Seeing a fashion show in 2014 changed Madeline Stuart’s life. She fell in love with modeling and quickly rose up the ranks to become a runway staple at New York Fashion Week – and the first working model with Down Syndrome in the world. She nonetheless still has a huge goal that she’s yet to accomplish. And if Stuart succeeds, it would be a triumph for diversity.
In a September 2018 interview with Teen Vogue, Australia native Stuart told the story of how she made it into the modeling world. “I went to a fashion show, and when I saw the models on the catwalk, I fell in love,” she said. Stuart subsequently shared her newfound passion with her mom, who put together a photoshoot for her daughter.
“[It was set up] for me to see if I would actually like getting my hair and makeup done and posing in front of a camera,” Stuart explained. Needless to say, the 21-year-old loved it – and the rest of the world did, too. She shared the resulting pictures online, and they racked up more than 7 million views within a matter of days.
After that, Stuart’s career quickly kicked into high gear. “People just started contacting me to do photo shoots and fashion shows around the world. It has been non-stop since then,” the model said. Indeed, Stuart has since had modeling work in everywhere from Paris, London and New York to Uganda, Russia and Dubai.
Stuart has had her fair share of high-profile gigs, too – in particular, she’s appeared at six consecutive New York Fashion Weeks. She’s even noticed that her presence on the catwalk has paved the way for other models with Down Syndrome to hit the runways.
“[It’s] very exciting for me, because it shows that I have changed the way the fashion industry views diversity,” Stuart said. “I am extremely proud of that and am happy that other girls can follow their dreams, too.”
Stuart hasn’t confined herself solely to a modeling career, though. In 2017 she debuted her fashion collection, called 21 Reasons Why by Madeline Stuart. The inclusion of the number 21 is a nod to her condition – those with Down Syndrome are born with an extra 21st chromosome.
Once again, Stuart’s success has served as an example to others. “She is showing other individuals with Down Syndrome that it is okay to have your own hopes and aspirations,” the National Down Syndrome Society’s president, Sara Hart Weir, told Forbes in February 2017.
Of course, Stuart still has more that she hopes to accomplish. She told Teen Vogue that she still faces obstacles as a model with a disability, for instance. “One of the biggest challenges has been that some people don’t see me as a professional,” she admitted.
Stuart added that some in the industry have mistakenly assumed that “including [her] is payment enough.” But she has a manager to take care of business deals – and her own voice to continue enlightening those around her. “It is part of my job to educate people,” she said.
And by achieving what she described as her “biggest dream,” Stuart would make a huge statement about diversity to the industry – and to the world at large. That’s because she hopes to be in a Victoria’s Secret fashion show, an event that’s routinely criticized for its lack of inclusivity.
Plus-sized models have made statements regarding the brand’s failure to include women of all body types in its shows. For example, in 2017 Ashley Graham shared a tongue-in-cheek image of herself in which she had been Photoshopped to look as if she was wearing wings, a signature accessory for those included in the Victoria’s Secret show.
And it seemed that Graham wasn’t alone in her desire for the brand to adopt a more inclusive attitude. According to Business Insider, Victoria’s Secret lost business in 2017 to other lingerie shops such as Aerie that have extolled the virtues of body positivity.
Ahead of its November 2018 runway show, Victoria’s Secret has made at least one stride toward inclusivity by adding model Winnie Harlow to its line-up. She will be the first person to strut the lingerie brand’s runway who has Vitiligo, a condition that removes pigment from patches of her skin.
Like Stuart, Harlow has often presented her condition as a strength and has worked to increase diversity within the fashion industry. She is “succeeding at showing people that their differences don’t make them who they are. All our differences are a part of who we are, but they don’t define us,” Harlow wrote on Instagram.
It’s still unclear whether 2018 will be Stuart’s year to take part in the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. But if her dream does come true, she will achieve what she told Teen Vogue was her overarching career goal.
“My plans for the future are to keep changing the way the fashion industry looks at diversity,” Stuart said. “I want to continue modeling like I am at the moment, and it’s looking like I will have a very busy year next year.”
Along with Victoria’s Secret, Stuart added that she also hopes to “one day walk for a really amazing designer like Chanel, Louis Vuitton or Versace.” And, on top of that, she had some advice for others who hoped to one day follow in her footsteps.
“They should prepare to work extremely hard and prepare to be rejected,” Stuart advised. “I would tell them to be strong, to never give up and to try harder when they get knocked down. I would also tell them to believe in themselves.”
Those who read Stuart’s story and her Victoria’s Secret dream believed in her, too. One Twitter user wrote, “You’re… showing the world how beautiful you are, while breaking down the barriers. Inspirational young woman.”