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  • Writer's pictureClaire Freeman


It’s the day after my flight back from Italy to New Zealand attending the Milan Fashion Week as a disabled catwalk model. It was one of the most interesting, physically and emotionally demanding experiences of my life. I come back - I hope - a better person from the experience. I have regrets, I have triumphs, I have moments where I think ‘what just happened, how did I get here and how did I get through this?’.

I have a renewed love affair with Italy, the people, the language, the history, the manic pace, the desperation, the glamour and the love of beauty I’ve never experienced. Italy is all about passion and I found myself caught up in it’s intoxicating desire for perfection and beauty. I want to understand beauty, how aesthetics impact how we feel about ourselves, about the products we use, the equipment we need and the importance of form over function. It’s exactly why I’m doing my PhD on the aesthetics of the power wheelchair and how this affects the discourse surrounding its use.

The irony is that I felt fraudulent throughout the process. I was there as a model, but I don’t see myself as a model, not in the sense of being particularly beautiful. Compared to the other models, I am a lot older, my spinal injury is a lot worse physically and I feel clumsy around their beauty. Yet meeting some of the very people who changed my own perspective on myself and my body was exhilarating and intimidating.

Here were the women who, through their images of themselves on Instagram, showed that beauty could be found in something I’d always regarded as ugly – me in my wheelchair. It’s scary to meet people who change your perspective on yourself, I worried that I came across as awkward, quiet, awestruck. I wanted to let them know how much they had changed me yet spoken words have never been my strongpoint.

I had a film crew come over from New Zealand, following this little kiwi who two years ago had come from a place of suicidal despair from a botched surgery and years of some hard life lessons, to being on a catwalk in Milan. Perhaps it did me no favours having them there, it separated me from the other models and I heard a few who said ‘I was the special one who got her stuff first’ because I had a crew with me, because I was going to be on TV. Yet, it wasn’t what everyone thought. I didn’t want them there to show the world I was beautiful, or I was special because that’s not how I see myself. I agreed because it helps me communicate my message of hope. In a world so determined to let me know how my disability affects everything, the economy, the self in a negative light, I wanted to show the world that life, perspectives on oneself can change. I may not see myself as a model, but I’m at peace with my body and disability, and I value myself, as a human, as someone who has a message, a story to tell.

Perhaps one of the hardest issues was the fact I was there as a model. It was the elephant in the room. I have an Instagram page that is popular but I’ve deduced its popularity it due to two reasons; one, I’m honest and I write about my life in a raw way that perhaps resonates with people and two, I’m a designer, an artist, so I can take a photo of myself and present in a beautiful way, because that’s what I’ve been trained to do. I’ve studied design and marketing and for years, I worked as a designer so I know how to market a product and when I lost my job due to the botched surgery that left me unable to use my arms, I found I could take a photo, write a piece and it satiated my appetite for creativity that was filled by my former job.

I noticed however, it irritated people when I refused to acknowledge my ‘beauty’. And I can understand that frustration – how did I end up in Milan if I wasn’t beautiful? Initially I felt bad for understating my value as a model. But as I flew through the air, home to New Zealand, that little voice that I love to hate, I suddenly realised wasn’t the devil grinding down my self-esteem. It was the voice inside that makes me humble, that makes me reflect on my position, it makes me uniquely kiwi and I’m at peace with that. I realised even the bad voices in our heads were good voices as they made us real. If I didn’t have that little voice, who would I be? Perhaps someone quite arrogant, after-all, here I was, modelling in Milan.

So in reflection, yes it was an amazing experience. I have so much respect for Guilia and Fabrizio Bartoccioni, the brother and sister who made it happen and who inspired the event as Fabrizio had broken his neck as a teenager. They pulled off an amazing show to rival any fashion show in Milan. Guilia, who has a kindness and elegance rarely seen, they inspire me and show me that anything is possible. The other models, so beautiful, so real, kind, thoughtful and funny, despite not feeling like I belonged, they did their best to help me when I struggled. When you go through what we have all been through, the best of people shine through and that, in itself, proves my point of the value of disabled people, our courage, our kindness and compassion is often what makes us special and of value - and it’s what the world needs. I loved the designers in the show for taking a risk and using models who are different, their courage and creativity was inspiring.

My regret is perhaps that I didn’t give them a world class model, I was tired, sick, I didn’t sleep much and I had stopped eating due to my nerves. But I gave them what I could, I can say I did my best and I did it in spite of challenges that many don’t know about because some issues I chose not to share with the world. I learnt my limits, I know I didn’t put my mental health first and it suffered, I did push myself too far physically, but at the same time, how would I learn those limits if I didn’t test them? So I’m home, I’m going to look after my mind and body for a while and give it a break… and I feel proud for achieving what I did. I’m not a model, I’m not good at looking like a model because I know I look best when I’m smiling and a good catwalk model looks fierce, not happy, I learnt that in Milan. I love my flaws, my questioning mind, my humbleness, my pursuit of kindness and message of hope. I have a story to tell, and it’s just the beginning. As Winston Churchill said in a movie I watched on the plane on the way home, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And so this story continues from the girl who didn’t believe life should continue. Certainly, I’ve learnt to take nothing for granted, to expect the unexpected and always, always have hope because without hope, you can’t dream of the impossible… and sometimes, the impossible happens as I found out on a catwalk in Milan, Italy.

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1 Comment

Randy Smith
Randy Smith
Oct 09, 2023

You are awesomely gorgeous so I can't figure your deprecating comments about your looks. You're a beautiful and sexy woman in all respects. And I highly respect your quick mind, too. I have been through grad school and it nearly cost me my marriage. Congrats on getting through graduate school because that's a very hard thing to do. And I admire your grit and determination too.

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