An incoming call lights up the screen of Xander Mozejewski's iPhone.
“Dude, you're not going to believe this,” a friend says when he picks up.
Somebody has just uploaded a nude photo of Mozejewski onto the wildly popular Internet aggregator Reddit, and it's blown up onto the front page, getting hundreds of thousands of views under the title “Ridiculously Photogenic Nude Wheelchair Guy.”
The photo is, in fact, authentic, taken the day before, when Mozejewski stripped off his clothes and took his wheelchair for a exhibitionistic spin at the 405/101 freeway interchange in Studio City.
While Mozejewski is not familiar with Reddit, soon other friends are calling, cracking up at the hundreds of comments streaming in from users on the website. One example: “I'd let him give me a ride.”
They encourage Mozejewski to start an AMA, or “Ask Me Anything,” in which he agrees to take written questions from other Reddit users about, well, anything. Similar to a chat room, Reddit AMAs have been used by everyone from Snoop Dogg to Barack Obama.
So Mozejewski gives it a try, titling his AMA “I am Xander Mozejewski AKA the ridiculously photogenic nude wheelchair guy.”
It's a perfect way to pass the time, since Mozejewski is stuck in bed with a pressure sore, also known as a bedsore — a common problem for people who are paralyzed and spend too much time placing weight on one part of their body, bruising the skin. From his home in the San Fernando Valley, he ends up answering hundreds of questions during the next 24 hours.
It's not long before his AMA blows up, too. Reddit users can't believe the things he's saying. Mozejewski is completely unfiltered.
BecauseImAnAsshole: I'll go first … how do you have sex and poop? Any order will do.
Xanturd: Well, i can easily get a boner, but the challenge is making it last. so i take cialis sometimes. 22 years old and taking cialis, fuckin ballin. cant control my poops which is the worst thing about being paralyzed. every day and a half ish i take a dump. you put a suppository in your butt, wait 15 minutes, then get on the toilet and make it rain. fingering your butt helps the poop come out, obviously i do it with gloves on. on a side note, i miss the feeling of taking a nice shit than the feeling of sex
ShyJalapeno: Do you have any feeling in your dick? Sorry for being ignorant creep 😉
Xanturd: zero feeling but sex is still totes fun. everyone ive hooked up with says im really really good and luckily my dick is big
Some people are loving it; some hate it. A few call him vain and immature. But it's hard not to be impressed by his high spirits in the face of paralysis.
Rayjirdeoxys: How do you manage to keep such a positive attitude through this?
Xanturd: Well, im hot, i have money, a sick car, lots of nikes, dope friends, awesome ideas … what else do i need?
Since the motorcycle accident three years ago that left him paralyzed below the waist, Mozejewski has made his life all about ignoring his wheelchair and living as fast and hard as he can. Antics such as the naked freeway ride are regular occurrences, earning him thousands of followers on Instagram and his Tumblr page, which is titled “My Friends Are Hotter Than Yours.”
He's the Kim Kardashian of the disability community — at times intentionally provocative, other times seemingly unconcerned with what people think. The effect has certainly paid off in attention. In light of the way people with disabilities are frequently sidelined or pitied, some view him as a hero for refusing to identify with his condition.
But recent medical breakthroughs in paralysis treatment have Mozejewski facing some big questions. Namely, is his hedonism a useful coping mechanism — or a way to avoid reality? While Mozejewski spends his days partying, shooting photos (and helping other millennials build their own portfolios) and hanging with friends, many in the paralysis community are abuzz over new technologies that might allow them to walk again.
Mozejewski doesn't seem to care. And to some people, that makes him baffling — even controversial.
Before the accident, Xander Mozejewski seemed to have it all. A graduate of North Hollywood High School's Zoo Magnet Center, he had a natural agility, and was an excellent snowboarder and skateboarder. With his great genes (his mom modeled), he was hired to do photo shoots as far away as New York. And as a budding photographer himself, he teamed up with a professional who took him on shoots for companies including Levi's and Nike.
