Many young people have dreams of being a glamorous model. Sashaying down the catwalk, high-powered photo shoots, chic designer clothes, international fame and fabulous parties - are these dreams only for the able-bodied? In a word, no.
Perhaps the perception of beauty is changing, albeit, too slow for some. For the first time this year, a congenital amputee was a contestant in the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Theresa Uchytil, Miss Iowa, was born with one hand and is not only beautiful and smart but a world champion baton twirler as well.
Conversely, not everyone with a disability can become a model or a beauty queen. Models with disabilities are subject to the same standards and requirements as able-bodied models. These standards include height, weight, size and appearance requirements.
Kimberley Barreda of IMAGE Management, an agency for models with disabilities, says, "You have to be realistic. If you want to be a model but don't look like a model, then no matter how many photos you take of yourself, or how many classes you take, you will not get work. Beware of agencies that say they can get you work if you don't show your disability. As a specialty model, your strength is your disability. Statements like ÔMost fashion shots are from the waist up so they don't see your disability anyway' are blatantly untrue."
Here are the stories of several amputees pursuing a career in modeling.
When Peggy Tolles first contacted a modeling agency about getting work, she received a surprising response. "They said one of my problems is that I don't look disabled enough."
"But I don't have a leg," Peggy replied. "That's pretty disabled!"
Peggy, 46, of Greenwich, Connecticut, is not one to take no for an answer, however, and she recently got a modeling job at the American Orthotics and Prosthetics Association (AOPA) Conference using a bold self-marketing plan to get her foot in the modeling door.
After her right leg was amputated below the knee in October 1998, Peggy's insurance was insufficient to cover the cost of a prosthetic leg, and that led her to make an interesting trade with a prosthetist. She boldly approached him and offered him a deal - she would market his product in exchange for a free prosthetic leg. When he said he would think about it, she said, "No. You let me know now because if you're not interested, I'm going to another office." He ultimately agreed, and she began marketing the artificial leg. The prosthetist then arranged for her to model a prosthetic ankle at the AOPA Conference, where they paid her a fee and gave her a free prosthetic ankle.
"By the end of the convention," she says, "all these other companies were coming up to me, saying, 'You want to wear our liners?'" She tried to arrange with one company to give her a prosthetic leg and train her to run a marathon with it. The company seemed interested, she says, and asked her to send them a resume.
She says the people from one prosthetics company told her that she filled a modeling niche that they haven't been able to fill yet, which she understood to mean a more feminine type rather than the super-athlete type that they often use to model their products.
Peggy sees herself as more feminine than many of the models who model prosthetic devices, and she plans to use that to her advantage. "I don't want to just have to wear sneakers all the time. I want to be able to wear regular shoes, and I want to look like a regular girl."
She is really just getting involved in modeling and wants to continue. "I'd like to be able to be helpful to other people and somehow make a living at it," she says.
One of the first things one notices when speaking with 30-year-old Lisa Middleton-Thompson of Laurelton, New York, is the positive energy that punctuates her voice. Part of it might be the New York accent and its natural assertive quality, but the rest seems to come from the heart.
Lisa, whose entire right leg was amputated because of bone cancer just before she turned 11, has had a strong self-image and positive attitude throughout her life. After her leg was amputated, "the recovery process went pretty quickly," she says. "I don't think the doctors expected such a quick, rapid recovery. I was just anxious to get back to my bicycle and start riding again and continuing on with my sports." Before her amputation, Lisa, who says she was a tomboy, enjoyed track and biking. Married to Larry Thompson, a 34-year-old AMTRAK conductor for 12 years, she now has a 10-year-old son named Jamaal, with whom she rides bikes and horses and plays tennis.
A beautiful young woman, who modeled as a child and got back into modeling as an adult, Lisa gives modeling some credit for her self-esteem. "It has definitely given me the ability to know that just because I have an amputation, I am not defined by it," she says, clearly shy about discussing her looks. "I'm still me. I'm still the same person."
