Behind the Scenes With the World's Most Famous Model With Down Syndrome
From the moment I arrive, it’s clear this isn’t going to be a “typical” photo shoot.
In the middle of Times Square I find the model holding the client’s hand, which I assume isn’t your average client-to-the-talent relationship in the fashion industry.
When it’s time to pack up and move to the next location, the model voluntarily lugs a load of the photographic gear in a rolling suitcase behind her — she wants to help.
I wonder how many models carry their photographer’s equipment just to be helpful. Probably not many. But Madeline Stuart, or Maddy, as she’s affectionately called, isn’t your average model. She’s a world-famous professional model with Down syndrome — the first adult with Down syndrome to nab not one but seven modeling contracts, according to her mother Rosanne Stuart.
A year ago, Maddy, from Brisbane, Australia, was 40 pounds overweight. A commitment to dance and cheerleading helped her get healthy and discover her passion for stepping in front of the camera, which she does to help end discrimination against people with disabilities.
She exploded onto the scene several months ago when some of her photos went viral and has since amassed a huge fan base — she has more than 420,000 fans on her Facebook page and 50,000 Instagram followers.
Maddy’s had contracts with brands Manifesta and Living Dead Clothing, is the first face behind the GlossiGirl Cosmetics “Beauty Is…” campaign, will be walking the catwalk during New York Fashion Week this September for FTL Moda, had a one-of-a-kind doll made after her, and now is launching her own handbag line with a fashion company called EverMaya.
Damian Graybelle, President of EverMaya, wants it to be more than a clothing and accessory company — he’s determined to help people.
“EverMaya is all about being a brand that is socially conscious,” Graybelle tells me while we watch the makeup artists primp Maddy for the first round of shooting her handbag’s advertising campaign. “We’re really about making lives better for the people around us, especially those who start off life with a disadvantage, whatever that disadvantage may be.”
EverMaya already donates 5 percent of its profits to fund educational opportunities for the indigenous children of Guatemala, where its products are made. Now, the company will donate 5 percent of sales from the Madeline Stuart handbag line to the National Down Syndrome Society.
“We’re trying to do something different,” Graybelle says. “We want to make people feel good about the products they’re using. Having Madeline represent the brand just reinforces that good feeling.”
I’d planned to sit back and watch Maddy in action, but before long, she has me laughing, giving high-fives and taking selfies with her.
Like any 18-year-old internationally famous model, Maddy can have her diva moments. When we pass the Times Square M&M store and she quickly disappears inside without a word. We find her filling a bag with purple M&M’s. Graybelle buys them for her and the two hold hands while they wait in line. Then it’s back to business as usual.
The global success has been a whirlwind not just for Madeline, but also for Stuart, who’s mom, manager and public relations person all wrapped up into one. One of the hardest things she’s encountered over the past several months is the negative feedback from the online community. People have been quick to judge from afar, claiming Stuart is exploiting Maddy and forcing her into modeling for her own material gain.
“When people try and say [Maddy is] unhappy, it hurts me because my whole goal in life is to protect her and make sure she’s happy,” Stuart says. “It hurts so deeply when they accuse me of extorting her.”
After spending just moments with the two of them, it becomes abundantly clear to me that this isn’t the case.
First of all, Stuart and her daughter are best friends. You can see it in the way they chase each other around trying to give one another playful smacks on the bum. You can see it in the way Maddy calls out “Mom!” before each photo shoot, locating her mother in the small crowd of makeup artists, photographers and clients before turning her smile to the camera. You can see it in the way Stuart responds with, “I’m right here Maddy!” and situates herself behind the camera where Maddy can focus on her.
After the first shoot, Maddy leaps into her mother’s arms where the two snuggle and kiss for a moment. Then we move on the the next location.
It’s also abundantly clear that Maddy runs the show.
“Madeline is so stubborn,” Stuart says over the rapidly firing shutter of the photographer’s camera. “If she doesn’t want to do something, she won’t.”
At her core, Maddy’s a sweet, friendly and caring person — one who just happens to also be blazing a trail for generations of people with disabilities to come.
“The fact is Maddy just believes she can do things, and because she doesn’t understand that it’s hard to do things, she just achieves everything,” Stuart says. “She doesn’t worry about what other people think. She just believes in herself. She has no hesitation, no hang ups and she doesn’t judge anybody. She just loves and doesn’t put walls up or put people in boxes like we do.”
As we’re talking, Maddy walks in front of us through Midtown, holding hands with Graybelle and pointing out bright billboards to her mother.
“When it comes down to it, she isn’t the one with the disability,” Stuart says. “We are.”
Check out some final images photos from the shoot below: