Kelly Knox was born without left forearm and put disability on catwalk

The inspiring mum who put disability on the catwalk: Kelly Knox was born without her left forearm and endured vile prejudice, but ditched her prosthetic arm and is now a London Fashion Week and Primark model who inspires thousands

  • Kelly Knox, 34, wants disabled people to not feel ashamed or guilty about bodies
  • In 2017 she became one of first models with a disability at London Fashion Week
  • Model, from north London, has a son, and has featured in a Primark campaign

As the camera clicks, Kelly Knox is performing a kind of balletic dance in front of the lens, stepping and lunging and swaying while her extraordinary long golden hair is blown around by a machine.

‘When I started modelling,’ she says, ‘someone once said: “Kelly, it’s like you want to challenge the camera.” ’

And it’s true. It’s as if Kelly is saying: ‘Hey, look at me! Look at how beautiful I am.’

At 34 years old, the mother of a toddler and a healthy size 10 — at least one dress size bigger than the ‘usual’ fashion model — Kelly’s career is finally rocketing after 11 hard years of prejudice and rejection. 

Kelly Knox, 34, pictured, was born without a left forearm and wants disabled people to not feel ashamed or guilty about bodies

Fashion has started to embrace diversity: plus-size models are in more and more major fashion campaigns; models of colour are frequently on the front cover of Vogue; women over 50 have been welcomed on to the catwalks from Paris to Milan; and transgender models are visible too.

But disability — not a word Kelly likes — still has a long way to go. And Kelly is its formidable, not to mention stunning, ambassador in the fashion world. That she is missing her left forearm is — to Kelly — the least interesting thing about her life.

She certainly does not define herself by it, and yet she knows how powerful it is. She is using the way she was born to convey an important message: ‘You are beautiful, whatever you look like.’

Kelly says: ‘Although I know some people will resist my presence and my beauty, it will never will stop me. I want disabled people to feel the power — to not feel ashamed or guilty about their incredible body.

In 2017, Kelly became one of the first models with a disability to star at London Fashion Week, walking the catwalk for British/Irish design duo Teatum Jones.

‘I embody everything about the Teatum Jones woman: strong; confident and creative. Wearing their stunning white dress on the runway, I honestly felt like a real-life angel. The colour, design, tailoring, texture and material totally empowered me.’

The mother-of-one, pictured on the runway in 2018 for Teatum Jones, had a prosthetic arm as a child but by the age of six or seven she refused to wear it at all

In 2017 Kelly, pictured on the runway, became one of the first models with a disability to star at London Fashion Week, walking the catwalk for British/Irish design duo Teatum Jones

Labels and brands are beginning to wake up, either featuring disabled models in their fashion campaigns or creating long needed adaptive clothing lines for wheelchair users.

Tommy Hilfiger now has a line of adaptive clothing with one-handed zips, magnetic buttons and Velcro closures for men and women, while River Island, Nike, Asos and Marks & Spencer are among the growing number of brands committed to diversity.

Marks & Spencer’s Easy Dressing collection, launched last September, is the first High Street kidswear range for children with disabilities. Clothes go up to age 16, but the store has yet to commit to an adult range.

Of course the move is not just altruistic. It’s a savvy business step to tap into what has become known as the ‘purple pound’ — so called since purple is the signature colour adopted by disability groups.

Today, the spending power of disabled people across retail and leisure is worth £249 billion to the UK economy.

Currently, 13.9 million people in the UK are disabled — almost one in five in England and Wales. Why shouldn’t they be able to buy fashionable clothes suited to their bodies and needs?

‘[Until now], the purple pound has been the largest untapped market in the UK,’ says Kelly. ‘The UK High Street has been missing out on billions every year because we are not marketed to. Not only is it the moral and modern thing to do, but it is also mega bucks.’

