Exploiting Down Syndrome: Mental Illness, Modelling and Madeline Stuart

In February this year, Cosmopolitan reported on the efforts of nine former models to sue their former agencies for damages in a range of instances, among them wage theft, breach of contract and minimum wage violations. The case interested New York judge Peter Sherwood, who directed Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to examine the claims.

The range of allegations cast a sharp light on certain practices within the modelling world.  None of these are surprising, though a few are worth scribbling down.  One was the classification of models as freelancers, alleviating the need on the part of agencies to provide various benefits incumbent on that employment. Then came the usual nasties: requests for models to get plastic surgery; unnecessary deductions from wages; and the police-state surveillance of diet, weight, exercise and hair quality.

Manipulation and exploitation, to that end, varies. It need not merely be the entire symbolism of the body beautiful, or the body unfed.  In a recent instance of more novel exploitation, the modelling premise has been subverted by the very idea of the anti-model, or the figure least likely to make the catwalk.

This is not confined to the field of big is beautiful, or notions that models need to have some flesh and heft. It has been extended to the very idea that even individuals of disability can also make the grade.

This has effectively opened a considerable can of worms: is mental health a matter that can be an asset to fashion, duly advanced in that way while casting a positive light on sufferers? Or is this merely a matter of customary sniggering at the misfortune of others, while always keeping a proper front?  The questions are equally applicable to both designer and model, and, to a degree, the consumer engaged in the fashion vortex.

The traditional reading of the fashion world is that the industry is plagued by the heavy burdens of imagination as it is, harbouring individuals suffering mental illness as both product and effect.  This continues the usual, if clichéd line, that the imaginative mind is often a tormented, at times addled one.  The suicide of Alexander McQueen, one of the famed addicts of perfection in design, is taken as one of the more notable instances of this.  To such perfectionists go the losses.

The other side of the industry has seen mental health as a possible field of exploitation, using the model as promoter.  Great, verdant fields of opportunity lie for those wishing to invert the premise that the body offers traditional forms, or lines, to promote fashion wear.

In September 2015, the Australian Madeline Stuart was booked in for a show during New York Fashion week.  The fashion vultures duly took their snaps, and they had their perfect exoneration for a ruthless industry: the Stuart touch would turn the industry into a morally self-reflective enterprise of empowerment.  Stuart, being a sufferer of Down syndrome, was a fresh candidate.

The accounts of Stuart’s performances tend to be more skin crawling than most.  In March this year, the Daily Mail Australia reported on “a romantic fairy tale wedding photoshoot.”  Images of the shoot verge on the grotesque, with a male model (not evidently having Down syndrome) kissing the ennobled star.

“Australian model Madeline Stuart, who has Down syndrome,” goes the report, “has featured in a  bridal shoot, continuing her work to challenge society’s perceptions of people living with a disability.”  She is described as a “picture of elegance” dressed in “a beautiful gown with a fitted bodice and full skirt”.

The Stuart phenomenon has also rumbled the usual social media channels.  There are her tens of thousands of followers on Instagram (133,000 thousand at the last count), with the impression given that she is running the show with professional calm and revolutionary intention. “At 19, I have walked NYFW 3 consecutive seasons”.  There is also a request that “management” be contacted for bookings.

Her mother, Rosanne Stuart, the distinct brains behind this enterprise, not to mention chief puller of levers, keeps close watch over the golden goose, every bit concerned that her asset should keep performing.  Maddy, she insists, will not be forced.

She is even entitled to have her own relationships, though Rosanne has insisted that “having a dream to do something” is quite different from actually fulfilling it. This point was starkly made in October, when Rosanne told New Idea that her daughter “is not capable of caring for a baby or raising a child independently at this stage, and may never be, so I do not believe it is right or fair for her or me to bring one into this world.” Revolutions of money for mum did not necessarily mean a total revolution for daughter and autonomy.

Often, the descriptions of Stuart’s modelling efforts give the impression of fully fledged freedom, a sentient awareness about what she embarks upon.  When the model speaks, and the mask comes off, we are left with a traditional individual with desires in need of care, but conveniently exploited at the behest of financial worth and controlled by the dictates of maternal wisdom.

Before television interviews, the process is replicated, with the vanilla commentary consisting of praise for not only the model, but the mother for being “terrific”. Glamorised, but only selectively, Madeline Stuart is hardly being appreciated for promoting awareness of Down syndrome; she has promoted awareness that Down syndrome sufferers, like other sufferers, are fresh for the fashion plucking.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.