There’s a huge elephant in the room of fashion modeling… and this time it’s not about what the elephant eats to keep her figure.
It’s not about what the elephant wears, or about her fitness instructor. It’s not even about the endless rivalry between “size 0” and “plus size” models. For once, the elephant in the room goes beyond the body and moves to an area so uncomfortable it could give Karl Lagerfeld a nervous twitch for weeks.
Could it be… Is it even possible… Do we dare say that fashion modeling is now shifting more and more towards the magical “inner beauty” than the obvious physical one?
Consider me an idealist living in a fairy world. No, I mean it, DO please consider me one. If I have to glue those pink lenses to my eyes, I will do it without even blinking. Literally. But with or without the heart-shaped glasses, anyone can notice the shift. And that’s mostly due to social media and its viral content.
Models that have broken classical standards of beauty are now inspiring us to make a change in our own lives – no, not taking up the latest fad diet – but actually becoming better, stronger, kinder people. Here are four models whose stories will fill your eyes with tears of sadness and joy at the same time (basically a regular day in a woman’s life).
A model for courage – Alex Minsky
Meet retired Marine Cpl. Alex Minsky, awarded with a Purple Heart for his heroic military service. He’s recently started modeling and he’s conquered television and the whole Internet after he revealed his impressive life story.
As a teenage misfit, he quit school at 17 to play guitar in a heavy metal band and live like a rockstar… but ended up enrolling in the US Marine Corps and exceeding everyone’s expectations. He turned out to be an excellent Marine, but a terrible accident cut his career short.
In 2009, less than a month into his first tour in Afghanistan, Alex ran over a roadside bomb. His right leg was instantly blown off below the knee, his jaw was broken, and his right arm was shredded to pieces. The hit also caused him a brain injury that dragged his chances of survival close to zero.
After thirteen operations and 47 days of coma, Alex woke up only to discover he was no longer able to do any of the things he loved. He couldn’t go back to the Marine Corps, he couldn’t play guitar… In fact, he could barely speak, eat or walk.
It took one year and a half hospitalization and a harsh recovery program to start feeling like his old self again. And yet – despite his incredible strength – depression caught up on him and pushed him on a slippery slope straight into alcoholism.
He binge-drank every single day for two years, until he found the one thing that could keep his mind off alcohol and suicidal thoughts: he started working out twice a day, 6 days a week, at a fitness studio in LA. That’s where he was discovered by fashion photographer Tom Cullis who offered him the chance to turn his traumatizing story into a positive example of courage, hope, and ambition.
Once again, Alex exceeded all expectations. Instead of running away from his past and starting anew (like most people would), he now shares his story and the lessons he’s learned with anyone struggling with depression and hopelessness. His prosthetic leg – that he shows in each and every photo shoot – remains a lesson of courage and ambition that has been inspiring thousands of people all over the world.
A model for inner strength – Stefanie Reid
Stefanie is double Paralympic medalist in the long jump and 200m sprint, a five-time world record holder and European long jump champion. She’s dedicated her life to sports ever since she was a little girl, but a terrible boating accident left her without her right foot when she was only 15.
She was at a friend’s lakeside cottage for the weekend, having fun with a new crazy game they’d invented. They attached an inflatable ring to a boat and they took turns holding on to it while the boat skimmed across the water. In a split second she flew off the ring and the speeding boat went right over her body. Even though she was a great swimmer (training to be a lifeguard), she couldn’t avoid the collision – the propeller had caught Stefanie across her right leg and up to the lower back.
A brilliant surgeon in Toronto managed to close her wounds and save her from spinal damage. That assured her a quick recovery – she was up and about in as little as two months – but there was also a steep price to pay. Her right leg had to be amputated to stop the blood flow and keep Stefanie alive.
Faced with the impossibility of practicing sports, she decided to focus on studying and becoming a doctor. Ambitious as she is, Stef graduated as valedictorian with a scholarship to Queen’s University in Canada. But that’s not even her greatest accomplishment.
One day, when she was on campus, she wondered past a track and decided to give running a try. She was curious to see how fast she can run after all those years since she had quit sports.
The university coach saw this ambitious woman running despite having a prosthetic leg and helped her achieve her newly-found dream: becoming a professional athlete. From winning medals in the Paralympics, Stefanie jumped onto the modeling stage once the British store Debenhams decided to include her in their 2013 campaign. Debenhams was the first high-street brand to use disabled models and Stefanie was the perfect fit for their new campaign.