After modelling in a Primark campaign Kelly, pictured modelling at London Fashion Week in 2018, was contacted by the mother of a little girl who also doesn’t have an arm

Last year, when Kelly featured in a Primark campaign, a photograph of her looking cool in a cap and leopard-print mini skirt got 113,000 likes on Instagram, making it one of Primark’s most liked campaign photos ever.

But it was the direct message sent to her by a 24-year-old mother in Limerick that really resonated with Kelly. The woman’s daughter had, like Kelly, been born with a missing left hand.

Niamh Counihan took a photo of 18-month-old Fiadh without her prosthetic arm sitting in front of a huge picture of Kelly, also without a prosthetic, modelling a black Primark dress.

The mother’s message was simple: ‘You are showing my daughter how society considers that she, too, is beautiful.’

Kelly’s childhood was not easy. Born in Enfield, on the outskirts of North London, her parents split up when she was two years old.

Her mother, she says, has sometimes found it very hard, especially being a single mum of a child born to face prejudice.

Kelly, pictured, said growing up without an arm was the least of her problems and revealed that her father was an alcoholic and would often collapse in the street during her stays with him

‘If I’d been born in the 15th century, both me and my mum would have been drowned as witches. And even now, in some Third World countries, if the mum gave birth to a baby like me, I’d have been chucked in the river because they would think I had the devil in me.

‘People like me are still being dehumanised. It’s happening all over the world.’

Only recently, Kelly got a vile message from a troll which read: ‘You f*****g ugly disabled b***h, grow an arm.’

‘It didn’t bother me,’ she says. ‘But my best friend [the plus-size model Felicity Hayward], said: “No, you need to do a post [exposing] this because there are some girls out there, and boys, who would read that kind of thing and it would break them.’

At home while she was growing up, Kelly never talked about her arm. Her father was an alcoholic and would often collapse in the street during her stays with him every other weekend — and Kelly would have to try to get him home.

‘My arm was the least of our problems,’ she says. ‘There was so much more I was experiencing. I think I had that thing of an old head on young shoulders.’

In the early years, she and her mum had to cross London regularly for Kelly’s hospital appointments to build up the muscles in her left side and to change her prosthetic arm as she grew.

Niamh Counihan, 24, pictured with her baby daughter Fiadh, said that Kelly was teaching the youngster that she was beautiful too

Little Fiadh, pictured in front of the poster of Kelly modelling, was also born without a left hand

The NHS practice for children born with a missing limb is to provide a prosthetic, but Kelly hated hers. It was hard and uncomfortable and seemed to make life more difficult rather than easier. Even as a toddler, she would throw it out of her pram while her mum queued at the Post Office.

By the age of six or seven, Kelly refused to wear it at all. Her mother agreed.

‘I used to hate going to the hospital. Even then, I thought: “Why do I need this arm? And I realised, “Oh! I know. It’s so I don’t look different and I blend in with society.” ’

Her father began calling her left arm ‘Button Moon’ after the Eighties children’s TV series, because he thought that’s what it looked like. ‘And now my own son calls it that, too,’ says Kelly. ‘When he first went to nursery, he said: “I wish I could take it with me” — he meant my arm, not me!’

She was mostly unaware of any prejudice in childhood. She swam, rode a bike and was top of the dance class, a skill which has since prepared her well for modelling.

‘I had loads of friends. I’ve always had that confidence and self-belief and I didn’t make a big thing of it.

But I’m aware I didn’t grow up with social media. I didn’t have that added pressure.

‘I think now, if I was a teenager, or a young person growing up with a disability, I would definitely feel the pressure so much more because everything is about perfection in the media.

‘The message we get is that if you are not perfect, then you are not beautiful. And if you are not beautiful, then you can’t be successful.’

Looking back, however, she realises there were some shocking moments. In the professional photographs taken of her when she was a toddler, for example, wearing a pretty pink dress, she seems to have been positioned behind a pot plant to hide her left side.

