Rosanne Stuart recalls attending an annual fashion parade with her daughter, Madeline, in their hometown of Brisbane, Australia, in 2015. In the midst of the high-energy glamour on the runway, Madeline, who has limited speech, turned to her mother and firmly announced that she would like to be a model.
Stuart, 46, who described her daughter as the kind of tomboy who would slip on a pair leggings and “throw football with the guys,” said that it was not something she had expected from Madeline, but she immediately supported her.
Madeline, now 21, would become the first person with Down syndrome to ever stride down a runway as a model during New York Fashion Week. This year’s show was her sixth season in a row. With more than 60 catwalks under her belt in cities including London, Paris and Dubai, Madeline’s disability has not appeared to be a hindrance. “When she walked that first catwalk every single person in the audience appreciated her,” Stuart said. “It truly was the first time she was accepted.”
Madeline’s drive has not let up this year. She just finished strutting down the runway for seven designers during the 2018 New York Fashion Week and is continuing the fashion circuit to walk for seven more designers during London Fashion Week.
The fashion world more recently has embraced nontraditional models who are not typically white and thin. From top magazines to designers, more women of different races, sizes and abilities are being hired for runway and print work.
“I must say, I think things are getting a lot better, especially for Madeline,” Stuart said.
Like most models, Madeline starts off her day with a healthy breakfast then proceeds to her outfit fittings, gets her strawberry blonde hair and make-up done and prepares for her next runway appearance. By lunchtime, Madeline is enjoying her favorite meal: a grilled chicken wrap. Madeline has this every single day, according to Stuart. “If they don’t have a chicken wrap, she may have a chicken sandwich but she really doesn’t want to. She wants to have a wrap,” Stuart said.
Between her shows, Madeline is usually curled up with her iPad, surfing the web or video-chatting for hours with her boyfriend Robbie, who also has an intellectual disability. They met during Special Olympic games in Australia more than four years ago.
When Madeline was born, her mother, then 26, said doctors told her that her daughter had Down syndrome and would not mature to the age of 7. Stuart, who is a building surveyor and her daughter’s full-time manager, said she was determined to give her a chance at a normal life.
“When you have a baby, everyone is expected to say, ’congratulations,’” said Stuart, who is a single parent. “But when you say you have a child with Down’s syndrome they don’t say congratulations, they go, ‘oh, I’m sorry.’”
Before pursuing modeling, Madeline was struggling with being overweight, an experience that Rosanne says many people with Down syndrome face. Madeline expressed an interest in getting in shape because of a heart condition and her overall health. “She lost weight before she started modeling, before she was even thinking about modeling because of the holes in her heart,” Stuart said. “It just so happens that when she lost the weight, and went to the fashion show, and then we got these photos done, it sort of just all happened.”
Stuart in 2015 uploaded photos of Madeline’s weight loss on social media to encourage other people with disabilities. The post quickly went viral, earning more than 7.2 million online views in a week and news coverage in about 150 countries, Stuart said. Within a month, South African fashion designer Hendrik Vermeulen asked Madeline to model in his New York Fashion Week show, marking the beginning of her modeling career.
Stuart said that a few critics in the disability community have implied that she is pushing Madeline to pursue modeling, calling her a “dance mom.” But the mother says that those who think modeling is not Madeline’s choice do not know anything about Down syndrome.