Challenging an Industry's Bias
The fashion industry is periodically challenged to revise biases and it’s standards of beauty. Donayale Luna was the first African American model to appear on a magazine cover (British Vogue) in 1966. The inclusion rider phenomenon has been slow to take hold in this particular industry, which has seemingly rigid standards that it stubbornly wants to retain. This year, however, Aaron Philip comes on the scene and takes a bold shot at disrupting the fashion industry’s narrative of what a runway should look like.
A Path to the Runway, Paved With Hardship
By Tyler Blint-Welsh
For a long time, being online was where Aaron Philip felt most confident.
She began documenting her daily life on Tumblr when she was 11, writing about her love of anime and the experience of growing up in New York City with cerebral palsy. In those days, Aaron got online with a MacBook and a personal Wi-Fi hot spot at a homeless shelter in Manhattan, where she lived with her father after her medical bills became too expensive.
“I took to the internet to find community and build a space for myself where I could be loved and appreciated,” she said.
Despite her circumstances, Aaron projected a positive attitude online, once telling her followers: “Sometimes, it’s you who has to trigger your own happiness.”
Aaron, 17, now lives in an apartment in the Bronx. She doesn’t go anywhere without her iPad, which usually sits on a tray attached to her motorized wheelchair. She’s graduated from Tumblr to Twitter and Instagram, where she has become a champion of issues affecting gay, transgender and disabled youth.
Last fall, Aaron announced her ambition to become a model. “I bleached my hair, and I bought a new wardrobe with the intentions of going viral, which is crazy,” she said with a laugh.
Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times Gabriella Angotti-Jones/The New York Times
Aaron’s confidence is no longer confined to the internet. To jump-start her modeling career, she used Instagram to send messages to fashion photographers and set up photo shoots, which landed her campaigns with brands such as ASOS and H&M. In July, she became the first black transgender model — and the first physically disabled model — to be signed to Elite Model Management.
The signing comes at a time when the fashion industry is starting to respond to decades of criticism for practices that made tall, thin, white women its standard for beauty.
Nearly 40 percent of the models at New York Fashion Week in February were models of color, up from 21 percent in 2015, according to an annual diversity report conducted by The Fashion Spot.
Halima Aden became the first hijab-wearing model to be signed to a major agency in February 2017. In 2015, IMG signed Jillian Mercado, a Dominican model with muscular dystrophy. Teddy Quinlivan is a global top model; no one knew that she was trans until she came out publicly last year.
Elite’s commitment to Aaron is another sign that agencies are serious about challenging old habits. “I’m obviously trans, and disabled, and black, which is something that’s not seen, and should be seen,” Aaron said.
For her agent, Richie Keo, the hope is that agents will continue to sign more models who shatter industry stereotypes. “I think it’s really great to be able to share that with the world and open other people’s eyes that beauty isn’t just, you know, a 5-foot-10-inch, size-zero model,” Mr. Keo said.
Aaron first showed up on Elite’s radar in January, after Hunter Schafer, another Elite model and one of Aaron’s best friends, had put in a word for her. The agency didn’t commit right away but continued to watch her progress over the course of a few months.
“I think the most important thing to see is someone’s passion and how they really convey it,” Mr. Keo said. “You could see the drive, and you could see that ‘it’ factor that you see in other models that started young and became stars.”
Aaron said that she credits her experience in the homeless shelter with teaching her to develop the discipline she has used to launch her budding career as a model.
“I had a very tough childhood,” she said. “Living the life that I’ve lived, I just feel like my head is in a space where I know what I have to do and when I have to do it.”
Her first official shoot for Elite was in a hotel suite overlooking the Hudson River in August. The agency plans to send the photographs to major designers looking to book their upcoming runway shows at fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris and Milan.
In the meantime, Aaron is entering her senior year at the New York City Lab School for Collaborative Studies, where she leads the Gender Sexuality Alliance. She uses Access-A-Ride or Uber to get around town, often meeting photographers and creative directors in parks for meetings and photo shoots.
At one shoot in Brooklyn in July, she had to change outfits while others lifted her out her wheelchair and held her up behind a tree. Going from that experience to flying across the world to model would be “mind-blowing,” she said.
“I just don’t want this to end with me,” Aaron added. “I want to have an impact where other people like me are just going to be the industry, and like it’s nothing.”
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 1, 2018, on Page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: A Teenager’s Path to the Runway, Paved With Hardship.