Shaholly Ayers is the type of girl you can easily picture gracing the cover of any major fashion magazine. She’s tall and tanned with beautiful exotic features and the kind of perfect figure that women spend countless hours at the gym trying to achieve. She’s also very photogenic. So it’s not hard to believe that she’s a model. But Shaholly is up against some pretty tough odds when it comes to the fashion industry. It’s hard enough trying to make it in the modeling world when you have the looks and the talent, but Shaholly has something else that makes her unique in her chosen field: she was born without her right arm below the elbow. But if you think that’s deterred her from pursuing her passion in any way, you couldn’t be more wrong. Shaholly is determined to become the first amputee model to make it in the fashion world.
I recently had a Skype chat with Shaholly and asked her a few questions about her work as a model and her future goals. Read on:
So how did you get started in modeling?
Ever since I was a little kid, I loved posing for the camera and always wanted to be the center of attention. But as I grew up, I really started to feel that there was a stigma with disability in society. People said things to me like, “Oh, you’d be so pretty if you had two arms.” But I’m pretty just the way I am. I grew up thinking that I was perfectly fine and that there was nothing wrong with me. So when other people started saying condescending things, it made me realize that I was different. And now I’m determined to change other people’s notions of what it means to be beautiful. So my interest in modeling goes a lot deeper for me. It’s not all about just looking pretty. It’s a big statement I’m making on behalf of people like myself, who are amputees and who look different.
I entered my first modeling competition when I was 12. I remember getting really upset because I got honorable mention but no awards. My mom didn’t let me enroll in any more competitions after that. So I had to wait until I was 18 to really pursue it once I moved out.
Have you been to any any auditions where they commented on your arm or dismissed you because of it?
I tried out for America’s Next Top Model several times. I went the farthest in cycle 13, when they featured the shorter models – I’m 5’7″. I made the top 20, but I was surprised that I made it so far without anyone mentioning my arm. That was very different from my experience at the first modeling agency I went to. It was when I first got to Hawaii and didn’t have a portfolio but thought I’d give it a try. The people at the agency told me there was no way I would ever model, that having one arm meant I would never get signed. The woman said that she didn’t see anybody taking my photograph and that it was never going to happen for me. So that was my first encounter with modeling.
What has been your proudest moment as a model?
After being told by the first agency I visited that I would never be a model because of my arm, I worked hard to build up my portfolio. I went to photographer after photographer and started working with as many people as I could. Some of the photoshoots were bad, but overall I got a lot of good photographs out of the experience. When I went back to that same agency some time later and showed them my portfolio, the woman looked through it and immediately signed me. She said there was no way that she could turn me away after looking at my pictures. It went full circle, so that was really cool.
I think a prosthetic is a tool, and I think it’s a very positive thing. I had one when I was little and used it all the time. But as I grew older and went through puberty, I had a stick-it-to-the-man attitude about it because I wanted to just be myself and not have to conform. So I took it off. But what I soon realized was that sometimes I need it. So I use my prosthetic when I work out and when I’m kayaking or paddleboarding, but it’s not something I use day-to-day. I think it’s also a tool when it comes to modeling. As a model, I’m going to have to fill out shirts and jackets. I don’t think wearing my prosthetic in that situation is negative at all. If anything, I can make it part of my outfit or make it really ornate and cool. If there’s something I want to convey that I can better convey with the prosthesis, then I’ll go with that. Otherwise, no. So I’m fine with both, but I’m more comfortable with it off because I can move better. It just depends on the situation. But whether or not I’m wearing my prosthetic, I don’t let it define me. I am my own person.
What sort of pressure have you, as an amputee model, felt from the industry or from people commenting on your role as a model?
When I first started out, there was a lot of hiding. Photographers often don’t want to show my arm, so I was turning to the side and hiding myself in the beginning because they would work with me only if they didn’t see my arm. But I felt like the industry forced me to be somebody else in order to create an image that wasn’t me and wasn’t the whole truth. I think the media and the society we live in pressure us women to think that we have to be perfect, that just because I’m missing a portion of my arm somehow means that I’m less of a person by beauty standards. That got to me a lot because no matter how much makeup you put on me, I’m still going to be missing my arm. That was difficult for me to deal with, especially when I was younger.
Were you ever teased or picked on because of your arm?
Yes, I was. I actually think that molded me and helped me to become who I am. I mean, it was hard. I grew up in a small town in central Oregon, and children weren’t the only ones who stared and made comments. When it was a kid who did it, I was a lot more understanding. But I never thought adults could be so mean too. In high school I was picked on by both teachers and students. My track coach used to refer to me as the “one-armed freak,” and I was teased quite a lot. I used to wear long-sleeved shirts to hide my arm because I didn’t want people to see it. I did that for about a year until finally – I think it was in seventh grade – I decided that I didn’t care anymore what people thought of me. It made me strong to say, “This is who I am, like it or not.” And I still got crap for it – I still do to this day. You don’t get used to that, but you learn how to deal with it.
They’d better! I can just see it. Right now, I’m excited because there are so many women out there changing the way people look at disability. There’s Nicole Kelly, who was just crowned Miss Iowa and will compete in the Miss America pageant. And then there’s Sarah Herron who was on The Bachelor. I think that it’s only a matter of time before the fashion world embraces this kind of diversity. I mean, Lady Gaga is so avant garde and out there. Why not take somebody who was actually born that way, with a physical difference, and use her as a model? I honestly feel like this is right around the corner.
Who do you look up to in terms of inspiration?
I really admire the artist P!nk. She’s so strong and ballsy, I love it! She speaks her mind and I think she’s a great role model.
What advice or words of wisdom do you have for young kids with limb differences or disabilities who have big dreams?
Go for your dreams, whatever they are. Whether or not you’re disabled, people like to tell you that you’re never going to accomplish your dreams. Ever. But you have to listen to your inner voice and be true to yourself anyway. All of us have that drive and that voice inside us that says, “No, I’ve got this and I can feel this.” Follow that voice, no matter what your passion is.
I’ve read a lot about an organization called Models of Diversity. What’s your role with them?
This is a really cool story. When I first started modeling, I heard about a show called Britain’s Missing Top Model. I looked up one of the models competing on the show, Debbie van der Putten, and contacted her through a modeling website about wanting to be on the show. That was five years ago. In December of last year, Debbie emailed me and told me that they’d actually been using some of my modeling images to promote the show! It was very coincidental that I met her. And she was involved with Models of Diversity, an organization committed to promoting differences in the fashion world. Angel, who is the founder, wanted to use me as one of their models. So that’s how it all started.
What are you working on right now and what upcoming projects are you excited about?
At the moment, I’m acting in a movie that we’re going to start filming soon. It’s called Olympia Reborn and it’s an independent film, so it should be shown at the different film festivals. I’m very excited about that because I’ve never acted in my life, so it will be something new for me. I’m also hoping that I will be going to the U.K. soon. I’m trying to get more recognition and put some money together so that I can fly over there and get work as a model. I’m filming a documentary for Models of Diversity right now too. It’s a new campaign for them. And I’m looking at putting together my own prosthetics company in the near future, so I’m trying to get all the people together for that.