At first glance what do you see in these two pictures? Two girls in a wheelchair, is right. I’m the model on the right. Some might not think much of it, but let me explain how much different these two pictures are:
Kylie, you chose to use a wheelchair, to pose with it, when you don’t need one. I on the other hand need one because I’m a #paraplegic #wheelchairuser, and yes, I’m a model too. Why would someone want to use a wheelchair when you don’t need one? Of course it’s good shock value. It would get a lot of responses. I’m sure more than you ever thought. I’ve heard that you also wanted the wheelchair to “represent limitations” you have had or faced… Which being very honest, it rubs me the wrong way because you have absolutely no clue what it’s like to be in a wheelchair, the type of limitations people in wheelchairs face on a physical level, but also the numerous limitations society puts on us, constantly!
I get that you’ve probably faced your fair share of problems, like all of us have in life; it’s part of human life. Although I don’t know what you have gone through, I can empathize with you in the sense that I’m sure with as famous as your family is and your sisters, you’ve grown with so much pressure from so many people. I’m sure that hasn’t been easy…. But let me tell you something, that does not give you the right to use a wheelchair to represent “your limitations or restrictions” when you have no clue what it’s like to live life in a wheelchair, to rely in a wheelchair for your every day mobility.
Let me point out a quite interesting difference in our pictures. Look at your expression in the wheelchair; it’s definitely not a happy expression, nor is it a powerful expression. It’s hot, yeah!I get that you wanted it to seem or represent like you’ve struggled or faced hardship or perhaps like you’re reflecting on that… Mine is a daring and powerful look, but that was not easy… To get to that point, to want to pose with my wheelchair with a confident spirit, was far from easy. So let me attempt to illustrate how difficult and painful it is to go from one day to another to coming and going freely, walking, to have to use a wheelchair, to loose the ability to walk, in my case, from one day to another, to not be able to stand on my own two feet, to not be able to hug or kiss my boyfriend, not just because I could no longer stand on my own… but because he passed away in the same horrific car accident in which I was paralyzed (and no, we were not driving. We rode in a taxicab and struck a horse).
It’s terrible to go from one day feeling like a super woman, living in my own place, independent as a 19 year old (like you are now) and in seconds, all my dreams and goals in life with my boyfriend at the time in San Diego were shattered, just like that… Even more, in seconds I went from feeling so powerful, to helpless… in seconds, for I couldn’t even do the most basic things for myself. No, I’m not talking about walking here… I’m talking about eating, about breathing, on my own. My lungs collapsed due to the horse and roof of the taxicab collapsing on top of me, and I had to rely on a ventilator for my breathing. I broke my back, sustained a spinal cord injury which left me paralyzed from mid-chest down, I fractured numerous bones, but I was, most of all, heartbroken…
Since I was hooked to a ventilator for my breathing and my lungs were very weak for over a month, I could not eat for myself or speak, I had no voice… As broken as I felt with all of this, however, I remember writing in my journal, “but no one is going to take down my spirit or my desire to live and succeed. I will go on, I will get back up.”
Well let me tell you what a breakthrough this modeling picture of me (next to you) was for me! It was the first time I chose to incorporate my wheelchair in a modeling photoshoot. I started to model a year and a half before my accident. And although I loved it, my number one goal was my education, so I didn’t go after modeling full time. When my accident first happened, at first, I didn’t think I’d be able to model again though. I didn’t think I’d be able to… how? I could no longer pose with my body, standing up etc. But a few months passed and I chose to go forward in life, and I realized soon how amazing it was that I got a second chance in life, when others in my accident didn’t, so instead of lamenting myself and throwing a pity party for myself, I was going to appreciate all that I had, take advantage of this one life that I got back and go big! The survivor and fighter side of me came out. So encouraged by a great friend, and a photographer I had done a lot of previous work with, he convinced me to do a modeling photo shoot with him, just months after my accident, but the interesting fact is that I didn’t include the chair. We did stuff lying down, sitting or lying down on a couch, other types of chairs, but not in my wheelchair… It was too much then…
I got some confidence back in me after I saw myself in those first pictures. I remember thinking “wow! In some of these pictures you can’t even tell I’m paralyzed.” Thinking to myself, “wow I still look beautiful…” But you could tell in those first pictures my confidence wasn’t fully up. After that photo-shoot, someone asked me “what about pictures in your chair?” And I said “what? In my chair? Nah.” This person said “why not?” It’s part of you.” I reflected on that and said, “he’s right, why not? It’s part of me.” So the very next photoshoot I chose to include my chair, and it’s this picture of me, next to you!
I remember exactly what I wanted to portray in this shot; confidence most of all, strength, power, beauty and sexiness too. It was as if the things I felt i didn’t have for some months after my accident, I was now determined to show in this session, and that alone was EMPOWERING! I remember I chose to “straddle ” the wheelchair and turn it around and face it to do something different, and it was like me saying, “I’m in charge. I’m in control. The wheelchair isn’t going to be what controls me.” Do me a a favor and look at the big difference in our expressions. Your expression is somewhat of a sad expression and the chair is huge. You see more of the wheelchair. And you might not realize it, but *with this image you are feeding on to society’s perceptions of how “bad it is for someone who is in a wheelchair, how negative and limiting that is.” And that’s awful– that’s not what I want people to see; it’s actually the opposite.