Getting modeling jobs can be a problem, however, she points out. "I experienced some discrimination in the beginning when they found out that I was an amputee. I've been turned down for jobs just because of that. They saw my pictures, they liked them, and they said come down for an interview. After I told them that I'm an amputee, that kind of changed things." Although Lisa says the industry is changing and she is getting some jobs, she doesn't believe she is getting as many as she would if she were not an amputee.
Her advice to other amputees who would like to get into modeling is typically positive: "If that's your passion, if that's your dream, keep going. Don't worry about and don't concern yourself with other people."
Lisa is definitely not just another pretty face. She received a Master's Degree in Elementary Education from Adelphi University in 1988 and is pursuing a doctorate in disability education.
For a young woman who has so much to live for, it would seem that she might fear a return of the cancer that claimed her right leg - but Lisa Middleton-Thompson, a woman who has faced and overcome a lot in her life, says that she doesn't even think about it. She's got too many other things to do.
Kinga Pongrácz, 28, knows how your life can change in an instant. In 1998, she was working as a high school physical education teacher, an aerobics instructor and professional model in her native Budapest, Hungary. She was engaged to be married and her future looked bright.
But in one twist of fate, Kinga's world was turned upside down. A tragic car accident killed three of her closest friends and her fiancé, who died in her arms. Kinga suffered multiple injuries, leading to the amputation of her right leg above the knee. Her life would never be the same again.
The persistence of Milan Manusich, a childhood friend, and the Worldwide Web, however, brought Kinga to Minneapolis, Minnesota, for medical evaluation and prosthetic follow-up care at the Amputee Resource Foundation of America (ARFA). Milan's quest for information on prosthetic devices and resources for this young and vibrant woman led him to the ARFA Web site.
In the weeks and months that followed her amputation, e-mails became a part of the healing process. Through ARFA and the efforts of Al Pike, CP, and president of ARFA, the Foundation became a vital international link between Kinga and quality prosthetic care.
She came to Minneapolis and during her month-long stay, ARFA rehabilitation and prosthetic specialists examined Kinga, fitting her with a new socket for her Otto Bock C-Leg (computer leg) and providing her with the latest software version for her C-Leg by Otto Bock Orthopedic U.S.A. This state-of-the-art knee joint samples her walking gait 50 times per second via strain gauges in the shin, and the built-in computer then controls valves in the hydraulic unit of the knee joint.
Following this tragic time in her life, Kinga continued her education and received her Master's Degree in Marketing Communications. She plans to relocate to the U.S. and work with ARFA to help other amputees rebuild their lives through information and education.
Kinga had extensive fashion modeling experience in Budapest and hopes to resume her modeling career in the U.S. "Rather than limit me in any way, the loss of my right leg has only served to enhance my appreciation of life and my unlimited potential to achieve my hopes and dreams. I look forward to a bright, rewarding future in America," she says.
Within the last few weeks, Kinga was provided with a new high heel foot for her prosthesis and now once again wears 3-1/2-inch heels.
Tami Tomblin, 30, is single, was born and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, and lost her leg in June 1999 from a rare disease called reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD). Tami graduated from Northwest Missouri State with a degree in personnel management in 1992 and works at the Pepsi Cola Company in human resources.
A freak accident triggered the onset of RSD when Tami was visiting one of Pepsi's Taco Bell restaurant units. A heavy tray fell on her foot and crushed it. It was no one's fault, she says, just one of those freak accidents. "The weight of the tray crushed the bones and surrounding tissue in my foot, and that's how it all started."
The RSD affected her circulation, and her leg swelled, gradually turned blue and became cool to the touch. "The process took five years, during which I dragged a dead leg around," Tami says. "The disease just couldn't be stopped." A team of 25 doctors agreed that an above knee amputation was necessary. "It was almost a relief," Tami recalls. "The leg was of no use to me the way it was. The doctors had done all they could do to save it. I had wonderful medical care."
