As a teenager, Shelby Lynch could never have imagined becoming a model.
It interested her, but because of her disability, she assumed it would be impossible.
“I felt like the fashion industry was closed off to me,” she told Insider.
Lynch has spinal muscular atrophy type 2, an inherited disease that affects the motor neurons, which means she has to use a wheelchair and a ventilator.
“I rarely came across disabled models when I was growing up,” she said, “never mind ones that looked like me.”
The 23-year-old had all but written off her modeling dreams until three years ago, when she was contacted by a scout from a new talent agency — Zebedee Management – founded to increase the representation of models with disabilities in the media.
“It was a huge confidence boost,” Lynch said. “I was really excited to see what jobs I could get and also to see that Zebedee was really pushing for more inclusivity.”
After being signed by Zebedee, Lynch managed to secure a job with a luxury British designer. She became the face of Kurt Geiger’s “We Are One” campaign.
Lynch is just one of the hundreds of success stories enabled by Zebedee Management, the talent agency on a mission to normalize disabilities and redefine what it means to be beautiful.
How Zebedee Management was created
London-based Zebedee Management is the first of its kind. It was launched in 2017 by Zoe Proctor, a model turned teacher, and Laura Johnson, a social worker.
The idea was born while walking on a beach, as the two women discussed the lack of representation of people with disabilities in the media.
Proctor, who had been teaching performing arts to adults with disabilities, said she was disappointed that so many of her talented students missed out on the chance to get work in the industry.
A 2018 study from the Ruderman Family Foundation found that actors without disabilities played an overwhelming majority of roles for characters with disabilities.
Representation of people with disabilities in fashion is similarly disappointing. About 0.02% of fashion and beauty campaigns feature models with disabilities, Refinery 29 reported.
This is critically low representation, given that about one-quarter of all adults in the US have a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Using social media, contacts at disability charities, and an online application system to find suitable agency candidates, Zebedee Management has flourished. It now represents more than 500 people from the UK, US, Australia, and Europe.
‘If you’re different, that just makes you more beautiful’
Zebedee Management’s mission is to promote disability inclusion in the media, Alice Winson, the agency’s press manager, told Insider.
“We get jobs brought to us that are medical adverts and things that the client specifically needs a disabled person for,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s paid work, and we’re still going to go for it.”
But the agency aspires for bigger things for those it represents.
“Our overarching goal is to make sure that our models and actors get cast in roles that weren’t put out just for disabled people. We want incidental casting,” Winson said.
The agency hopes brands will eschew traditional picks and instead opt for bolder choices by putting forward its models for all kinds of casting.
Winson said a core belief for Zebedee Management was that differences should be celebrated.
“If you’re different, we think that just makes you more beautiful,” Winson said.
The influence of Ellie Goldstein’s Gucci campaign
In 2020, Zebedee Management broke a major barrier by securing a high-profile job for one of its models.
It put forward 18-year-old Ellie Goldstein, who has Down syndrome, for a Gucci Beauty campaign.
Goldstein was chosen to be the face of the brand and subsequently featured in a Vogue Italia shoot.
Her selection catapulted Goldstein into fame as the first person with Down syndrome to pose for a major fashion house.
The post now has almost 900,000 likes and thousands of positive comments.
“Ellie is now a hot commodity,” Winson said. “Other brands saw the traction that Gucci got from Ellie’s post and realized casting disabled models isn’t just a fad.”
“The impact of Ellie Goldstein’s casting is that it has changed people’s beliefs about what someone with a disability can achieve,” she added.
‘Casting agents even asked me when I was going to get out of my wheelchair’
Brinston Tchana, a 22-year-old actor and model, hopes his career can inspire people to reassess their prejudices about people with disabilities.
“I hope that people recognize that being disabled doesn’t mean that we’re incapable of doing anything. We just have different abilities,” he told Insider.
Tchana joined Zebedee Management after a couple of unsuccessful years trying to establish a modeling career by himself.
“Every single job I went for, there was always the drawback of being in a wheelchair,” he said.
Tchana was getting a lot of interest from his headshots. But when casting agents discovered he used a wheelchair, they would frequently rejected him, he said.
“A few times, casting agents even asked me when I was going to get out of my wheelchair,” Tchana said. “The discrimination was painful and very upsetting.”
The model was an aspiring soccer star in one of Spain’s top clubs, Atlético de Madrid, when he lost his ability to walk after an accident when he was 17.
In place of a sporting career, he set his sights on making it in modeling. But he said the constant setbacks and discrimination left him unsure whether to continue pursuing that path.
But in 2019, he received a message from a scout at Zebedee Management and immediately signed with it.
Since then, Tchana has modeled for Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger. He’s also featured in the hit TV shows “Sex Education” and “Hollyoaks.”
“If you told me after my accident that I’d have secured these jobs, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said. “But now I’m being seen, looked at, and people realize that I’m able to accomplish amazing things in my wheelchair.”
Tchana thinks that Zebedee Management’s mission is an important one.
“I want people to realize that disabled people can still achieve their dreams,” he said. “That is, ultimately, what we’re fighting for.”
‘We will do everything we can to protect our models’
To avoid the sort of discrimination that Tchana had been exposed to, the talent agency has introduced procedures to protect its actors, models, and influencers from harm in the notoriously ruthless industries.
“We pride ourselves on being sensitive,” Winson said. “We will do everything we can to protect our models from anything that could cause distress in the workplace.”
To ensure that all shoots and castings are welcoming to those it represents, Zebedee Management agents often scope out locations to ensure they are wheelchair-accessible.
“Things like that aren’t always guaranteed because the modeling industry is so cutthroat,” Winson said. “But we always fight on behalf of that model to rectify the situation.”
Zebedee Management also works to ensure that its models are getting fair rates.
“We will discuss rates with bookers to ensure that they’re not getting underpaid because they have a disability or difference,” Winson said.
There’s also an awareness that some of the agency’s models get mistreated online.
“I get a lot of negative comments online because of my disability,” Lynch said. “I try to leave that to one side, but it can really get to you.”
To protect the models against trolling, Zebedee Management has set up an online support network for everyone it represents. They communicate on a private Facebook group and share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences.
The agency also works to ensure that those it represents are resilient enough to face the rejection and public scrutiny that can come with modeling, acting, and fame.
“When we’re signing models, we will always have a conversation with them first,” Winson said.
“We will never set anyone up to fail if we don’t think they can hack the industry,” she added.
‘The brands could be virtue signaling’
While Zebedee Management has achieved great success in getting jobs for its models, it is aware that some brands can are practicing tokenism when casting people with disabilities.
“Sometimes you get a one-time booking from a brand, and they never come back to you as an agency to reuse any models or even cast different ones,” Winson said. “It does sort of show that the brands could be virtue signaling.”
Virtue signaling is when a company or person disingenuously promotes a moral value with the sole intent of bettering their reputation.
Lynch agrees that this is a problem in the industry.
“If you use us as models, include us in adverts, on the website, in promotions, don’t just put us in one-off campaigns,” she said. “Otherwise, it looks like we’re the token disabled person.”
That being said, Zebedee Management is pragmatic.
“At the end of the day, it is still work, and they’re putting a disabled model in the public sphere,” Winson said.
“But fortunately, this is happening less and less,” she added. “Campaigns featuring disabled models always get so much positive attention that the brands almost always come back to us.”
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