Yes, I have physical limitations, due to my spinal cord injury (there’s different reasons people need a wheelchair for, and all disabilities affect someone differently). *BUT you know which limitations are the hardest for me to deal with?? It’s other people’s limitations they impose on me! Because I chose to go forward and I always believe I can accomplish everything I truly want, so long if I work for it and I believe in it, but it doesn’t always work that way in society… Not when most people don’t even give you a chance. I’m constantly challenging people to see past my wheelchair, to see everything I can offer, my talent, etc. But not everyone has been open to see that… Can you imagine how difficult that would be? How truly limiting that can be, on top of the limitations certain conditions already have on the body.
Look at my shot and you see that I’m trying to break through. I want people to see me, not for the chair to be the focus. I’m not using the chair to look edgy or cool. As a matter of fact, I was fighting for this, as well as many: for people to see past my wheelchair, and in a way, be cool and edgy, and sexy too, but regardless of me being in a chair. It might seem simple, posing in a wheelchair. But people would have no clue how difficult it was for me to feel confident, strong enough and sexy enough to do a photoshoot, after becoming paralyzed and for the first time ever, include my wheelchair, and be proud of it and just owning it!. It was empowering doing so. But it’s not easy feeling empowered after losing so much. You’d have to understand my pain, my life.
And so to fast forward, aside from going back to college and majoring in communication studies and PR with the highest honors, I have continued to model, and yes, in my wheelchair. As a matter of fact, I made history on Spanish television when I became the first woman and model in a wheelchair to ever audition for and enter a beauty pageant and reality tv show, Nuestra Belleza Latina, in 2013. I had to audition round after round and prove my talent, as a model and as someone who’d work on television (as the winner works on tv). I knew I also had a passion for hosting. My wheelchair didn’t limit me in being able to host or model. Sure I was going against all abled-bodied women who could strut their stuff, fully. So that was not going to be easy lol, since I was the only model who wouldn’t be able to, fighting for a place, sitting in my chair… But I believed in my talent! I remember thinking to myself, what do I got? And I said, “I know what I got and that is confidence and personality and I will make sure in any challenge or audition that I do that that confidence and personality shines through, no matter what, regardless of the fact that I’m doing everything on wheels.”
And I made it! Thousands of women auditioned all across the U.S. in multiple locations and only 70 of us made it to Miami! I was ready to conquer the judges. I fully believed in my heart that I could do this. I knew it would not be easy, but I believed I could do it.I was ready! My talent onstage was a mock up hosting segment. And so I worked with the production and aligned things so that I started this segment onstage, behind a desk so the judges didn’t see the wheelchair right away. Why? Because I wanted to be judged by my talent only. I didn’t want the judges to see the wheelchair and let the wheelchair define my chances and not see past it. The judges were so shocked when I revealed the chair. They didn’t know what to think. One said, she didn’t know if it was real…
Why were they so shocked? Because the beauty, modeling and fashion industry doesn’t see disability or at least not in those worlds. But I thought, it’s time that they see that women in wheelchair exist, women who are models and want more opportunities! The most frustrating part of all this is that they all said really good comments about my ability as a communicator and host, my talent onstage, even about my physical looks, good comments on that etc, etc… Yet, I was not given the chance to get to the next round. And all because of my physical condition! I didn’t have full abilities to perform physical challenges that were part of the competition and they just weren’t open to change the format, to allow me to compete and perform those challenges in my wheelchair, with my arms. I was devastated at first. I remember thinking, “why does it even matter believing in you, when others are not going to even give you a chance but just judge you based on your looks and, in this case, on your physical abilities.”
Well… you, unknowingly, with this shot (in a wheelchair on the cover of Interview mag), are reinforcing those negative perceptions of disability. But I’d like to actually thank you because you are making people in wheelchairs also very relevant, in general, in the media and it’s creating conversations, conversations that should happen! So in that sense thank you for that (see I always manage to look at the positive side). Sadly, there is so much ignorance that surrounds “disabilities” or different abilities as I see it . If people only knew more and took the time to get educated, maybe then we’d be given more chances and real opportunities, more jobs. Maybe then people would be open to seeing past a wheelchair, prosthetic limbs or any other condition different to what society considers “standard” or “normal” By the way, I hate that word because whose to say what’s really “normal?”
What I’d really like to see is for people’s minds to be more open, to NOT let other things about someone’s physical looks define or determine what that person can do. Why not let him or her show you what he or she can do or just who they really are, as a person, how they are on the inside…?
