“I started opening up about my stutter in certain settings…and it was so well-received. People were understanding me on a whole different level. It was such a beautiful moment, and that’s when I realized I really needed to do this podcast! For the first time ever I felt like I was being real with people.”
Maya Chupkov is, by all accounts, a relative newcomer to the stuttering community. The idea that she would be talking openly about stuttering on her own Proud Stutter podcast, and becoming a well-known stuttering advocate in the process, would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago.
At that time, she was working at a demanding communications job where her speech was difficult to control. Her supervisor told her repeatedly that she seemed “nervous” and “unprepared” leading meetings for her clients. This feedback only increased the stress and pressure she felt in masking her stuttering, worsening the struggles she felt building up beneath the surface. She was reaching a breaking point.
Chupkov identifies herself as a covert stutterer, a person who conceals stuttering from others and often presents as a nonstuttering individual to the outside world. While covert stutterers may not exhibit a lot of stuttered speech, they often report feeling a tremendous amount of unseen physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion attempting to maintain a fluent image. She was no exception.
Averse to seeking out traditional speech therapy, and not yet a part of the wider stuttering community, Chupkov was left managing stuttering on her own. The untenable circumstances led her to make a life-altering decision: She would leave her job, return to education and later pursue a creative passion project, all while confronting stuttering. Proud Stutter would soon be born.
It would take some doing, and a lot of encouragement.
An LA-native, Chupkov grew up in a family already familiar with stuttering, as her grandfather also stuttered. Her mother was therefore particularly sensitive to the societal stigmas that accompany stuttering and was determined to get her help from a young age. As a result, Chupkov saw the speech therapist at her elementary school and then attended private therapy beginning in middle school. There, she learned speech tools that focused on increasing fluency, an approach that never felt right. “I don’t think I verbalized it at the time,” she says, “but I just remember inside that I didn’t like it. I felt like it wasn’t working and the tools didn’t sit well with me. I never practiced the tools on my own, but my speech did eventually start to improve. It might have been psychological.”
She explains that, following her early adolescent years, she experienced a long period of unexpected fluency and was suddenly thriving. In high school, Chupkov became involved with competitive sports and other clubs that required being on stage, including show choir and student government. It’s unclear whether these activities benefited her speech or if she had gained self-confidence as stuttering was decreasing. Since stuttering fluctuates by nature, pinpointing environmental influences is inherently a challenge. “I was really starting to put myself out there, so that might have triggered [the period of fluency],” she ponders.
Yet, as is inevitable due to stuttering’s variability, stuttering returned in her later high school years. She had stopped competing in athletics and found herself with more time on her hands, leaving more time to ruminate and worry. “When I transitioned into having more free time is when I started stuttering more,” Chupkov concludes.
After high school, she entered college at UC Santa Barbara with a major in Global Studies and a minor in writing. While there, she discovered that the university had a Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences. She briefly considered applying to pursue a degree in Speech-Language Pathology. Chupkov wanted to learn more about stuttering and help others facing the same challenges. However, when she reached out to the program chair to gain more information she was met with a devastating rejection: “I got so excited when I met with him and I did bring it up. I told him I have a stutter and he said, ‘I don’t recommend you move forward with this program because if parents see that you have a stutter, what are they going to think? They’re not going to want to go to you, because if you can’t overcome your stutter then how will they think that their child can?’”
While this injurious stance was in no way universally indicative of the profession’s attitude toward people who stutter, the experience reaffirmed her negative feelings toward speech therapy. It also convinced her that she should pursue an alternative career – one where she wouldn’t be dismissed because of stuttering.
After graduating from UCSB, Chupkov started working in entry level communications positions and quickly climbed the ranks to take on higher-level, client-facing roles. By her third job, she was pitching stories to journalists, sometimes speaking and presenting for an entire workday.
This went well for a time, until she was asked to start leading meetings. The increased pressure led to an increase in overt stuttering. She got feedback from her team that she “hadn’t prepared enough,” “seemed nervous,” and “hadn’t presented herself well” to the clients. Sometimes she’d be asked to repeat the presentation over and over again until she got it right. “I remember feeling helpless,” she says. “Looking back, I don’t fault my coworkers because they didn’t understand and I never opened up to them about my stutter. It was a really tough time.”
