The New ‘Top Model’ for Disabled Girls Might Make Fashion People Look Really Ignorant
The cast of Britain's Missing Top Model..Photo: Courtesy of BBC3
The Daily Mail reports the point of the show "is to challenge the boundaries that seem to exist in the beauty and fashion industries and cast new light on our concept of the ideal woman." We think this is a great idea. However, we're also interested to see how other people on the show — photographers, runway coaches, stylists — will come across.
'When I first heard about the programme, my immediate thought was would it all be women in wheelchairs,' she says. 'And I knew that if it was going to be some sort of freak show, I didn't want to be involved. 'But I very quickly realised there are many disabled people who are not in wheelchairs, and that is just one of the many preconceptions we all hold about disability.Really? Not all disabled people are confined to wheelchairs?! Thanks for setting the record straight for, you know, all of us.
Those comments aside, we'd guess not many people in the fashion industry are familiar with the physical limitations of a person who has, say, HNPP. We can't help but think they'll throw around lots of off-color comments, like O'Riordan's, when it comes time to do an interview about how a photo shoot went. We're keeping our fingers crossed for them.
The disabled beauties still fighting to become models
At first glance, Debbie Van der Putten's portfolio looks like that of any aspiring young model.
She seems to have both the face and figure to make it in such a competitive world, and it's easy to imagine her catching the eye of casting directors and magazine editors.
But look more closely and it becomes clear that Debbie, 22, is not your average jobbing model. In most of her pictures, only one arm is visible - and this is not because the other is somehow obscured.
Three years ago, her right arm was severed at the shoulder in a bus crash in France.
Unlike most top models, Debbie can't be described as perfect.
The aim of the series is to challenge the boundaries that seem to exist in the beauty and fashion industries and cast new light on our concept of the ideal woman.
But having now dipped her toe into this world, Debbie is adamant that she has found her calling.
'Although I've always known I had the figure for modelling, I'd never really considered it as a career before taking part in this show,' says Debbie, who works for a holiday planning company.
'The reason was because, at 5ft 4in, I knew I was too short. Then, when I lost my arm, any thoughts I might have had of modelling went out of the window. Have you ever seen a girl who is my height with only one arm on the catwalk?'
Debbie's accident happened in 2005 when the driver of the bus she was in fell asleep and the vehicle careered off the road.
'We were looking forward to hanging out on the beach and partying. But 16 hours into the journey, I was asleep next to the window when I heard a loud bang, felt a jolt and realised the bus had crashed.
'I looked down, and my arm was gone - completely severed - and there was blood everywhere, but it didn't hurt at all, most likely due to shock.
'My memory is fairly hazy, but I remember getting up and rushing around frantically to find my friends. It was carnage - many people had lost their lives.
Britain's Missing Models: Sophie, Debbie, Kelly, Jessica, Kellie and Rebecca
Thankfully, I found my friends, who were unharmed, and recall asking one of them to
tie something around my arm to stop the bleeding.
'The next thing I knew, I was in a French hospital and my family had flown to my bedside.
'They were horrified by what had happened to me. They'd thought I might die. In particular, one of the guys felt very guilty as he and I had swopped seats a couple of hours before the accident so I could sleep leaning against the window.
'He said he was much bigger and stronger than me and that his arm might have survived. But I told him it was pointless to dwell on such things.
'Losing my arm was really hard, and I was completely shocked and upset at first, but I knew I was lucky to be alive.
People treat me as if I'm thick
'In fact, just two weeks after my accident, I went shopping with my mum. It was a really hot day and I wore a vest top, which meant everyone in the street could see my missing arm, and my bandages.
'I did feel odd, but I told myself my arm was gone, and from now on I had to be brave and open about it otherwise it would ruin my life.
'I wanted to force myself to get used to the stares and the reactions. Of course, even now, people still stare at me but I don't really notice any more.'
Because Debbie, who is left handed, lost her right arm, she says she can still do almost everything she did prior to her accident.
'I go to the gym three times a week and my job requires me to travel around the world,' she says.
'Having one arm hasn't affected me at all when it comes to men, either - if anything, men approach me more now than they ever used to do as they want to know what happened.
'I only ever feel down about it when I think about my wedding day, and what sort of dress I'd end up wearing with just one arm.
'And it frustrates me that sometimes people treat me as though I'm a bit thick - and even speak more slowly - just because I have a disability. But I realise it's just ignorance and don't take it personally.'
Indeed, so uninhibited has Debbie been about her looks following her accident that, earlier this year, she posed nude for Playboy.
When a friend told her about the new BBC series, she put herself forward straight away.
'I find modelling cathartic,' she says. 'Showing myself off and proving I can make the best of myself even though I've got an obvious disability has been my therapy, and has helped me come to terms with what's happened.
'If someone on a shoot said to me to turn to one side so it didn't look like I was missing my arm, I wouldn't be happy. Having one arm is me, and I want to be seen as me in the pictures.'
'Although some people may say I shouldn't be a model because I'm not perfect, there is nothing about the job that my disability leaves me unable to do.
'I want to show everyone that you can be beautiful and successful and an inspiration, even if you are missing a limb.'
Fellow contestant Kellie Moody, however, finds it hard to share Debbie's unshakeable confidence or unwavering optimism.
Kellie, 24, a make-up artist for MAC, who lives in Leicester, is profoundly deaf and can hear nothing without hearing aids.
