Can Disabled Models Rock the Runway and Reality TV?

A new reality TV modeling competition features physically disabled contestants.

July 1, 2008 — -- Blond hair, blue eyes. 5 foot 11, 130 pounds.

One arm.

They're not the typical stats of a would-be model. But "Britian's Missing Top Model" hopes to change all that. The reality competition, premiering tonight in Great Britain on BBC Three follows eight hopefuls vying to prove they have what it takes to make it in the mainstream fashion world. The deal: Contestants pack into a Chelsea penthouse and, over the course of three weeks, get whittled down through a series of challenges. The prize: a high-fashion photo spread in the British edition of Marie Claire magazine.

The difference between this show and "America's Next Top Model": All the women have a disability.

Kelly Knox was born without a left forearm. Lilli Risner is deaf. Debbie Van der Putten is missing most of her right arm. Jenny Johnson is partially paralyzed.

"I was in a very serious car accident in December 2002," said Johnson, 22, a Seattle native who auditioned for the series after a photographer friend noticed an ad on

"Because of my brain injury, I have a slight limp in my gait. It's a little off. I still walk, I still talk -- too much actually -- but my personality is not anything like it was before the accident. Modeling was a dream I had been working toward for so long," Johnson said.

It's a novel idea for both the modeling industry and reality TV. There are very few disabled models working in mainstream fashion -- Brazilian Brenda Costa, who is deaf, is probably the most famous -- and disabled contestants seldom sign on to reality competitions. And it's timely, with the fashion world under the gun for displaying too little diversity on its runways (Italian Vogue's July issue features all-black models in an attempt to combat that criticism) and, perhaps, too little compassion for the young beauties it absorbs (as in the apparent suicide of 20-year-old Ruslana Korshunova).

"On the one hand [the goal of the show] is to give the girls taking part a shot in the mainstream industry. On the other, it's to challenge general perceptions of what is and isn't beautiful," said co-executive producer Doug James. "Why can't an extremely attractive model in a wheelchair be used to sell the latest Prada outfit?"

While James said the "Missing Top Model" judges won't "say this person is better than this person because they worked harder to overcome their disability," he admitted that "challenges for individuals will be different" based on physical limitations. Johnson felt a recent surgery put her at a disadvantage.

"I had a cast that went clear past my elbow. It held my arm in a certain position, and it was very hard to deal with," she said.

But "Missing Top Model" mentor Jonathan Phang, a former agent whose past clients include Naomi Campbell, Jerry Hall and "America's Next Top Model" host Tyra Banks, said the only thing holding back the show's contestants is the industry's perception of them.

"At this point, people might use a disabled girl for a gimmick. They might exploit it. I don't think the industry uses disability in a positive way right now. But I hope our show will change that," he said. "The girls that we have on this show have all the qualities that a fledging model should have. The disabled girls don't have a problem with their disability. It's the industry that has the problem accepting them."

It's possible a similar series could make it to American screens. Ken Mok, executive producer of "America's Next Top Model," has cast partially blind and mentally disabled contestants before, and he's open to the idea of a competition among all-disabled models.

"If it allows people to see disabled people in a different light than they normally would, I fully applaud that," he said. "That's something Tyra [Banks] and I have always tried to do."

"Missing Top Model's" six-episode run begins tonight, and at the moment, there are no plans to commission a second season. Phang hopes six hours will be enough to show the industry disabled models are employable -- perhaps more so than the girls on the runway now.

"It's easier to accommodate the problems of our girls than the problems of a spoiled teenage model making vast amounts of money with no value for it," he said. "If you don't want to show someone with a missing arm, you just put her in a different position."

But consider this: Months after countries like Spain and Britain instituted rules banning too-thin models from their runways, the skinny, heroin-chic aesthetic still prevails. Sea change doesn't come fast in fashion, regardless of whether its well-meaning and politically correct.

"Fashion is a very perverse, very limited kind of world that has its own sort of ungovernable aesthetic. Historically, it's not a very accommodating place," said Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's and author of "Eccentric Glamour." "That's why when people try to inject it with some healthy, normal ideas, it doesn't work. There's no reason people can't challenge that aesthetic at any given time, but fashion tends to evolve on its own terms."