Nigel Dunkley created an unconventional aid for his speech problems: puppets.
The 28-year-old has struggled for years with stuttering and pronunciation. But eight years ago, he found a solution in ventriloquism. Dunkley created a puppet named Cindy Hot Chocolate, a misbehaving 9-year-old-girl. By speaking through Cindy, Dunkley has been able to speak more clearly and overcome some of his speech issues. He and Cindy perform across New York CITY? on subway trains and buses as well as at nightclubs and kids’ parties.
“I would introduce myself as Nigel ‘Docta Gel’ Dunkley,” he says. “I call myself ‘Docta Gel’ because I believe laughter is the best medicine and when it comes to my puppets–naming Cindy Hot Chocolate to be more specific–I’m her social worker, her psychiatrist,” Dunkley said.
Dunkley grew up in Hempstead, New York alongside three siblings and his parents. He always enjoyed speaking in different voices but was often ridiculed by classmates because of his speech problems.
“I can recall as young as five or six, I would have trouble speaking clear, especially when I get emotional,” he said. “The words would get choked up and I would repeat myself or I would tense up with my body.”
Dunkley’s issues led him to speech therapy sessions. There, he learned to relax and take his time as he talked. In college, as he earned a bachelor’s degree in acting, he continued the speech classes.
Later, he created several puppets including Anaconda Andi, a curious green snake and Mr. Santoko, an older man looking for love. Cindy is by far his most famous creation – children and adults ask for her by name.
Dunkley purchased the puppet that would become Cindy online. He used paint, buttons, cotton and children’s clothing to modify and customize her unique figure. In a clear, high-pitched voice, Cindy routinely starts conversations with strangers and asks for hugs. She often grabs attention by dancing in a striped pink hoodie and matching sequined sneakers.
Since January, a YouTube video of Dunkley has received more than three million views. The viral video shows Cindy helping him get women’s numbers. Now, Dunkley has a YouTube channel dedicated to his work as a full-time ventriloquist.
His work reminds him of his tough past and his ability to overcome adversity. “Even to this day, my friends may make fun of me–in love though–because they know I’ve been through a lot,” he said.
Dunkley’s ultimate goals are to reach a wider audience with the characters he creates and to write children’s books. “It means a lot for me to do this ventriloquism,” Dunkley said. “That’s telling me even though I may not be able to talk clear, I can have Cindy Hot Chocolate speak for me.”