Ellie Goldstein always wanted to be famous. This is one of the first things she tells me when we sit down for a Zoom interview in early October. (She's tuning in from her home in Ilford, Essex, about a 45-minute drive from the heart of London.) And at just 18 years old, she's well on her way to that goal, propelled by a now-viral image in which she appeared for Gucci Beauty in partnership with Vogue Italia.
"When I saw [my picture] on Gucci Beauty’s Instagram, I thought, Wow! Who is this? Is this me, or what?!" says Goldstein. "My friends and family saw it. It felt very special to me." Scrolling through Goldstein's feed, I see comments in eight languages and messages like "She has to have one of the sweetest faces I’ve ever seen" and "As a handicapped person, I'm so happy someone is finally representing us."
Of course, it takes years to become an overnight success. Goldstein, who has Down syndrome, started dancing when she was five, and went on to appear in school plays, like Jack and the Beanstalk. "When I was doing the play, it hit me [that I wanted to keep doing this]," she says. "I love to be seen."
Goldstein continued her training in drama and dance, appearing in productions at the Royal Opera House and Royal Albert Hall. And when, just before Goldstein's 15th birthday, her mother, Yvonne, heard about a new talent agency that represented people with visible differences and disabilities, the stars aligned.
Zebedee Management was founded by sisters-in-law Laura Johnson and Zoe Proctor in 2017. Johnson, a social worker, and Proctor, who taught theater arts to young adults with learning disabilities, were taking a walk on a beach in North England when they began to reflect on why people like Proctor's students weren't granted the same opportunities as other performers and models.
"We said, 'If nobody else is doing it, why don’t we?'" recalls Proctor.
They put out a casting call through support groups in London and magazines geared toward the disabled community. When they received thousands of replies from people with disabilities who wanted to pursue modeling and acting careers, they realized they were onto something.
Regrettably, the fashion industry in particular has been notoriously slow to embrace anyone who doesn't fit the mold. Sue Moore, Zebedee's head booker, says she would get "quite a lot of negativity," as recently as two years ago, when pitching talent to brands for potential campaigns. "They'd say, 'No, I don’t think we’re ready for that yet,'" says Moore.
Today, slowly but surely, "the tide is turning," Moore says. "Some of our biggest wins are the smallest of jobs to other agencies - like e-commerce [shoots]," adds Proctor. "It's those jobs [with clients] that probably hadn't considered a talent who had a disability or a visible difference [before]."
Proctor, Johnson, and Moore have helped open doors for models with disabilities, but it's up to everyone in the industry - from brand execs to stylists to photographers - to create an accessible environment they can stride through confidently.
That might mean having a sign language interpreter on standby during a shoot, or ensuring a studio has ramp access for a model in a wheelchair. "We talk with our models about their needs, and have a very open dialogue with our clients as well," says Proctor. "We have a no-silly-questions policy, whether it's regarding a fitting room or toilet.… It's got to be a positive experience for everyone."
The word "positive" brings us back to Goldstein, because there is perhaps no better way to describe the kind of energy she creates on set. "She brings up everybody's energy levels to a different kind of place," says Proctor, who says she's seen Goldstein blossom from a little girl to a successful young woman over the past three years. "It's just absolutely breathtaking and really quite moving to watch her in front of the camera."
"I never get upset or sad. I'm always happy and bright and bubbly," says Goldstein. "…And a bit cheeky." (She says this with a giggle, exchanging a glance with her mom, who sits off-camera during our interview.)
With a major beauty campaign in her rearview mirror, Goldstein's goal is to work for other high-ends brands, like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. "Ten years from now, I want to be all over the world," she says. Something about the look in her eye and the confidence with which she says so tells me that, indeed, she will be.
If you’re not a risk taker, you should get the hell out of business.