Madeline Stuart was born with down syndrome. The doctors informed her parents that she would never would never mature mentally past seven years old and never achieve anything. But 22 years later, Madeline has taken the fashion world by storm as the world’s first professional catwalk model with Down’s. The young woman never views her disability as a limitation. It’s just a thing to make her different, and special.
Make it a model can be seen cut-throat business. But the striking 22-year-old redhead is doing well by any standards. Madeline Stuart has had more than 100 catwalk shows under her belt, along with ads for brands like Diesel.
At London and New York Fashion Weeks this season, Madeline Stuart walked for 18 designers including Tommy Hilfiger, at one point handing out high-fives to her admirers in the front row.
The stunning young woman has attracted 307,000 followers on Instagram. She often updates about her glamorous lifestyle and strict exercise regime, with her most popular post viewed more than 338,000 times.
Madeline also has Down’s syndrome. ‘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.’
The 22-year-old redhead is charming and sweet, greeting people she knows like an old friend, with spontaneous hugs. She speaks mostly in single words because of a speech impediment but has a force of personality to match her mum’s.
‘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.’
This never stops Madeline from having some quite extraordinary achievements. She has become the first model with Down’s syndrome to conquer the mainstream catwalk, racking up 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. So far, Madeline is the only one to regularly walk for designers during Fashion Week.
Madeline has appeared in Vogue and named the ‘No 1 game-changer in the fashion industry’ by Forbes magazine. Yet some ask whether it’s Madeline who loves the limelight, or whether Rosanne has pushed her daughter on to the world stage.
‘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!” ’
Madeline’s mother, Rosanne’s had Madeline, her first and much- wanted child in Brisbane, Australia when she was 25 years old. She had no idea her baby had Down’s syndrome until the day she was born, and the stress ended up with the breakup with her fiancé — Madeline’s father. He hasn’t involved in Madeline’s upbringing.
A doctor warned Rosanne her baby ‘would never mature mentally past seven years old’ and ‘never achieve anything’.
He said Madeline’s presence would be detrimental to any future children, adding, ‘You have options . . .’, by which, Rosanne says, he meant putting her up for adoption. A counsellor was even sent to her hospital room to persuade her to give up her baby.
‘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 at two months old and had countless medical appointments in her first year.
Rosanne started working part-time for the local government, sometimes taking Madeline with her. A year later she set up the successful surveying business she still runs today.
So determined was she that Madeline’s condition would never hold her back, it took her years to accept doctors’ verdicts on her physical limitations.
‘Then, one day when Madeline was seven, the truth hit me. Out of the blue as I drove to work, I realised 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 attended mainstream primary education, then a secondary school 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, Madeline began an intensive exercise and healthy eating regime. It’s because people with down syndrome at that age often have a slower metabolism and gain weight easily.
Madeline slogged it out in the pool and did basketball, gymnastics, cricket and gym sessions, the puppy fat fell away. She lost 23kg (three and a half stone). Rosanne shared before and after photos on a public Facebook account.
Soon after, Rosanne took her daughter to a fashion show in Brisbane. Madeline took one look and said, ‘Mum, me model’. It was good timing.
Now, Madeline is financially independent. They have opened a dance school in Brisbane for those with disabilities, and launched a clothing line.
Madeline has a boyfriend of five years, Robbie, whom she met through the Special Olympics (a sports organization for those with disabilities). He has an intellectual impairment but works at a supermarket.
Rosanne continues: ‘Madeline owns a house in Brisbane of her own and when she wants to live independently I will fully support that.’
As for Rosanne herself, ‘I’m exhausted!’ she laughs. ‘I would give all this up tomorrow if Madeline wanted to.’
Madeline, however, has no plans to quit. ‘Every day she asks me when we’re going back to New York, when her next modelling job is. She loves it.’