N.J. teen uses viral Vine videos to turn disability into celebrity
Nick Santonastasso was born with Hanhart Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left him missing both legs and one arm.
But the outgoing high schooler from Bayville, N.J., has used what many would consider a disability to his advantage, posting a series of hilarious Vine videos that have whipped the Internet into a viral frenzy. One short shows the 17-year-old wolfing down a baked potato balanced on his stump. Another, titled "No-legged Scooby Doo turning up," finds Santonastasso dressed in a dog costume while practicing b-boy moves in the aisle of a Walmart.
"Being like me, you have to have fun," Santonastasso said Saturday. "Even if you aren't like me, you have to have fun in life or you'll be miserable. I make best of what I have. I joke around about how I am because I could care less. I'm pretty much just using it in funny ways."
Santonastasso's duo of "zombie prank" videos, in which he paints his face with gruesome wounds, crawls through store aisles and scares the hell out of unsuspecting shoppers, has cemented his cyber celebrity status.
"My first video, I was hoping to get around 10,000 'likes' and before I went to sleep that night, I was at 90,000," he said. "I was pretty shocked - I didn't know what was going on. I woke up the next day and it was up to 130,000. It just blew up."
He said he came up with the idea shortly before Thanksgiving. "I was just thinking of what I was close to that no one else could beat me at, no one else could even come close to," he said. "And I believe, to myself, I'm the best looking zombie in the world. No one else gets closer than me."
The pranks' targets apparently agreed. One startled man threw a package of paper towel rolls at Santonastasso. Another terrified woman beat him repeatedly with a roll of wrapping paper.
"That really shocked me," Santonastasso said. "You can hear on the video - I was like, 'no, no, it's only a prank!' Now when I go and think through other zombie pranks, I've got to be careful. My mom's worried something bad is going to happen, but it's just me doing me."
It's that attitude that inspired one of Santonastasso's many online fans, a South Carolina man named Johnny Pope, to create a Change.org petition urging "The Walking Dead" creator Robert Kirkman to include the teen on an upcoming episode of the hit zombie apocalypse show. The petition had garnered 1,455 signatures Saturday night — just 45 short of its goal.
"I work in the school that Nick attends," supporter Steve Eccles commented on the site. "He has a heart of a giant. And this young man does more with having no legs and only one arm than most people do with two legs and two arms."
Santonastasso said the petition came as a surprise but he figured he'd "just go with it."
"I don't know how petitions work or anything but I've been getting support," he said. "We'll see what happens with that."
He called the outpouring of support he's received from all corners of the web "the best thing that's ever happened" to him — but not because he craves fame and fortune from a gig on the small screen. His ambitions are much loftier.
"My main goal is to inspire, my main goal is to entertain, and to inspire and entertain at the same time, it's amazing to me," he said. The teen feels so strongly about his role as a source of inspiration he has the word tattooed on his ribs. "The main thing I've always thought I was born to do is inspire the world, and I'm trying in all ways to help people who need that little drive in life."
As for the zombie pranks, Santonastasso said he has plans to stage "plenty more" in the future — when he's not busy practicing at the gym. Santonastasso is a member of the Central Regional High School wrestling team, yet another task he's undertaken to fly in the face of naysayers and show people the breadth of possibilities available to them.
"You've really got to make the best of what you have," Santonastasso said. "If you do have a disability, you're stuck with it. You can't really do anything about it so you might as well live life to the fullest and use it in funny ways and prove people wrong. When someone says you can't do something, go out and do it."
And in the brief moments the teen does catch himself feeling blue, he's careful never to wallow.
"That goes for everyone in the world," he said. "Someone is struggling worse than you. I say it to myself. 'People have it worse than me.' So I can never really be down."