Kelly, pictured, said the most difficult time of her life was after winning Britain’s Missing Top Model where disabled people were put in a house to compete for a Marie Claire fashion shoot 

And then there is the story of a mother pulling her child away from Kelly in a swimming pool, as if she was somehow scary or dangerous. ‘But when I was small, I was fearless and just believed in myself. As a teenager, I did have some moments where I thought, “Oh my God, I am different — I hate myself”, but that didn’t last long. I think I just pulled myself out of that [mindset].’

Dating was never a problem: ‘Some people would say, “You are missing an arm” — they still say it — and I tell them: “I’m not missing anything. I am a whole person, and this is how I’ve always been.

‘Just because a bit of my arm is not there, it doesn’t make me not whole.’

Three years ago, when she became a mother, someone asked her: “How are you going to change a nappy?” Her answer was: “A) It’s none of your business and B) I’ve been using my arm all my life.” ’

Without a shadow of a doubt, the period of her life that has been the most difficult, perversely followed her winning Britain’s Missing Top Model, a 2008 BBC reality TV show in which disabled people were put in a house to compete for the chance of winning a Marie Claire fashion shoot with Rankin, a top photographer, as well as a modelling contract with a top agency.

‘I didn’t feel disabled until then,’ she says. But she was unfulfilled in an office job, so gave it a go. Despite many moments throughout the three-week show of wanting to walk away, she stuck it out — and won.

Then, she says, came the awful years trying to break into the fashion industry.

Excited by the new opportunities in front of her, Kelly gave up her job as a credit controller for a furniture company. Rankin shot her in Prada and Chanel. ‘I was like, “This is the life!” she recalls.

The model, pictured during a shoot for Simply Be’s Christmas lingerie collection, said she now swims and works out,regularly and would love to do a Vogue cover 

But, ultimately, no one wanted to hire her — for the fact that she was made to feel too big (a size 10) and for the fact she did not conform to an image of ‘perfection’.

‘I think they probably thought to themselves, “We can hide her arm in a shoot,” but that my body was too big to be in fashion. Somebody once even voiced the opinion that I might get more work if I wore a prosthetic arm.

‘Then the agency I signed to went into liquidation. I had left my job [to be a model] and now I had no job, no modelling career and no money.’

A particularly low moment was watching a video of a model saying ‘New York Fashion Week would rather burn down than see a disabled model on the runway’.

‘You know, it just gave me ammunition,’ says Kelly defiantly. ‘More fire in my soul, and passion. I just wanted to be that change.

‘I thought, you’re not gonna say that about me. I don’t need your approval or your permission to feel beautiful or be included in this industry.

‘I think that’s always kind of stuck in the back of my mind. I thought, “You know, I’m gonna prove you wrong.” ’

But you sense it’s been an uphill struggle and that fashion still has a long way to go before it’s considered truly inclusive.

‘There were so many times when I thought: “What am I going to do?” I could have given up so many times, but there was just something inside of me saying, “No! This is not about you. This is about what you can do for humanity. This is what you can do for society.

‘ “People need you. People need a role model to see that you don’t have to be perfect in this world. You can be yourself.” ’

The real turning point came two years ago — a time of happiness with her partner Rich and her little boy, Jenson — when she was scouted by prestigious model agency MiLK, after appearing in a fashion show promoting diversity.

Kelly hasn’t looked back.

In a TED talk she has since given in Glasgow, she says of her recent appearance on the runway: ‘I am on fire’ — but not, of course, in the negative way that model meant when she talked of disabled models.

‘I was on the runway and I was on fire, but not burning down. I was passionate, powerful, strong, igniting change — and super hot!’

Now, she says, she swims and she works out, doing kick boxing, martial arts and regular boxing.

‘It feels so good. I like to feel strong. I feel like this is the beginning. I would love to do a Vogue cover and a high-fashion campaign — a Gucci campaign.

‘And I’ve got great hair, so why not do a hair campaign? I want to do everything and why shouldn’t I? Yes please! Bring it on!

‘The future of fashion and beauty is inclusive. I truly believe this. It’s about giving everybody the freedom to feel beautiful.’

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