Ellie Goldstein is a catwalk model
From the star photographers to the stylists, to say nothing of the models, fashion shoots are exacting environments full of egos and divas. But all that changes when Ellie Goldstein, 21, is booked on a job. Be it an ad campaign for Gucci, or a cover shoot for Vogue, her energy and warmth lights up the room.
“She dances a lot on the set,” says her mother and manager Yvonne. “If someone is in a mood, she cheers them up. Models can be miserable but Ellie is so positive.”
Essex-born Ellie, the first supermodel with Down’s syndrome, has already graced the covers of numerous magazines, including Elle and Glamour, and featured in campaigns for brands such as Gucci Beauty, Adidas, TK Maxx and Victoria’s Secret.
She’s recently bought her first home aged 21. And when Mattel launched its first Barbie with Down’s syndrome earlier this year, it was Ellie the company chose to promote the doll. “I adored doing the Barbie job,” Ellie tells the Daily Express. “It was great to finally see a doll that looked like me.”
I remark on how infectiously ambitious she is. “I am indeed! I can’t believe it’s all happened to me. I’ve got a book out, I’ve got a Barbie out, and I’m on the cover of Vogue.”
Ellie chosen by Mattel to promote its first doll with Down’s
She adds excitedly: “I love dancing and modelling and I will always do it. Maybe I’ll go to New York one day. I’ve been to York, but not to New York!” Now Ellie has written her autobiography which has the fitting title Against All Odds. It is the first book in acid attack survivor Katie Piper’s new “Unseen” imprint which aims to highlight remarkable and inspirational women who have survived trauma.
“I want to inspire people, and to teach them about Down’s syndrome and be a role model,” Ellie tells me. “Now I’m confident and outgoing. I can do anything and choose what I want. I loved writing the book, it was so fun.”
And with the devoted support of her mother, who accompanies her to each event, be it a party or a fashion shoot, Ellie is embracing all that her extraordinary life has to offer. Last month, she was invited to the big VIP party hosted by Kylie Minogue to launch London Fashion Week.
“Since I was tiny, I’ve loved to dress up. I used to put on my [older] sister Amy’s make-up, pretending I was on a catwalk. I had sparkly black leggings and a silver sparkly top. My mum did my hair with gems and headbands.”
That she has made such an impact in the world of high fashion is all the more remarkable when you consider that Yvonne was told shortly after Ellie’s birth that her daughter would never walk, talk or go to university.
During her pregnancy, tests had revealed a low risk of Yvonne’s baby having Down’s syndrome,
so Ellie’s diagnosis was a shock. However, when the new mother was asked if she wished to abandon her infant daughter, after the lead doctor’s blunt prognosis, Yvonne was horrified.
“My husband Mark and I just looked at each other. I don’t think we even answered the nurse. When I think back to the comments, I still feel angry and emotional about it. It was handled horrendously, like the staff forgot I was a human being – and that Ellie was, too.”
Yet Ellie has utterly defied the medics’ grim predictions. “Just look at what Ellie has achieved, she has proved them all completely wrong and they should be ashamed of how they handled that,” Yvonne continues. “You can’t say that to a new mum; you wouldn’t say to the mum of a normal baby what they are going to do in their education.
“I hope that they have been educated in the past 20 years to tell parents in a different way, even if the wording is changed just slightly. We were referred to leaflets to tell us about the extra chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome. No-one actually sat with us and explained that there are mild to moderate forms of the condition.”
Around one in every 1,000 babies born in the UK will have Down’s syndrome, a genetic condition caused by an extra chromosome in the cells. Around 47,000 people in the UK have the condition and some level of learning disability. Many will lead independent lives, others will need more care.
Half of all children with the condition also have a heart defect, and Ellie had an operation on her heart at six months and has to exercise regularly to keep it healthy.
Ellie and mum Yvonne
Yvonne continues: “Thank goodness I had a strong relationship with my own mum. She was also
a very outgoing and confident person, and she always said Ellie was going to be someone one day. She knew, it’s just a shame she isn’t here to see it.”
Ellie proved herself to be capable of so much more than medical expectation had assumed from a very young age. By the time she went to her mainstream primary school she could already read.
