Victims of the fashion industry's prejudice

It is five years since Kellie Moody was talent-spotted at London Fashion Week. A career on the catwalk beckoned. But the work has failed to materialise. Could it have anything to do with the fact that she is deaf? Jerome Taylor investigates
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Dressed in denim hotpants, knee-high leather boots and a chequered shirt, Kellie Moody looks every bit the model as she poses for a photographer in a west London hotel.

Draped over a leather armchair, the 24-year-old effortlessly switches her poses, from sultry or innocent, to timid and then empowered, laughing and chatting animatedly in between takes with the photographer.

For more than three years the Leicester-born make-up artist has tried to make it as a model but most agencies will not go anywhere near her for the simple reason that Ms Moody is completely deaf.

The modelling agencies would never admit that, of course, but the fact remains that disabled people are still as noticeably absent from the fashion and media industries as black faces once were from the catwalk and magazines.

Only this week a furore was caused when a small number of parents complained to the BBC about a new CBeebies presenter who has only one arm. Cerrie Burnell was born without a right forearm and has always refused to wear a prosthetic. She beat more than 1,500 applicants to land a presenter role on the popular children's television channel but when her shows were broadcast the BBC received nine complaints from parents who were concerned that her disability would frighten their children.

A Facebook group set up by a disabled rights activist in support of Burnell has already attracted nearly 30,000 supporters. But the very fact that some people – albeit a small minority – felt a one-armed presenter was something to be scared of shows just how difficult it remains for disabled people to find acceptance within industries where a staunchly traditional view of aesthetics so often excludes them.

Speaking in the thickly accented tones of a profoundly deaf person who proudly tries not to use sign language, Ms Moody explains why she believes it is time for the fashion world to embrace disabilities.

"The fashion industry really should be much more open-minded and willing to take on models that are perhaps a little different to what they are used to," she says. "They really do have a responsibility to give disabled models the chance to show that they can be just as good as anyone else. If a woman is beautiful, has the right body build and height, then why shouldn't she be able to become a model? The fact of the matter is that the only difference between me and a model on the runway is that I am deaf."

Ms Moody's experience of trying to break into the world of modelling is a story of constantly battling against the prevailing perception that the fashion world, with its strict criteria on what constitutes beauty, is not a place for those with disabilities – even though her particular disability does not manifest itself physically.

When she was 19, a talent scout at the London Fashion Week spotted Ms Moody in a crowd and gave her a card. "She had no idea that I was deaf but she clearly thought I was a potentially suitable model," she recalls. In 2007 she became the first winner of the now annual Miss Deaf UK and won a photoshoot with a renowned photographer. But the photographer didn't return her calls and the shoot never happened.

Then six months ago Ms Moody and seven other women, all with varying degrees of disability, appeared on Britain's Missing Top Model, a televised competition which pitted the wannabe models against each other for a chance to win a shoot with Rankin, the photographer, and a contract with the mainstream agency Take 2 Models.

The show, which was broadcast on BBC Three last year, billed itself as the first serious attempt to launch a disabled model's career within mainstream fashion but its critics described it as an insensitive reality show that makes entertainment out of disability.

"When they first showed Britain's Missing Top Model it opened up a debate in a positive way about the role of disabled models within the fashion industry but I haven't seen that debate maintained since then," says Ruth Deane, editor of Every Model magazine.

Deane believes the fashion industry needs to open its studios to disabled people but says all models should be aware that virtually every photo shoot, catwalk run and fashion show is, by its very nature, discriminatory.

"It's worth remembering that within the industry itself people are discriminated against for all sorts of reasons," she says. "Models may be rejected by a client because they want dark hair, or light eyes, black skin or height. You could argue that even these decisions are a form of discrimination. But what the clients want, modelling agencies have to provide."

Even with the added publicity from Britain's Missing Top Model, many of the women who went on the show have still found it difficult to find modelling work. Friends of Kelly Knox, the 23-year-old one-armed former credit controller who won the competition, say even she has difficulties finding clients who want to commission her. Take 2 Models, the agency that signed her after the show, failed to respond to The Independent's requests to speak to her about her experiences in finding work over the past six months.

One of the contestants who appeared to be the most uncomfortable with the format of the show was Sophie Morgan, a wheelchair-using artist living in central London who broke her back in a car accident the day after she received her A-level results. She still models but is remarkably frank about the problems she faces as a model in a wheelchair.

"I genuinely don't think the industry is going to change," she admits. "The fashion industry has always struggled with these sorts of topics. The type of women it chooses to model their clothes are never the women who end up buying them."

Often the only work disabled models can rely on is with the various charities or companies that represent their own individual disabilities. But while work may be hard to come by it is still out there. Fifteen years ago Louise Dyson sold off her successful mainstream modelling agency to create VisABLE People, the first company in Britain to exclusively represent disabled models and the agency that also represents Cerrie Burnell. She believes that too many prospective disabled models believe that high fashion and editorial modelling is what they should aim for.

"The mistake a lot of potential disabled models make is that they look at the catwalk and think that's where they should be," she says. "But runway modelling is such a tiny part of the fashion industry it is almost not relevant. It's an incredibly specialised area that has strict demands on what a model should look like, whether you are able-bodied or not."

Since leaving Britain's Missing Top Model, Ms Moody has been able to land a permanent modelling contract with Siemens Hearing Instruments, but even she admits it would be a major triumph to model clothes rather than hearing aids.

"I love the modelling work I do at the moment with Siemens but of course I'd like to do more mainstream fashion modelling," she says. "Whether it's Primark or Prada I wouldn't care, for me it would be an amazing victory for a deaf woman to model for a high street brand."