Recently, the coolest version of the trending “Bongo-Cha-Cha-Cha” TikTok video caught my eye. You know, the one where people act out a scenario showing how they defied the expectations of others? Well, I stopped scrolling when I saw this superbly acted, inspiring and funny one created by Houston Vandergriff.
In it, Houston acts out dialogue from doctors and other people his parents encountered when he was born. Houston wears a white coat and mouths dialogue accompanied by the caption: “The doctors to my parents: We’re sorry your son has Down Syndrome.”
Then, he switches characters, puts on a fedora, and mimes to the caption, “Everybody else: That’s so sad, he’ll never be able to do anything.”
A beat later, the screen cuts to Houston, as the fedora-wearing character, with an expression of hilariously-portrayed astonishment. We then see Houston as himself, dancing and holding up a camera and a gorgeous photographic print. And now for the reveal: “Me at 23 years old: An award-winning travel photographer who has been to 26 countries.”
YES! I thought to myself when the video was over. What an incredible guy! Lots of other people loved the video too — it’s at 1.9 million likes and counting.
I started reading more about Houston, and wow, is he an impressive person! Not only is he an accomplished photographer who studied his craft in France and at the University of Tennessee, but he is also an actor and model who has appeared in print, movies and TV. And if that’s not enough, he serves on the board of the non-profit, elskað : beloved, and on the board of the Sunshine Ambassadors, a dance troupe for individuals with special needs.
“Double Divine: Rocky Mountain National Park” – Photography by Houston Vandergriff downsandtowns.com
Houston’s photography has been featured in a gallery in Scotland, in a solo show at the Disability Resource Center and at 2019 Disability Mega Conference, and it has been published in multiple magazines. He just launched an online gallery on his website, DownsandTowns.com.
I really wanted to get to know Houston better, but I wasn’t sure he’d have time to speak to me — he is a multi-talented celebrity, after all! But Houston was kind enough to agree to an interview and, recently, I was able to Zoom into his home in Knoxville, Tennessee to chat with him and his mom, Katie. I loved learning more about him, and I’m sure you will, too!
Daisy: Hi Houston, it’s so nice to meet you! I feel like I’m meeting a celebrity!
Houston: Yeah, I get told that I’m famous sometimes, thank you!
D: So, I first got to know you from your viral TikTok video. Can you tell me a little bit about that, and how doctors’ and others’ predictions about you are so different from how amazing your life turned out to be?
H: My sister and I worked on that video on Easter Sunday… it only took a few minutes. Yeah, the doctors said I wouldn’t walk our stand up or do anything….
D: And look at you now!
D: When did you first get interested in photography?
H: Well, when I was a kid, and then I went to UT [University of Tennessee].
D: You’ve been to what, 26 countries? That’s incredible.
H: Yes 26 countries and 48 states!
D: Cool. Do you have a favorite trip?
H: Paris, France. My favorite parts were the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum.
Photography by Houston Vandergriff, downsandtowns.com
D: So, is it true that you’ve taken a picture out of a helicopter? How is that?
H: Yeah I did. I got a little scared, but I was with my best buddy, my dad. We could see everything, the water, the whole town, my hotel, everything below.
D: I think you have a lot of best buddies.
H: Yeah, my mom is my best buddy, I have two sisters who are my buddies too.
D: You just launched the first sale of prints of your favorite photos. How is it going so far?
H: It’s going great, I’ve sold a lot of pictures.
D: One of my favorite was “Mother’s Love,” the one of a big and a smaller iceberg that you took in Iceland. That was amazing.
H: Well, it reminded me of my mom and I, we’re a team. We’re a real team together.
D: Do you have any favorite pictures?
H: All of them. All of them!
D: So, you’re a model and movie star too, right? Can you tell me more about that?
H: Yeah, and I was just on an episode of Homicide Hunters on TV. I played a dead body!
Houston’s Mom, Katie: Yes, he was on an episode of Homicide Hunters on ID channel and he got murdered. He got beat up and he did his own stunts.
Houston: You have to see it, you have to watch it!
[Note from Daisy: I took Houston’s advice and watched Season 9, Episode 7 of Homicide Hunters. It’s a must-see! The episode is a mystery surrounding what happened to Houston’s character. He has dialogue and yes, does awesome stunts. Houston’s a great actor! Below are a few stills from the show–I didn’t include any scary ones!].
D: What would you tell people about being inclusive of people with disabilities like Down Syndrome?
H: Be nice. Be a good friend at all times.
D: What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
H: To continue to travel and take more pictures.
D: What would you tell other people about pursuing their dreams?
H: I’d tell them to go for it!
D: Anything else you’d like to share?
Houston’s Mom, Katie: I think the main thing to know is that everybody is different. If we were all the same it would be boring! And everybody has different strengths and different weaknesses and different areas of interest. People with a disability are really more alike than different. So don’t be afraid to reach out. It only makes your life better.
Houston has opened doors for us even since he was little. Our life is much richer because of him. So now it’s just neat to see that he has a platform to inspire others.
D: Houston certainly inspires me. Thank you, Houston and Katie, for the interview!
It’s pretty clear that Houston has far exceeded the expectations that were placed on him by doctors and others. He’s accomplished so much at only 23 years old, and has a great family behind him! Houston’s story is important for us all to keep in mind. We should never let anything — or anyone — stand in the way of pursuing our dreams.
Make sure to follow Houston on TIkTok and Instagram at @DownsandTowns, and visit his website at www.DownsandTowns.com.