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Disabled Models Compete in New Reality TV Show

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I need a new reality show. I’ve grown tired of Tyra’s sobbing farewells, wearied of waiting for Heidi’s return to the runway, and frankly, I’m feeling a little bloated after the latest season of Top Chef. Yes, I need a new reality show—not just another reality show,—a new one, and I just wish I could jerry-rig my neighbor’s satellite dish to beam BBC3 onto my TV. See, BBC3 has a new reality show starting this month called Britain’s Missing Top Model, and I’m already a fan.

The name suggests that this show will be a glamorous murder mystery, but it’s not—though I would have happily tuned in to see a few gorgeous supermodels fall off the runway-radar/face of the earth. In fact, it’s a reality show that documents and provides a welcome insight into the lives of eight disabled models.

It’s got the same set up as America’s Next Top Model (and Britain’s Next Top Model), where the aspiring models compete to win a modeling contract and a photo shoot in a top glam rag—in this case with British Marie Claire. But these models don’t just hope to make it big; they hope to challenge and confront deeply-ingrained perceptions of beauty.

The contestants include Debbie Van der Putten, who lost her right arm in a bus accident (but posed for Playboy last year); Kellie Moody, who is deaf and can hear nothing without hearing aids; and Jessica Kellgren-Hayes who requires a wheelchair to travel long distances. Jessica has a condition known as hereditary neuropathy with liability to pressure palsies, which can cause her to become paralyzed at any time. (She spent nine months of last year in a wheelchair after a night out dancing left her leg paralyzed.) Check out the models in the BBC3 preview:

It’s not the first time the fashion industry has tried to push the boundaries of how we see “beautiful”—photographer Nick Night and designer Alexander McQueen collaborated with double-amputee paralympian and model Aimee Mullins (among others) for their 1998 shoot, Fashion-Able. And America’s Next Top Model (ANTP) included Amanda (who is legally blind) in season three, and Heather (who has Asperger’s Syndrome) in season nine, though it often felt their disabilities were glossed over—not confronted.

Hopefully Britain’s Missing Top Model is an opportunity to discuss the inequality these disabled women face on a daily basis, as well as the inequality models (both disabled and able-bodied) face every day. It’s also an opportunity to expose the fashion industry and its photographers, agents, and editors and their ignorance. Marie O’Riordan, Marie Claire’s UK editor and one of the judges on the show, was the first to expose herself in a recent interview:

“When I first heard about the program, my immediate thought was would it all be women in wheelchairs. And I knew that if it was going to be some sort of freak show, I didn’t want to be involved. But I very quickly realized there are many disabled people who are not in wheelchairs, and that is just one of the many preconceptions we all hold about disability.”

I know the real world Ms. O’Riordan lives in—and sells to her readers—is heavily airbrushed, but she just realized that there are disabled people who are not in wheelchairs? And please, “women in wheelchairs” = “freak show”? I can’t wait to hear what the rest of her fashionable crowd has to say.

Oh, to trade a few seasons of polished Bachelors or oversexed Real World stars for a meaty show like this one. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect this show to shake the industry so much that the winner will go on to have an actual career once the cameras stop rolling. Nor do I expect people to suddenly realize that we are all beautiful regardless of whether our teeth are straight or our limbs are intact.

However, I do expect a lively conversation to start at the watercooler. Women with disabilities are typically absent in popular culture—apart from Paul McCartney’s ex, Heather Mills, a below-the-knee amputee appearing on Dancing with the Stars, I can’t think of a show with a female character in a wheelchair—so surely a few “realizations” will dawn. I do expect the fashion industry to be exposed and mocked, and maybe even slightly ruffled—though to date, the death of undernourished models has had little real affect. I do hope that a show like this will challenge us all to examine our own preconceptions, or rather misconceptions, of ability.

It won’t challenge our assumptions of “beauty,” because while each of these women is of varying ability, they are all strikingly beautiful with not a crooked nose or bumpy thigh among them. These ladies won’t need physical airbrushing, but I hope the BBC won’t airbrush out the catfights and snarkiness that we love about the modeling industry—thanks to Tyra’s insight—just to keep things touchy-feely. I also hope the next season of the show will truly challenge itself—and us too—by representing ethnic minorities, size eighteens, petites, women who’ve had a mastectomy, and women over forty—all real women who are also “missing” on the runway.


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