Lauren Potter is not afraid to admit that sometimes it can be a little exhausting to be a star. Minutes after arriving at her very first Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony in Los Angeles last month, the 21-year-old actress — who plays Sue Sylvester’s sidekick, Becky, on Glee — releases a slight but very audible groan. Potter’s silky black pumps are squeezing her feet, and she’s having trouble hiding her fatigue, which is exacerbated by the unseasonably warm temperature in downtown Los Angeles. So she starts to yawn.
”Tired already?” asks actress Linda Gray, a star of TNT’s Dallas reboot, who breezes by Potter on the way through security.
”Kind of,” responds the 4-foot-9 actress, her milky skin now pink from the afternoon sun. No time for Potter to rest, though — not when 100 photographers are waiting to take her picture.
”Hello, beautiful lady!”
”Turn your shoulder this way!”
”Give us a wave!”
”One more time, pretty lady!”
Unruffled by the fusillade of commands, the most famous young woman with Down syndrome in America — and quite possibly the world — tilts her head, flashes a lovable smile, and playfully ruffles her long black Aidan Mattox gown. In no time, those pictures from the red carpet trigger a flurry of Google alerts back home in Riverside, Calif., where Lauren’s mom, Robin, anxiously awaits a glimpse of her daughter. ”I’m living vicariously through her, I admit it,” says Robin, a registered nurse who now serves as Potter’s manager. ”I think back 21 years ago, when the doctor told me my baby had Down syndrome. There was a little mourning period inside me. No ballet, no proms, no weddings. I’ll never sit with her while she’s delivering a baby. But she’s gone to every prom. She’s danced since she was 3. She’s on a hit TV show. She speaks in front of people all around the country. She’s far surpassed any dreams. They’re different dreams, but they’re amazing dreams.”
In 2011, three actors with Down syndrome held recurring roles on prime-time television: Potter on Glee; Luke Zimmerman, 33, on ABC Family’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager; and Jamie Brewer, 27, on FX’s American Horror Story. For any other disenfranchised group struggling to make a mark in TV, those statistics wouldn’t be cause for celebration. But for actors with DS — which typically occurs when someone is born with three rather than two copies of the 21st chromosome — it’s a remarkable breakthrough.
But just as it is with any aspiring actor, a successful TV career remains an ambitious, and largely unattainable, goal for the men and women with DS currently trying to make it in the business. Other than very occasional appearances on shows like Private Practice, Scrubs, and ER, an actor with DS hasn’t been featured in a dramatic TV role since 1993. The last person was Chris Burke, who memorably portrayed Charles ”Corky” Thacher for four seasons on the ABC drama Life Goes On. ”I have the best memories, working with that entire cast. I loved and adored Patti LuPone so much,” recalls Burke, who was inspired to act after seeing a child with DS on Sesame Street. ”People still recognize me on the street. ‘Are you really Corky?”’