Ronnie Hurst likes to joke that the photo of him and Rachael Lynee Burns is the “beauty and the beast” photo, then cracks, “but she’s not that bad.”
But she is the beauty, with the pageant cred to back it up: She was crowned Miss Texas International 2014 on March 16, 2014, and she has earned several other Miss Texas International and Miss Texas Galaxy honors since 2010.
She’s also a ballet dancer. Hurst is her manager, a guy with more than two decades of management experience in the entertainment industry, including a stint in the ’90s managing Elvis tribute artist Michael Wroughton, producing dinner theater shows, and writing, directing and producing a show in Branson, Mo.
What you can’t tell from the tightly shot close-up photo of Hurst and Burns: He was born with no arms and one leg. She is 95 percent deaf. And they are both looking for others like them who have the potential for similar success in the entertainment industry.
Hurst, who grew up in Fort Worth, will be one of the judges of Handi-Capable, a talent competition for people with disabilities that will have a casting call 9 a.m.-7 p.m. May 29 in the Guadalupe Room of the E.H. Hereford University Center at the University of Texas at Arlington.
Other auditions are planned across the country for the contest, with the America’s Got Talent-style competition taking place in Branson.
Hurst and Burns, whom he suggested to host the show (she had yet to sign a contract when this interview took place), are trying to get the word out about the auditions, via a Handi-Capable Facebook page and through traditional media.
They say they hope that the show also will educate people who don’t have disabilities.
“You can have all the ADA laws you want,” Hurst says, “but there’s still a gap between non-disabled people and disabled people, and a lot of it is because — and I don’t mean this in an ugly way, but it’s because of ignorance.
“It’s because [non-disabled people] haven’t taken the time to understand or to know or to just find out,” he says.
By putting talented disabled people on television, Hurst says, he believes he can break down barriers that lead even well-meaning non-disabled people to misunderstand disabled people. It’s a subject close to Hurst’s heart, because he encountered obstacles early in his own entertainment career.
“When I was about 22, I had a manager and I was doing some singing and songwriting,” Hurst says. “He had some old friends who worked for a major record label in Nashville. So he sent a homemade demo to Nashville with the lyrics and my head shot. They contacted him within 10 days and said, ‘We’re interested in signing him.’”
Hurst’s manager went to Nashville to work on the deal, without Hurst accompanying him. He told Hurst that he was sitting on one side of a conference table, and three record-label reps — two men and a woman — on the other side. One of the men was holding the demo tape, the other was holding lyric sheets, and the woman was holding Hurst’s picture. They all seemed interested till the woman spoke up and said, “You got more pictures?”
“He gave them a couple of more pictures,” Hurst said. “This time they saw that I was in a wheelchair, and I had these prosthetic arms, and as soon as they saw that, they stopped talking to him and started talking to each other, and they took every bit of material that he’d given them and sent them in the mail, shoved it back across the table at him, and said, ‘We’re sorry, we’re not interested.’ He said, ‘What do you mean, you’re not interested?’ And they said, ‘Well, you didn’t tell us he looks like that.’ ... Basically, their thing was ‘We don’t know how to market someone like that.’”
Burns has faced fewer problems because her disability is less evident: She reads lips, and has a hearing aid connected to a smartphone app that allows her to adjust volumes and lower background noises. It is possible that you would not notice that she is deaf. Which can be an issue.
“People don’t expect me to have a problem, and I talk normal, so it’s not obvious,” Burns says. “So if someone’s trying to get my attention and they’re behind me and I can’t see them, a lot of times I won’t know they’re there, and they’ll think that I’m rude or ignoring them. And I’ll be judged a lot because of that.”
She adds that there are many people who aren’t as comfortable with their disabilities as she and Hurst are with theirs, and that another goal of the show is to help them feel more comfortable with themselves.
“I used to be very embarrassed by my hearing loss,” she says. “I would apologize: ‘Sorry, can’t hear you, kindly repeat that.’ A lot of people who became disabled later in life, they’re ashamed of it, and that’s kind of why a parent will put a hand over a child’s mouth to not offend [them].
“But putting people in the limelight is going to encourage people who aren’t as comfortable with their disabilities to be more comfortable with them.”
Record-label rejection happened to Hurst twice, for the same reasons, and he never got anywhere as an entertainer. But he got into the management side in the early ’90s, and says he has long thought of doing a live stage show with disabled performers.
Handi-Capable began to take shape when Kathy Hicks, executive producer of Branson, Mo.-based Magic Mirror Productions, and her husband and business partner Wayne met Hurst through a mutual friend on Facebook. Inspired by the experiences of Hurst and others who had been shunned because of their disabilities, Kathy Hicks came up with the idea of a talent show for people with disabilities.
Wayne Hicks, a pioneer in Web-based TV, suggested that the show start out as an online series, with the possibility of airing on traditional TV in the future. Internet TV will give it the capability to have a larger audience, because of its worldwide reach.
When the show became a working concept, the Hickses approached Hurst to be one of the judges, and Burns is slated to host. One of the other judges will be Gary S. Paxton Sr., a singer-songwriter/producer who produced such songs as the Hollywood Argyles’ Alley Oop (on which Paxton also performed) and Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash, who suffered spinal meningitis as a child and had involuntary jerky movements that he incorporated into his performing style, leading him to be known as the “Elvis” of his native southern Arizona. (Paxton has not had this condition since he was 20.)
Some entertainers with disabilities have gone on to great success — Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Ronnie Milsap immediately come to mind, as do actresses Marlee Matlin and Deanne Bray (Sue Thomas: F.B. Eye). Hurst has worked with Tony Melendez, a musician born without arms who plays guitar with his feet.
Burns notes something she saw last year at an event at Hope Center for Autism in Fort Worth: “There was a guy there with autism,” she says. “I have never seen anyone play the guitar so incredibly well. I was just blown away and couldn’t believe that someone who has autism that severely could play guitar that well.”
“Now can you find him for us?” Hurst asks, meaning for his talent show. Burns assures him that she already has.
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872
▪ 9 a.m.-7 p.m. May 29
▪ Guadalupe Room of the E.H. Hereford University Center, UT Arlington
▪ For more information on Handi-Capable, visit the show’s Facebook page or log onto Handi-Capable.us. If you can’t make the Arlington auditions, there is also information on how to submit video and audio auditions on the site.