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Pioneering supermodel with Down's syndrome Ellie Goldstein shares her most empowering life lessons

Ellie Goldstein made history as the first model with Down's syndrome on the cover of Vogue. She tells us how she proved the doubters wrong

Ellie Goldstein - first supermodel with Down's syndrome - smiling with her head on one side

Ellie Goldstein has just written her first book, Against All Odds. Photo: Zak Walton

Groundbreaking supermodel Ellie Goldstein starts her memoir with a strange statement. “The first thing you should know about me,” she writes, “is that I am happy.” This is a woman who, at the age of just 21, has graced the cover of Vogue, modelled for Gucci, been the face of a new Barbie launch, and even had a statue of her erected on London’s South Bank. Why on Earth should we need to be told she is happy?

Well, says Ellie, it’s because sometimes people are “really surprised” to hear it. Ellie has Down’s syndrome – and too often in her life, people have seen her disability before seeing her. It’s a misconception that doesn’t hold up for long if you spend any time in her company.

“To know Ellie Goldstein is to love her,” says activist and writer Katie Piper, best known for her work raising awareness of the devastating impact of acid attacks, adding that we all need a bit of “Ellie’s effervescent joy”.

Cuddled in beside her mum Yvonne on a video call to The Big Issue, Ellie’s joyous outlook on life is plain. She squeals in delight describing how excited she is to hold her first book. “I can’t wait to see my book. I’m going to look at the pictures first. And then read it after,” she says. “It’s about people with disabilities, and so it’s about who I am and what I’m capable of.”

Published this week, Against All Odds is the first in Piper’s UnSeen series, which aims to “shed light on untold stories of hope”. Told in Ellie’s words, with contributions from the people closest to her, it reveals both the shocking prejudice she and her family have faced and her point-blank refusal to live down to other people’s expectations.

Ellie as a baby
Photo: supplied

Almost as soon as she came into the world, people started writing Ellie off. She hadn’t been considered at risk for Down’s, so the diagnosis was a shock to Yvonne and Ellie’s dad Mark. Instead of offering help and reassurance, the lead doctor told them Ellie would never walk or talk, dismissively pointing them to an information leaflet for guidance. One of the nurses asked the new parents if they wanted to abandon Ellie in the hospital.

In the book, Yvonne describes her exhaustion and confusion in the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis – closely followed by her fury at how the medical professionals let her down. “When I was re-reading that part, I couldn’t believe that was what happened,” Yvonne tells me. “I felt like I was reading someone else’s story. I was emotional writing it and re-reading it. It’s still unbelievable.”

It quickly became clear Ellie was a fighter. At six months she pulled through serious heart surgery. And as soon as her personality started to show, it was obvious she had something special about her.

“From when she was tiny, Ellie was always a very confident little girl. And outgoing. She wanted this famous life,” Yvonne remembers. “Friends used to say it would happen, she’d be on TV. My mum used to say, ‘She’s gonna be someone one day, I’m telling you.’”

Two photos of Ellie Goldstein as a child: one in a crown on her birthday; and one in a cat costume.
Photos: supplied

While those close to Ellie saw her potential, that wasn’t always the case with her schools. At her mainstream primary, Yvonne would overhear nasty comments from parents about how Ellie shouldn’t be in the playground with their able-bodied kids.

After Ellie left that school, Yvonne and Mark were given her records. Among the paperwork was a letter from the headteacher to the council petitioning to take Ellie out of the school, accusing her of being “‘dangerous” and saying she had mental health issues.

In reality, her support worker Evette writes in the book, she was just mischievous and needed a bit more support to understand and navigate the “rules of the world”.

She may have struggled to concentrate in maths class, but from the age of five, Ellie loved to perform. Dance was her first love and remains a big part of her life to this day. She’s danced her way through major advertising campaigns for Adidas, and her routines have tens of thousands of views on her Instagram. “When I dance,” Ellie says, “it makes me calm. It’s relaxing. I let all out, let it all go and I enjoy it.”

There’s one move she particularly enjoys – she even credits it as being part of how she booked her first modelling job with Superdrug. Ellie absolutely loves twerking. The booty-shaking dance gets a number of mentions in her book and Ellie says she enjoys teaching it to anyone she meets. The key, she explains, is not just shaking your bum, “it’s about attitude. Being sassy!”

Ellie with the first Barbie with Down's syndrome
Photo: Catherine Harbour © Mattel 2023

Earlier this year, Ellie’s irrepressible sassiness saw her picked to be part of the year’s biggest cultural phenomenon. Just before the Greta Gerwig’s Barbie movie catapulted the Mattel doll to enjoy society-wide relevance at a level it had previously only attained in pre-teen girls’ bedrooms, Ellie was chosen to launch the first version with Down’s syndrome.

It was incredibly exciting, she says, “I’ve loved Barbie since I was really, really small.”

In her Instagram post about the doll, Ellie said she was “thrilled”. “It means a lot to me that children will be able to play with the doll and learn that everyone is different,” she continued. “Diversity is important as people need to see more people like me out there in the world and not be hidden away, Barbie will help make this happen.”

Growing up, Ellie says, she rarely saw people that looked like her in the public sphere, which made her “a bit sad, not too sad-sad”. Now, Ellie and her mum agree, things are getting better. There’s more diversity in the public eye, and that visibility is starting to make the world a kinder and safer place for people with disabilities. Ellie continues to be at the forefront of that change. “I think that I’m a role model to people,” she smiles.

Looking past the book launch, Ellie’s ambitions are global. She’s keen to model in New York, Milan, Sweden… even Antarctica (“Maybe not that one,” laughs Yvonne). She’s studying at college for her performing arts qualification and would love to do some acting in the future.

Her story is far from done, but what lesson does Ellie want us to take away from her life so far? “Never give up, be confident and be happy. And no matter who you are, what you’re doing out there, I want you all to rock the world and be sassy,” she says. “And learn how to twerk!”

Against All Odds by Ellie Goldstein book cover

Against All Odds by Ellie Goldstein, with a foreword by Katie Piper, is out on 21 September (SPCK Publishing). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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