Madeline Stuart is a young woman who embodies the essence of The Bridging the Gap Campaign. A young woman, born with Down Syndrome, continues to captivate the world through her story, her kindness and her inner and outer beauty. When Madeline’s Mom, Rosanne, and I spoke about the campaign, I wanted to find a powerful role model to pair her with. What came to mind immediately, was my friend, Cheryl Hunter. Cheryl is a woman who understands immense adversity and has also learned how to spin it into gold by sharing her story and what she learned about the power of resilience.
I’m honored to have helped facilitate this connection as these women live worlds apart, separated by continents, yet share a commonality of incredible inner strength. Cheryl lived a brutal reality as a young, naïve teenager traveling the world to fulfill her dreams. (Read Cheryl’s post here) While in Europe with a friend, she was kidnapped, drugged, raped and left for dead. When she was freed, she realized that her mind remained imprisoned. Through a great deal of inner work, Cheryl learned to free herself from the inside. She’s on a mission to share the lessons she learned along the way and the power of resilience.
Woven into Cheryl’s story is her love for the Eastern philosophy of “Wabi Sabi,” or the perfection of imperfection. Cheryl did an inspirational Ted Talk sharing what she learned about true beauty and our continual quest for perfection in this perfectly edited world we live in today. On the other side of the world, Rosanne, Madeline’s Stuart’s Mother is preparing her own Ted Talk to share the story of her daughter, Madeline, and her rise to becoming the number one model in the world with Down Syndrome. Cheryl and Rosanne couldn’t be more aligned in their mission to change the world through resilience and an overall acceptance of our “perceived flaws”. These are two women now deeply connected through their hearts and their stories. As they each shared with me following their personal connection, they received immense strength from the other. They saw each other as true warriors. Women who have to overcome a great deal, yet remain firmly committed to empowering women through their journeys. Rosanne shared with me her gratitude in learning Cheryl’s story through their connection. She was deeply inspired by Cheryl’s vulnerability and authenticity. Rosanne expressed to me the incredible strength of character she experienced in Cheryl. She saw her leading the way to allow women the permission to share our personal stories of adversity. Cheryl’s story isn’t an easy story to tell. It takes a very special woman to rise above the circumstances she faced as a young teenager. These are two incredible and inspirational women are now deeply connected through their hearts and their stories.
The irony lies in the fact that Cheryl was following her dreams of becoming a model, much like young Madeline. Cheryl also grew up in a naive way on the top of a mountain in Colorado. She had no idea the dangers that lie ahead as a young woman traveling with a friend in Europe. Interestingly enough, Rosanne shared many similar dreams of desiring to travel and see the world. Her Father warned her of the dangers as he had experienced them personally. He told her of the pirates who attack people in the open seas and she listened as it was a reality. This kept her safe and prevented her from the violence that happened to Cheryl and changed the trajectory of her own life.
There is always a story behind the story. I cannot share the story of Madeline Stuart without also sharing the story of the woman behind the woman. This story is about Madeline Stuart in the words of her Mother, Rosanne Stuart. You can’t have a story like Madeline’s without a woman with an enormous heart behind her. Madeline’s Mom is one empowered warrior, constantly fighting for her daughter and advocacy for those with disabilities. We live in a beautifully edited world of social media where the lives behind the images don’t always tell the real story.
Although she didn’t have the traumatic experience that Cheryl did at a young age, she learned immense compassion for others when young Madeline was born. She shared that Madeline actually died during her open heart surgery and they brought her back to life and stabilized her with a temporary pacemaker. Madeline and Rosanne are so deeply connected by that initial experience as Rosanne felt everything that Madeline felt. It led to an enormous heart and compassion that would guide Rosanne’s life and the inspirational work that she and Madeline do together in the world. Rosanne is real, raw and vulnerable yet her intention wasn’t her own story but rather that of her daughters. Even though Madeline is now a celebrity, the journey remains filled with obstacles. They navigate them together as Rosanne talks openly of Madeline’s innocence and unconditional heart. Maddie is a very pure young woman who only sees others through the eyes of love. She has never been mean to anyone yet feels others’ cruelty toward her immensely. She feels people rather than seeing people and shies away from those with a colder heart. This Mother/Daughter Duo is a force to be reckoned with and I know it’s only just the beginning. Rosanne is on a powerful mission to help others believe in their dreams regardless of the circumstances from which we are born.
Cheryl was deeply touched by the connection which fueled her own personal mission to empower others. She follows the Eastern philosophy of “Wabi Sabi” which teaches us the beauty of the perfection of imperfection. We are all imperfect in some way and the more we open our hearts and show our vulnerabilities, the more we light a way for others. I have a feeling this is only the beginning of a beautiful friendship which is the ultimate intention behind Bridging the Gap. These beautiful souls may never have crossed paths and connected in a meaningful way without finding a way to Bridge the Gap. Here is Madeline’s powerful story as told through the heart of her Mother:
My name is Rosanne Stuart. I am Madeline Stuart’s Mother. As you may be aware Madeline has been traveling the world modeling and having a great time for the past 27 months, but it was not always like this so before we get to the good stuff, let’s go back to the beginning where it all started.