My hope is that more people with disabilities or in wheelchairs are given the opportunity to work on TV, with their talent, and be on tv permanently, not just once as a guest, for an “inspirational story” segment. I am fighting to get those opportunities, as a host, working on tv, because of my talent as a communicator. And the wheelchair shouldn’t be relevant or a big deal. It’s just how I happen to get around in life, but my wheels don’t define me. I’ve been featured on numerous tv shows Spanish and English speaking because of my inspiring story, which I’m very grateful for, but I’m trying to get past that. It’s not just about my story and wheelchair but let me show you what I can do, what I’m capable of . I am the host of a tv segment called “Beauty on Wheels” covering a variety of fashion and beauty things, but that wasn’t easy to get…
As for modeling…well I continued to model, even after this beauty pageant that denied me the opportunity to go forward. And no, it wasn’t easy to do that either. If you only knew some of the harsh comments people said on social media… things such as “what is she thinking? She’d never be able to model… she can’t walk” or “a beauty queen and in a wheelchair? Never” or “beauty and disability simply don’t go together” some of those comments were thrown at me after my audition, and some really got to me, as strong as I am. But by the same token 90% of the comments were positive and people wishing and wanting I could have been given that chance…
The world of modeling is so superficial…as you probably know it. There are so very few opportunities for models with different abilities. I truly hope we see more. That we just accept people for who they are and see the beauty in them and accept and EMBRACE diversity, being different, but truly, on an everyday basis, not just once at an event to get public’s attention and benefit from that or for exposure. But that on an everyday basis, people with disabilities are seen for who they are and see past their disability or just in general past people’s differences. At the end of the day, we’re all different either way.
Articles have been published about me and I said to a writer, as I believe the media helps, or doesn’t, in reinforcing societies misconceptions and negative stereotypes, I said “Please don’t call me ‘disabled’ model” I said “because if I’m a good model I should just be a ‘model’ or just call it like it is a ‘model in a wheelchair’ -there is no need to disable me as an individual, it automatically lowers my abilities as a model by calling me a ‘disabled model’” and that’s the title she used for that article, which is an awesome way to turn things around, and awesome to be able to educate people and stand up for what I believe in, as what I’m doing in writing this letter to you!
Models with different abilities, and actually considered as professional models are being given very few opportunities. I’m happy to say that after all I’ve faced as a model, I made it to Mercedes-Benz Fashion week this February 2015 and was a huge milestone for me! Mainly because of what I’ve gone through in all these years in my modeling career and while backstage at MBFW NY, I remember thinking “I’m so glad I didn’t let people’s opinions limit me in my abilities because had I listened to them, I wouldn’t be here right now! I probably would have stopped modeling all together!” They basically told me I wasn’t good enough to model at the level of “fully abled models” and there I was backstage with a few other models in wheelchairs, but most of them were standing models! That’s badass lol!
*But don’t glamorize this experience because opportunities like this need to happen more and more! And I’m not just talking about the modeling, fashion and beauty industry! These are some of the worlds in which I’m trying to breakthrough and break barriers so people see me for who I am, for my talent, and see past my wheels. But more opportunities for people with different abilities need to happen all around! And we need people to open up to that and act on it, to care and do something because anyone can sustain a spinal cord injury, for example, and become paralyzed, anyone, no one is exempt from this!! Like what would YOU do if this were to happen to you? How would you like for people to see you? What would you like from society? I hope this speaks to you and your family in some way!
But you know what is cool? You happen to live in these worlds (modeling/fashion/beauty) and even probably have happened to feel the pressures from the superficialities… Maybe you have connected with me and the things I’ve gone through… You can also use this experience to reflect and maybe turn this around and do something for this community! It takes a strong and humble individual to realize they made a mistake. From a mistake, however, and in accepting so, you grow.
Thank you for reading this, if you have, Kylie Jenner, and to any and all of you who have read this also! I wish you the best in all that you do in life!
*In hopes of educating people, as well as inspiring, PLEASE FEEL FREE TO SHARE THIS POST!
I leave you with what I wrote about Beauty:“Beauty is that spark that you have that makes you stand out, that is hard to pinpoint, but makes you shine! Beauty to me isn’t necessarily a perfect body, perfect face or image because there’s no perfection. Although it seems that our society is always striving for physical and aesthetic perfection… Beauty to me is much further than perfection or symmetry though; it comes from a person believing in themselves and accepting, loving, and embracing who they are. And often times, confidence makes someone truly beautiful, you just sometimes don’t know confidence is what makes that person beautiful. To me different IS beautiful. Focusing on INNER BEAUTY has been far more meaningful and important for me to work on, than the outside beauty. There’s different types of beauty and is what I’ve learned through becoming paralyzed and living in a wheelchair. Modeling in a wheelchair helps me show the world that there’s different types of beauty; that although I may be different and don’t meet many of the previously set standards in the beauty and modeling industry… I can still be beautiful! And that’s what I want everyone to know. That no matter what you look like, how different you might be, that makes you unique and you’ve got to accept it, own it, be proud of it, flaunt it and feel that you ARE beautiful! You just have to believe it so the world can see it too . Be beautiful, be bold, be you, always! ”
–Tamara Mena, Motivational speaker, Host and Model.
Below are some of my modeling photos!
At Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Feb. 2015 with Vertical Fondazione and FTL Moda.
Gabriela Hasbun- Photographer
Mitch Macias, photographer Mark Verschelden, photographer
Andrew Angulo, photographer
Garth Milan, photographer.
Chris Matysuk, photographer