Roll modelling

Dr Danielle Sheypuk tells about becoming New York Fashion Week’s first ever model in a wheelchair

Photo credit: Peter Hurley

Photo credit: Peter Hurley

Earlier this month, Dr Danielle Sheypuk became the first ever model to strut her stuff down a New York Fashion Week (NYFW) runway in a wheelchair. The momentous event was engineered by designer Carrie Hammer, who decided she would use “role models” in place of the typical models featured in the rest of the fashion industry. Danielle certainly fits the bill. She was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the age of two, but grew up with the confidence, determination and independence to achieve a PhD in Psychology, become a spokeswoman for disability rights, and now a high fashion catwalk model.

Danielle has always been a big fan of fashion, “I believe it’s genetic.” she tells me. “My grandmother was always very stylish and so is my mother. Shopping is one of my guilty pleasures, especially living in Manhattan. I quote the character Carrie Bradshaw in the TV show Sex and the City, ‘I like my money where I can see it – in my closet!’”

Despite this love of clothes, Danielle is frustrated by the way the fashion industry ignores women in wheelchairs as consumers. You can pick up any women’s magazine and see a spread featuring different clothes to fit different body types, but they never feature anyone in a wheelchair.

“I felt like every other model who was there”

“I enjoy taking the fashion tips and suggestions that are offered to the ‘able-bodied’ population and modifying them for my body which has its own unique curves and characteristics from my disability” explains Danielle. “But, underlying this is the subtle message that people with disabilities are not considered to be part of, nor important to, the fashion industry. We are never pitched to as consumers of fashion. No beauty or fashion tips are ever geared toward us.”

According to the UN, 15per cent of the world’s population are disabled. Obviously these disabilities vary greatly in nature, but it still seems that the fashion industry are neglecting a huge sector in their market. Danielle, unsurprisingly, is angered by this shortcoming. “It’s absurd and a change that is long overdue. Disabled or not, we care about how we look, we want to be en vogue, and we are successful professionals who have the money to spend to do so.”

Photo courtesy of Danielle Sheypuk

Photo courtesy of Danielle Sheypuk

On being approached for the role in Carrie Hammer’s show, Danielle was overjoyed. “I was screaming out loud and in my head I was thinking, ‘finally, finally, finally!’ I was thankful that she, as a designer, was willing to step outside the norm by inviting me to be in her show. From the moment I arrived at hair and makeup before the show to leaving the after-party that night, I loved every second. It felt monumental. That ‘walk’ down that runway has changed the course of fashion for people with disabilities and the way the industry views us.”

Being the first model at NYFW in a wheelchair, there were initially some concerns that the venue wouldn’t be fully accessible to Danielle. However, she and Carrie were determined not to let anything stop them. “When she [Carrie] said that she had to check if the runway was wheelchair accessible, we both said we would build a ramp by ourselves if we had to!”

Fortunately, the show was indeed wheelchair accessible, and Danielle was included and welcomed every step of the way. “Carrie and I had discussed previously that we did not want me to be the ‘token’ model in a wheelchair. We wanted me to be just like every other model there except I just happen to use a wheelchair. That’s exactly what happened; I felt like every other model who was there.”

The audience loved it and so did Danielle. “It was fun; we were dancing and having cocktails behind the runway. Going down that runway was such a rush! I can remember the million bright lights from the camera flashes, the music from the DJ, and the audience clapping. It was amazing and I would do it again in a heartbeat!”

But amongst all the glamour and excitement, Danielle still had a job to do: sell the clothes. Being in a wheelchair made this a challenge for Danielle, but as in everything, it seems, she excelled. “A very interesting part of the experience for me was figuring out how I could successfully model the clothing from a wheelchair because there was no prior example for me to look towards for advice. I wanted to create movement down the runway and pose naturally with my wheelchair in a way that accentuated the fashion and not my wheelchair. I think I was pretty successful!” Judging by the photos, I think most people would have to agree.

Photo credit: Christopher Voelker

Photo credit: Christopher Voelker

Danielle’s love for fashion and her excitement in taking part in NYFW hasn’t eliminated her criticisms of the fashion industry. It is an industry that is infamous for its rigid image of beauty and is constantly blamed as one of the causes for the growing insecurities of young women. But despite this, somehow little seems to change. “I think that the fashion industry has gone over the top when it sends models down the runway who are so skinny that they look sick. I understand that fashion is about beauty and I understand the concept that the runway model is like a hanger for the clothing on display. But these concepts can be achieved successfully by sending healthier and more diverse models down the runway. I think if more designers start to do this, it will have a more positive effect on the consumer.”

Designers may believe that they need these stereotypical models to sell their clothes, but the audience’s reaction tells a different story. Carrie’s recent show was reportedly a raging success, undeniably as a result of her using ‘real women’ as her models. According to Danielle, “the audience described a ‘very upbeat vibe’ and left feeling ‘energized’ and ‘good about themselves’. In terms of retail, this is a happy customer who is more likely to purchase an item of clothing.”

Unfortunately, until the industry comes to realise that there needs to be a change, young women will be left to suffer the constant pressure to conform to the fashion industry’s ideal. For those, Danielle offers some words of wisdom: “It does not matter if you have a disability or you do not, or how severe your disability is. As humans, we all have parts of our bodies that we like and dislike and I think it is unrealistic to say that we need to love all parts of ourselves. As a psychologist, I say we need to accept our bodies for what they are and use fashion to play up our positives and improve our confidence.”

“people with disabilities are not considered to be part of, nor important to, the fashion industry”

Yet it is not just Danielle’s recent catwalk debut that has made her such an inspiration to others. When she’s not working the camera, she also runs a private therapy company. “I run it via Skype”, she explains. “I engineered it that way to make it easier for people with disabilities to come to therapy. You do not even have to leave your house!”

She specialises in the problems of dating, relationships and sexuality among the disabled; further areas in which the disabled are wrongly excluded. Her work in disability rights has deservedly earned her the title of role model, one which she takes seriously. “I feel incredibly proud to be considered a role model and it makes me want to work even harder to change the negative image of people with disabilities. I am a very driven and passionate person and I will use every part of my being to change this image. I take my job very seriously and won’t let the world down!”

Danielle’s confidence and motivation has been with her since a young child. Although disabled, she never lets it get in her way. “I was able to crawl on my hands and knees but never reached the developmental milestone of standing up and walking. I got my first motorized wheelchair in Kindergarten and started driving it fast from the moment I got in it! Maybe that’s a metaphor for my life, I don’t know!”

Photo credit: Christopher Voelker

Photo credit: Christopher Voelker

She credits her parents for her success, explaining that they “treated me completely normally and exactly the same as my able-bodied sister. They always taught me that I can do anything I want, I may just have to be a bit more creative to make it happen.” Although perhaps challenging at times, she certainly hasn’t let her disability restrict her or get in the way of her success; her achievements stand as testament to this.

Danielle continues to have high hopes for the future, living up to her role model status and spreading inspiration far and wide. “I will continue modelling”, she tells me, “and changing the way the Fashion Industry looks at people with disabilities. I will continue to work on making our image more hip, chic, and sexy.”

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