Ellie Goldstein: The model rewriting the rule book for people with disabilities

She’s a ‘face’ of Gucci who’s dreaming big not just for herself but for all people with disabilities. Essex teenager Ellie Goldstein showcases the new season’s fresh and fabulous new looks.

Ellie Goldstein
Mark Cant

The day Ellie Goldstein was born, her mother Yvonne was told by a paediatrician her daughter would never talk, walk, nor live an independent life. It was even hinted that Yvonne should leave Ellie at the hospital and go home without her, like the ‘last mother who had a baby like that’.

Today that baby is the face of Gucci’s Unconventional Beauty campaign. The first model with Down’s syndrome to pose for the luxury brand, earlier this summer Ellie, 18, graced Vogue Italia dressed in the designer label. The Gucci campaign was just the latest big name on what is already an impressive CV, even though Ellie’s been modelling for less than three years.

From Nike to Vodafone and the London Film Festival, her star is on the rise as she joins an exclusive but growing clique of professional models with Down’s syndrome who are breaking down barriers.

Ellie Gucci campaign
Ellie in Gucci’s unconventional beauty campaign with Jahmal Baptiste (right) and Enam Asiama. Image: David P D Hyde for Gucci Beauty

Today Ellie is on her latest assignment, modelling for YOU magazine’s fashion issue. Striking pose after perfect pose, she radiates professionalism and, between shots, her infectious laugh fills the studio.

Sitting quietly in the shadows is Yvonne. A 56-year-old support worker from Ilford, Essex, she beams with pride as she watches her daughter at work.

‘I’m not remotely surprised Ellie’s forged a career like this,’ she says. ‘From the age of five she’d tell me she wanted to be famous, catwalking up and down our living room or singing and dancing around the house. Looking back, all the signs were there she’d end up in front of a camera.’

Yvonne, who lives with husband Mark, 60, and also has an elder daughter Amy, 26, had a normal pregnancy with Ellie, the standard antenatal scans and tests failing to detect the chromosomal condition.

‘As I was wheeled into theatre for a caesarean because Ellie was lying transverse, Down’s syndrome wasn’t on my mind at all,’ remembers Yvonne.

‘After Ellie was born, Mark and I barely saw her before she was whisked away. We were terrified – we had no idea what was happening – until a nurse said, “We think she might have Down’s syndrome, but we’re not sure.”’

Ellie Goldstein and mum Yvonne
With her mum Yvonne

Reunited with Ellie, Yvonne and Mark were then left for four agonising hours in a private room before a team of medics arrived and the consultant gave his diagnosis and prediction.

‘He confirmed she had Down’s syndrome, said that she wouldn’t walk, talk or go to university and told us there were leaflets outside if we wanted more information. He then went, leaving us in silence,’ says Yvonne.

‘Ellie was wrapped in a blanket in the crib beside my bed. She cried but I couldn’t bring myself to lift her – it was Mark who had to comfort her.

‘I felt little connection to her – this wasn’t the baby I believed I was having. I thought about how excited I’d been to bring this baby home and introduce her to her big sister. Now everything seemed hopeless.’

Yvonne admits that back then she knew little about Down’s syndrome and even shared some of the preconceptions that still exist today.

‘I imagined Ellie in the future shuffling around, holding my hand and never able to live a life of her own. She was eight days old before I could bring myself to tell family and friends she had Down’s syndrome. I couldn’t even speak the words.

Ellie Goldstein
Mark Cant

‘It’s hard to reflect on those early days, but I was heavily influenced by the negativity of the health professionals around me. They saw Ellie as a child without a meaningful future and I went along with that.’

For Ellie, hearing how dark the early hours of her life were for her mother is poignant.

‘When I hear Mum talk about the negative attitudes she faced when I was born, I feel sad she went through that, but also very proud that I’ve proved those people wrong,’ says Ellie, who’s currently studying performing arts at a mainstream college alongside her modelling work. ‘They defined me by my Down’s syndrome, but I’m just Ellie.’

The day after her birth, Ellie was diagnosed with a serious congenital heart defect. Too tiny to be operated on, she was sent home with Yvonne and Mark until she was old enough for surgery.

‘It took time but as we got into a routine at home, my love for Ellie began to grow,’ says Yvonne. ‘On the school run, people would peek in the pram and sometimes I’d see their face fall when they realised Ellie has Down’s syndrome. They’d struggle for something to say – some would even cross the road to avoid me.

‘It wasn’t easy to feel people’s pity but by then Mark and I had resolved to turn away from the negativity. This baby was just our Ellie – we weren’t going to wrap her up in cotton wool or label her.’

When she was five months old Ellie underwent complex heart surgery, spending over a week in intensive care, Yvonne never leaving her side.

Ellie Goldstein
Mark Cant

‘It was then I finally felt the fierce love most mums experience when a child is born. Faced with the fear we might lose Ellie, it hit me just how much I loved her.’

