When Josh Sundquist was 9 years old, he lost a leg to a rare type of bone cancer. Years later, the 31-year-old is an internationally known motivational speaker, author, athlete, YouTuber and "Halloween enthusiast." (Oh, and he beat cancer, too.)
Every Halloween season, Sundquist, who lives in Washington, D.C., creates an outfit that deserves to win every costume contest ever. This year, he's going as an IHOP sign. Previously, he was a partially-eaten gingerbread man, a leg lamp, a flamingo and a foosball player. ?
MTV News caught up with Sundquist to talk about the inspiration behind his genius costumes, which have wowed the internet for the past few years.
MTV News: What inspired you to start making these costumes?
Josh Sundquist: The very first costume, the partially-eaten gingerbread man, I guess was inspired out of laziness. I had seen "Shrek," where the guy is a partially-eaten gingerbread man, and I saw that you could buy a fully made gingerbread man costume. That wouldn't work for me because I don't have a leg. I was like, I could just get that and cut off a leg and that would sort of be a funny costume because it's like "Shrek." So yeah, that's what originally inspired me -- laziness.
Then people thought [the costume] was hilarious. That was before they started being popular online, it was just people at the party I went to [who] thought it was funny. After that I didn't make an amputee costume in 2011, but then in 2012, I made the leg lamp. That was my wife Ashley's suggestion -- at the time, [she was] my girlfriend -- and then it became really popular online. People started emailing me and Facebooking me and tweeting about it. After that it was like oh, this is cool, this is a thing that really seems to amuse people. And I enjoy amusing people, so I kept doing it.
MTV: How do you come up with such creative costume ideas?
Sundquist: It's kind of something I'm thinking about all the time -- not necessarily just the Halloween costumes. I'm always looking for funny things that happen to me or funny perspectives I have as a result of being an amputee, because that's a lot of what I talk about in my speeches. It's sort of a general back-of-my-mind thought process and then whenever I see something or I think of something -- usually it's [when] I see a visual object and I think, I could make that shape and no one else could -- I'll put it in a list. I have a list on my iPhone of maybe 20 to 30 costumes, and then I'll pick one a couple months before Halloween. Or sometimes people suggest it to me ... like the one I did last year, the foosball costume, a YouTube viewer suggested it to me. I was like, that is a brilliant idea, I never thought of that.
MTV: Once you decide on a costume idea, how long does it take you to physically make it? Like with the IHOP sign, what was the construction process like?
Sundquist: It's a really long process. I have an assistant named Lisa [McLaughlin] who ... has a theater background. She's actually a certified carpenter and really good at painting and doing crafts and building, so she's definitely the one doing the hands-on putting together of the costume. This year I decided I think in July that I wanted to do the IHOP costume -- pretty early on because I knew it was going to take a while [to] figure out how to do it.
Then for a couple weeks we'll talk through how would we construct it, what are the materials that we might use. Do we want to make it like a real sign made out of plastic that's lit up from the inside? That was the original idea that I had, but then [Lisa] was like, there's no way you're going to be able to hop in that. It'd be preposterously heavy. So then she came up with the idea of making it a lightweight wooden frame with fabric around it, which is what it ended up being. She was probably doing the construction ... [for] a month or two -- kind of trial and error -- [to] figure out how to build the frame and making sure it fit around me. So yeah, it's a surprisingly long time, but I think it's worth it based on how excited it makes people and the feedback I get. I think [it's] a great investment of our time.
MTV: Speaking of feedback, what's the response been like to your costumes over the years?
Sundquist: Overwhelmingly positive. I think it's important to note that I don't think being an amputee is awesome. I don't think being an amputee per se is hilarious. And I don't want people to get that message because if they do -- and sometimes people do -- that's kind of offensive, because being an amputee is pretty annoying. That's kind of my perspective from 20 years of it, but if you recently lost a limb, it's terrible, it's really tragic. So I don't want people to get that message.
I think that what people get is hey, Josh has had one leg for 20 years. He used to be really self-conscious about it, [but] now he's totally comfortable about it to the point that he's going to use what makes him different to make a creative shape with his body. I think that resonates with people on a really -- I hate to use the word inspiring, because it's really cliché -- but maybe it's refreshing, I think that's probably the best word. It's refreshing to people to see what you would normally expect to see displayed as sad thing ... not displayed as a happy thing, but displayed as a funny or creative or clever thing. I think that's tremendously refreshing.
MTV: You also frequently post YouTube videos, usually every Tuesday. What type of content lives on your channel and how do you come up with those ideas?
Sundquist: YouTube started for me [when] I found it really amusing and somewhat therapeutic to talk into a webcam about my dating problems. It was a place for me to rant about why are my dates so bad? Why can I never have a girlfriend? Why do I always do these awkward things on dates? And it wasn't something that I consciously was like oh, people are probably really going to like [this] type of content. ... It was just something I think people related to.
Over the years, I would say the real narrative of my channel [is] simple vlogs -- me talking to the camera about my romantic life, mostly failures. The cool thing is I have a relatively small audience compared to the big YouTube stars, but my audience is super loyal and many have been with me since I started making vlogs in 2009. They tell me, "I've been watching you through the years when you literally could not find a girlfriend to when you met Ashley, and then it became a serious relationship, and then you got engaged last year and now you're married." I think for people to have seen that narrative in three- to four-minute vlogs is a pretty cool thing.
MTV: And besides YouTube and Halloween costumes, you're an accomplished author and athlete. You're on the U.S. Amputee Soccer Team, and you competed in the 2006 Paralympics on the U.S. Ski Team. You've written two memoirs, "Just Don't Fall" and "We Should Hang Out Sometime." What's coming up next for you?
Sundquist: I am just finishing up final drafts with my publisher on my third book, which will be my first novel. That will come out in 2017.
MTV: "We Should Hang Out Sometime" is the title of your latest memoir. In your past speeches, you've joked about how the phrase is the best pickup line because no one will say no to it. Do you still think it's a good line?
Sundquist: Yeah, it's still the one I would recommend to people. The book is not so successful that the pickup line is well known and you can't use it anymore. If the book is too big of a smash hit, then if you said the line, people would be like, oh yeah, you just read that book. The book is basically just the stories of my dating failures. Then when I was 25, I went back and investigated [and] talked to the girls I had tried to date to find out why nothing ever worked out and then learning some things about myself and then meeting Ashley [my wife]. That's sort of how the book ends. It's very relatable. Everybody has had those awkward experiences.
MTV: For sure. So knowing what you know now, what advice would you give to your high school self?
Sundquist: At that time I was still really insecure about having one leg. Especially when I first started high school, I didn't want anyone to know ... I wore a prosthesis and long shorts or pants. It was kind of this secret, because I was just so afraid of people finding out that that was a part of me. Now, I just don't feel that way at all. I don't mind if people see that I have one leg. In fact, I make costumes that millions of people have seen and see that I have one leg, so I'm literally at the opposite point of that.
I think if I was going to go back to high school Josh I would say listen, I know you're really insecure about this now, but stick in there because it's going to get better. There's no secret to becoming confident -- just naturally over time you're going to feel a lot better about your situation.