After six weeks in the hospital, Tami was ready to give back some of the support she had received from others. Lou Keyes, for example, president of the LEAPS Foundation, left a deep impression on Tami. "She's the most patient, encouraging and inspirational person I've ever met," Tami told inMotion. "Every amputee should have someone like Lou Keyes as a peer visitor."
Tami did a few fashion shows before she lost her leg and would like to do more. "I would love to be an amputee model," she says. As far as the effect of the amputation on her self-esteem, Tami says the biggest impact was the way she views self-esteem. "My leg was an external part of me ... It didn't change my heart, my head, it didn't make me any less of a person. I'm a lot more than my leg."
With her self-esteem still in tact, Tami concedes that modeling may help to build her confidence. "There are times that are trying and frustrating but my life's not depressing," she says. "I'm going back to work soon."
She is currently doing a shoot for Knit Rite. "My prosthetist referred me," she explains. "This will be my first modeling assignment as an amputee."
Steps to a Career in Modeling
IMAGE Management recommends the following steps to pursue a career in modeling.
1. Get an Agent
Modeling agencies advise you to consider getting an agent. Selling yourself to an agent may be your most important audition. A well-established agent can open doors for you that no one else can.
Remember, however, that an agent cannot guarantee work for a model. The agent presents your photograph and other demo items for consideration to photographers and stylists and uses the agency's reputation to give a talent a reference. The decision is then in the hands of the photographers. In some cases, as in catalog work, stylists will ask for a general type, and then the agent can choose internally from the agency's roster.
2. Put Together a Submission Package
When you send a submission package to an agency, be sure to include:
3. A Cover Letter
Be sure it includes your name, your daytime contact information, and the reason for your letter. If you're a model looking for representation, say so. Avoid making statements that are not strictly professional.
4. An 8 x 10 Headshot
If not, at least one photograph showing your FACE and one full body shot. On the back of the photographs, write your name, phone number, height, weight and clothing size. This does NOT mean your measurements.
5. Your Resume
List your work and anything else related to the work you want to do ... classes you've attended, runway or modeling schools, even school performances. Resist the temptation to put an emphasis on your disability and the inclusion of anything else that is not strictly professional. It's transparent and can be taken as an attempt to be manipulative.
6. Catalog Tear Sheets
Include newspaper and other print coverage - or any publicity you might have.
When the agency receives your package, it will be put with all the other submissions and reviewed. If the agency feels it may be able to get you work, it will contact you for an interview. This does NOT mean that the agency will represent you, but at least you have made it past the first step.
At the interview, be professional, approachable, and, most of all, treat this as the business meeting that it is.
Since an agency can only make money when its clients get work, you have to convince the agency that you have the talent and the ability and that you are worth the effort. If the agency feels you will be difficult, you can bet it will opt to decline your request for representation.
Is it Expensive?
Yes. The industry is extremely competitive for any talent, with or without a disability. To be competitive, you must have the requisite promotional items. At the very least, you need a professional headshot. Snapshots taken by friends will not stand up when compared to a professional photo.
Photography can run anywhere from $250 to $1,000, depending on the photographer and other staff. You should have a professional hair and makeup person (men, too) and possibly a professional stylist to handle wardrobe and to ensure the overall look and feel of your photograph is consistent. Models should have a photography session at least four times a year to build a strong portfolio.
After the shoot, you'll have to pay for reprints. You will usually need a minimum of 100 headshots.
Classes are also expensive, but you should be looking at them as an investment in your career. All professionals need training in their chosen field, and most successful models have extensive training.
Agencies may charge a registration fee and a monthly maintenance fee in addition to their commissions. This is legal, ethical and acceptable. The fees are to offset the costs the agency incurs in promoting its clients.
Source: IMAGE Management, a marketing and promotion agency for exceptional individuals with disabilities, ages 5-plus. For more information visit the Web site: www.cripmedia.com/imagemanagement or write, Image Management, PO Box 458, Whitefish, MT 55937, attn. Kimberley Barreda