Brisbane model Madeline Stuart is changing the face of beauty.
In a lot of ways, Madeline Stuart is just like any other active 18-year-old with energy to burn. The Mount Crosby teenager loves spending time with her friends, dancing to pop music and hip hop, wearing new clothes, and keeping fit. She blushes when you mention her boyfriend.
But Madeline Stuart is not like most 18-year-olds. And it’s not because of her Down Syndrome, or because of a heart condition that required her to undergo open heart surgery when she was just two months old.
Madeline Stuart is different because of what she’s doing despite those disadvantages. She’s not like most 18-year-olds, because most 18-year-olds don’t have 390,000 fans on Facebook, and most of them haven’t just landed professional modelling gigs with American fitness-wear brands, lifestyle labels and make-up companies.
“I never mentioned modelling to Madeline, because it was nothing that ever even crossed my mind,” says Madeline’s mother, Rosanne Stuart. “But we were at the Ekka last year and we were at the Cotton Parade, and she told me she wanted to be a model. She told me she wanted to get up on the stage and model, then and there. And I said to her, ‘Well, honey, you’re going to have to get a lot fitter if you want to be a model’, and that’s where it all started.
“The thing is, we were already on a fitness kick. She was struggling to keep up with dance and a few other things, so she already knew she needed to get fit. It didn’t mean anything to her that she had to do it for another reason as well.”
Madeline committed herself to a healthy lifestyle. She changed her diet and spent even more time dancing and playing the sports she loves. By May this year, she had lost 20 kilograms, and Rosanne booked her in for a professional photo shoot. Then she launched a public Facebook profile to share her pictures, inspire others to get fit, and change society’s view of people with Down Syndrome.
In the two months since then, Madeline has become an international phenomenon. Most of that is due to her photogenic nature, positive attitude and inspirational story, but it also has a lot to do with her mother’s business acumen. Rosanne, who raised Madeline by herself, had no prior experience in the fashion or PR industries, but she’s taken to them like a duck to water.
“When Madeline went viral, I contacted a few modelling agencies,” Rosanne says. “She hasn’t been able to get a manager, so I decided that until a manager came along, I would do it myself.
“We’ve actually set up our own studio. We have our own photographer and our own make-up artist, and people now sign contracts and send us clothes, and she does a modelling shoot for them. She did a shoot for Manifesta; she did a modelling shoot for everMaya; Triple L Designs; we’ve got one coming up for Pinup Girl. There’s another company we’re working with in New York, and she’s signed as the face of a new make-up company called Glossy Girl in LA. Basically, instead of leaving it up to a modelling agency to organise it, I’ve just organised it.
“I’m a building surveyor and I’ve run my own company for 15 years, so I understand business and I understand advertising to a certain extent. I had no idea about PR, but I’m an intelligent person so it wasn’t hard to figure out that if we put the word out there people would contact us. That’s what’s happening, because they can pay Madeline to do a modelling job and they’re getting worldwide coverage, more coverage than some of the supermodels, because the models they’re using that are six-foot and skinny and a size four… they may have everything that a model has, but they don’t have the same following that Madeline has. So why not use Madeline?”
It’s all a far cry from what Rosanne was told to expect when Madeline was born.
“I was told to expect her never to grow past an eight or nine-year-old, and that she would never achieve anything,” she remembers. “As she got older, we’d go to the park and parents would take their children away. Kids would move away. She’d say, ‘Mum, why?’ And I’d say, ‘Darling, they’ve gone to get some afternoon tea’. She never actually understood that it was because of the discrimination, she just thought they were ready to go home and it was just a coincidence.
“I always just protected her and shielded her from the negativity, because there was a lot of that, and a lot of discrimination. But she’s grown up in a loving environment, so she just loves everyone and thinks everyone’s beautiful.”
Madeline can be shy when meeting new people for the first time, and tends to defer to her mother in conversation. But when Rosanne leaves the room, it’s clear that Madeline’s enthusiasm for her new career is genuine. When I ask if modelling makes her happy, she beams; a smile crossing her face from ear-to-ear. When I ask her what she likes about posing for pictures, she says it’s not the money, the free clothes or the publicity – it’s all the smiling.
She says her boyfriend, Robbie, is proud of what she’s doing, and leaves comments on all of the new pics she posts to Facebook.
A few years ago, of course, it would have been difficult for Rosanne to imagine Madeline having a boyfriend, much less a modelling career. But as her daughter grows, so does she.
“If you’d asked me four years ago if Madeline was going to have a boyfriend and be a model, I’d say no, because back then I wasn’t prepared to see that part of her life,” she says. “I hadn’t evolved to have an 18-year-old daughter. When she was 14, I thought she was never going to go to work, and she was never going to leave my side. I was so over-protective. But as she grew up, I evolved, because I could see that she has the same rights as anyone else, and she is capable of anything.
“I’m happy for her to be ‘sexy’ in her boyfriend’s eyes,” she continues. “That’s okay, because he also has an intellectual disability and he’s at the same level as her intellectually… it’s all in perspective, it’s all in context. [Their relationship] is lovely. Why shouldn’t she have that? That’s what I had when I was 18, and that’s what most people want when they’re 18. They want to be loved and cherished and they want someone to think they’re sexy.”
Madeline will travel to Los Angeles with her dance troupe later this month to perform at the World Special Olympics, but Rosanne says they have no plans to make a permanent move to the States.
“Madeline would never want to leave her friends,” she says. “Her friends are what’s important to her. Modelling is great, but if she had to choose, she would pick her friends every day of the week. She enjoys doing the modelling, but it hasn’t gone to her head and it never will. She’s just not like that. Her friends are her world. Going to dance every week is her world, going to cheerleading every week is her world, going to gymnastics, going to see the personal trainer… that’s what Madeline wants to do.
“For me to uproot her and take her to another country where she has no support group, I don’t think that would be fair. We may go over there for a couple of months at a time and do work, or travel, but we’ll always call Brisbane home.”
If Rosanne has learned one thing about her daughter over the years, it’s that Madeline will do what Madeline wants to do – and it’s best not to argue.
“If we go somewhere and she wants to do something crazy like go on a zipline or go indoor skydiving or go parasailing, I don’t really want her to do it, personally, but she’s 18. If she didn’t have Down Syndrome, she’d just be saying, ‘Mum, I’m doing it, tough luck’. So I sit there with a knot in my stomach, freaking out, but I let her do it because she has that right.
“Don’t hold your children back. Don’t say, ‘Oh, you can’t go on that ride because it’s dangerous’. Let them live. Why shouldn’t they?”
Visit www.madelinestuartmodel.com to follow Madeline’s career.
Look for Madeline on the cover of our July 21 issue!