When I first met Shaholly Ayers at a beachfront restaurant in Honolulu, Hawaii the first thing I noticed was her radiant smile and striking personality. A woman whose beauty shines brightly from within, Ayers is proving the world that with passion and grit you can accomplish anything.
Born without her right arm, Ayers is a congenital amputee. She moved to Hawaii to pursue a career as a model, but a decade ago she was told by an agency that she was never going to succeed in the industry because of her disability.
“My goal as a model has always been to challenge beauty standards and give people like myself, people with disabilities their own model. I never had anyone like myself to look up to as a child, and it felt extremely isolating,” she says.
Ayers tried to convince the agent that she was capable of modeling, telling the woman she could wear a prosthesis, or avoid shooting her limb difference she says. When words were not enough to get the agency to accept her, she decided it was time to push even harder to achieve her goals.
“Whenever I would start to give up I would think nope; you have to keep going. It was just something I felt I needed to do,” Ayers tells HER Magazine.
Ayers worked with photographers in Hawaii to build a modeling portfolio and eventually was hired to model in the Nordstrom anniversary and winter catalogs. She has made lasting impressions in New York Fashion Week, participating six times and is the first amputee without a prosthetic limb to walk the NYFW runway. Her images have graced the pages of several magazines including Cosmopolitan, Glamour.com, and GQ and she recently shared her story with the Hallmark Channel and the Today Show.
However, battling bullying and rejection has always been something Ayers has had to overcome. “I did struggle with bullying from third grade to high school. I changed schools a lot, so I had to go through being ‘the different one’ over and over again,” she says.
She played basketball and had to learn to coach herself when others didn’t know how to. “Throughout school P.E. teachers struggled to try and teach me how to participate in certain sports. Most never attempted even to try to teach me, so I learned how to adapt to everything on my own as my own teacher,” she says.
Ayers is working to inspire, educate and incite change in the way people with disabilities are perceived. She is a Brand Ambassador for Global Disability Inclusion LLC., a consulting firm providing disability inclusion strategies for global companies.
“To limit ‘beauty’ to one particular look is unrealistic and unrepresentative of the world in which we live,” says Ayers.
Sometimes photographed with a prosthetic, Ayers now has no intention of hiding her arm or disability. It’s her badge of honor, a symbol of empowerment.
“People with disabilities (PWD’s) are one of the largest minority groups in the world, but you wouldn’t know it if you watched TV, read magazines, or listened to music. You rarely ever see PWD’s marketed anywhere and if you do there is typically the angle of pity or inspiration,” she says.
Ayers wants to change that. She shares her message, so other people with disabilities can learn from her experience and don’t have to go through what she did. Her goal now is to become a full-time model.
“There has never been a model with a disability that has become a household name, and I would like to change that,” she says.
Being rejected by the agency all those years ago, was a blow to Ayers’ self-confidence, but her advice to others is not to worry because hard work pays off. The rejection gave her thicker skin and failure made her realize she was unbreakable.
“We have been ignored or hidden from society for years. I believe it’s time to change that! It’s time to give the voiceless a voice! It’s time to give people with disabilities a presence in society, not outside of it,” she says.
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