Her younger sister Jodie, 22, is also deaf, though the condition does not run in her family.
'I had a hard time growing up because of my disability,' says Kellie.
'Not only could I not hear, but my speech is affected and it's often difficult for people to understand me.'
Bullied at school
I used to wake up in the morning and beg Mum to let me stay at home because, for me, simply doing normal school work was so difficult it felt overwhelming.'
'I was bullied, too. I remember one girl telling me no one wanted to be friends with me and I was so upset I ran out of school, even though I faced a two-hour walk home. I just wanted to see my mum.
'On another occasion, I came to an art lesson to find all my work had been smashed up.
'My Mum was the only person who really supported and encouraged me. My teachers seemed to focus on everything I couldn't do.'
'I didn't see it that way,' says Kellie. 'I had to wear hearing aids on both ears - and still do today.
'As a child, I thought they were hideous as they made my ears stick out so much that people used to call me "Big Ears".
Prejudice: Kellie has been bullied because she is deaf
'At 18, I was spotted by a model scout at The Clothes Show, but I never called the number on the card the lady gave me. I was too scared and thought the idea of me becoming a model was ridiculous.'
'However, customers sometimes get impatient with me as they don't realise I'm deaf and think I'm ignoring them or being rude. And I do get embarrassed with having to ask them to repeat what they are saying.'
In 2007, Kellie entered and won Miss Deaf UK - which inspired her to put herself forward to take part in Britain's Missing Top Model. But, as she discovered, being deaf did affect her ability to be a model.
'Before filming started, I was really excited as I've always loved fashion and getting dressed up,' she says.
Shaking up the fashion industry
'But I was worried about communication and I was right to have concerns. I had an interpreter with me, but it was still confusing on photoshoots as there were lots of people around giving instructions.
'On one occasion, I was very stressed as we'd all been given the address of a casting call to attend, and I didn't have a clue where we were going as everyone had forgotten I'm deaf.
'And I realised I wouldn't be able to do things like TV adverts, part of a model's remit, too, because I find it difficult to speak perfectly and clearly. I was also told by one judge I should get speech therapy.
'No one had ever said that to me before and I was upset. Not being able to speak perfectly is part of my disability and going to a therapist wouldn't cure me.
'Looking back, I wish I'd said: "Why don't you learn sign language?" but I didn't think of it at the time.
'People have told me I should carry on modelling, but I don't really think it's a career for me.
'And yes, that is partly to do with my disability.'
So, given Kellie's experiences, is there really room and work for disabled women as models?
Struggle: Jessica could be paralysed at any time
Marie O'Riordan, editor of Marie Claire magazine, and one of the judges on the programme, hopes there could be. She will feature a fashion shoot with the winning contestant in her September issue.
'But I very quickly realised there are many disabled people who are not in wheelchairs, and that is just one of the many preconceptions we all hold about disability.
Jessica Kellgren-Hayes was one of two contestants in the programme who uses a wheelchair - though she requires hers only over longer distances.
The rest of the time she relies on a cane, and also wears splints on both her wrists.
It wasn't until two years ago that Jessica found out what exactly her disability was.
As a child, she was frequently unwell and seemed to take longer than her peers to recover from knocks or falls.
But at 17 she was diagnosed with 'Hereditary Neuropathy with liability to Pressure Palsies' (HNPP), a slowly progressive hereditary neuro-muscular disorder which makes sufferers to nerve injury from pressure, stretch or repetitive use.
The condition has already rendered Jessica paralysed in both arms (though movement has returned, she still needs to wear splints on both wrists) and she spent nine months of last year in a wheelchair after a night out dancing left her leg paralysed.
'I basically live with constant uncertainty,' says Jessica, who lives in Bristol with her mum, a print maker and dad, a film producer.
'Any knock or strain can result in paralysis of any part of me for any length of time.
'As part of my condition I've also lost sight in one eye, and I have no idea whether it will come back. It went in a matter of minutes following a particularly severe migraine.'
'I have no sensation at all in the skin of my hands and feet and so can't feel temperature or pain. My Mum is my carer and I really would find it difficult to cope without her.
'I need someone to come with me all the time because I never know when and where paralysis might suddenly come on.'
Jessica, however, has always made a special effort when it comes to her appearance, in order to combat preconceptions about people in wheelchairs.
'If people see someone in a wheelchair they automatically speak to you as though you're not that bright.
'That's why I've always made a special effort to curl my hair or put on a particularly amazing outfit when in my chair.'
Whether she could actually have a full-time career as a model is something Jessica is not completely convinced about.
'There's nothing about the job I can't do,' she says.
'In fact, there is so much sitting around waiting for shoots to be set up that, in a sense,
'I think I'm ideally suited to it as I need to sit down a lot. And at 5ft 9in, I'm tall enough, too.
'I also like my look - I've always thought I'm quirky looking, and not a standard pretty face. I have a presence, and heads do seem to turn when I walk into a room.
'But I went into this programme thinking it was an adventure, rather than a path to a new career.
'Although I don't want any of my dreams to be unattainable, I'm not sure if Britain is ready for a model with a disability.
'I'm not sure I'd ever be able to do catwalk modelling with my stick, either.
'Besides, I have ambitions to go to university and then become a film director. This programme was never the be-all-and-end-all for me, it was simply a way to hopefully show people that, despite being disabled, I'm an ordinary girl with ordinary hopes and dreams.'
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