While cradling your popcorn and sitting on the edge of an overpriced movie theater seat, you've probably gasped to yourself, wondering how in the world stunt-doubles (ahem, or devils, depending on how you look at it) are able to pull off such impressive fitness feats in seemingly-dangerous situations.
Through lots of training - and even more pure gusto and bravery - one celebrity trainer and professional stuntwoman has turned her sense of adventure into a promising career. Enter April Sutton from SuttonStrong.com, a Chicago-based badass lady who is ripped not only in terms of physical grit, but business wits, too.
To date, she's appeared on Fox's 'Empire', NBC's 'Chicago P.D.', 'Chicago Fire' and 'Chicago Med', along with the blockbuster 'Divergent' and countless others. Though you might not instantly recognize her face, you'll find yourself in awe of her swiftness, agility and endurance when you do catch a glimpse of her on the screen. And when you look at the gender disparity in the stunting-world, her success is even more impressive: only about 30 percent of those who perform stunts are ladies.
Taking a break from training and stunting, Sutton took time to chat with SWAAY about how she came from a family who struggled with weight management, to be a fit-inspiration for thousands.
SWAAY: Tell us about your background growing up. Were you always active?
AS: I played sports including basketball and tennis, however I did it for more social reasons and to just be out of the house. I wasn't exposed to healthy choices growing up. There were a lot of unhealthy foods including fried food, desserts, heavy sauces, bread and other processed foods that were always an option in my household. My parents worked a lot and we ate based on convenience and budget.
S: How did you get into stuntwoman work? Tell us about your first few auditions and experiences.
AS: I went to a casting call for 'Divergent.' I was an intern at the time and was experiencing extreme financial hardship. So I had a lot of motivation behind attending the casting call. I was casted and we did a bootcamp that involved a lot of basic fundamentals to stunt work and also physical fitness. I did my best on the physical fitness aspect, and I was eventually bumped up to the stunt team. It took a year to book a stunt gig after 'Divergent.' I had to stunt train for several months, attend acting classes and I do a few extra gigs to gain more experience.
S: What's being a stuntwoman like?
AS: Stunt work is very empowering as a female, especially as an African American female. There are not many of us, and because of that I train and learn as much as possible. I want to be a great representation of a stuntwoman and a strong female role model. I would have never thought as a little girl that I would be doing what I am doing now. I owe it to myself to empower young women or little girls that they can be whoever they want to be when they grow up.
S: How many female stuntwomen are there compared to men? Do you think you make the same amount of money?
AS: I have only been in the stunt industry for three years but based on what I have seen there is probably 30 percent percent of stuntwomen who are actively working. There are not many female stunt coordinators as well. However that does not bother me. I have always worked in a male driven environment, which has always seemed to step my game up. Which I am sure this is also the same reason why other stuntwomen stay in the industry. We embrace our male competition.
The amount of money made is not a factor since we all start on base rates. It is about the demand in projects. A superhero movie with 10 lead actors who need doubles in comparison to two lead actresses that need doubles is what will make the difference. With that being said, I feel that stuntmen book the bigger projects more so than stuntwomen. I want to change that.
S: What's been your most proud moment in your work? Why?
AS: My most proud moment in my work was my second stunt gig for 'Supernatural.' I was a very mentally challenging gig that involved being in a cocktail dress and high heels in single digit weather at night at the Chicago River. It was a overnight shoot as well and my scene was the very last scene. My job was to be thrown into a concrete wall, die on first impact and fall on concrete. I had to do an extremely great job despite the elements, in order to make a great impression on the Chicago stunt industry. Which I did! I was relieved that all of my stunt training helped me prepare for something like that. Stunt work based on reputation as well. Your work from word of mouth can take you a long ways.
S: What advice would you give to aspiring female entrepreneurs?
AS: My advice meet a lot of other like minded individuals. You may find yourself outgrowing your former friends or inner circles. That is okay! It is part of the journey. Meet people who will motivate and help step your game up. Your inner circles will help determine who you are going to be.
S: What are your upcoming goals? What's next?
AS: I want to design a gym at Cinespace which is being in the works right now. I also want to produce and write my own work. I see myself down the road directing or writing TV shows and movies. I'm also working on my own fitness app. I eventually want to train more celebrities to help prep them for projects. I have a huge understanding of what that's like. One of my other goals is to travel for stunt work and work on more movies. I have only done gigs in Chicago and they have been mostly TV shows. I would love to expand my horizons and grow as a stuntwoman.
Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.
Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.
That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.
Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.
Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.
Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.
With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.
The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.
Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.
As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.
Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.