What do Karlie Kloss, Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Madeline Stuart have in common? They're some of the most buzzed about supermodels in the industry. But what separates Australia-based, 21-year-old Madeline Stuart from her catwalking peers is that she has Down's Syndrome — and she's using it as a platform to redefine beauty standards, spark conversation about social inclusion, and inspire others to pursue their own goals.
In August 2015, Stuart's mother, Rosanne, took her to a fashion runway show, and she instantly fell in love with the idea of becoming a model herself.
“All the women on the catwalk looked like they were having fun, and also they looked confident and beautiful," Stuart told SWAAY in an exclusive interview. “I wanted people to see me — and all differently abled people — that way, also. I told my mum I wanted to be a model, and she organized a photoshoot a few months later to see if I actually would like modeling, which I did."
Her mother shared the professional images with a closed group comprised of members who had friends and family with Down's Syndrome, too. She said she wanted to have someone else to talk to about the images, but was overwhelmed by the incredible feedback that followed.
Overnight, the pictures received over 50,000 likes, and within a week her photo was popping up in people's feeds all over the world. Shortly after, she booked her first modeling gig.
Since that fateful shoot, Stuart's gone viral on numerous occasions and has garnered nearly a million fans across her social media channels. Beyond that, her career as a model has blossomed impressively. She's strutted the runway at New York Fashion Week (the second model with Down's Syndrome ever to do so), Paris Fashion Week, Caspian Fashion Week, and Mercedes Benz Fashion Week China. She's also landed editorial shoots and advertising campaigns in the bridal, fitness, and lifestyle sectors.
Changing the Industry
In addition to focusing on her career, Stuart's also deliberately shared her story with countless media outlets, including big-name publications like Cosmopolitan, Teen Vogue, CNN, ABC, Good Housekeeping, and Women's Day. People have responded as you might expect: by championing her and rooting for her success along the way.
However, telling her story to the world has done more than simply leave people basking in a cocoon of warm and fuzzy feelings. Her experience — and her presence in ad campaigns and runways — has sparked important conversations about the inclusion of differently abled people in the modeling industry, and other industries. As such, Stuart has made it her mission to be an ambassador for real change, and her talent, charisma and confidence has made her unstoppable.
Interestingly, she's quick to acknowledge that a chunk of her success is ironically attributed to her Down's Syndrome.
“I think if you have a different ability, society does not think you are capable of greatness. So, if you do something that is out of the ordinary that stands out, people will notice you more easily," Stuart said.
That's exactly what happened when her photos went viral, and Stuart seized the momentum.
“Because I do not have all the insecurities a lot of people have, and I believe in myself 100 percent, when I was given the opportunity to do lots of amazing things I did them without hesitation," she said. “Because I did these things, a lot of people have noticed, and it has given me a platform to encourage others to strive for greatness and believe in themselves also."
Amid the feel-good fall out of her catapulted fame — and feeling blessed along the way for her success — Stuart still has her struggles as a model within the industry. In fact, when asked about her primary challenges as a model, she told SWAAY that actually changing people's perspectives on how they perceive disability is the most difficult part of her journey.
“We, as society, have had the mindset for a long time if we include someone with a disability we are doing them a favor, and that the inclusion is the only payment necessary," said Stuart. “We have to try to start seeing people with different abilities as equals who also are working and struggling and also need to be treated equally on a commercial basis."
The takeaway here is that though Stuart wants to inspire people through her own work as a supermodel, one of her primary goals is to carve a way for others who don't conform to traditional beauty standards, and to demonstrate that differently abled people are just as capable of succeeding across a multiple of industries as anyone else.
That translates into changing everyone's perspective, including those who are differently abled themselves.
“Just because you do not fit with what society thought for a long time was beautiful does not mean you are not beautiful. We are all beautiful — in all our shapes and sizes —and we all have different qualities that we can input into our world to make it a better place," she said. “Don't be scared of failure. Believe in yourself and if you do fail, focus on the belief you tried and that is all that matters. We worry too much about the ending and we should be just enjoying the journey."
"Sh*t!" my daughter exclaimed as she dropped her iPad to the floor. A little bit of context; my daughter Victoria absolutely loves her iPad. And as I watched her bemoan the possible destruction of her favorite device, I thought to myself, "If I were in her position, I'd probably say the exact same thing."
In the Rastegar family, a word is only a bad word if used improperly. This is a concept that has almost become a family motto. Because in our household, we do things a little differently. To put it frankly, our practices are a little unconventional. Completely safe, one hundred percent responsible- but sure, a little unconventional.
