She was refused an acting role due to her disability. Now she runs an agency representing actors with disabilities.
Every day, you’ll find Keely Cat-Wells sending emails, making calls, and reserving roles for her dozens of clients. The 24-year-old runs a full-service talent agency in Los Angeles called Talent C, and while it operates like most typical agencies, what helps it stand out from other Hollywood stores is the customer base: since opening in 2018, Cat-Wells has only has represented Hollywood actors and professionals with disabilities.
His desire to help the disabled community began years ago.
Cat-Wells was bred across the pond in West Sussex, UK. She was born a healthy child and had a very active adolescence. Her parents trained horses and she grew up on a farm and a racehorse yard. His days were spent on horseback, with jockey dreams.
While in elementary school, Cat-Wells said she was bullied and, to escape, she dabbled in musical theater and ultimately fell in love with the theater. It was then that she had a revelation: If she had an agent and started acting professionally, she could get an education on the road – and, hopefully, escape bullying.
Cat-Wells began booking acting jobs, including shows on Disney and various commercials. She decided to go to college for dancing, another passion she found along the way.
All was going well for Cat-Wells as she danced throughout her freshman year. Up to six months, when she started having excruciating stomach pains. She tried to ignore this feeling, but her teachers quickly realized that something was wrong. She was not eating due to the discomfort, she quickly lost an astronomical amount of weight and soon her performance was affected.
Cat-Wells went to the doctor and was diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia. She tried to express that she did not have an eating disorder – the severe pain kept her from eating. But no one would listen. She was forced to undergo therapy and deal with stress, but the physical agony would not go away.
“I started to get worse,” Cat-Wells said. “I could barely get out of bed. I was sick all the time and couldn’t even drink water.
At one point, she was rushed to the emergency room, where doctors speculated whether she had Crohn’s disease or colitis, although all tests came back negative. At this point, the doctors said the pain was in her head.
“I had a doctor who held me, shook me and said, ‘You are crazy. You need psychological help. And we’re going to put you in a mental institution, “” said Cat-Wells.
Cat-Wells decided it was time to find a new doctor. She and her mother traveled across the country to different doctors and surgeons and finally found one who told her the problem was not in her head; it was in his intestines. They said they would need to have a simple operation to remove part of her colon. But after the mesh was placed inside her body during the operation, she had an allergic reaction and found herself in a worse condition.
Eight major surgeries later, doctors said it was time to remove her entire colon – which they had tried to avoid. She then had a permanent ileostomy and should have worn an ileostomy bag for the rest of her life.
As soon as the operation was over, Cat-Wells was no longer in pain. But the recovery process was far from easy. She should learn how to eat well. She should be weaned off the morphine that the doctors gave her for years for the pain. And Cat-Wells was eventually diagnosed with PTSD because of all of the physical and mental trauma she had suffered.
“PTSD was probably the hardest thing,” Cat-Wells said. “And I’m a little grateful for that because it kept me from focusing on this new body, which I just didn’t understand.
Three questions constantly crossed Cat-Wells’ head after the operation: What could she wear that didn’t show the bag attached to her body? What could she eat now? And when she had to leave the house, where would she find an accessible toilet? These questions influenced her decision to return to dance college. In the end, wearing a tight leotard, where her ileostomy bag could be seen, seemed too scary. She also needed to find something flexible for her recovery. And she wanted to do something meaningful.
She found and accepted an internship at a talent agency in London. It was perfect, as she could work from home and, if necessary, go to the office.
Three weeks into this internship, however, Cat-Wells said the head of the agency’s children’s talent section abruptly left, and they asked him to fill the role. She began to represent 200 children overnight. As she learned the ropes, she realized that she loved being an agent but couldn’t provide personalized attention to her extensive client list. It was then that she decided to leave and create her own artistic agency.
Cat-Wells has started to represent around 20 clients at its new agency CC Associates.
“At this point, I didn’t understand the need for people with disabilities to have the visibility they needed,” said Cat-Wells. “It was when I was in Los Angeles and stepped up to an acting role that I realized the need.”
Cat-Wells had traveled to Los Angeles in 2017 to try out a role in a movie. She booked the role, went to a fitting where they made her try on a bikini. It was a low rise bikini and revealed her ileostomy bag. The next day, she received an email saying she no longer had the part.
“They saw me in a bikini, and they said, ‘No, you’re too off-putting to the audience. It’s going to be too confusing, ”said Cat-Wells. “And it didn’t have to be like that. They could have given me a high waisted bikini. You know, it could have been a simple change. But they didn’t want to adjust.”
“So from there I was like, if it’s me, then there must be so many other people who have the same issues,” she added.
Cat-Wells expanded their agency to the United States after moving to Los Angeles in 2018.
As Cat-Wells built her customer base, not only did she continue to see a huge lack of inclusiveness and diversity in entertainment, but she saw the inaccessibility her customers faced on a daily basis.
“Too often my client would come back from an audition and say, ‘Oh, the audition went really well, but I had to crawl up and down the stairs while dragging my wheelchair just to get in the door.’” Cat-Wells mentioned.
“My clients had to audition in the hallways, in the parking lots and in their cars. They didn’t have accessible trailers, they had to change in the storage units on the set while everyone got these five star trailers.
Cat-Wells hopes to tackle industry inaccessibility with its latest project; she is in the process of creating Zetta Studios, the world’s first fully accessible film studio in the UK. She imagines a film studio with sound stages, accessible installations and an eco-responsible atmosphere. She says she works with Steve prince, the former co-founder of Cross Creek Pictures, on the project.
“Design will have a handicap at the heart of the studio,” said Cat-Wells. “The hope is that this will open the doors to a lot more new talent and set a standard for employers.”
Cat-Wells doesn’t just work to put people with disabilities in front of the camera; she also wants to see people with disabilities behind the camera, believing this will lead to a more authentic portrayal.
His commitment to work is so deep, Area, a clothing retailer owned by American Eagle Outfitters, chose her as one of their 2020 #AerieReal Changemakers. Each woman selected, including Cat-Wells, received $ 20,000 to help them develop their ideas for change. the world.
“We were so inspired by Keely’s mission to support artists with disabilities and create more inclusive representation in the entertainment industry,” said Stacey McCormick, senior vice president of marketing for Aerie.
“As a brand, Aerie aims to celebrate our true personality, our inclusiveness and our diversity – we are very happy to support their cause.
Cat-Wells hopes to use the money she received to hire two more managers for her business, especially people of color. She also plans to use the funds to further her vision of the accessible studio.
“Hollywood needs to reflect the world we live in,” Cat-Wells said. “We don’t need special treatment. We need equal treatment and real equality.”