As Mozejewski puts it, “I was getting good money and doing dope things.”
Then, on Nov. 13, 2011, his world was turned upside down.
Robert Mozejewski, Xander's father, remembers the day as if it were yesterday. He was driving home from Laguna Beach, where he had been out of cell service. Suddenly his phone blinked as it came into range — 50 missed calls and text messages. He pulled over and read the first words: Xander. Motorcycle. Emergency Room. Cedars-Sinai.
Robert turned off his phone and headed straight to the hospital. He already knew; there was no need to talk with anyone.
“Nothing could prepare me for what I saw, though. My son, my oldest son, was lying in the ICU bed with wires and hoses and tubes and machines hooked up to him. His legs were immobilized with straps and airboots. I walked over to the closest wall and started banging on it, my hands, my fists, my forehead. 'Fucking motorcycles' was pretty much all I can remember saying.”
Gradually, details of the accident emerged from Mozejewski's friend Ben Krugliak, who recounted how the pair had been on their way to a surf shop on their motorcycles. They were only blocks from the Mozejewski home in Studio City when the accident occurred.
Mozejewski had been riding his Ducati S4 with a 916 superbike engine. The racing bike weighed almost nothing and was no match for another young driver trying to beat a red light while turning left off Ventura Boulevard, who T-boned Mozejewski with his car.
Eyewitnesses, including a couple of Mozejewski's neighbors, say the impact sent the young man flying straight up into the air. He was not wearing a motorcycle jacket. Based on the 10 broken ribs, two collapsed lungs and fractured T6, T7 and T8 vertebrae he sustained, paramedics believe Mozejewski broke his back in midair because his body was twisted so violently.
The paramedics later told the family they were surprised that Mozejewski survived.
It took 40 days in the intensive care unit to stabilize him. Since Mozejewski suffered injuries on both sides of his body, he had to be suspended by his arms to undergo duel surgeries — one on his ribs and collapsed lungs, the other on his spine, where a titanium rod was placed from vertebrae T3 to T11.
Mozejewski finally regained consciousness, but it wasn't clear whether he would regain feeling in his lower body. Doctors withheld their skepticism, but as the days in ICU dragged on, it became apparent to the Mozejewski family that their 20-year-old son was paralyzed from the waist down.
“Can't this just go away, can't it just be back to how it was?” Mozejewski's mom, Cheryl Bianchi, wrote on Facebook.
But paralysis meant adapting to a new reality.
When the hospital bills came in, they totaled $3.7 million. Not only was Mozejewski uninsured, but his father later was laid off from his job at a coffee distributor, in part because he had spent so much time at the hospital.
Strapped for cash, the family was able to weather the financial storm solely because some of Mozejewski's doctors performed their surgeries pro bono.
“We were also stunned, relieved and amused to get one Cedars bill that totaled $2.7 million with a 'discount' of $2 million, and a balance due of only $700,000,” Bianchi recalls. “Xander later referred to it as a 'sick-ass discount!'?” The remaining balance was mostly covered by the state of California.
The initial months after the accident were trying, physically and emotionally. Mozejewski's weight dropped to 129 pounds, wafer-thin, considering his 6-foot 3-inch frame, and he suffered regularly from urinary tract infections. His girlfriend abandoned him, a transgression he's never forgiven.
Mozejewski's parents desperately sought outside help. They reached out to friends who might know others with similar injuries, and that's when they discovered how extensive the paralyzed community is. According to the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, which was founded by the late Superman actor after he suffered a spinal cord injury, nearly 6 million Americans are living with paralysis, with 1.275 million of those from spinal cord injuries.
“There were so many. That I had barely even considered this population before was deeply embarrassing,” Bianchi says.
Acting on suggestions the family received, Mozejewski tried various treatments, including aquatic therapy and locomotor therapy, which involved being suspended in a harness above a treadmill. But it was a specialized gym in Northridge for wheelchair users, C.O.R.E., where he found a tight-knit community to advise and support him.
