Ellie Goldstein: “Don’t ridicule people like me – take a risk”


Ellie Goldstein was just 18 when she made history as the first person with Down’s Syndrome to star in a luxury fashion campaign, but her determination to carve out a career in fashion came even earlier. She was only five when she decided on modelling. “I was walking up and down the living room at home like it was a catwalk and my mum said, ‘So, you want to be a model then?’ And I thought yes, yes I do.” Now 21, and having secured lucrative jobs for Gucci and Adidas, as well as multiple magazine covers, she prides herself on ensuring that the fashion industry can no longer ignore disability.

“There is room for improvement; I want to see more models like me – or just more of me!” she says, laughing. “I read fashion magazines growing up, but I never saw people who looked like me and it made me feel sad. We need more diversity and inclusivity out there in the world. Don’t ridicule people like me – take a risk.”

I read fashion magazines growing up, but I never saw people who looked like me

For all its talk of inclusivity, fashion has not been quick to embrace disability. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 15 per cent of people have some kind of disability, forming the world’s largest minority community. The adaptive-clothing market – apparel designed for disabled, mobility-impaired, and chronically ill people – is estimated to reach almost $400 billion by 2026, yet the industry is still not moving quickly enough to address their needs. Goldstein is among only a handful of models with a disability to be cast in a major campaign or catwalk show.

Beyond optics, the behind-the-scenes work has been equally slow. It was only last year that Unhidden became the first adaptive clothing label to join the British Fashion Council. Goldstein is keen to stress that disabled people love clothes too. Ever since her older sister Amy first introduced her to the joy of dressing up, Goldstein has been a woman obsessed.

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“I love fashion times a billion,” she says emphatically. “Amy used to dress me up and try different make-up on me and I loved it. I love Marilyn Monroe too. She was a great dancer and she used to pose like me.” She was also underestimated, I say. “Exactly!” she exclaims.

Goldstein was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome when she was born, and her family was told that she wouldn’t talk, walk or be able to live independently, but she defied the doctors. As a young girl, she fast developed a love of dance and drama and, from the age of five, started appearing in productions at the Royal Albert Hall and The Royal Opera House. Not everyone recognised her potential right away, and she still has to deal with the assumption that she is unable to communicate; people automatically talk to her mother rather than her. “At primary school, they didn’t believe in me,” she says. “The teachers treated me like I was stupid, but I didn’t let it get to me. I was very talkative and would get in trouble for non-stop talking. You just have to be yourself and carry on.” As a teenager, she used clothes as a tool for self-expression, and shopping became a preferred pastime. “[Clothes] made me feel more confident,” she says. “I love bright colours, pink, yellow… they make me feel happy and bright.”

When she was 15, a family friend saw a television advert for Zebedee Management, an agency that celebrates disabled, visibly different, non-binary, and trans UK models, and suggested that Goldstein’s mother get in touch. She did and Ellie was promptly signed. What appealed to her about modelling? “The camera, of course!” she says. “But also the clothes and make-up. Modelling is a way of expressing my personality.”

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In 2020, she reached a milestone career moment when she became the star of Gucci’s Unconventional Beauty campaign, the result of an Instagram scouting project. “It was an amazing and overwhelming day,” she recalls. “The hair, make-up and clothes were brilliant. When I finally saw those pictures, it felt weird because they really showcased my personality. To me, they proved that I’ll never give up and why it’s good to follow your dreams.”

She’d love to model for Louis Vuitton (“I love their handbags – my sister has one and I borrow it all the time”) and dreams of more magazine covers. Her most recent job sees her join Motherland’s Anna Maxwell Martin and the former Doctor Who Jodie Whittaker in Comic Relief’s 2023 Red Nose Day campaign. The images sees her and her co-stars model a line of charity T-shirts, featuring Mr Men and Little Miss characters. “I really wanted to be in the campaign,” she says. “It supports children and young adults who need help with mental health – to make sure that they’re safe and to help them get what they need. Mental health is the biggest problem facing young people. I feel proud to be part of it.”

Goldstein in Comic Relief’s 2023 Red Nose Day campaign, modelling T-shirts available at TK Maxx

Work aside, she’s studying performing arts at New City College in Redbridge, Essex, where she is currently in a musical production of the cult film Heathers. She also does hip-hop and contemporary dance classes because of “the vibes, the energy and the team”, and is obsessed with the television show Supernanny. In December, she turned 21 and celebrated with a family holiday in Gran Canaria. “We walked, went swimming and had lunch and dinner out,” she said. “It was a great birthday.”

Ultimately, Goldstein thinks it’s time to reevaluate how we define beauty. “It’s about your personality,” she says. “ My mum, dad and dance teacher are all all supportive, bubbly, kind, caring and honest people. That’s beautiful.”

Ellie Goldstein supports Red Nose Day, wearing a t-shirt from the collection of chari-tees, featuring designs from Mr Men and Little Miss, available at TK Maxx stores and online at tkmaxx.com to raise money for Comic Relief.

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