- Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
- Madeline Stuart, a professional model with Down syndrome, launched her career in 2015 after her post-weight loss photoshoot went viral.
- Before modeling, Stuart felt “a little bit invisible,” but the catwalk allows her, and people like her, to be seen and accepted, her mom Roseann told Insider at an American Heart Association fashion week event.
- While the fashion industry has become much more body diverse since Stuart’s debut, high-end modeling agencies “aren’t quite ready” yet to sign people like Madeline, Roseann said.
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Madeline Stuart isn’t a stereotypical model.
The now-23-year-old was born with Down syndrome, is 5-foot-7, and has struggled with her weight. She also had serious heart problems associated with Down syndrome, and underwent open-heart surgery at 8 weeks old and again last year.
“As a mother of a child with a disability, I never envisioned her being a supermodel or a model,” her mom Roseann Stuart told Insider at the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Red Dress Collection fashion week event, which raised awareness for heart disease in women.
But after losing 44 pounds in an effort to get healthy for her heart issues in 2014, Madeline and her mom attended a fashion show. Madeline, who has limited speech, indicated she wanted to strut on the catwalk too.
A subsequent photoshoot went viral, and the calls for modeling gigs poured in, Roseann said.
Since then, Madeline has appeared in fashion week shows in Paris, London, and New York, and is increasingly accompanied by other models with disabilities.
“When Madeline started, she never saw anyone with a disability on the catwalk. Now you see people on the catwalk all the time – people all over the world with Down syndrome and other disabilities,” Roseann said, pointing to an Aerie campaign featuring people with disabilities and Tommy Hilfiger’s adaptive clothing line.
“Everything is changed. People are just being accepted for being people now,” she said.
It’s common for people with Down syndrome to have heart defects
About half of infants with Down syndrome are born with heart defects, according to the National Down Syndrome Society. Madeline’s included an atrial septal defect (ASV), or a hole between the two pumping chambers, and ventricular septal defect (VSD), or a hole between the two collecting chambers.
At 8 weeks, she underwent open-heart surgery to repair them and just underwent another surgery about a year ago to fix a leaky mitrial valve.
Now, Roseann said, Madeline is stronger than ever. She dances five hours a week at a dance school for people with disabilities and works with a personal trainer six or seven times a week. “To her, going to the gym is such a social thing. She knows everyone there and she loves it,” Roseann said.
She also eats a healthy diet and gets heart checkups yearly, though recently they’ve been more frequent because of her open-heart surgery.
“Her health isn’t about modeling now, it’s about the fact that she wants to live a very long and healthy life,” Roseann said.
- Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Victoria’s Secret
The modeling industry is still slow to embrace all body types and abilities
Part of the reason Madeline loves modeling is because it helps to make an otherwise all-too-often invisible population seen, Roseann said.
“Before she became a model, she was a little bit invisible,” she said. On a fashion runway, though, “there’s no anxiety, there’s no being scared – there’s nothing. She’s just alive on the catwalk, and it’s at that moment that people accept her and see her for the amazing person she is.”
Other models are also boosting the visibility of people with disabilities. Jillian Mercado, a model represented by IMG Modeling, has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. Aimee Mullins, who had her legs amputated below the knee due to a birth defect, is a paralympian, actress, and model who’s been the face of L’Oreal Paris. Actress and model Jamie Brewer is known as the first model with Down syndrome to walk a fashion runway in New York Fashion Week.
But top agencies are still slow to sign people like Madeline, Roseann said, though she’s convinced it will happen in the next few years.
“We keep reaching out to people to sign her, and unfortunately we haven’t been able to find an agency yet because the really high-end modeling agencies aren’t quite ready for that yet,” Roseann said. “That will be the next step.”