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.
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."