At just 21 years old (and only a few years into her modelling career), Madeline Stuart has accomplished more than most people hope for in a lifetime. In addition to being the first model with Down syndrome to participate in New York Fashion Week, the Australian native has also walked in over 60 runway shows and has become a huge advocate for people with disabilities in the modelling world. "In the beginning, [a lot of] designers expected I would be happy to walk for free or for the 'experience,' which was very disheartening," she told POPSUGAR when we recently chatted with her about Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is this October. "I worked very hard to break down barriers to get where I am."
And Madeline isn't stopping anytime soon. In addition to two upcoming social media campaigns with large brands, she's also gearing up to travel the globe as Carnival Cruise's Fashion at Sea ambassador. "I will have a very busy year!" she told POPSUGAR. "I have some very exciting things happening at the moment."
And as for the people in the industry who still doubt her, she's determined to prove them wrong. "There has never been a second when I thought I couldn't do it," she said. "I love modelling and that alone makes me work hard to overcome any obstacles that I'm faced with." To see what else she had to say about her impressive career and advice for other people with disabilities following their dreams, keep reading.
POPSUGAR: When did you first realise that modelling was what you wanted to do?
Madeline Stuart: It's funny because when I was growing up, I was never very interested in fashion or clothes and never pictured myself modelling! It all started when my mum took me to a fashion show in my hometown of Brisbane, Australia, and I fell in love with it. I was watching the models on the catwalk and they were having so much fun. They looked confident and beautiful; I knew right away I wanted to have a career on the catwalk.
PS: Growing up, did people tell you that you wouldn't be able to model? If so, how did you respond to that?
MS: When I was growing up, I actually always wanted to be a waitress at a café. I didn't know that I wanted to model until I was 18, so thankfully, I didn't receive any criticism or judgement in regards to modelling because I wasn't involved with the industry back then.
PS: What were the first few steps you took to make your dreams come true?
MS: After the initial fashion show I watched with my mum, she booked me in for my first photo shoot. I had recently lost a lot of weight in the pursuit of become a fitter and healthier version of myself, so I was in great shape. I had so much fun and the photos turned out amazing! My mum thought they were stunning and she wanted to share them with the world, so that's exactly what she did! She posted them to a public Facebook page and they went viral overnight. They were seen by millions of people, and from that point, my career took off. I started receiving offers from around the globe to come and model and attend amazing events. It's been a very exciting few years and I can't wait for what's to come!
PS: What's one obstacle that you've overcome in your career that you're really proud of?
MS: In the beginning, it was sometimes difficult for designers to see me as a professional and they expected that I would be happy to walk for free or for the "experience," which was very disheartening. I worked very hard to break down barriers to get where I am and felt I deserved to be treated the same as other models. My mum and I worked hard to educate people and make some serious changes in the industry for myself and other models with a disability. I can proudly say that I am now treated like the other professional models and I do not get asked to walk for the "experience" anymore. It's real changes like this that make my job even more rewarding.
PS: Something you still struggle with?
MS: I am still not signed with a modelling agency; this is something we have been working hard to achieve from the beginning. It's been 3-and-a-half years that my mum has managed my career and done my bookings, because we can't find a suitable agency. We would really love for this to change!
PS: Was there ever a moment you thought you couldn't do it? If so, how did you push through that?
MS: There has never been a second when I thought I couldn't do it. I love modelling and that alone makes me work hard to overcome any obstacles that I'm faced with. From a very young age, my mum has always shown me that I'm able to do anything I want. She tells me every day that I'm capable of anything if I work hard.
PS: What advice do you have for someone else with a disability who wants to have a career and follow their dreams?
MS: The best advice I have is to believe in yourself and work hard at the things you want to achieve. I know a lot of people who give up when things get hard, but if you can push through, things are always better on the other side and you'll be so proud of what you've achieved.
PS: What advice would you give your younger self who was just starting out in her career?
MS: To enjoy the ride! I have loved every moment of my journey, but I know it can be easy to forget sometimes. I would say to anyone starting out in the industry to work hard but also make sure to have fun at the same time, because what is life without fun?
PS: What do you want employers to know about people with Down syndrome applying for jobs?
MS: I would like them to know that we are very capable of doing everything you ask. You might need to explain or show us in a different way than you're used to, but I promise we can work hard! I, for example, find it easier when designers show me what I need to do rather than tell me. I always get it right, I just learn in a different way.
PS: What is your favourite part about your job?
MS: The modelling! I love walking the catwalks — it makes me feel at home and it's a feeling I'll never be able to truly describe. I also love all the travelling I've been able to do with my job. I've seen some incredible parts of the world and I'm thankful for that every day.
PS: What's your dream modelling gig?
MS: I think every model's dream is to walk for Victoria's Secret, and mine is no different! It would be a life changing experience.
PS: What is the best career advice you've ever gotten?
MS: I think the best career advice I've ever gotten is to remember my worth. There was a time I felt being included was enough as I had longed to feel that way, but now I know that I'm a benefit to any commercial company, I bring exposure, and create a more inclusive environment. And just like any other professional person, I am commercially viable.
PS: Who is your favourite supermodel?
MS: Karlie Kloss. She is amazing and beautiful, and she advocates for some very prevalent and important issues, which I love. She also empowers young women, which is so important!
PS: Who are your biggest role models? Why?
MS: My mum is my biggest role model in so many different ways. She's my best friend and none of this would be possible without her. She's not only the strongest woman I know, but she's also the most loving person in the world. She has taught me everything I know and shown me how to be the best person I can be. She taught me that kindness is beauty, and that if I'm kind, I'm the most beautiful girl in the world. She reminds me every day that I am strong, loved, and beautiful. I love her more than anything.
PS: What projects are you working on now?
MS: I have some very exciting things happening at the moment! I've just finished two social media campaigns with Aldo and Diesel. I'm the ambassador for Carnival Cruise lines P&O cruises for Fashion at Sea, where I'll be doing fashion shows and meet and greets on two of their ships. And I'm also starting a huge campaign with Popsockets. Next year we have some huge projects that are just being finalized, so it looks like I'll have a very busy year of travelling the globe again. Stay tuned on my social media to keep up to date with any announcements.