The Wonder Woman Among Us…
By Amy Molloy for Grazia, Issue 314, April 4th
PDF File- A wonder woman among us
With the police facing cuts of 20 per cent, crime rates are expected to soar. Yet when this happened in New York, ordinary people decided to take Neighbourhood Watch to the next level. Here, Irene Thomas, 22 – accountant by day, crimefighter by night – explains why ‘Wonder Woman’ could be coming to a street near you soon…
‘It’s the dead of night, in the roughest part of town and while most of the city sleeps, I’m out looking for trouble. As I pass by an alleyway I hear a woman crying. That’s my cue – I’ve got work to do.
‘If you happen to look out of your window and catch sight of me – dressed all in black, a mask covering my face – you’d never guess by day I’m actually an accountant who likes shopping, movies and sushi. To my colleagues
I’m just Irene from accounts who dyes her hair red, gossips about TV shows and dreams about getting a bigger apartment.
‘Yet for one night a week, after dinner, I transform into NYX, Greek goddess of night – a real-life superhero, fighting crime and helping those in need. To date, I’ve called the police to countless bar fights, provided evidence that helped convict drug dealers and fed hundreds of homeless people on the street of New York – all in costume.
‘I expect you’ve already written me off as someone mad on comics, who’s more likely to be found in Forbidden Planet than American Apparel, but that’s not the case. The “superhero movement” is a growing trend that I’ve been part of for five years. We’re not vigilantes and never endorse violence. Instead, we simply patrol the streets to help vulnerable people and if there’s real danger, we call the emergency services.
‘There are hundreds of us around the world – everyone from bankers to shop assistants – including a dozen in the UK. And with crime rates predicted to rise if funding for police forces is cut, it’s only a matter of time before more people get involved. Indeed, new figures released this month revealed a third more people have already joined Neighbourhood Watch in the UK in the past two years.
‘It’s not the first time civilians have taken it upon themselves to tackle crime. In the early 1980s, a volunteer group called the Guardian Angels patrolled New York in matching crimson uniforms. Their founder Curtis Sliwa was inspired by the film The Magnificent Seven. We’ve been working like this, undisturbed for years, but earlier this month two superheroes were “unmasked” and made headline news.
‘“Phoenix Jones”, a superhero from Washington who dresses in a skintight black and yellow bodystocking, was spotted apprehending a car thief as he tried to break into a vehicle. Meanwhile, a British “superhero” called The Statesman was revealed to be a banker from Birmingham, after giving an interview to a local paper claiming he had foiled a drug dealer.
‘I became involved in the movement six years ago when I was living in Kansas. Surfing the internet when I as 16, I stumbled across the MySpace page of “Doctor DiscorD” – a crime-fighting superhero in Indianapolis, who patrolled his local community in costume, breaking up fights and stopping people drink-driving. While some ridiculed him, I was amazed there were actually people out there dedicating their free time to protecting
others. And it really struck a chord with me. I witnessed my mother being assaulted when I was a child – and
her terror as she realised there was no one there to help her. I don’t think she ever escaped her fear of the man who hurt her. She died when I was 13 of cirrhosis of the liver.
‘That’s when I vowed never to let anyone control or hurt me. My mother’s premature death also gave me a deep sense of urgency. I didn’t want to die unfulfilled, before I could do any good for others.
‘So, aged 17 and still at school, I decided to go on my first “patrol”. I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing – my family were very strict and would have been horrified. Meanwhile, I was worried my friends would think I was crazy. After all, our usual idea of a night out was the cinema! To make sure no one recognised me, I wore a mask over my face. On a student budget, I dressed all in black, with fingerless gloves and a utility belt for my torch and camera.
‘I know it’s our costumes that make a lot of people dismiss us as weird or fantasists. After all, what right-minded 22-year-old would really swap her maxidress and wedges for a black bodysuit and face mask? It’s simple. Donning a uniform is liberating and can make you feel braver. Looking back, I didn’t know what I was hoping to achieve on that first patrol. I suppose I was a bit naive and could have got into real trouble. I walked around my neighbourhood before getting the courage up to head to the rough part of town. Every sound made me jump, but nothing noteworthy happened. When I got home I felt exhilarated though, buoyed that if there had been someone in need, I could have tried to help them.
‘With drugs a real problem in my neighbourhood, I decided to focus on the local dealers. I wasn’t stupid enough to try to tackle them myself. Instead, I would photograph the drug dens from the outside then send the pictures to the police. Looking back, I put myself in some dangerous situations and often felt jittery.
But I felt proud that I was trying to make my community a nicer place to live.
‘Shortly after starting my own patrols, I got in touch with other real-life superheroes online – there are now about 200 around the world. One I met was also an accountant by day, and at night he patrolled the streets feeding the homeless. Phantom Zero, whose real name I won’t reveal to protect his identity, invited me to visit him in New York.
‘On every street corner it seemed there was someone in need of help – children as young as 10, sleeping rough, starving and scared. It was so overwhelming that I realised I had to stay and help. So, I got a job at an accountancy firm in New York and, three years on, Phantom Zero is not only my street partner, but my boyfriend. We live together, though, not as people like to imagine, in some sort of bat cave, with a revolving wall that hides our costumes. I wish! In our modest apartment there are no clues of our secret double life.
‘During daylight hours our lives are no different from our friends. We work 9 to 5, come home, cook dinner and eat it in front of the telly. It’s just that, one night a week, while normal people go to bed, we head into the night and don’t return until dawn.
‘In an ideal world I’d do more, but it has to fit around my day job. We sometimes patrol during the day at weekends, but there are friends to see (who have no idea what we do) and the supermarket shop to do! It can be hard to switch off which is where the costume comes in handy. In our civilian clothes I try to think as Irene and turn off my “danger” radar so I’m not permanently on edge.
‘Some might argue being a have-a-go hero is dangerous. But I’d never get into a fight. We’re more an extra pair of eyes on the streets and our motto is “Help anyone who needs assistance”. That doesn’t necessarily mean tackling muggers or saving people from burning buildings – it could be as simple as giving a homeless
man a sandwich or volunteering at a hospital. Whatever your community needs.
‘There’s one superhero in Liberia who educates local families about the dangers of child traffickers. He has to wear a mask to protect his identity, otherwise the traffickers would come after him. Then there’s “Mr Extreme” – a superhero in San Diego – who learned a sexual predator on the police’s wanted list was last seen in his neighbourhood, so handed out flyers with the culprit’s picture on. The man has since been apprehended and the local government thanked him for his assistance.
‘Most real-life superheroes are extremely protective of their real identities. I don’t publicise what I do to my colleagues. I don’t want to be praised or – at worst – mocked for my work. Instead, I want others to realise that everyone has the capability to make a difference.
‘There’s a superhero in all of us… so what are you waiting for?’
Hair and make-up: Spring Super at Ennis Inc Additional photos: John Frost
Newspapers For more info, visit www.reallifesuperheroes.com