Last year we were at a fashion parade and my daughter Maddy said to me: “Mum – me – model.” Of course, at the time she was keen to just climb onto the stage and strut her stuff there and then, which I had to explain wasn’t entirely appropriate. Modelling as a career in the future, however? I saw no reason at all why she shouldn’t pursue that. Down Syndrome didn’t preclude her from being ambitious, limelight-loving and – of course – beautiful.
It’s hard to believe that was only 13 months ago. Now we are preparing to head to New York for Maddy’s inaugural performance at New York Fashion Week – the second model with Down Syndrome to ever be asked to do this.
There has been so much fun and so much beauty in the last year, which isn’t to say that there haven’t been difficult moments. The first thing that Maddy and I did after returning home from that fashion parade where she expressed interest in being a model was to have a conversation about how that was a realistic goal. I explained to her that if she wanted to be on the catwalk, she would have to be super fit and stay on the healthy eating schedule she’d started earlier that year to keep up with the dance troupe she was part of. Nine months and 16kg were shed before we were ready to get some professional photos done. I knew Maddy still wasn’t within a healthy weight range yet, but exposing her to the realities of a photo-shoot was important in itself.
The shoot went incredibly well; Maddy revelled in the experience and when we went to preview photos the following week, I nearly fell out of my chair. Like every parent, I knew my daughter was cute – but in these photographs she was nothing short of stunning.
As a parent of a child with Down Syndrome, you have to apply extra caution to every decision. Considering that some of the photographs taken included Maddy in her bikini, I felt in two minds about whether to go public with them, and so decided to post them up in a closed Facebook group specifically for parents of children with DS. I wanted to know if these photographs were too controversial, or inappropriate for the world to see.
Thankfully, the response was almost universally positive. 99.9% of people agreed that the photos were in great taste and portrayed Maddy in an empowering light. They encouraged me to go public, so I created a public profile under the name Madeline Stuart and within a week the photos had gone viral. I was overwhelmed by the amount of people who contacted me to let me know that she was an inspiration to them, and that they had given them hope that their children with DS could also achieve anything they set their minds to.
Since then, Maddy has lost a further 4kg – meaning that she’s not skinny by any means, but she is healthy. She has walked the catwalk in New York for Autoimmune Awareness and has become the face of a cosmetics company called Glossigirl, making her the first model with a disability ever to front a cosmetic range. She is now known as the first professional adult model with DS in the world, and financially supports herself in doing it. She has a bag called ‘The Madeline’ named after her by a handbag company called EverMaya. Additionally, she has been published in Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Vogue, The Mirror, New York Times, Marie Claire - and just about every major newspaper in the western world.
Ultimately, this is not about modelling to Maddy and I. This is about breaking down the walls of confinement that so often threaten the lives of the disabled. Modelling is the vehicle we’re using because it’s the career that Maddy chose, but we hope in some small way to change the world and smash some stereotypes while we’re at it. At the end of the day, Maddy challenges people just by proudly existing in the visual world. It’s the way in which this awareness-raising affects others with DS and their families that truly matters.
Please consider donating to the dance ensemble for disabled young people that Madeline is an ambassador of at http://www.gofundme.com/k22cw8ny
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