Now she’s the poster-girl for inner strength and full dedication, shining in glamour photo shoots and walking on the London Fashion Week catwalk like she owns it.
A model for kindness – Madeline Stuart
Madeline Stuart is a 20-year-old sweetheart from Brisbane, Australia, who’s started her modeling career just a couple of years ago.
Unlike most adolescent girls whose daily problems range from covering up pimples to overdosing on diet pills, Maddy has an extra difficulty that not many people could manage so wonderfully. She has Down Syndrome – yet that hasn’t stopped her from following her dream of becoming a model.
It all started at a fashion parade – the first Madeline had ever seen – and she told her mother three words that would change her life completely. She looked her in the eyes and said “Mom, Me, Model.” Rosanne, Maddy’s mom, knew it would be very difficult for her daughter to see her dream come true… but not impossible. It would, however, take a lot of work and ambition – two things Maddy has championed in the past two years.
The road leading to her first photoshoot was anything but smooth. For years she struggled with weight gain due to her genetic condition, so she had to get in shape and stick to healthy eating if she wanted to become a model. Looking forward to being the start of the next fashion parade, she worked as hard as she could – and the results were outstanding.
Her first photo shoot received so much appreciation and support that, in just two years, she has walked some of the most famous catwalks in the world, became the face of a cosmetic company called Glossigirl, and even has a handbag named after her (the producing company, EverMaya, donates all sales to National Down Syndrome Society).
The reason why she’s getting so much attention is that, despite her difficult condition, Maddy spreads joy and kindness everywhere she goes. People around her say she oozes happiness like no one else, which makes her not only the most loving daughter and the best friend someone can have, but also a favorite of fashion photographers who love to see her shine on camera.
The first thing you see on Madeline’s official website is a quote from Coco Chanel. It says “A girl should be two things: who and what she wants.” And who could possibly illustrate it better than Maddy?
A model for self-confidence – Winnie Harlow
Winnie Harlow is now one of the most famous models in the world, but her life was far from glamorous before starring in the American TV show “America’s Next Top Models”.
For most of her life, Winnie’s appearance was a major cause of suffering and depression (ironically, the same looks landed her contracts with some of the world’s most popular fashion brands).
When she was four she was diagnosed with vitiligo, a skin condition manifested by white patches on her body. All throughout her childhood and adolescence, she was called a cow, a zebra, and was even physically aggressed because of her looks. The older she became, the fiercer the attacks got – up to the point where she was forced to drop out of high school to escape her bullies.
She was working as a call center agent when supermodel Tyra Banks discovered her on Instagram and instantly fell in love with her. Not because of her skin condition, but mostly because of the self-confidence she showed in her photos. Instead of hiding the condition that brought her so much pain and isolation, Winnie found the strength to love herself just the way she is.
She says it was this positive thinking that saved her life and pushed her forward. Seeing her radiant on the cover of Marie Claire and Ebony, it’s hard not to believe her. Ever since she made her entrance in the fashion world, she’s become a brand ambassador for Desigual (the Spanish clothing brand), appeared in the 2016 Diesel campaign, and even starred in Beyonce’s video for Lemonade.
Just to give you an idea about how incredible her success is: only 1% of the population suffers from Winnie’s skin condition… and she’s the very first of that 1% to make it as a fashion model. To say she’s one of a kind is an understatement, but Winnie hopes she helped pave the way for others just like her.
On her Instagram account, she now describes herself as a “vitiligo spokesmodel” – she posts videos where she talks about her skin condition, travels the world to meet and encourage teenagers diagnosed with vitiligo, and she was even invited back to her high school to talk about the discrimination she faced as a student.
These four success stories look like they’re written for Hollywood, no doubt about it. “Changing the face of fashion one photoshoot at a time”, they say. One can only hope.
Let’s not forget, however, that none of our heroes above were spared of harsh diets and insane hours at the gym to get the privilege of modeling. It takes more than four exceptions to absolve fashion modeling of all its worldly sins.
But it is the beginning of a trend that, thanks to social media, is spreading like wildfire. A trend where values such as tolerance, kindness, inner strength, courage and ambition despite all odds become more important than a tiny waist and a thigh gap.
I say let’s put on those rosy lenses and hope that, little by little, these small steps and successful individuals will eventually lead to a bigger, more meaningful change in the world. It all starts here.