When Maddy was born I was a very naïve 26-year-old woman who had been raised in a world completely void of disability. So, as you can imagine when the doctor told me within minutes of Madeline’s birth that she had Down Syndrome, I had no clue what he was saying. He went on to explain the dire situation he believed I was facing. I felt complete shock. His version of what my future would hold went like this:
Your daughter will never amount to anything,
Your daughter will never mature mentally past a 7 year old
Your other children, if you decide to have them, will be detrimentally affected by this child.
Your life will be changed forever… you have options you know.
Well after he left, my mum was sitting next to me crying and then my dad came into the room and his advice was very similar. I did not understand why or how my father could be saying these things about his own grandchild. That was the moment I believe my mind shut down, the next 3 days were a bit of a blur.
Three days later I had regrouped and was ready to move forward. I knew it was not going to be easy but I also knew that this beautiful baby girl needed me and I wanted to protect her and make sure her life was built on solid foundations of love and support. I had no clue of how I was going to do this and how to start but I knew I would not give in. Not giving in was something I had learned from my chosen career. I had just finished my studies to become a building surveyor and had previously completed an apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner. A female in this industry was not very common back then and I had to deal with a lot of discrimination myself. Maybe this was what had prepared me for the many years of discrimination and isolation that was to come. Having a child with a disability is not always easy, as nothing is straightforward. Madeline has Trisomy 21 which is a genetic disorder meaning she has an extra 21 chromosome. This makes life a bit of a challenge. For instance, she has a lot of her second teeth missing so when the baby teeth grind down she will have to have implants or something similar. To help this, her teeth are capped with a clear resin to make them stronger. Her mind cannot always control her body easily. So, when she was young I would have to pattern her so she could position herself correctly to sit up or crawl, even having to push weight through her legs so she knew how to stand. Maddy did very well with this and she was the youngest child to walk with DS in Australia. She was actually only 15 months old, which is about a year earlier than most! I suppose I too was focusing on accessibility even back then by building a set of stairs. We owned a slab on ground and I knew that stairs would be one of the many physical obstacles that may lie in her future. But the physical issues are only the beginning; you have to worry about the emotional issues and the not fitting in. I found it hard to have a conversation with my siblings and my friends. They did not have children with disabilities and they could not relate. I would feel left behind every time they told me about the great milestones their babies were making. Of course, my baby girl was not. Maddy’s communication has always been her biggest hurdle.
This, of course, changed over the years and I learned a different way of life. I believe a better way of life! My daughter taught me to never give up, to see what was really important: the loving glance, the constant appreciation, and what was truly important. Unfortunately, we as a society so often get caught up with keeping up with the Jones’, that we miss the trees for the forest. What we need to remember is you will not be remembered for your fancy car or your big house; the only way you will live on in people’s hearts is to be a good person, a compassionate person, and someone that is there to help the vulnerable and to be their champion. This shows true character and makes us the best we can be. Only through giving of yourself can you truly find yourself.
Ten months before Maddy went viral, she came to me in the middle of a dance lesson as it was very hot, and she could not keep up with her dance class. Most of the other dancers had autism. They did not have to deal with the weight issues that are so common with people with Down Syndrome, which is caused by many things including an underactive thyroid. She came out in tears and was puffing heavily. I asked her if she was having trouble keeping up and she said yes, while tears were flowing down her face. I explained that if she wanted to keep up in class she would need to get fitter and healthier. So that was how it all began.
Maddy changed her diet drastically. Now instead of McDonald’s, she would have salads, sushi and fresh fruit. She also started eating smaller portions and seeing a personal trainer 4 to 5 times a week.
Later that year we headed to the Ekka , and I took Maddy to a fashion show. She immediately fell in love with the catwalk and said, “Mum me model.” I thought about it for a second and said, “OK honey but you will have to get really healthy as it will be a lot of hard work.” So that is what she did. During the next 7 months she swam every afternoon, continued at the gym and lost a further 6 kilos. I then made an appointment with a professional photographer to see if she would actually like the experience in front of the camera. The funny thing is that on the day, I can only assume she had the time of her life as little Miss Independent made me sit out in the waiting room! It was juust another time she proved she was her mother’s daughter. A week later I went back to see the finished product. I was really floored; you see I had always thought she was pretty but that was my job. All mothers see their children through rose colored glasses. But what I was seeing on the screen was model material, her hair was flowing and I could see the results of all those hours in the gym. This was the moment I realized her dreams could and should become a reality.
