Melanie Gaydos doesn’t look like other models. She’s fine with that, even if other people aren’t. “When I’m at fashion week, I can tell what people think of me because of the way they interact with me,” she says. “I was never, ever bothered by the way that I look. It has nothing to do with me.” She is that matter-of-fact, that easy—and it kind of forces you to wonder why anyone worries about their appearance.
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Gaydos, 28, lives in Seattle now but grew up on the East Coast. She was born with ectodermal dysplasia, an umbrella term for a host of genetic conditions that affected the development of her hair, teeth, and nails. She got her start in modeling while in New York City attending the Pratt Institute. Art school connected her with loads of other creative types, and one photographer friend asked her to sit for him.
“At the time I was doing a lot of self-portraiture in my drawings that I did for school, and he just really liked how I portrayed myself,” she remembers. “So he asked me to pose for him. After that experience, I realized that I could do a lot more with modeling. I knew that I was the only person who looked like me. I was the only person who had my sense of vision and such a unique way of looking at the world.”
Unlike the typical model origin story, Gaydos wasn’t “discovered” by anyone. She just started looking for modeling gigs on sites like Craigslist and ModelMayhem. “Craigslist in New York, there’s actually quite a lot of different kind of photographers on there. I met so many who wanted to get away from their commercial work, who were bored with [what] they were doing. They just wanted a unique individual, a different kind of person, just a fun subject to shoot,” she says. “Me looking so different from other models, that’s really why I was able to book a lot of work.”
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She still works without an agent or manager. “I’ve been approached by IMG before and a few other agencies, but nothing has come to fruition,” she says. “I really want to find a talent agent, but I don’t know. I’ve been doing pretty well on my own so far!”
She definitely has. While she still finds gigs on Craigslist, Gaydos has modeled for major avant garde publications like i-D, Galore, and Love magazines. She rocks a whole editorial for i-D’s summer issue, on stands now. She’s also walked the runway at multiple New York Fashion Week shows, and has appeared in several films and video shorts.
The best way for her to figure out which projects to do next? Get someone to tell her something she’s not capable of. “When I first started out modelling, like the first year or two, I did get photographers who said, ‘Well, you’ll never do a commercial shoot.’ Or I’ve gotten people who’ve said, ‘You’ll never walk runways.’ I’ve walked the runway shows for the last, I don’t know, three years, I’ve been doing New York Fashion Week!” she says. “I really don’t like being told I can’t do something.”
She’s encountered additional resistance. “A lot of magazines are hesitant to post or publish my photos because… I guess it’s so different from the rest of the fashion industry,” she reflects. “Even when I may shoot for a magazine, and [sometimes] later they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ They get scared about it.”
Others might crumble under that kind of very open scrutiny. Gaydos seems extremely unperturbed—and remarkably, she’s been like that since she was a kid. “When I went to school, a lot of people would be kind of scared of me, or uncomfortable. People would ask me questions; others didn’t really know how to respond to me or react to me,” she says. “I didn’t understand why people treated me differently. It’s literally just a disorder of my DNA. It’s just the way my body is born. It hasn’t affected the way I think or anything like that.”
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She’s just one of the many models getting more work because of their unique features, not despite them, like Caitin Stickels, a model with so-called “Cat Eye Syndrome,” who appeared in an ethereal V Magazine shoot earlier this year. Gaydos also name drops albino model Shaun Ross and Winnie Harlow, a former America’s Next Top Model contestant turned super star who happens to have a skin-pigmentation disorder.
“Every year it seems to broaden and become a little more open-minded,” Gaydos says of the industry. “I truly do think that fashion is reimagining its ideals, but it’s only because people such as myself are actually making it happen.”
Next up, Gaydos is flying to Berlin for fashion week, then wrapping up a film shoot in Paris. She’s been writing more, and is considering pulling together her experiences for a book. She’s also been talking to organizations about speaking opportunities related to body image. “When I first started modeling I couldn’t really do that because I was such a new face, a whole new thing for people to take in. I didn’t really have a whole lot of power,” she says. “But now I know people are following me and I know people are interested in what I have to say.”
It must seem so silly to Gaydos that other women worry about their thigh gaps, or the way their hair curls, or the soft roll of fat around their bellies: “Everybody has their own insecurities… It’s really limiting, depressing, to worry about what other people look like and what other people think of us,” she says. “I don’t see why people can’t just be happy with themselves and be happy for other people.”
WHAT IS ECTODERMAL DYSPLASIA (ED)?
ED refers to a group of related genetic disorders that affect the hair, teeth, nails, sweat glands, eyes, ears, fingers, and toes. In addition to simply looking different, someone with ED may have special dietary and environmental needs. As with other genetic disorders, ED can be inherited or occur due to a mutated gene at conception. Approximately 1 in 10,000 births results in an ectodermal dysplasia.
From: Harper’s BAZAAR US