“She taught herself to read before she started in reception. We bought her magnetised letters and she made words. She used to read the newspaper each day and never used to sound things out.” When Ellie went to secondary school at 11, she had the reading age of an average 18-year-old.
“She is unique with her condition,” says Yvonne. “She has a wide vocabulary and her memory is remarkable. She is now studying drama at college and can learn four pages of a script within days. She will learn a dance and remember the routine years later.
“And when she’s modelling, she just knows what to do. Every single person she has worked for gives the same feedback; she takes direction and is easy to work with.”
It wasn’t always so when Ellie was at school. While she made friends and enjoyed lessons, by year nine, when Ellie was 13, the work had become too demanding and she would get into trouble for acting up in class. She transferred to a school for children with learning disabilities where she blossomed but, as there was no sixth form, had to switch to a different school where she felt less supported.
Yvonne had been determined to help find a secure future for Ellie, who is just 4ft 9in tall, so when a friend saw an inclusive talent agent, Zebedee, on daytime television, she contacted the founder, Zoe Proctor. After a trial photoshoot, Ellie joined its books in 2016. Eight months later she was featured in Superdrug’s Christmas advert.
Says Zoe: “We instantly knew Ellie had the perfect personality for modelling; she’s a total fire-cracker. She came to one of our first casting events.
“She was 15 years old and bursting with energy. She lit up the room. People don’t realise that 20 per cent of people have some kind of disability, but representation in the fashion industry is nowhere near that figure.”
After the Superdrug advert, Ellie was suddenly in demand. “I felt like a real model,” enthuses Ellie. “Like modelling was my actual job.” In 2019, she auditioned for Nike’s Women’s World Cup advert. They liked me enough to give me the job. This was acting too. They made me celebrate like someone had just scored.”
Ellie is a magazine cover star
The advert ran for the whole summer that year, and Ellie started seeing her face on the sides of buses, on websites and on posters. To her delight, her picture was even flashed on to the huge electronic billboards in London’s Piccadilly Circus.
“Seeing myself up on that huge screen was like a dream,” Ellie continues. “I felt so excited. Before that I was just enjoying going to the studio, and suddenly it all felt so much more real.”
Ellie was then cast in a dance group to perform at the Royal Opera House. Backstage before one of these performances, Ellie was photographed by Natalia Evelyn Bencicova.
“In the photo I was wearing my performance clothes: a cream-coloured baggy dress, a bit like a sack, with an orange stripe around the cover. I was smiling but it wasn’t very glamorous,” she recalls.
The picture won the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and was on show at the National Portrait Gallery for two months during which time it came to the attention of Alessia Glaviano, senior editor at Vogue Italia, who posted it to Instagram.
It then caught the attention of Alessandro Michele, the creative director at Gucci and in the summer of 2020, when Gucci unveiled its beauty campaign for Mascara L’Obscur, it was Ellie they chose to appear with a flutter of megawatt lashes.
The resulting image has been described as “a battle cry against the historic beauty ideals that have long excluded disability”. Racking up more than 850,000 “likes” on Gucci’s Instagram it was the Italian brand’s most liked post ever. Three years on, and Ellie is continuing to change perceptions, including as an ambassador for the learning charity Mencap.
Against All Odds by Ellie Goldstein
“My disability has taught me to be ‘me’ – and not to be scared of doing things louder in the world,” she says. “Never give up, be who you are and smile all the way.”
She beams at her mother, sitting beside her. And the relationship between mother and daughter is an inspiration, as is Yvonne’s self-sacrifice in her determination to support her daughter.
“With a background in advertising, I went on to become a support worker for young adults, but when Ellie started getting work I had to take a lot of time off,” she adds.
“I couldn’t keep doing it and although I loved my job I decided to call it a day. I do miss working, but it’s been amazing to watch Ellie’s career take off.”
Although Yvonne doesn’t know if her daughter will ever live alone, she has encouraged Ellie to buy her own home, while keeping the family house, to encourage her to learn cooking and housekeeping skills and be more independent.
“Mum is very good; she has supported me to help my career,” Ellie adds. “She appreciates me and I appreciate her back. She is the best mum in the whole, entire world.”
- Against All Odds by Ellie Goldstein (SPCK, £16.99) is out now. Visit expressbookshop.com or call Express Bookshop on 020 3176 3832. Free UK P&P on orders over £25