Madeline Stuart exudes confidence when she struts down the catwalk, pausing at the perfect moment to slide her hand on her hip, look to the audience and pivot smoothly in high heels.
It's a move familiar to anyone who has seen a fashion show, but with Stuart, a professional model at age 22, there is one notable difference: She has Down syndrome.
And the Australian native is hoping to shatter stereotypes that models have to be one size fits all — leggy, willowy and disability free.
Doctors told her mother and manager, Rosanne Stuart, that Madeline Stuart likely wouldn’t function beyond the level of a 7-year-old. But Rosanne Stuart said her daughter is more capable than that today, and Madeline Stuart is thoughtful and focused when asked about making a difference on the runway
“I’m happy to change the way society looks at people with disabilities,” Madeline Stuart said. “I want the world to be more accepting. That is my dream.”
Now in demand at fashion events worldwide, including New York Fashion Week, which is happening this week, the strawberry blonde from Brisbane has made an impact in her four years on the catwalk, said Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, a New-York-based policy and advocacy organization for workers in the fashion industry.
"Historically, the modeling industry has upheld a rigid set of ideas in beauty: thin, white, able-bodied and tall,” Ziff said.
Stuart’s career has been noticed not only in the disabled community, but also by others in the fashion industry who want to challenge long-held assumptions about modeling, Ziff said.
“Madeline's imagery is a form of activism, and that, in and of itself, is attractive,” she said, adding that many people with disabilities also have plenty of money to spend.
Stuart was invited to attend the New York show this month by designers at House of Byfield and Burning Guitars, but she will not be able to attend due to a health scare, her mother said. In December, she had open heart surgery to repair a leaky mitral valve. But she is slowly regaining her strength and plans to be back in the spotlight March 21 at a modeling gig in Jakarta in celebration of International Down Syndrome Day.
“She had heart surgery for the first time when she was 8 weeks old for a very large hole in her heart,” said Rosanne Stuart, 47, a single mom and business owner in Brisbane. Madeline is her only child.
“I remember back to Madeline's first operation and how scared I felt,” she said. “There is nothing that can compare to the terror of your child enduring such pain and hardship. It's wonderful now to see her love of life and her outgoing personality.”
When Madeline was born, Rosanne Stuart did not know she had Down syndrome until nurses whisked her away and a doctor informed her that her new daughter’s future was bleak, she said.
“I was in shock and very sad for the first few days, but then I decided that everything was going to be okay,” she said.
She decided she would give her daughter every opportunity she could.
Madeline Stuart's rise to supermodel status started in 2014 when she was 17. While attending a fashion show with her mother, the teen turned to her mother and indicated that she wanted to be up on the stage instead of sitting in the audience. “Mum, me model,” her mother recalled her saying.
“I didn’t blink an eye — Madeline was always one to be in the limelight,” Rosanne Stuart recalled. “She was never scared of a crowd. I’d dabbled in modeling when I was 18 and hated it, so part of me thought she would lose interest very quickly.”
Naturally, Stuart said, that didn’t happen.
Her daughter was so intent on becoming a model that she launched a routine to become more fit and healthy and gradually dropped 40 pounds off her 5-foot-7 frame. In spring 2015, after Rosanne Stuart arranged a professional photo shoot for her daughter, she put some of the pictures on Facebook.
They went viral overnight and quickly racked up more than 7 million views. Then the phone started ringing and the offers poured in:
Would Madeline be interested in walking the runway in New York and Paris? Could she appear at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in China? How about London, Sweden and Dubai?
For her first show, Stuart walked at New York Fashion Week for South African designer Hendrick Vermeulen after rehearsing with a runway coach brought in from the Juilliard School of Dance.
"It was amazing, I will never forget it,” she said. “People treated me with love and support."
Since then, she has walked more than 100 high-fashion catwalks for designers including Colleen Morris, Nonie, Lulu et Gigi and Zula Designs, and she now has more than 1 million followers on social media.
For the most part, Stuart is treated warmly and with respect by designers and other models, who hug her warmly after each show, said her mother.
But there are occasions, Rosanne Stuart admitted, when her daughter is not taken seriously by designers who have difficulty seeing her as a professional model and want her to appear in their shows for free.
“That is disheartening — Madeline has become a true professional,” she said. “Sometimes people think that she can’t understand them because she has limited speech. But she does understand. I go with her simply to make sure that she has representation and that nobody tries to take advantage.”
Madeline now reminds herself that everyone is treated unfairly at times, and she tries not to take it personally, Stuart said.
“Through exposure and people supporting us, things will slowly keep changing,” she said. “People are realizing this is not a gimmick.”
“I work as hard as any model,” Madeline said. “My mum has been my best friend and biggest supporter, and I won’t give up on my dream.”
She now has a colorful clothing line of leggings, skirts and shorts named 21 Reasons Why for the 21st chromosome that causes Down syndrome. And someday, Madeline said, she hopes to walk the runway at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
“She’s become a bit of a diva,” Rosanne Stuart said about her daughter’s confidence. “I truly love that about her.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Madeline Stuart’s level of functioning. This version has been updated.