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October 20, 2014

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Living Las Vegas:

It’s hard enough to move in a nightclub; try doing it in a wheelchair

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Nightclub VIP host Christian Ekunwe makes his way through the Rain Nightclub entryway in his customized wheelchair at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada August 31, 2012. Ekunwe spent thousands of dollars to customize his wheelchair with speakers, LED lights and spinner wheels but says the customized chair helps take the focus off his disability.

Nightclub Host Christian Ekunwe

Nightclub VIP host Christian Ekunwe, center, visits with clients in his customized wheelchair at Moon in the Palms on Friday, Aug. 31, 2012. Ekunwe spent thousands of dollars to customize his wheelchair with speakers, LED lights and spinner wheels and says that the customized chair helps take the focus off his disability. Launch slideshow »

Christian Ekunwe makes his way through the partyers packing Moon, keeping watch for people who don't see him. He slips through crowds of men sloshing drinks and women teetering on spike heels. He skillfully leads a group of men to a table.

The crowded club at the Palms is hard for anyone to navigate. But even more so for Ekunwe.

He does it in a wheelchair.

Ekunwe is a VIP host at Moon, one of the highest-grossing nightclubs in the country.

Before leading clients to their reserved tables, Ekunwe flips on four LED lights affixed to his chair. They help him maneuver around people.

"It does get very crowded and it's dark, but when I turn on these lights, I'm about the only thing you can see," he said. "People are actually very respectful. They see me coming and make room for me."

Ekunwe, 30, was born with spinal bifida, a birth defect in which a person’s spine does not completely develop. He walked with a severe limp until he was 18, when he moved to a wheelchair.

British by birth, Ekunwe lived in Nigeria, then New York and Minnesota before settling in Las Vegas three years ago. He studied radio and television in college, managed a laundromat, worked in retail and spun music as a DJ.

"The West was a place I'd never been, so I wanted to experience what life was like out here," he said.

Ekunwe began going to clubs on the Strip, made friends with the people there and decided he wanted a piece of the scene. He got started in the industry by working as an independent host, a freelance position that bounced him around to several clubs. He had problems landing a job in just one venue.

"Other places wouldn't hire me, and they'd give me all sorts of creative reasons why without saying anything about my being in a wheelchair," Ekunwe said.

Ekunwe eventually got to know club managers, including Chuck Oliverio, who worked at v at the Encore, and made an impression on them. When Oliverio moved to the 9Group at the Palms, he recommended Ekunwe be hired.

Ekunwe has worked at Moon for close to a year.

As a host, he depends on relationships both for the success of his career and his livelihood. Ekunwe sells bottle service and VIP tables to customers willing to shell out big bucks on booze. He works on commission.

"The job as a host is to create a lasting experience," Ekunwe said. "You want them to come out and have a good time. And you want them to remember you. You want them to leave saying, 'Christian was the one who showed me a good time in Las Vegas.'”

Ekunwe said he learned how to navigate a nightclub crowd much like he learned to cross the street — by watching for people who aren't looking for him.

"I'm used to them turning without seeing me because I sit so low," he said. "So I know to wait and not go. It's the same thing in the club."

Ekunwe politely taps people with his finger when he needs them to move. He has learned to watch for falling drinks.

"I hardly get drinks spilled on me at all — anymore," he said.

He uses his wheelchair as a conversation piece.

The chair has chrome rims that spin, a Gucci print covering, speakers and a cup holder. A license plate on the back reads, "Follow me," and lists Ekunwe’s Twitter handle, @yourboyonwheelz.

"The No. 1 motivation being disabled is that you want anyone you come in contact with to overlook your disability," Ekunwe said. "Most people don't want to even talk to you when you're disabled. Now, people come up and want to talk about how cool the chair is."

Last summer, he met another man in a wheelchair at the Palms pool who was inspired by Ekunwe's job.

"I didn't tell him what I did and at the end I gave him my card, and he got all wide-eyed that I worked in the club," Ekunwe said. "He said, 'You mean, that's a job I can do?' Society has a way of making disabled people feel worthless. I want to tell them, 'Don't let anyone tell you there's a job you can't do.'"

Ekunwe has been so successful, he started receiving offers to leave the Palms — many from the very people who saw him as a liability a few years ago and refused to hire him.

“Funny thing is, now they're asking when my contract is up," Ekunwe said. "I wish all disabled people would realize that they can do anything. The sky's the limit. In my opinion, everyone has a disability. Some are just more apparent than others."

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