Even those new friends and mentors at C.O.R.E. couldn't have anticipated how quickly Mozejewski would bounce back. Within just a year of joining the gym, Mozejewski was already living faster and looser than most his age — including those who can walk.
On a Tuesday night in 2014, Mozejewski arrives at the C.O.R.E. gym early. Tonight he's scheduled to give a talk for the Triumph Foundation, a local support group for paralysis victims. The presentation is a bit of a surprise to his parents, given that Mozejewski usually doesn't discuss his disability. They encourage friends and family to attend. But there's also some nervousness. As Mozejewski's Reddit AMA indicates, no one knows exactly what he's going to say.
Before the presentation starts, Mozejewski is behind a bench-press machine that's been specially modified to accommodate wheelchair users. He's benching 210 pounds, which, he says, is far from his maximum. Even with his stick legs, from the waist up Mozejewski has the physique of a bodybuilder. There's a reason he was called “ridiculously good-looking” on Reddit.
“I could really care less how big I am. This is so I can build stamina to do stuff like Coachella,” he says between reps.
But he also explains that he can't continue bulking up: Having more mass in his upper body puts more pressure on his lower body, which can produce pressure sores.
Trainers and patrons at C.O.R.E are used to such considerations; there aren't many gyms designed specifically for wheelchair users. C.O.R.E. has 210 regular members, and some come from as far as Canada and South Africa for months at a time to train on its specialized machines.
As Mozejewski continues his workout, about 20 people arrive to hear him speak, eight of them in wheelchairs. A crowd forms a semi-circle around the gym's check-in desk, which has a projection screen above it. The wheelchair users take the spaces in front so they can see.
C.O.R.E. owner Aaron Baker, who has himself slowly recovered from a motorcycle accident, clears his throat and makes an introduction: “Now here's a dude who lives not from the chair — that's for sure!”
Mozejewski wheels himself over to face the semi-circle and wipes his long, blond hair away from his face.
“Hey guys, I'm Xander. And if you know me, then you know I have nothing planned. … I go to sleep at 5 a.m., I wake up at 10. I do whatever I want, when I want, and it's the best.”
Behind him on the projection screen, Baker pulls up Mozejewski's Tumblr, its title “My Friends Are Hotter Than Yours” blazing across the top in bold, colorful letters. Below are colorful photos with beautiful young women, some of them exposing their breasts, most looking seductive in various stages of undress. Other pictures show Mozejewski's friends wearing ski masks and shooting water guns at each other on Ventura Boulevard.
It seems weird at first. Some of the guests from the Triumph Foundation shift in their seats. They look uncomfortable. Who is this guy? This doesn't seem like the “photography” talk that they were expecting.
But Mozejewski is just getting started. He asks Baker to play a short film he produced for local shoe store Kicks, which pays him to put together online-only commercials meant to go viral. A girl pops up on the screen, shaking her ass, then dancing on top of a mountain wearing skate shoes.
One of the wheelchair users raises his hand as if he's in elementary school, asking his teacher a question. How did Mozejewski get on top of that mountain?
“I don't think wheelchairs have been to many places I've gone,” Mozejewski says dismissively.
It's hard to argue his point: Mozejewski's chair is all dented and beat up, a stark contrast to the antiseptic wheelchairs in the audience. In fact, in the three years since his accident, Mozejewski has become more adventurous and animated than ever, by his own admission.
His base of operations is “the Trap,” his crew's nickname for the garage behind the Mozejewskis' home, which his parents converted into a bedroom to give him easy wheelchair access. Inside, Mozejewski has a massive wall of 150 boxes of Nike shoes — a collection he's amassed by buying and selling shoes online. He tries to switch them up each day, wearing different pairs even though he can't walk in them. (The irony is that this keeps them clean.)
In his driveway is a converted Volkswagen TDI SportWagen, with a hand control that operates similarly to the throttle on a speedboat. Mozejewski has discovered it doesn't slow him down at all from drifting around corners on Mulholland Drive.
