Here we are! After a whirlwind of late-night coffee, an Uber to our overnight stay, and an early morning run (literally running) through Rockefeller center, we're finally sitting down with Madeline Stuart, the world's only professional adult model with Down Syndrome, in a cafe just a few blocks from Time Square, catching our breath, and ordering a coffee. Is this really happening? Maddy peruses the menu alongside her mother and manager, Rosanne Stuart.
Maddy and Rosanne have a loving bond that quickly resonates with photographer Jess LaRue and me. Rosanne is playful and practical, suggesting healthy brunch options for Maddy, laughing easily, and making Maddy laugh as well. Their friendship is joyous.
Easily spotted in the sea of NYC Fashion Week, a young woman asks to get a picture with Maddy moments after we sit down for brunch. Maddy happily poses as the girl's mother takes a photo, thanks Rosanne then Maddy, and leaves.
Emily: Does that happen often?
Rosanne: All the time. And I'm sorry it's so hard to get a hold of me! This morning we woke up and there were fifteen different magazines saying "Can we do stories?"
We pause to order and hop back in to the interview. Maddy and Rosanne have a surprisingly nonchalant way of traveling and talking with people. They're fun and genuine.
E: How do you two have the energy to keep up with all your shows, meetings, and photo shoots?
R: We eat; we talk to people!
Rosanne smiles and looks directly at me. There's not an insincere bone in her body.
R: It's all about meeting people and teaching them inclusion; getting the word out about disability. It's about making connections and educating. Most of the people we meet we become friends with—the makeup artists, the stage hands, everyone.
E: In your experience, are most of the people you work with kind and genuine?
R: Everyone's kind, but I don't know if anyone's genuine! I think you all are genuine, but that's your job. I've got a bag full of business cards from people who come up to me every day and ask to do a new shoot or a feature! Every day. But this is nothing new to us. When I was Madeline's age, I was doing this thing called Tradesman on the Move. It was all about getting women into untraditional roles. I was working for the government, went around to schools, talking to them, so we've always been diversifying and doing something different.
I really do want to change the world. I just don't shut up about disability. Drives people insane, but that's just my passion. I really want to change the world. That's my mission in life, but only as long as she's happy. I have to stay really patient and calm, because she definitely feeds off my emotions.
There is no doubt that Rosanne loves and puts Maddy first. Her excitement and generosity exude, as she explains the many opportunities they've had.
E: What's the biggest opportunity you've had so far?
R: I'd say the biggest opportunity has been New York Fashion Week. We're hoping to do Tokyo and Milan. She'll have been the first model with a disability in Europe and Asia. That's going to be huge. Planning to go to Tokyo in September and Milan in October. They love Madeline over in Asia! We've done television shows for over there! They sent a crew over to Australia and featured us for 50 most amazing things on the Internet! Yeah, they came over and filmed her for a week and it was really good. She's been on news shows all around the world.
E: How much time do you two spend at home in Australia?
R: Not too much.
E: Traveling non-stop then?
She takes a moment to think on it.
R: We were home about nine days before we came out here. We were home about six days in September. We were home about two weeks in November. We typically go away for about two-five weeks, and then we come home for about two or five weeks, then we leave again. In April, we're going to Hawaii for a television show. We leave in June for South Africa and will be there for a week. Then we go to Uganda for ten days, because we're doing a charity event there. In Uganda, they think people with disabilities are sins, so we're trying to change that! We'll also be doing a photo shoot on Safari, and that will be awesome. Then we go to Mauritian for six days, then London for three days, then we go to Alaska, and she's going on a cruise called Mission Possible Cruise and that's in July. Then we go back home in July. In August, we're supposed to be coming back to the states to do another show, and we might be going to Rio. September is Tokyo, November is Milan, then we've got all these functions in Brisbane. In December we're home!
E: Wow. Home for Christmas!
She laughs and smiles at her own schedule, then takes a bite of lunch, as we continue. We get to chatting and find out they have another runway show this evening, which we are promptly invited to. This meeting is getting more exciting the longer we talk and get to know just how down to earth and real Rosanne is. Through all the glamour and speed of the fashion industry, they've taken things one by one and been intentional with every feature.
E: Have you ever had any compromising outfits presented for Maddy to wear?
R: Oh yes! I just say no. I won't let her wear anything that's promiscuous, or see-though, or anything like that! I think women should have more class. Also, with Madeline having Down Syndrome, she can't be looked at as a sex subject. There's something really morally wrong with that. The first fashion show we went to we were shown the dresses; they're all see-through couture dresses, and I said, "Okay, what's Madeline wearing?" They say, "One of these dresses," and I'm like, "Oh no she's not." They said, "Stop being a mother and be a manager." So I said, "We'll just fly back to Brisbane!"
R: Ultimately, I don't care about these companies, I care about my daughter's image. She's had more press than anyone at New York Fashion week; there's hundreds of stories that have come out about her. If you google her it's phenomenal! Last year when we were coming back from NYFW, we got on a plane to go back to Australia. It was a fourteen hour flight, and there were 176 articles on Madeline posted while we were on that plane. Isn't that ridiculous?! Every day there are so many stories. You know how you asked me earlier, "Do you worry about people using her up?" I don't. I look at it this way: when anyone works with Madeline, they do it how I say. When we did our first interview with Woman's Day magazine, they sent me the contract. I wrote back and changed it and told them they could never use anything from the photographs or anything from the story in a negative way ever.
R: Thing is, everyone loves Madeline. I don't know if this will ever turn into a negative story! I think in the beginning I thought it would. But if you look at social media, if anyone says anything negative about her, people go after them! There will be all these comments attacking the person, and I'll scroll back to look at the negative message and it's gone! People just attack them. If I see an inappropriate post about Madeline, I simply message the site host and politely ask them to take it down. And they do!
R: You know, it's like a 2 year old. A two year old throws a tantrum and doesn't care if he's getting positive or negative feedback, he just wants attention. And that's what trolls are. So if I just yell at them, it's like meeting them at their own level. They just want attention. So sometimes we go back and find the person's Facebook photos and comment, "Oh, you look beautiful," or "We love you in this photo." And usually they'll message back and say, "Oh, my gosh! I feel so horrible. I'm so sorry!" Actually, one of the girls who used to be a troll is now one of Madeline's biggest fans! You know people don't want to be horrible. This world is not the best place, it's not nurturing. We want to be nurtured.
Rosanne, almost on cue with what she's just said, turns to Madeline to offer her some lunch. Rosanne's clear goals for bettering the understanding and treatment of people with disability is best displayed through her own love and relationship with Madeline. Their love is honest, rare, and beautiful.
R: You know the world is sad, but let's try and make it a better place! This is about Madeline. This is about disability. This is about inclusion. This isn't about me; it's about Madeline. People ask me to get up on stage, to do this, to do that. The only thing I'll do is interviews to help her. But this is completely 100% Madeline.
After lunch, we walk to Times Square and enjoy laughing and interacting with Madeline in the bustle of the NY crowds. Days later, we travel to meet them at a manor and slip Madeline into an elegant, blue dress, then a fun princess-like outfit of her own choice. She laughs and enjoys the photos as much as we enjoy taking them. This adventure has been more than we could have ever imagined. Rosanne is right. Everyone loves Madeline. She is joy.