And that's because my husband Ari and I have always felt akin in one major life philosophy; we want to live our lives our way. We have dedicated ourselves to a lifetime of questioning the world around us. And it's that philosophy that has led us to some unbelievable discoveries, especially when it comes to parenting.
Ari was an English major. And if there's one thing that can be said about English majors, it's that they can be big-time sticklers for the rules. But Ari also thinks outside of the box. And here's where these two characteristics meet. Ari was always allowed to curse as a child, but only if the word fit an appropriate and relevant context. This idea came from Ari's father (his mother would have never taken to this concept), and I think this strange practice really molded him into the person he is today.
But it wasn't long after we met that I discovered this fun piece of Ari Rastegar history, and I got to drop a pretty awesome truth bomb on Ari. My parents let me do the same exact thing…
Not only was I allowed to curse as a child, but I was also given a fair amount of freedom to do as I wanted. And the results of this may surprise you. You see, despite the lack of heavy regulating and disciplining from my parents, I was the model child. Straight A's, always came home for curfew, really never got into any significant trouble- that was me. Not trying to toot my own horn here, but it's important for the argument. And don't get the wrong impression, it's not like I walked around cursing like a sailor.
Perhaps I was allowed to curse whenever I wanted, but that didn't mean I did.
And this is where we get to the amazing power of this parenting philosophy. In my experience, by allowing my own children to curse, I have found that their ability to self-regulate has developed in an outstanding fashion. Over the past few years, Victoria and Kingston have built an unbelievable amount of discipline. And that's because our decision to allow them to curse does not come without significant ground rules. Cursing must occur under a precise and suitable context, it must be done around appropriate company, and the privilege cannot be overused. By following these guidelines, Victoria and Kingston are cultivating an understanding of moderation, and at a very early age are building a social awareness about when and where certain types of language are appropriate. And ultimately, Victoria and Kingston are displaying the same phenomenon present during my childhood. Their actual instances of cursing are extremely low.
And beneath this parenting strategy is a deeper philosophy. Ari and I first and foremost look at parenting as educators. It is not our job to dictate who our children will be, how they shall behave, and what their future should look like.
We are not dictators; we are not imposing our will on them. They are autonomous beings. Their future is in their hands, and theirs alone.
Rather, we view it as our mission to show our children what the many possibilities of the world are and prepare them for the litany of experiences and challenges they will face as they develop into adulthood. Now, when Victoria and Kingston come across any roadblocks, they have not only the tools but the confidence to handle these tensions with pride, independence, and knowledge.
And we have found that cursing is an amazing place to begin this relationship as educators. By allowing our children to curse, and gently guiding them towards the appropriate use of this privilege, we are setting a groundwork of communication that will eventually pay dividends as our children grow curious of less benign temptations; sex, drugs, alcohol. There is no fear, no need to slink behind our backs, but rather an open door where any and all communication is rewarded with gentle attention and helpful wisdom.
The home is a sacred place, and honesty and communication must be its foundation. Children often lack an ability to communicate their exact feelings. Whether out of discomfort, fear, or the emotional messiness of adolescence, children can often be less than transparent. Building a place of refuge where our children feel safe enough to disclose their innermost feelings and troubles is, therefore, an utmost priority in shepherding their future. Ari and I have come across instances where our children may have been less than truthful with a teacher, or authority figure simply because they did not feel comfortable disclosing what was really going on. But with us, they know that honesty is not only appreciated but rewarded and incentivized. This allows us to protect them at every turn, guard them against destructive situations, and help guide and problem solve, fully equipped with the facts of their situation.
And as crazy as it all sounds- I really believe in my heart that the catalogue of positive outcomes described above truly does stem from our decision to allow Victoria and Kingston to curse freely.
I know this won't sit well with every parent out there. And like so many things in life, I don't advocate this approach for all situations. In our context, this decision has more than paid itself off. In another, it may exacerbate pre-existing challenges and prove to be only a detriment to your own family's goals.
As the leader of your household, this is something that you and you alone must decide upon with intentionality and wisdom.
Ultimately, Ari and I want to be the kind of people our children genuinely want to be around. Were we not their parents, I would hope that Victoria and Kingston would organically find us interesting, warm, kind, funny, all the things we aspire to be for them each and every day.
We've let our children fly free, and fly they have. They are amazing people. One day, when they leave the confines of our home, they will become amazing adults. And hopefully, some of the little life lessons and eccentric parenting practices we imparted upon them will serve as a support for their future happiness and success.