Everything he does is documented on Instagram and Tumblr. Social media serves up a running commentary on the shenanigans that unfold on a weekly basis: beautiful women, swimming pools, bong rips and wild parties with hundreds of people, some of them throwing handfuls of money off the roof of Mozejewski's family's garage.
“My life simply is not rehab, it's partying and going out and being with people — to me that's more important than walking,” Mozejewski tells L.A. Weekly. “I want to inspire people to do their own thing.”
For some, this rhetoric resonates. Filmmaker Jessica Franz has even decided to use Mozejewski's story as the basis for a fictional romance movie, Chew, which is set to start filming in February.
“I was immediately taken by Xander's attitude and unbroken spirit. He's so alive,” Franz says.
But not everyone's buying it. Sam Maddox, who runs the research blog for the Reeve Foundation and knows Mozejewski through his mom, says he admires the young man's tenacity but adds, “I don't entirely get where he's coming from. You can't live off an image. An image should represent something.”
Mozejewski will allow that some of his antics are hype — “to get a rise outta people.” He has dubbed himself the “King of the Valley,” vowing to rep the 818 area code of northern Los Angeles 'til the day he dies, and he cites Kanye West as his idol.
As with Kanye, not everyone appreciates the provocations. “I do have a lot of haters,” Mozejewski says.
His mom, Bianchi, worries. Since the accident, some of Mozejewski's closest friends have pulled away, and Bianchi has observed a strange jealousy between him and younger brother Xavier, who was the more popular kid in high school.
“Among some of Xander's friends, there's this weird envy of the attention he gets. Like, 'Oh, you're Internet-famous? Oh, you get $800 in Social Security each month?' It's mind-boggling to me that they think the perks of his situation outweigh the negatives,” Bianchi says. “But I suppose part of it is because he's so good at keeping up the front.”
Mozejewski is adamant that he's not faking his enjoyment of life. Coming close to death taught him to fill each day with crazy adventures: “There's no excuses to hold back — anyone can do this.”
Sure, he admits, his disability causes occasional problems. The week before the C.O.R.E. presentation, Mozejewski accidentally soiled himself in front of his friends at the Trap before heading out to a pool party. And though Mozejewski gets with more girls now than ever, he can't produce an orgasm.
He jokingly recalls a time when a girl he met slept over, and he accidentally peed on her.
“I legit said to her the next morning, 'Oh snap, I thought that was you smelling bad.'?”
They laughed about it.
“One thing this accident taught me is that you cannot be judgmental. I used to be so reserved — proper almost. I didn't party. Now I'm so much more outgoing and accepting of everyone.”
Despite their initial shock over his photos and videos, about 30 minutes into the presentation at C.O.R.E., some in Mozejewski's audience have been won over.
His charisma is unquestionable. When Mozejewski says, “Isn't it the best when people forget to grab the wheelchair out of the back of the car?” a few in the crowd actually nod their heads. It's almost as if he has let them forget about their disabilities, too. However briefly, they are bonded together as people, not people in wheelchairs, as so much of the world sees them.
One person who doesn't seem fazed by Mozejewski's spiel is Christopher Voelker. At the presentation he looks fatigued, and keeps checking his phone. He's heard it all before.
Voelker had been mentoring Mozejewski since shortly after his accident. Initially, there was so much that the Mozejewski family didn't know about the disability community, and Voelker was instrumental in helping them find the right resources.
Voelker was paralyzed when he fell off a motorcycle at a racetrack when he was 17. “Back then — 36 years ago — there wasn't available what there is now,” he told L.A. Weekly.
Serving as an ambassador for the Reeve Foundation, Voelker had mentored many with disabilities over the years. One reason he was interested in Mozejewski, he said, was their mutual connection to photography. “Once we started talking about shooting, we were like two peas in a pod.”