Ellie came through her surgery and, says Yvonne, has never looked back. She pragmatically acknowledges that every child with Down’s syndrome is different and many don’t have Ellie’s abilities.

‘She was able to attend mainstream schools, to sing and dance in plays and lead a very typical childhood. At times, I encountered resentment from other parents with special needs children. I understood it can’t be easy, but no two children are the same.’

In 2017, when Ellie was 15, Yvonne received a call from a friend telling her to switch on ITV’s This Morning. On the show were the founders of a new talent agency, Zebedee Management, specialising in models with disabilities.

‘Ellie had never let go of her dream of being famous and having a performing career. Modelling was something we’d been thinking about, so I got in touch with the agency and after a photo shoot in October 2017 she signed with them. I had no idea if there would be work out there for her – would brands want a model with Down’s syndrome?’

For any mother, allowing a teenage girl to go into modelling, particularly in today’s world of social media scrutiny and trolling, is not a decision to be taken lightly.

However, for Yvonne any concerns about negativity Ellie might face once in the public eye didn’t outweigh her determination to support her daughter’s dream.

‘From the day she was born Ellie has faced judgment, but I would never hold her back in life because some people might be unkind. That’s their problem, not hers. I also believed that the majority of people would see her for what she is – a beautiful, inspirational young woman.’

Ellie Goldstein
Mark Cant

But Yvonne’s uncertainty whether there would be demand for a model like Ellie has proven to be unfounded, with the teenager landing one high-profile job after another since signing with her agency. And her faith that the public would react positively to her daughter has also been rewarded.

‘None of us imagined the Gucci shoot would attract so much attention but out of thousands of comments online, Ellie and I have only seen around half a dozen that are a bit sneery. We just focus on all the supportive comments from people around the world telling Ellie she has inspired them,’ says Yvonne.

‘I’m doing something I love, and if it helps other people with a disability follow their dreams, that feels great,’ adds Ellie.

Yvonne’s priority has always been that Ellie enjoys what she’s doing, without feeling under pressure to challenge attitudes to Down’s syndrome.

‘I’ve raised Ellie to always be herself and enjoy life. But I never want her to feel her life is a mission to change what people think. What’s wonderful is that’s happening naturally, the more people see of her.’

Laura Johnson is the co-founder of Zebedee Management and set up the agency with her sister-in-law Zoe Proctor in 2017. Laura was working as a social worker and Zoe, who had previously been a model, was a teacher for people with learning disabilities when they were inspired to establish their agency, which also represents disabled dancers, presenters and performers.

Ellie Goldstein
Mark Cant

‘We were bemoaning the fact that the young people we worked with who wanted a career in performing arts were hitting a brick wall because it was so hard for them to break into the industry,’ says Laura. ‘How were they ever meant to get in front of casting directors when there was such a dearth of agencies to represent them?’

Success didn’t come overnight, with the agency coming up against ingrained reluctance to use disabled talent.

‘It’s been three years of doggedly breaking down those attitudes by putting our talent forward for jobs, so they can show what they can bring to a brand or a programme.

‘Today we’re busier than ever but there’s still a long way to go. Less than one per cent of those featured in advertising have a disability, despite the fact more than 20 per cent of the population are disabled. Brands should want to appeal to those customers as well as being inclusive.’

Laura says that in the past it’s likely there was an element of tokenism to the use of disabled talent. ‘Often it was about being seen to be doing the right thing. However, this movement had to start somewhere, and today consumers are savvy enough to see through token gestures. Brands know it has to be a firm part of their identity, not a one-off.’

Ellie Goldstein
Mark Cant

Has Yvonne ever worried that her daughter could be used cynically – simply for good PR? ‘I really believe the brands Ellie has worked with are genuinely committed to diversity in their campaigns. Her images may bring them a lot of publicity but the likes of Gucci hardly need that, do they?’

Bravely honest, Yvonne says she is thankful she didn’t know 18 years ago that she was carrying a child with Down’s syndrome.

‘I really don’t know what I’d have done, whether I’d have carried on with the pregnancy. I know I’d have been terrified, anxious how Mark and I would have coped as older parents with a disabled child, and the impact on Amy. I’m relieved we never had to make that decision.

‘I’d love to go back in time, though, and tell that paediatrician all about the person Ellie has grown into. How wrong he was to think she would achieve nothing in her life.’

The YOU magazine shoot is a wrap, but it won’t be long before Ellie is back in front of a camera, with demand for her ever growing. ‘I want to carry on modelling,’ she says. ‘And also do some acting. I hope the success I’ve had shows there is an appetite for diversity in advertising, so that more people like me can have these opportunities.’

What is certain is the future is bright; the future is models like Ellie Goldstein.

Fashion Director: Shelly Vella. Interview: Eimear O’Hagan