Hollywood Didn't Want A Blind Person Doing Voiceovers, But Pete Gustin Didn't Quit — And He Learned To Surf
Pete Gustin is one of Hollywood’s top voiceover artists, regularly voicing commercials as well as previews for TV shows and movies.
He also loves to surf.
And he’s blind.
Teaching himself how to ride waves he can’t see — Gustin’s range of vision stops at 3 feet — was hard enough. Getting Hollywood to see Gustin as anything other than a disabled castoff was much more difficult.
Gustin was born with perfect eyesight. Around the time he was eight years old, however, he began showing symptoms of Stargardt Disease, which affects the retina’s ability to capture light in about one out of 10,000 people.
There’s no cure for the progressive deterioration of vision, and these days Gustin, who is 44, can’t see past the length of his own arm. People standing just a few feet away might as well be a bush or a gas pump. He uses a walking stick on land, and when he goes into the water, he wears a T-shirt with the words “Blind Surfer” over his wetsuit. He surfs with a guide to tell him when a wave is coming and whether it’s best to go left or right.
But Gustin didn’t have any such help when he was trying to navigate Hollywood’s terrible track record of exclusion as he sought to become a voiceover artist.
“After I graduated college, I went down to New York, and a friend of a friend got me a meeting with the biggest agent at the biggest agency,” Gustin recalled as we spoke on the beach in Carlsbad.
If you've got a disability or something that's holding you back, it doesn't mean that life's over. Go out there and find a way to still enjoy yourself.
“And he just told me flat out, ‘No one’s gonna want to work with a blind guy' — because I can’t read the copy like everyone else. And it was devastating at the time.”
Refusing To Be Held Back
Just like surfing blind, though, Gustin didn’t accept that the suggestion of the impossible actually meant it was impossible. He taught himself how to surf five years ago — without a guide.
"If you've got a disability or something that's holding you back, it doesn't mean that life's over. Go out there and find a way to still enjoy yourself," he said. "I decided to go out and learn something new. I didn't know how to surf before I lost my eyesight."
Even if the New York agent adhered to the industry’s exclusionary hiring practices, another talent representative didn’t tell him to get lost. She represented Don LaFontaine, a legendary movie trailer voiceover artist. He died in 2008. But not before paying it forward.
“I called his agent. I was like, 'I’m a 19-year-old kid losing my eyesight and interested in getting to voiceovers and I want to talk to Don.' She’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll pass on the message,’” Gustin said. “The very next day he called me from the back of his limousine. And he started giving me lessons. At the end of his day, he’d call me once or twice a week, and give me voiceover lessons, coaching me to tell stories as opposed to just barf out my big voice, which was the best information I could have gotten in my early career.”
The guidance from LaFontaine was critical, and helped Gustin grow as a performer. He worked doing radio promos, got a big break with a Super Bowl commercial for Reebok, kept working, and eventually was able to make a living doing voiceovers.
A Fear Of Being Open
Yet even as Gustin’s career became more visible, he kept his blindness concealed, fearful people wouldn’t hire him.
“I spent most of my career trying to fool people," he said. "I would get to the auditions early and they'd give you the script you're going to be reading. A few years ago, I still had some vision. So I used to carry a magnifier. And I'd go into the bathroom with the magnifier and read the script as many times as I could until I memorized it."
Then, Gustin said, "I would go into the audition and hold the page in front of me and pretend I was reading it. I did that for most of my career. I mean, literally up until three or four years ago, I didn't want to tell people, because I didn't want to give them an excuse to not hire me.”
Hollywood is evolving. Slowly.
There was never any reason why Gustin couldn’t have done voiceover work from the very start — that New York agent’s opinion notwithstanding. All you need is a voice.
And, as Gustin also proved, you don’t have to see a wave to surf it.