The 22-year-old model Madeline Stuart has appeared in more than 100 catwalks for brands like Diesel. At London and New York fashion weeks this season, she walked for designers like Tommy Hilfiger, handing out high fives for her admirers in the first raw. No, she did not let her condition be a barrier to her success. She became the world’s first professional catwalk model with Down syndrome. She has more than 300k followers on Instagram waiting for updates on her lifestyle and exercise routines; her most popular post has been viewed more than 338,000 times.
‘When Madeline was born there were no positive images in the media of women with Down’s syndrome,’ says her mother Rosanne when we meet backstage at London Fashion Week. ‘The only photos you ever saw were of overweight people with their tongue hanging out. That’s why I’ve always made sure Madeline looks her best. I wanted to show people with Down’s syndrome can be beautiful and successful.’
Rosanne is a very confident matriarch and ‘momager’. One day a fan of Madeleine asked for a photo. And Rosanne replied, ‘You can ask her yourself; she’s 22!’
Madeleine speaks mostly single words due to a speech impediment.
‘She’s very high-functioning socially,’ Rosanne says. ‘The problem is because of poor muscle tone, she can’t form words correctly. There’s also a stubbornness — it’s such hard work for her to talk so she refuses to do it.’
Nothing has kept her from achieving extraordinary things in life. She became the world’s first professional catwalk model with Down syndrome, appearing in four years of Fashion Week shows in several countries. Of the three other successful adult models with Down’s syndrome — Kathleen Humberstone, from Surrey, (who appeared in a River Island campaign); Marian Avila, from Spain; and Kate Grant, from Ireland, Madeline is the only one to regularly walk for designers during Fashion Week.
She was named the ‘No 1 game-changer in the fashion industry’ by Forbes magazine. She has also appeared in Vogue.
Some ask if she loves being in the spotlight or if it is her mother who pushed her to fame.
‘People say I’m a pushy mum all the time,’ Rosanne admits easily. ‘I laugh! I say, “Well, come and spend a couple of hours with us and then you’ll see who’s boss. It’s not me!” ’
‘I think because Madeline has an intellectual disability people don’t think she’s capable of making her own decisions,’ Rosanne said.
‘I am pushy to a certain extent. For instance, if Madeline says she wants chips, I say, “Well, do you want chips or do you want to model?” and she’ll have a bowl of fruit instead. I’m not going to let her think, “OK, I’ve got a disability so I should get a free pass.” She needs to work hard for her success.’
A desire for Madeline to prove everyone wrong clearly comes from her mom. Rosanne was 25 when she had Madeline in Brisbane, Australia. She had no idea that her first baby had Down’s syndrome until the day she was born. She was so stressed that it caused her to end things with Madalenine’s father. He did not involve with her upbringing.
Doctors told Rosanne that Madeline would never mature mentally past seven years old and that she would never achieve anything. They also said that her presence would be detrimental to any future children, adding, ‘You have options… .’ by which, Rosanne says, he meant putting her up for adoption. A counselor was sent to her hospital room to convince her to give up her child.
‘I was horrified. I didn’t consider it for a second,’ she says. ‘Over the next few days, I repeated the same thing ten times to anyone who tried to convince me: “This is my baby. I’m keeping her and I’m going to love her.” ’
It wasn’t easy. Madeline needed open-heart surgery when she was just two months. The first year was packed with countless medical appointments.
Rosanne started working part-time for the local government. One year later, she set up the successful surveying business she still runs today.
Rosanne never lost hope. She says: ‘The doctors told me Madeline’s speech would never progress beyond a certain point but I always assumed one day she’d wake up and talk fluently to me.’
‘Then, one day when Madeline was seven, the truth hit me. Out of the blue, as I drove to work, I realized my daughter was never going to be able to chat to me and would probably never read or write. I started crying in the car and couldn’t stop. I couldn’t go to work that day.’
Madeline had a mainstream primary education, and then a secondary school more suited to her needs.
Wherever she went, her mum says she was part of the ‘cool gang’. ‘Everyone loved her because she never had a mean word to say,’ says Rosanne.
In 2015, aged 18 and in her last year of school, she was having a hard time struggling in her favorite hobbies of sport and dance as those with her condition often have a slower metabolism and gain weight easily.
Together they decided Madeline would start an intensive exercise and healthy eating regime. And as Madeline was busy in the pool, basketball, gymnastics, cricket and gym sessions, all the unnecessary fat vanished. She lost 23kg (three and a half stone). Rosanne shared before and after photos on a public Facebook account.
The images were a hit. Overnight, Madeline’s Facebook following grew to 100,000 and within days the photos were viewed 6.8 million times. While the majority responded positively, some questioned Madeline’s — and Rosanne’s — motivation.
‘She did not lose weight to become a model. She became a model when she lost weight,’ says Rosanne firmly.
Soon after, Rosanne took her daughter to a fashion show in Brisbane. And looking at everything, Madeline said, ‘Mum, me model’.
Now, Madeline is financially independent. They have opened a dance school in Brisbane for those with disabilities and launched a clothing line.
Madeline also has a boyfriend. She has been with Robbie, whom she met through the Special Olympics. He has an intellectual impairment but works at a supermarket.
As for the future, ‘Madeline owns a house in Brisbane of her own and when she wants to live independently I will fully support that.’ Says Rosanne.
As for Rosanne herself, ‘I’m exhausted!’ she laughs. ‘I would give all this up tomorrow if Madeline wanted to.’
Madeline however, does not plan to quit anytime soon. ‘Every day she asks me when we’re going back to New York when her next modeling job is. She loves it.’
Ps: We do not own any of these images. All the images were taken by Madeline’s Instagram profile and in any means necessary please contact us.