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Can a disabled model make it in fashion?

Disabled models

Tall, slim and with flowing locks, Lara Masters modelled in her teens. But the work dried up as she developed a degenerative nerve condition. So is the fashion world ready for its first big disabled model?

The fashion industry has a very precise, exacting and unwavering view of beauty: a model must be tall, extremely slim and physically "flawless". It's a code of understanding which has ruled me out of modelling even though I am 5ft 9ins, size 6 and, if you'll excuse my immodesty, beautiful.

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I have a degenerative nerve condition that has been gradually paralysing my limbs for many years, and now use an electric wheelchair. As a writer, model (I use the term very loosely as will be explained) actor and TV presenter, I'm more visible than most disabled people. But I have never been accepted in any of these jobs for my skill alone - there is always a focus on my disability.

My mum, Debbie Moore, (founder of Pineapple dance studios) was a very successful model in the 60s and 70s. In my early teens, before my disability set in, I followed in her footsteps - modelling for girls' magazines and Mum's company. But from the age of 14, because I had some paralysis down my left side and an awkward gait, I could not get an agent and that was the end of my hopes for a modelling career.

I even tried joining an agency called Ugly which claimed to be looking for something "different". By the time my potential employers had scraped their jaws off the floor I felt that even for an agency that was thinking outside of the box, disability was more disturbing than different. Considering the agency name, I didn't know whether to be flattered or outraged when they refused take to me on.

Lara Masters
Lara Masters, whose modelling ambitions have been thwarted by disability

Role models were in short supply, until Paralympic runner Aimee Mullins briefly took to the catwalk for designer Alexander McQueen in 1998 - sporting hand-carved wooden prosthetic limb. But when McQueen said he wasn't out to shock people but "to show that beauty comes from within", I was appalled and confused. It was patronising the stunningly gorgeous Mullins and seemed to be saying that having a disability makes you a beautiful person.

Eventually, when I started using a wheelchair, I got signed up by an agency that only recruited disabled models. It felt like I was only a casting away from becoming the new face of Mac or Aveda. Instead, I found myself on a poorly paid path of infrequent job offers to advertise wheelchairs, stair lifts and accessible buses - all important campaigns but a far cry from New York Fashion Week.

So when the BBC set out to challenge stereotypes of beauty, with a reality-style show in which eight young, disabled women compete to be a "top model", I was excited but also sceptical.

Car accident

It introduced me to other people who'd had similar experiences, such as 22-year-old Jenny Johnson, who had modelled until a car accident at 16 left her with some lower paralysis.

Running and strutting
Aimee on the track in 1996, and at a McQueen opening in 2008

"I started modelling at age 14. I went on several photo shoots and gained some real experience. In spite of acquiring this knowledge, after my accident, it has been impossible to catch a break," says Jenny. "I've even been flat out informed that the reason the agency would not accept me was because of the way I walked."

So what about the industry's insiders - are they really willing to give disabled models a fair chance?

Designer Wayne Hemingway initially sounds an upbeat note. "We're learning to support diversity and be inclusive of disability in areas such as sport," he says, name-checking the Paralympics and the disabled basketball players who featured in a recent series of BBC One idents.

"In new buildings and transport systems it's now unthinkable not to design with disability in mind," he says. But fashion sees itself differently.

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Wannabe model Sophie, who is paralysed and in a wheelchair

"The fashion industry is still seeking out so-called 'perfect symmetry' in impossibly skinny girls and being predictably immoral."

For Marie O'Riordan, editor of Marie Claire magazine, fashion isn't alone in its promotion of the "perfect" human form - it is reflecting wider prejudices in society.

It's a business

"Disability is largely ignored by the mainstream. Traditionally, fashion models have represented the 'ideal' of womanhood - they are taller and slimmer so that they can show off clothes to the maximum benefit. Being a clothes horse is not something most women could do very well."

Mairie O'Riordan
A disabled model, by definition, will be more memorable in a photo than an able-bodied girl
Marie O'Riordan

The fact is that fashion is a business and it is us, the consumers, who keep it thriving. Is it any wonder the industry sticks to a winning formula and largely shuns the idea of using bigger, more representational female models, let alone disabled models whose physical forms will be even more difficult to sell as aspirational?

Yet maybe the BBC's reality show will make a difference. After all, fashionistas are always looking for something new, and disabled models are perfect to create intrigue and attract attention.

"A disabled model, by definition, will be more memorable in a photo than an able-bodied girl, thus making her attractive to a commercial person trying to sell clothes in an advert, or in editorial," says O'Riordan. Her magazine will feature the programme's winner in a high-end fashion spread by world-renowned photographer Rankin.

This gesture in itself would give any able-bodied model major kudos and guarantee further bookings, so it will be interesting to see what kind of impact this shoot will have on the future of the disabled model.

After that, maybe, it's up to the public. Are they willing to prove their readiness to accept a different ideal of beauty by buying a magazine featuring a amputee model. It's our collective responsibility. If we want to see the fashion industry broaden its parameters, we must put our money where our mouth is.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Models set impossible standards of beauty for the ordinary woman to emulate. Not long ago I saw a girl of about 20 dressed in an artsy fashion walking down the street with two artifical legs. She was not hiding the fact that her legs were gone. Still she wanted to look pretty. I was very moved by her spirit. Most females want to look good and if they are disabled even more so. The rest of us can be inspired by their courage
angelica adams, cambridge ma us

Good luck to all of you. It is time the fashion industry woke up to real life. I'm sure you will all look great. My father was disabled and (apart from things he was physically unable to do) let nothing get in his way!!
Jean Smith, Dunfermline

Does anyone REALLY care if a disabled girl can become a model? It's akin in a lot of ways to asking if someone suffering with a mentally debilitating condition can become one of the worlds top scientists! I'm not disabled and I can't be a model. These programs anger me because I don't believe they are about "hopes and dreams". I believe it's just more fodder for people who want to be shocked.
Helen, Warwickshire

Totally agree with Marie's comments about a disabled model being memorable. The girls shown are certainly much prettier than the usual models BUT I feel we live in a sad world that doesn't like "abnormalities" and I say that NOT meaning at all to offend anyone at all. I'm 54, 5ft 4 inches and about 4 stone overweight so I know people would never accept me as a model. Having said all this I wish all of them the very best of luck indeed.
Janis, Surrey

These women chose modelling as a career when their bodies matched what the industry wanted - a standard which automatically excludes the vast majority of people (especially those that fancy a meal every once in a while). How can they be surprised when such a shallow business discards them when they are no longer "perfect"?
Michaela, Runcorn, UK

2 points:

1. Heather Mills is disabled as is Gabrielle - both had decent modelling careers.

2. I am not disabled and I also can't get modelling jobs why? Because I'm ugly. Not everyone can be a model, or a singer, or a footballer. Special exception cannot be granted to one minority. That would be wholly unfair to everyone else. Ask yourself can Boris Johnson be the next top model? My guess is you will say no with a captial N.
Graham Pinnock, Norwich

In my mind, all of the girls from the BBC show are stunning enough to deserve the status of 'supermodel'. I don't like that they should have to compete to prove that only one of them can fit in with Naomi/Heidi/Kate etc. Rather than making them compete I would be much more interested in seeing them all modelling and comparing their lives to those of ordinary models. Maybe it's also time for people to adjust to the fact that 'flawless' doesn't automatically mean beautiful.
Heather, Willenhall

I think this programme is a fantastic idea! Good on you BBC.
Stephen, Caerphilly

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