Posing for modelling shoots in swimming pools and remote castles may sound glamorous but for aspiring model Katie Knowles, it’s more than just creating a good photo.
The 25-year-old from Newcastle wants to make history by becoming the first plus-size disabled model in the UK.
Katie was diagnosed with crippling conditions disc degenerative disease and spinal stenosis – or as she calls them ‘the granny diseases,’ as they can result in loss of mobility, pain and paralysis – when she was 15.
After surgery and a few months of rehabilitation, Katie was once again leading an active life – enjoying her love of badminton, horse riding and ballet.
However, her recovery was short lived and as the pain worsened she had to undergo major surgery four years later.
‘I felt a pain on the back of my right leg and it just felt like I was getting dead leg. I went to the GP and initially they thought it was just sciatica – which was still surprising for someone my age to get, but then everything just spiralled.
‘I woke up and it was the scariest thing ever. I thought, “I cannot feel my lower half.”’
It took over a year of intense physiotherapy before Katie was able to take her first steps again. She gained back most feeling in her left leg but the right leg remains largely immobile.
And although Katie made massive improvements, and was still able to ride a horse, eventually she had to come to terms with the fact that she would never walk unaided again.
It took the law graduate over a year to learn how to walk again and she now alternates between using a wheelchair and crutches. Constantly on morphine to handle the pain, Katie has to do an hour of physio exercises every day, but she’s determined to not let her disability define her.
Models of Diversity, a charity which wants to promote a more diverse representation of beauty in the fashion industry, approached Katie during her rehabilitation. Since doing some shoots and catwalk shows for them, her modelling career has snowballed.
‘It’s been my dream since I was a little girl to be a solicitor but at the same time, when I got ill and the modelling opportunity came up, it gave me confidence and gave my life back.
‘We’ve got a few disabled models but they are not plus size. We don’t even have any household plus-size models over here – we call Kelly Brook plus size – I just call her curvy!
‘People have got it ingrained in their minds that beauty looks like one thing and disability isn’t included in that by the fashion industry or media.’
Katie has been campaigning with fellow disabled models as part of the One in Six campaign – the proportion of people in the UK with a disability. They are petitioning the Government to put more pressure on the fashion industry to be more inclusive.
‘If someone is flicking through a magazine and they see a model who is an amputee or in a wheelchair they would usually react because it’s so different to see, but I don’t want it to be like that – I want it to be “she’s just normal.”
‘We wear the same clothes, we buy from the same shops, why aren’t we represented?’ asks Katie.
‘I’ve had men say to me, “But you’re way too pretty to be in a wheelchair”, and they always ask if I can have sex. I‘ve had women say to me I’m pretty “considering” – considering what?!’
But that’s not what her boyfriend of a year, Matt, thinks.
‘My first impressions of Katie were that she was beautiful and I didn’t really notice the disability if I’m honest. I’m proud of her because she has achieved a lot,’ he says.
After completing her solicitor-training contract, Katie is planning to travel in Australia, where she hopes to reclaim some of the lost years of her life.
‘I feel like I got stripped of my teenage years or the chance to go on a gap year. So I want to travel, let loose and just be.
‘I just feel like regardless of having a disability you shouldn’t let things stop you.’