Yet even this shared passion reveals their philosophical difference in approaching life and disability. Voelker's photos are a product of calculation, painstaking attention to lighting and texture. He worked tirelessly for decades to build a brand, shooting many celebrities along the way (among them Ringo Starr and Lauryn Hill). Mozejewski is more spontaneous. In true millennial style, his photography subjects are usually his friends.
At 53, Voelker said he felt inspired by Mozejewski — he had never seen someone recover so fast. But at the C.O.R.E. talk, he appears exhausted by him, maybe because he'd already gone through everything Mozejewski has.
Both Voelker and Mozejewski moved into their parents' garages after their accidents, and both used photography as an escape. The difference is that, over time, Voelker realized the importance of using his gift to advocate for the disabled community, helping the Reeve Foundation compile its Paralysis Resource Guide and shooting for New Mobility Magazine, a publication for wheelchair users.
In that time, Voelker weathered severe disappointment and pain. He had wanted to walk again for so long, and was told every five years or so that the miracle cure was just around the corner — everything from treadmill training and nerve rewiring to risky stem-cell transfers (some of them conducted abroad, in places like Mumbai and Tijuana). But treatment after treatment failed, and eventually he developed osteoporosis from being paralyzed for so long. In constant pain, he could not even stand in leg braces, as Mozejewski does, because his doctors feared it would break his bones. He had all but given up hope of seeing a paralysis cure during his lifetime.
Until last fall.
On Oct. 10, the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation announced its “Big Idea” campaign on the 10th anniversary of the actor's death. It builds upon a development in early 2014, when the scientific journal Brain published results from a study of four men who, previously paralyzed below the waist, are now able to move their legs with the assistance of a procedure called epidural stimulation.
An artificial device implanted at the bottom of the spine sends electrical pulses up the spinal cord, mimicking signals the brain normally receives and transmits to control motor and autonomic functions. The Reeve Foundation's “Big Idea” is to secure 36 more candidates and $15 million to expand research on epidural stimulation.
The technology could have wide-ranging implications for people who are paralyzed.
Headed by Reggie Edgerton at UCLA and Claudia Angeli and Susan Harkema at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, the study found that the four men were able to elicit voluntary movements with less stimulation over time. This seems to suggest that a partial to full recovery may be possible.
When Voelker heard this news, he was at first skeptical, even cynical. Even if the treatment had helped the four young men in Kentucky, he expressed doubt that it would ever apply to someone as old as he.
But as more research has emerged, even Voelker admitted that it is “hands-down the most promising thing I've ever seen.”
That could be especially true for Mozejewski. Like the four previous participants, his accident was within the last three years, he's physically strong and he has a similar diagnosis — he's a T6 complete paraplegic, meaning he has no feeling from just above his navel down.
That's why Voelker was surprised by Mozejewski's reaction: The younger man took no steps of his own to apply for the treatment. And with his established Internet fan base, Mozejewski is exactly the kind of spokesman researchers could use to bring publicity and funding to epidural simulation.
Mozejewski explains that he fears that joining a trial might be too time-consuming, and involve sacrificing the daily adventures he has with his friends. If he were in the Reeve trial, it would require multiple trips to Kentucky, as well as mandatory daily locomotor-therapy sessions, which he previously stopped doing in order to avoid the long commutes between Studio City and Cal State L.A. in East Los Angeles. As someone who lives moment to moment, the idea of imposing a fixed regime for an unproven treatment seems unpalatable.
On a deeper level, Mozejewski says, being part of a trial goes counter to his values. He thrives, and inspires, by ignoring his wheelchair.
“I hate being defined. I don't even want to relate to paralysis,” Mozejewski says.
He would much rather be known for his photography, friendship, mentoring and zeal for life than be viewed through the lens of disability.
According to Maddox, the Reeve Foundation's research blogger, there is already stiff competition to get into the potential trials: “There's hundreds of people who want to sign up for this.”