My next step was to work out a strategy so I talked to some people in the PR industry and they told me a public figure FB page would probably be a good idea.
And with that Public Figure Madeline Stuart was created. Within 4 days, I posted a before and after photo of all her hard work trying to encourage people to become healthier themselves. This photo was everywhere within 3 days, it was viewed by more than 7 million people and within a week her story was published in nearly every country in the world. The following week the phone calls started: people wanting her to model for them, wanting her to appeal on all the morning shows, and the project. Her first job was for a company called Living Dead Clothing which is a legging ready to wear clothing store. Then she modeled for a jewelry company, a handbag company and an athletic brand. Everyone we seemed to work for were in line with our values. The handbag company gave a large percentage of their sales to putting children through school in Guatemala; the owner of the jewelry company had a daughter with Down syndrome, and the athletic brand refused to use numbers for their sizes but chose flowers, so women did not worry about their self-image as much.
So many photographers contacted us to ask if they could do photo shoots with Maddy that it became a weekly occurrence! Within a month we received our first invitation to NYFW which was one of several. I knew this would be a big deal. I wanted to make sure Madeline modeled for the right reasons, and that she would be giving back. We eventually agreed to work with a company that was partners with the Christopher and Dana Reeves Foundation.
Well NYFW was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It was exciting but also very overwhelming and we ended up doing 33 interviews in 3 days and 12 of them were for TV channels that had flown in from all over the world. There was France, Germany, London, Tokyo, Sweden and Canada to name a few, not to mention all the different networks from within the USA. Exhaustion had a new meaning for us by the end of those very hectic 6 days filled with modeling, rehearsal, launches and after parties.
Mind you not only were those 6 days exciting but it is what truly cemented her in the modeling industry. After that, everyone knew who she was and by Christmas we were fully booked out for the next year. We were heading to Sweden, modeling in Russia, doing a disability cruise through Alaska, heading to Uganda to advocate for disability, and TV shows in South Africa, Ukraine and London to name a few. Maddy ended up being the Cover Girl on 8 different magazines while being featured in over 20 others including leading publications such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Woman’s Weekly etc.
Out of all the countries we have visited I think Russia, Uganda and Ukraine were the most rewarding for me. Both Russia and Ukraine are very behind in Disability Advocacy. Both have special schools and facilities but neither encourage or facilitate for people with Disabilities to be part of their society. People are either locked in their homes or attending special schools. For Maddy to visit and advocate not only educated the public but it gave families hope for a better future. We intend to go back in the future to continue our work there.
Lastly Uganda… I think I left a little piece of my heart there. The people were so friendly and the country was beautiful beyond words but on a disability level they are in the dark ages. The majority of people are so naïve that they have no idea what a disability actually is and they think people with Down Syndrome are a curse sent to punish them. We were originally contacted by a pastor who had a young girl called Ketty in his village. Ketty had DS and the villages were so scared she was a curse that they had tried to take her life 3 times. With some help from a local charity we got Ketty enrolled in a special school and the Pastor is now doing advocacy work every Sunday during his service to educate the Villages. We were in Uganda for 10 days and during that time we travelled to many orphanages, special school, village’s and even opened the first sensory zoo. During that time, so many people would see Maddy and come up to me to tell me how their son or daughter was hidden at home. In total 50 families came out of hiding as a result of Madeline showing people that she was not a curse, but she had a disability and it has a name. We hope to go back to Uganda next year for a month to help continue to make the country more disability friendly if we can secure a sponsor.
In February this year Madeline launched her clothing label 21 Reasons Why which was named not only after her extra 21st chromosome but for all the reasons we as a society need to be kinder, more inclusive, more loving, give back more and generally be better. When Madeline launched she was named number 1 in Forbes Magazine for changing the fashion industry.
This was her 5th season at NYFW as well as modeling at Paris Fashion Week, LA Fashion Week, Denver Fashion week, Astrakhan fashion week Russia, Mercedes Benz Fashion Week China and Dubai fashion week to name a few. By the end of this year, Madeline’s documentary will be finished being filmed and will be being edited to be viewed as a 3 part mini movie series, sent to film festivals and screened in cinemas around the world.
Madeline is currently working around the world with the Down Syndrome association at Step up for Down Syndrome walks which is one of her biggest passions finally she is so excited that she will receive The Global Down Syndrome Quincy Jones award in November this year and be named their Global champion for the next 12 months.
Madeline has come so far in her life yet there is still so much stigma and discrimination that needs to be overcome and unfortunately even with all her accomplishments some people still do not see her as a so called real model and most do not feel they should pay her for her work, still under the impression they are doing her a favor as she has a disability. We hope with time this will change and we will find a sponsor to help us spread the word of inclusion, love and ability.