Bri Scalesse. Photograph BY FRANKLIN YEEP COURTESY OF NOMAD MANAGEMENT. Graphic by Kayleen Dicuangco

“When I’m on the track, I feel really powerful. I feel present in my body.”

Bri Scalesse’s favorite part about modeling is the runway – the chaotic energy behind the scenes, the palpable excitement radiating from the audience, and the adrenaline that comes from using her body to bring a work of art to life. . “It’s such a shift in how I feel about people’s eyes on me,” she says. “As a person with a disability, I’m used to being stared at when I take to the streets or go about my life in general. But when I’m on the track, I feel really powerful. I feel present in my body.

The 27-year-old’s dream of being a model began when she became a wheelchair user aged six due to a car accident that left her legs paralyzed. She remembers flipping through the pages of magazines and seeing articles titled “How to Dress for Your Body Shape” that were accompanied by pictures of tall, short, or petite women, but none of the models were disabled. “No body looked like mine,” she said. “I realized there was this hole that made me feel like I didn’t know where I was.” Until she saw disabled actor and model Jillian Mercado featured in a clothing campaign in 2014, Scalesse hadn’t considered modeling a real possibility.

“I grew up feeling like my body wasn’t desirable, so I wanted to change that for myself but also for other people sitting down,” she explains. In 2019, two years after moving from Connecticut to New York, she landed her first campaign job for Ffora, a brand of wheelchair accessories. It was “a dream situation,” she says, because everyone on set understood the importance of accessibility. Since then, Scalesse has rolled at New York Bridal Fashion Week and on Project track and appeared in global campaigns for brands like Nars and Ugg.

Bri Scalesse. Photography BY NASRA NIMAGA

As her modeling career has grown, so has her social media presence. Scalesse has cultivated nearly half a million followers on TikTok, where she posts snippets of her life, promotes her work and raises awareness of issues affecting her community, including representation in the fashion industry. In a viral video, she begins by listing the discouraging comments directed at aspiring models with disabilities and follows them with a slide of photos from her many campaigns, captioned “Never say never”.

“It’s only now that we’re seeing people with visible disabilities beginning to be included in the body positivity movement,” she says, noting that brands often feature models with disabilities for one-off campaigns or brief moments. “I think equality will come when we see models with disabilities alongside models of all different body types all the time. I want more for my community.

Since she started modeling, Scalesse has experienced firsthand the ableism that exists within the industry. One of his very first concerts took place in an inaccessible place. The models’ designated dressing room was located at the bottom of a flight of stairs, with no way for her to descend safely. The only wheelchair-friendly spaces where she could get ready were the downstairs bathroom and kitchen, where she was completely separate from the other models. “I felt like I had no room, literally,” she says.

At the time, Scalesse often suffered in silence in the face of ableist working conditions. Now she always speaks for herself. But she shouldn’t have to. “I don’t think it should be on the model of having to fight so hard to exist somewhere in the same space as the other models,” she says. “Accessibility should be the norm, not an exception.”

The model’s bond with her wheelchair is one of pure love and intimacy. Years ago, she named her chair Aphrodite, or Aph for short, to symbolize that it’s a part of her, not just a tool she uses. But last summer, that part was removed when her chair was broken on a plane trip. “I knew I had a connection with Aphrodite, but when she was broken beyond repair, I realized how deep that connection was,” she says. “It was like this loss of my body – and a loss of me in many ways.” Seeing wheelchairs broken by airlines is a common experience for the disability community, Scalesse says, and it can be life-changing. “At that point, I was like, ‘How am I going to model? How will I go to work? How am I going to live my life?’ It took him about six weeks to get used to his new custom chair. She named it Onyx, inspired by Greek mythology (just like Aphrodite). Scalesse cites a creation myth in which the fingernails of the ancient goddess Aphrodite are cut and turned into onyx stone. “That really resonated with me, because Onyx was kind of born out of Aph.”

In addition to modeling, Scalesse has a passion for storytelling. In 2020, she earned a master’s degree in non-fiction writing from Columbia University. For her thesis, she has started working on a dissertation that she hopes to see published one day. “I want to show the immense complexities of being a woman with a disability in the world,” she says. “I just want people to see the details because I think sharing my story will help get my message across to my community.” For her, modeling and advocacy will always be linked. “I will continue to push for representation for the rest of my life,” she said. “I want to be in castings, in rooms and on catwalks with other people sitting down. I don’t want to be the only one at the table.

This article first appeared in THE FASHION Can emit. Learn more here.

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