Earlier this year the agency Bareface Model and Talent became the first in the region with a TODAA – a Talent of Determination and Alternative Appearance division – representing models who also happen to be people of determination. By doing so, the agency is on a mission to break down the barriers impeding their full acceptance and inclusion in society.
Agency head Vera Nur first noticed those barriers as a child.
“We had a neighbor with a Down’s syndrome child,” she told the Livehealthy podcast. “I grew up with her and it never made sense to me why she couldn’t go to the same school as me or why she couldn’t be friends with the other kids I was friends with.”
It gradually dawned on Vera that her little playmate’s exclusion was the consequence of prejudice – the prejudice of other parents and of wider society against people who look different or have different abilities. This realization took on greater meaning when Vera’s mother remarried and her new relatives included twin boys with autism. She saw the parents struggle to get the children into the right school, where they could blossom.
“That was how the seed was planted in me,” she says.
Occasionally the agency would receive inquiries for “special needs” models, but recruiting any proved difficult – until Vera got a call from Abu Dhabi resident Sara Momtaz.
Sara, 44, is mother to Amani, an adorable toddler with Down’s syndrome. She is also fiercely committed to achieving full integration into society for her daughter, and all others who the world is too quick to write off.
“Inclusion in the UAE has embraced different nationalities, religions and cultures and the same needs to happen for people of determination,” says Sara. “I want to move beyond inclusion to representation and to valuing those people,” she says.
Sara is already working with the education and employment departments and other bodies to increase the inclusion of people of determination into every branch of mainstream society. One way, she argues, is to make them more visible – for example, by featuring them in advertising campaigns. Hence Sara’s call to Vera at Bareface.
It was Sara’s cousin, a successful male model for more than 20 years, who suggested she contact Vera about modeling opportunities – and it could not have gone better.
“I had been wanting to do this for so long, I jumped at it,” says Vera. “I said, ‘Can you get me into your community?’ and before I knew it I was on a WhatsApp group, then another, and it grew from there.”
Bareface has now signed up 25 young models to its TODAA division “and we’re getting more every day”, adds Vera. “The community is growing and we’re seeing so much support.”
This comes not only from the families of people of determination, but also from brands.
“We did a shoot for Huda Beauty and they were very open, very creative,” says Vera. “They asked for models who were different, so I took along a girl with albinism. I realized this could work for any brand.”
“Parents may have never considered modeling as an option for their child but I tell them to think about the bigger picture. Nothing may come of it, so it doesn’t necessarily mean you get to save up for your child’s college fund, but it’s about opening up the subject of how society regards people of determination. And everyone is on board with that. Basically, we are going to teach the market to create demand.”
And it does change perceptions, adds Vera.
“One thing I hear a lot is, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’ This should have been the norm for years. It’s just that people don’t really think about people of determination. You don’t see them out and about or in ads or movies or everyday media. Even in schools and activities, they are separated.”
Amani’s mother Sara is the first to admit she was as guilty as anyone of giving little or no thought to people of determination. She was 13 weeks pregnant and visiting family in London when her doctor in Dubai called to say her prenatal test showed her baby was likely to have Down’s syndrome, and advised her to have a termination.
“I didn’t know anything about what Down’s syndrome meant, except that it was bad enough for my doctor to tell me to go have an abortion,” says Sara.
Feeling bewildered, she contacted the Down’s Syndrome Association in the UK.
“I was in floods of tears but the first thing the lady on the phone said to me was ‘Congratulations’. It took me aback but she said it again, “Yes, congratulations on your pregnancy.” She calmed me down and said she was not there to tell me what to do, but she could give me some facts. That’s what we need to have here in the UAE. The only reason the news about my baby was so disappointing and saddening was because it has such a negative stigma.”
Amani was born in 2019 on December 2, the UAE’s National Day. She is now a beautiful, loving and lovable child and, according to her mother, just like any other little girl.
“It can take her a little longer to do things but that’s all, and she has taught us all so many lessons about love and acceptance.”
Amani has already had her first photography session, which she enjoyed enormously, and can be seen on the Bareface website.
“I am looking forward to the day when we can see one of these kids on a billboard,” says her proud mother.
In general, there is greater demand for children aged five and above, simply because they are mobile and can follow directions better, but Vera has high hopes that big brands such as airlines and hotel chains will start featuring people of determination in their campaigns.
“They are just as likely to be clients as anyone else,” she says. “So why would you exclude them?”
All TODAA models work under exactly the same contract and are paid the same fees as any other model at Bareface. And although Vera is certainly a pioneer, will others in the industry follow her lead?
“They have to, otherwise it’s as if they’re admitting they are backward-looking and don’t want to participate in the future – and this is the future. Back in the 1990s, plus-size models didn’t exist and no one even considered them. But things change. We’ve already had the first model with vitiligo [a condition in which the skin loses pigmentation, resulting in discolored patches].
“A lot of people don’t think about disability because they haven’t been exposed to it. It’s our job to represent people of determination and explain why inclusion is important and what a positive effect it could bring to a brand, which it definitely will. I’m just so grateful that parents are trusting us with this.
“Imagine the first time you see a person of determination in an airline campaign – what a positive change that will be. It says ‘We’re inclusive, considerate, forward-thinking’. I can’t imagine anyone saying they’d rather stay in their cave and not participate in that change. It just needs one person to get the dominoes falling.”
Vera Nur was a guest on the Livehealthy podcast on May 12, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.