Amy Roloff: Little People, Big Changes

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Amy Roloff interviewed by Sheila Hamilton, KINK.FM radio.

Little People, Big Changes

“In the beginning people watched because of our differences. And then, eventually they watch because of the similarities.”

Amy Roloff was juggling a lot when we met on a recent Friday morning in downtown Portland. She was planning her son’s upcoming wedding on her 100-acre farm. She has camera crews at her sprawling home in Helvetia filming an episode of Little People Big World. She was contemplating the beginning of her tenth year in reality television and, at the same time, facing what may be the end of a 25 year marriage. She eyes up the high guest chair in front of the microphone, and instead of asking for it to be lowered, climbs up, knees first, and then pushes her 4-foot-2 frame around in a single, swift motion. “Let’s do this,” she said.

When the cable TV network TLC approached Matt and Amy Roloff in 2003 about the possibility of a reality show, the couple had one unified goal: to educate the public about dwarfism. Before Little People Big World, most Americans knowledge of little people was limited to those they saw on TV; the munchkins on The Wizard of Oz or, worse, the little person shot out of a cannon in circus acts.

Amy and Matt believe by allowing cameras into their homes, they could dispel many of the myths surrounding dwarfism, including the notion dwarfism is a disease or a form of mental retardation. Dwarfism is a genetic anomaly that occurs during prenatal development. Seventy percent of the cases are caused by Achondroplasia, affecting about 1 in 15,000 people. Achondroplasia stunts the rate at which cartilage cells in the growth plates of long bone grow, leading to shortened bones in arms and legs and reduced height. Matt Roloff was born with Diastrophic Dysplasia, a degenerative dwarfism that caused him to have 15 operations as a child. Amy and Matt are two different kinds of dwarfs, raising four children, one of which has the same type of dwarfism as Amy.

What began as a mission to change people’s misperceptions of dwarfism evolved into an enormous opportunity for Amy to change tens of thousands of lives. The success of the show allowed Amy to create her own non-profit organization in 2009, The Amy Roloff Charity Foundation, or ARCF. The charity raises funds for children and youth who face social, emotional, mental and physical challenges. Since its beginning in 2009, the ARCF has been partnering with local, national and international nonprofit organizations to improve the lives of children. Amy is a motivational speaker and often talks to women’s, youth and disability groups about developing self-esteem, confidence and grit.

Now, as Amy contemplates a nearly empty nest, the end of her show and perhaps, her marriage, Amy said she is forced to ask the questions she’s never had the luxury to entertain: Not, what does Amy need to do for others, but what does Amy want for herself? It’s a question plenty of middle-aged women are asking, with one in four divorces now being filed by people over the age of 50.

Roloff’s goal in starring in Little People, Big World was to persuade viewers to stop concentrating on the differences between themselves and begin to see the similarities. However, as successful as she was at that mission, the cameras prodding at the personal lives of her, Matt, and her four children have exacerbated the family’s differences and arguments in a way no family would welcome. She muses, “Would I have done things differently? Hindsight is 20-20.” But she does not use the word regret. “The show did so much good,” she said. “I just wish I would have done it differently.”

Amy is on to what she calls, her “second act.” Whatever it is, it will undoubtedly be worth watching.

You were among the original reality television stars.

We were in the beginning, yes. But first? I think of Real World and Ozzy and Sharon. But in terms of a family-based reality TV show. Yes, we were first.

Reality TV has evolved so much. How similar is the show that people see today to when TLC first came to you?

We were doing so many episodes in the beginning; cameras were in our face five days a week, ten months a year. Just part of life. You just do things. They were there all day, “Wait a minute you can’t put that on TV!”

And of course, that’s the part they love. “That goes on TV!”

Right. And now that the kids are older we are filmed like a lot of reality shows, they are there five days. You’ve got to tell a story in five days. Then, they don’t come for a month or so. If you want to call it scripted TV, that’s fair. But we do pick things that might have or could have happened.

I’ve heard people say the camera crews become part of your family. Did that happen?

It plays havoc on your emotions and your psyche. It’s a job, a business. But they are in your space for such a long time. 8 a.m. until 9 at night. That doesn’t mean the cameras are on all the time, but their presence is there. We’re like friends. But you’re not really friends. They need you do something. You’re an employee. But having people in that close personal proximity was great but also very difficult. Stressful. I wanted to look at them as my friends, but they weren’t. They were professional. They were very good at keeping the line. You don’t get to know them at any deep level.

How much do you think the stress of having the cameras in your face contributed to the strain between you and Matt?

If anyone looks at TV as your friend, it’s not. This is business. I’m not saying the people are mean. TV provides a wonderful opportunity to educate and advocate for little people, for me to say it was TV’s fault would be totally wrong. Matt and I made certain choices. I could have handled the environment better. I was so entrenched on not having them climb the last inner wall of our privacy that it got to be too much. You’re vulnerable. I just don’t think Matt and I handled it very well. When you are filming five days a week, ten months a year, there’s no time for family life. After the crews finally left. We had so much to do; catching up on our chores, our farm, so Matt and I weren’t on the same page most the time. Matt has a great personality, a strong personality, but we didn’t work well in incorporating everyone. I was protecting my kids.

