being singled out for being a little person in the schoolyard. That’s what has inspired the couple to visit schools as often as they can to talk to children about bullying. Not everyone has been pointed at and called “midget”—a term neither Arnold nor Klein care for. “Have we ever been called ‘midget’ in a nice way? No,” Klein says. “When you look at ‘dwarfism or dwarf or little person,’ is it better? To a degree, it is.”
Says Arnold: “I grew up with the [term] ‘little person.’ I feel like if you’re going to use a label to describe someone who is short-statured, that’s the nicest term. At the same time, I think, in general, we’re Bill and Jen. Both Bill and I avoid labels if at all possible.”