Seeking a break from work, Chupkov returned to grad school, where she attained a Master’s in Public Affairs from the University of San Francisco. The fresh start was just what she needed. She not only excelled in her studies, but also spent time as an educational advisor in high schools, working with students on applying to college and volunteering on electoral campaigns in her community. She describes this period as a time of “starting over” and rediscovering a sense of confidence in herself and her endeavors.
However, stuttering eventually came back in force with her return to work. Following her graduate school studies, Chupkov had once again found employment in the communications sector. She worked as Communications Director for a local affordable-housing advocacy nonprofit before she took on a demanding position as a director of communications for the Public Advocates Office, the state’s utility watchdog. She recalls, “It was such a big step. I remember I stuttered so much for the first two months of that job, more than I’d stuttered since I was younger, and the toxicity of the work environment made it a lot worse. I went to the state’s HR department to report emotional abuse from a colleague, and nothing was done.”
Her difficult experiences had a silver lining, though, and one she wouldn’t be able to see clearly until later. Determined to find happiness outside of her job, she began to apply herself toward a creative pursuit. Chupkov was particularly compelled in the direction of hosting her own podcast but wasn’t sure what to talk about. She discussed it with her fiancé, Kyle, who asked her to consider stuttering as her subject matter. Chupkov’s stuttering was something he always found intriguing, even if she never talked about it with others.
The idea seemed almost cosmically perfect. She set to work, beginning by researching other stuttering podcasts and enlisting the help of a partner, Cynthia Chin. On the Proud Stutter website, Chin is described as an “educator who is passionate about social change” and “an ally to the verbally diverse” – making her a perfect addition to the team. Chin also had a knack for sound editing, and both she and Chupkov shared a friendly rapport and working relationship. During our interview, Chupkov credits a large part of the success of Proud Stutter to Chin: “The biggest thing it took to launch the podcast was having Cynthia as a partner. Having another person to help and to lean on – that was huge. If I didn’t have her I don’t think it would have been as successful.”
Together, Chupkov and Chin strategized about how to set their podcast apart from the other stuttering podcasts out there. They wanted it to take an overall positive spin, centered around pride and stuttering (hence the simplistic and powerful title, Proud Stutter). Chupkov clarifies here too that she didn’t yet feel pride in stuttering, but she aspired to it: “There are moments where I’m like, ‘Yes, my stutter!’ and other moments where I’m trying to order a pizza and I can’t get the words out. I’m definitely still on the journey to pride.”
Further distinguishing Proud Stutter, the duo capitalized on having a nonstuttering ally serve as co-host (i.e. Chin) – someone who knew nothing about stuttering beforehand but was receptive to learning more. “I’ve actually had so many people reach out to say they love that part of the podcast, having someone outside the stuttering community,” Chupkov notes. She mentions, too, that many people have the idea to start a podcast, but few are able to get it off the ground.
So how did they manage to pull it off?
Aside from the solid partnership with Chin, Chupkov also enrolled in a fellowship program at the Center for Story-based Strategy. With it came an initial stipend that she used to cover up-front equipment expenses. Moreover, during the fellowship program she gained access to a coach who helped her with framing the show. She spent countless pre-planning hours visioning, mapping out episodes, and developing storylines. “That’s why it was so successful,” she explains, “because it’s been clear from the beginning what it is, and who it’s for.”
Chupkov and Chin recorded their first few episodes themselves. Episode 1 started it all off with the “Coming Out Story,” aptly named, as it marked Chupkov’s first time revealing the inner world of stuttering that she had hidden for so long. It was also the first time Chupkov listened to herself stutter, which she describes as “tough” in the beginning but something she became used to over time. As she began recording the first few episodes and opening up about stuttering, she discovered that talking about stuttering was, in and of itself, therapeutic: “I started opening up about my stutter in certain settings…and it was so well-received. People were understanding me on a whole different level. It was such a beautiful moment, and that’s when I realized I really needed to do this podcast! For the first time ever I felt like I was being real with people.”
After recording the first three episodes, an official launch party was planned. It helped that Chupkov had prior PR experience as she was able to garner an impressive amount of media attention, building interest and momentum before the first episode even aired. The chosen date for the launch party and first episode release? October 22nd, International Stuttering Awareness Day.
