PHILADELPHIA — Born without a right forearm, Rebekah Marine was always embarrassed by her disability. As a youngster, she tried to hide it and nearly gave up her dreams of modeling.
Those dreams will come true in a big way Saturday (Sept. 12) when Marine struts down the runway at New York Fashion Week, knocking down barriers about beauty.
Marine, 28, of West Deptford, N.J., who has a bionic prosthetic hand, hopes to inspire others with disabilities, especially youngsters.
“We should all be celebrating uniqueness,” she said in a recent interview. “We don’t have to fit the stereotype.”
She will be joined on the runway by four others who don’t fit the mold, including Australian teen sensation Madeline Stuart, 18, who has Down syndrome and is also making her New York Fashion Week debut.
Stuart, too, hopes to open doors for the disabled. She has done an advertising campaign for the lifestyle brand EverMaya — with 5 percent of sales profits for a bag named after her earmarked for the National Down Syndrome Society — and posed for Manifesta, a fitness brand.
“I am a model. I hope through modeling I can change society’s view of people with disabilities. Exposure is creating awareness, acceptance and inclusion,” Stuart wrote on her Facebook page.
They will walk for the fashion designer FTL Moda, who has designed clothes for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé. Earlier this year, the Italian company featured its first-ever male amputee model, along with models in wheelchairs and on crutches.
“It’s a matter of making this world a little better,” show producer Ilaria Niccolini said. “I would like to see this beauty coming out. We want to break the rules and have fun doing it.”
Marine walked in February’s New York Fashion Week and shot with Nordstrom for its 2015 anniversary catalog. She feels her acceptance is growing in an industry that celebrates perfect bodies.
She wears an i-limb quantum, considered one of the most advanced prosthetic hands in the world. She began modeling four years ago after getting the bionic arm at the suggestion of a friend.
“I kind of took the idea and ran with it,” she said. “It has become something bigger than me. I represent a whole group of people, thousands of people over the world who struggle with their image.”
As a child, Marine tried breaking into the fashion industry. Her mother toted her to agencies in New York.
“It became known very quickly that I wouldn’t have a future in it. I gave up the idea of modeling,” she said.
In high school, Marine said she was self-conscious about her arm. She was reluctant to talk about it or take photos in which it could be seen. She worried boys wouldn’t find her attractive.
“I always felt like I was the ugly duckling,” she said.
Despite recent success landing assignments, making headway in the fashion industry has not been easy. Marine still doesn’t have an agency behind her, and getting someone to give her portfolio a glance has been challenging.
But the difference, she says, is that now she exudes confidence. She has received support from Models of Diversity, an international advocacy group.
At 5-foot-3 and 110 pounds, Marine stands in stark contrast to her more traditional, statuesque counterparts.
“I always joke that my height is my biggest disability,” she said. “They always want taller models on runways. I got the short end of the stick.”
An advertising graduate of Rowan University, in Glassboro, N.J., Marine has spent most of her career as a car saleswoman. She currently is employed at a Nissan dealership.
She is a volunteer ambassador for the Lucky Fin Project, an organization that raises awareness and support for those with upper-limb differences. She spends time at camps teaching children not to let their disabilities limit their futures.
“She’s trying to change how people define beauty,” said Molly Stapelman, of Royal Oak, Mich., who founded the group in honor of her daughter, Ryan, 8, who was born with six fingers.
Marine said she would be thinking about how she can inspire others as she gets runway-ready for Saturday’s show. Her ultimate goal is to land on the cover of Vogue.
“I feel so blessed to be able to get a second chance” at modeling, she said. “You never know.”
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