This is a new phase for Amy Roloff. You are launching the kids and currently separated from your husband. What’s next?

I like to call it my second act. It will probably be a lot briefer than the one I just got over. I chose to be an at home mom and do that work full time and juggle everyone else’s lives and make sure their schedules were in sync. But I never asked what is Amy’s schedule. I put those things off on the side. One of those elements was because of TV, to tell you the truth. I don’t know what my next phase is. TV won’t last forever. It will be more difficult having those emotions and keeping everything in check. I do speaking engagements. I love that. I’d love to write. I’d love to do other stuff. TV, radio You tube. I’ve got to build my own team now. An Amy Roloff team. The charity foundation is my heart and passion, but it’s not a paying job.

How do you balance the work you are so passionate about and pay the bills, take care of yourself?

TV was our income. We didn’t do it for money, but right now we are definitely doing it for the money. Because doing that much TV makes you unable to look for other jobs. I would love to keep the farm. I love people coming during pumpkin season. I’m creating my own pumpkin salsa to see if that goes anywhere. We are trying… I say trying because Matt and I still talk. It’s just all business. The circumstances we lived in created a business relationship between Matt and I.

I’m not used to having five different things to plan just for me, so it’s a new concept that I have to go into, this is for me.

Aging for any women is a big concern. Are there conditions you must be cautious of developing because you are a little person?

I’ve crossed the halfway mark of life. Being a little person, the older I get, putting on weight again after climbing Mt. St. Helens. I’m kind of mad at myself. But Stenosis is a big thing. (Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal that can pinch (compress) the upper part of the spinal cord. Spinal stenosis is associated with pain, tingling, and weakness in the legs that can cause difficulty with walking.) I want to avoid back surgery. But I do feel some of it coming on. I still give so much thanks that I can do most anything. But arthritis is common in little people. We face arthritis as early as our forties and I’m a little bit facing that now. Finding different ways to stay in shape, look halfway decent, I may never again wear a bikini…(laughter)

Matt’s health concerns are bigger and more progressed. Do you worry about him?

I still worry about Matt. He’ll have other physical concerns because he has a different kind of dwarfism. Sometimes there are choices he makes and I’m like, “C’mon Matt what did you THINK was going to happen?” I still care for him. I hope we’ll get back together. My faith tells me anything is possible. Matt is high drama. My fifth child, my adult child and I’m not drama at all.

How are the kids doing?

I think the kids are disappointed. Matt chose to want the separation and I’m not saying we didn’t have issues and problems, but we just have to find a different space from where we are to see if we want to work on it going forward. One of my twin boys, Jeremy proposed to his girlfriend. We felt bad that the timing of his engagement coincided with our separation. And he said, “I feel bad, I’m wanting to do this and you’re splitting up.” I told him don’t worry about dad and I. We’ll be fine. I only wish the best for you. I still believe in life ever after.

And what’s your daughter say about it all?

Molly is right now in Cuba, studying abroad. Majoring in Spanish and accounting. I’m so proud of her and all she’s accomplishing. I’m sure she was glad she was in another country as this was happening. Jeremy’s twin brother Zach is doing great, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t get married next year. And that should happen. My youngest Jacob is the challenge. TV affected him the most. It was the dynamics of the family, how Matt and I handled it that affected him most. He’s struggling. He’s my challenge boy.

If you relived that day that the network approached you, would you do it again?

If I could know what I know now, I would continue to do TV. I would understand it better. I would participate in it in a different way instead of being so afraid of it that it would entrench on our core values and beliefs. We did a very good thing with the show. If I ever did it again, there would have to be a higher purpose for doing it. Then, I would definitely do it over again.

What’s been the most inspiring thing you’ve heard from another little person or a person with disabilities that made you feel like its been worthwhile?

Sometimes little people say the Roloff family doesn’t represent me. Others say it gave me a better understanding of how people approach me. Especially when it comes to average size parents who have children with dwarfism. A lot of people wanted to see the show to see what the crazy Roloff’s are doing. At first they saw all the differences, and then all they could see were the similarities. That worked. We’re all doing the same things. Raising kids. Having a business. Fighting. Not fighting. Difficulties. Joys. It was all there.

You talk as if the show is coming to a natural close. Is that because there is a contract issue?

No, it’s a natural thing. Maybe we should have quit couple of years ago. What Matt and I face is what a lot of couples are going through. We are looking at each other like “Who are you? I don’t like you anymore!’ We’ll have to find what brought us together in the first place. Nobody is jumping up and down to do more TV. If things were better, maybe they’d be more interested. But what drives Matt is different from what drives me. It’s a matter of what stories we tell.

Amy, I wish you the best of success.

It’s a very exciting time. A very scary time. I don’t like feeling unstable in the personal parts of your life. As long as you have a core element, your home, you can cope. But it’s all up in the air. I’m going to embrace it the best I can.

About The Author: Sheila Hamilton

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