The launch was a huge success. It was well-attended by both friends and members of the stuttering community, including Nina G and Sarah Nelson (both eventual podcast guests). She describes the launch as “explosive.” In other words, the podcast didn’t just take to the airwaves but also took off! (Chupkov’s goal of getting 10,000 downloads her first season has already been met and surpassed).
One explanation for this grand reception could be that Proud Stutter continued to drive interest with their lineup of guests. Originally, Chupkov and Chin had planned on just a few guest interviews, but after recording the first guest episode they decided to do more. They wanted the podcast to be varied enough to sustain and grow listenership, and it became clear that more guest interviews would be the best path to this outcome.
Which guest interview was her personal favorite?
While it’s difficult for her to single one out, she lists the two-episode, two-part interview with musician JJJJJerome Ellis as her all-time favorite. She says that the night before that interview she had listened to his album twice, and felt transformed. The very next day, she was talking to him – this transcendent artist who had reached into her soul. It was a feeling she describes as miraculous: “I just felt so seen after listening to his album, and then being able to speak with him! I was on another planet. If it wasn’t for stuttering, we would never have been there together because we’re so different. We come from such different worlds. It made me realize that stuttering, as much as it’s this heart struggle, allowed me to meet people like JJJJJerome. Stuttering has opened me up to a community of people that I feel so good around – like, ‘Oh my God, these are my people!’”
All in all, Season 1 had 13 episodes touching on stuttering-related topics that included dating, the workplace, media representation, neuroscience, adolescence, covert stuttering, music, speech therapy, community, and self-acceptance. With such a stunning first season, it’s difficult to imagine what could possibly be in store for Season 2…but here’s a little preview: For starters, the next season will see Chin’s exit from the podcast as she moves on to other commitments. Chupkov asserts this transition feels “scary,” especially since she’s relied on Chin as a “thoughts partner” and for editing work.
There are exciting changes ahead, too. Chupkov says her vision is to expand Proud Stutter’s mission into advocacy, perhaps by establishing a non-profit focused on increasing stuttering awareness and improving allyship in the schools (and thus leveling the playing field for students who stutter). For the podcast itself, she also plans to introduce more young people and women into the conversation around stuttering, and to address how other cultures approach stuttering in the hopes of reaching a more diverse audience. There is also a Proud Stutter membership program that just launched with the release of Seasons 1’s finale. She hopes the program will keep the show sustainable into Season 2 and beyond. All together it’s a massive undertaking, but the work has lit a fire under her. She seems determined to watch it grow.
I was also curious to know, especially considering her newcomer status and strong ambitions, if others within the stuttering community have welcomed her to the fold. She tells me that, in general, she feels embraced by the community. She now regularly attends stuttering support group meetings and has also received dozens of supportive messages about the podcast. One message in particular stands out: “Someone had written a note to me and said, ‘Your story reminds me of Elsa from Frozen. She had these powers for so long and she never felt like she could show them. It’s like you! Now she’s found herself and she lets it go.’ I loved that! It stuck with me and I’m owning that.”
As with any public undertaking, she’s had some pushback, mostly from others doing similar work who have felt that she “stepped on some toes.” She shrugs this off as what comes with the competitive podcast territory. She also points out that some people who stutter have communicated a less positive take on the stuttering experience and don’t agree with the concept of “stuttering pride;” again, she appears to receive this feedback graciously: “I do know that there are people who stutter who don’t identify as being proud of their stutter, and that’s totally okay, and they can still listen to the podcast. I know that’s something I need to be cognizant of – someone can be accepting of their stutter, but not proud of it.”
In speaking with Chupkov, it’s evident that she holds an abiding love for the stuttering community. She continually expresses her determination to continue with advocacy efforts in whatever form it takes. She also elucidates that her own path to stuttering acceptance – a podcast path – has undoubtedly been a unique and powerful one. “Ever since I launched the podcast I feel like I’m more fluent, because there’s that positive mindset around it,” she says. “Also, if anyone were to Google me now they’d know I stutter. Being out there in the open — it released a lot of the pressure.”
Starting a podcast might not be the best or most accessible path to improved stuttering outcomes for others, but it certainly shifted Chupkov’s mindset around stuttering.
It also changed her life, and I suspect it changed the lives of many of her listeners too.
*For more on Maya Chupkov and to contact or support Proud Stutter, visit her website at: https://www.proudstutter.com