Beginning in 2015, Brisbane-based model Madeline Stuart has modelled at prestigious events like New York Fashion Week, Paris Fashion Week, Dubai Runway and London Fashion Week. After her mother helped her to train and lose weight, she bought her a photoshoot, which after being posted online attracted the attention of industry heavyweights. Madeline (or Maddy as she goes by) is a delightful soul, bubbly and happy, and is a trailblazer. She also happens to be the first supermodel with Down’s Syndrome.
When Maddy was born, she had difficulties with her heart, a common symptom of Down’s. After experiencing heart failure at just 10 days old, doctors told her mother, Rosanne, that she would have a difficult life ahead, and various family members even told Rosanne to give her up. However, Rosanne decided to dedicate her life to her daughter, leaving Maddy’s father in the process and forging her own path.
Despite these setbacks, Maddy grew into an outgoing young woman, playing football and developing other interests. Her love of modelling began in 2014, where after her mother took her to a fashion show, she said “mum me model.” This typifies Maddy’s outlook – fearless, undaunted, and completely unafraid to be herself and go after what she wants. After her first photoshoot led to her being asked to model at New York Fashion Week, she became the first model with Down syndrome to walk that famous catwalk. For the six consecutive seasons since, she has modelled all over the world. In 2017, Forbes magazine named her number 1 for Diversity in the Fashion Industry.
But her enterprise goes beyond plaudits and surface-level modelling. She has launched her own fashion label, 21 Reasons Why (which plays off the main characteristic of Down’s, an extra copy of chromosome 21). “By debuting her own fashion line and becoming a businesswoman, she is showing other individuals with Down syndrome that is it OK to have your own hopes and aspirations,” says Sara Hart Weir, president of the National Down’s Syndrome Society. “The expectations for children with Down syndrome are higher than ever.”
A Glass Ceiling on Success
Maddy is in many ways a world-beater. To have beaten the odds in such a manner as she has in her life so far is unheard of. A documentary, Maddy the Model, was made in 2019 by a Swedish documentary crew and followed her and Rosanne around the States as she went on a modelling tour. It also shows us her and her mother’s life in Brisbane, and introduces us to her boyfriend Robbie, who is a major part of her support network. The documentary culminates in Maddy being awarded the Quincy Jones Exceptional Advocacy Award from Global Down Syndrome, which is a moment made extra special by the fact Maddy gives a speech – a landmark moment for a girl who isn’t shy but struggles with word-formation.
However, the documentary also shows the painful realities of an industry that has made moves towards embracing change but still has a way to go, especially when it comes to representing the disabled. While progress has been made in terms of the representation of racially diverse models, as well as transgender and plus-sized examples, similar progress in regard to those with a disability is comparatively glacial. While the documentary is ultimately pretty positive, it doesn’t shy away from portraying the negatives faced by Maddy because of her condition. From nasty comments from trolls online, to her being overlooked at a fashion show where she was meant to model, there are some moments that emphasise the need for further shifts in attitude.
Perhaps most strikingly of all is when Rosanne discusses the glass ceiling being encountered by her and her daughter. Rosanne claims that Maddy has had the same amount of exposure as some of the biggest models in the world, but because of inherent biases still present in the industry, there is a certain level above which Maddy cannot climb. The ultimate ideal of any model is to get a long-term contract with a fashion house or designer, but despite her profile, Maddy has been unable to secure such a contract. While the reasons for this are not expressly stated, Rosanne posits that the complications of having someone like Maddy represent a brand is what holds them back from signing her.
But while these negatives are present, Maddy’s story is ultimately one of hope and triumph against the odds. The irrepressible spirit that Maddy approaches life with is infectious. Maddy the Model lets its subject shine, and she is hard not to root for. The bond between her and her mother is also endearing. Rosanne has sacrificed a lot for Maddy but makes no bones about the fact that it’s been worth it.
The changes that Maddy has caused both personally and professionally have been monumental. She became the first disabled person to earn a working visa in the United States. She continues to model, advocate for those with disabilities, and with the help of her mum manage her clothing brand. While she will be remembered as the first model to put disabilities front and centre in the fashion world, the example she has set makes it clear that she will certainly not be the last.
Madeline Stuart is an inspirational and important figure. When discussing the move towards diversity that is currently being embraced by the fashion industry, she deserves a place in the conversation. Hopefully, her profile will continue to grow, and will result in exposure to a more global audience. For those who have ever felt like they’re not enough, and that the world is too much or against them – I would recommend looking into Maddy’s story – it may be a source of inspiration.
Maddy the Model is currently streaming on SBS On Demand.