Behind the scenes, Maddox adds, there's a race between researchers to develop the technology and monetize it first. The Reeve Foundation's proposed trial, using 36 patients, is just one avenue; opportunities also are brewing in Los Angeles, including researcher Reggie Edgerton's NeuroRecovery Technologies Inc. at UCLA.
And future trials might not be as onerous as Mozejewski believes. Edgerton's company at UCLA is working on an external epidural stimulator, which wouldn't require surgery to implant — a sort of plug-and-play model that people could come in to try.
“So I don't think future candidates will be required to do the six to nine months of pre-training that the first four guys did. It's a whole different bargain than what they made,” Maddox says.
But Mozejewski seems unconcerned. His parents do the heavy lifting for him, feverishly reading about new research, posting updates for friends on Facebook, even raising money for researchers. Mozejewski would rather be a wildly active young guy.
Seeing this, Voelker feels torn. “I think what he's doing now is good for his soul but not for his body,” he says at one point. But rather than lecture his friend about being more responsible, Voelker says the best he can hope for is that Mozejewski will come to the realization on his own.
When the presentation at C.O.R.E. ends, Mozejewski wheels past Voelker and says hi but doesn't bother to stick around long. He's already in a rush to make it to a pool party at the Roosevelt Hotel.
A week and a half later, Cheryl Bianchi receives a call informing her that Voelker is in the hospital. He'd been found in the bedroom above his photography studio after an apparent overdose of painkillers.
No one doubts that the overdose was intentional; in constant physical pain, Voelker had talked for years about the possibility of ending it all, and each time close friends had managed to talk him out of suicide.
But on Sept. 11, two days after being admitted to the hospital, Voelker is declared brain-dead.
Bianchi is broadsided, reeling from the loss of someone she hadn't known long but who had become so important to her family. She finally gathers the courage to go into the garage to tell her son about it. She can tell he is upset by the news; usually verbose, the only thing Mozejewski keeps saying is, “That's crazy.”
“I hope you can see this is one of my reasons for being on your case about treatment,” Bianchi tells him.
Voelker's suicide is a wake-up call. It hits home for Bianchi how decades of pain and complications from paralysis affected Voelker. Photography may have been his escape, but it could never be enough.
“Think about 10 to 20 years down the road, Xander — how can you not be concerned?” his mother asks.
Bianchi has vowed that she'll keep pushing forward, helping to find investors for the Reeve Foundation and NeuroRecovery Technologies and raise awareness about epidural stimulation, regardless of what her son decides.
“We cannot lose any more good humans because of this — something we can work together and change,” she tells the Weekly.
But privately, Mozejewski admits he's in disbelief, even if he won't tell his mom.
Eight days after Voelker's death, Mozejewski's voice on the phone goes abruptly from joking to deadpan when his mentor's suicide is mentioned. It's apparent the subject has struck a nerve; Mozejewski hesitates as he gathers his thoughts.
He's been thinking seriously about the persona he's created, and whether it's sustainable.
“I know it's annoying how I'm always like, 'I'm so cool, I'm so hot, I'm a beast,' and … I'm sorry — I'm not doing it for attention. I say that shit as a cover, I guess?…
“I'm lucky because I'm young and strong, but the idea of what can happen when I get older does haunt me.”
After all, Voelker suffered so much more than most people realized. The fact that even he advocated epidural stimulation has made Mozejewski reconsider the treatment.
“It's not like it's the first thing I think about when I wake up — that I need to do this treatment — but I'm opening to the possibility.”
Of course, he's still on the fence, considering the discipline that locomotor therapy would require, the necessity of maintaining appointments and a regimen, as well as a deeper psychological unease at admitting that his wheelchair is something to beat. After all, ignoring his paralysis is what has allowed him to lead a lifestyle that many 23-year-olds admire, and has earned him heaps of online fans.
But, Mozejewski admits, since Voelker's death, “I'm thinking way more about it,” he says. “So we'll see.”
He doesn't know that his mom has already sent in a preliminary application for the Reeve trial.
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.