Melbourne-based model Cherie Louise didn't actually set out to be a model.
The 29-year-old, who had her left leg amputated at age six, started off working behind the camera as a fashion stylist nine years ago.
But it wasn't long before photographers were asking to shoot her, as well. Still, it would be a few more years before Cherie took the plunge in front of the lens.
"I never really saw modelling as a career path at that point," Cherie tells Yahoo Lifestyle in an exclusive chat to mark December 3rd's International Day of People with Disability.
For one, she was keen to pursue styling and she also didn't really see anyone like her in photoshoots and on catwalks.
Sure, there were disabled models out there — some with the exact same amputation as Cherie's — but they all seemed to use a prosthetic leg.
Due to the height of her amputation — Cherie's left leg and the left half of her pelvis were removed after she was diagnosed with bone cancer — Cherie prefers to use crutches. They're easier to use, offer more mobility and are (comparatively) cheaper than a prosthetic limb.
"I have had a couple of prosthetic legs but I found them to be very difficult to use," she explains. "You can't bend the knee, you can't really walk foot-over-foot uphill or upstairs, all that kind of thing."
As a very active child growing up in New Zealand, a prosthetic only slowed Cherie down so she made do with the alternative.
"It would be more of an aesthetic thing if I were to get [a prosthetic leg]. To like, wear pants or something but it's not really worth $200,000 you know? That's why I use crutches full time."
A life-changing friendship
Then, about five years ago, Cherie came across an Instagram account that changed her life.
"I saw a girl called Mama Cax. She was an American-Haitian model who sadly passed two years ago but she had the same amputation as me.
"She had a prosthetic but she also used crutches. She was incredible, very successful. She worked with Nike, she was in Rihanna's Savage x Fenty runway shows, she was just absolutely killing it."
Suddenly, Cherie had a role model in Mama Cax (born Cacsmy Brutus). Up until then, Cherie, who lived on the Gold Coast with her family prior to moving to Melbourne, had never put on a swimsuit to take a dip at the beach.
But Mama Cax did, and she posted her bikini pics on Instagram.
"I'd always been kind of self-conscious then I saw Mama Cax posing in a swimsuit and I was like, 'She looks great!' It was a wake-up call to myself.
"After I saw her do it, I went with my friends and I wore a swimsuit to the beach for the first time... she quite literally changed my life."
Cherie and Mama Cax went on to become friends via Instagram and had many memorable conversations before she sadly passed away from a blood clot aged 30 in 2019.
Inspired and re-energised by her friend, Cherie slowly began building her social media presence and eventually landed a modelling job via an open casting call with the lingerie brand, Bluebella.
Work with period underwear brand Modibodi followed and in February this year, Cherie was signed by Zebedee talent, a modelling agency that represents people with disabilities and alternative appearances.
"Now I work fully independently as a model which is something that I never expected," she says.
"Not necessarily because I'm an amputee but just because being a model is like being a singer or something like that... being able to live off it is not an easy thing to pursue," she explains.
With pandemic travel restrictions easing, Cherie has her eye on jobs in the US and UK, with her ultimate goal of landing a runway job.
'Just doing my job'
Like the late Mama Cax, Cherie would love to be cast in a Savage x Fenty show. But whatever she does, Cherie hopes that eventually she'll no longer be seen as a 'disabled model' but simply as a model.
"If I do a catwalk I don't want it to be this big deal about how I'm doing it even though I'm an amputee and all this stuff. It's like, I'm just doing my job," she explains.
Cherie notes that she doesn't want to 'erase' her disability as it's a significant part of her identity but rather, she looks forward to a day when casting a disabled model is no longer surprising but the norm.
Another of Cherie's goals is to start a company that makes affordable crutches that are stylish, sleek and beautiful. Anything has to be an improvement on the 'ugly grey ones' Cherie used when she was growing up.
Today, she uses a 'really cool' black set she found online for just $50 — a steal, when some can cost upwards of $1,000.
"There's a few really fancy crutches companies but they have a high price point. It's not attainable for a lot of disabled people who live below the poverty line."
Mobility devices and other products made for disabled people, such as adaptive clothing, tend to be 'very clinical looking' Cherie says.
"It's like, 'If it can fit on them, if they can get it on, it's adaptive'. That's all that matters."
That's not the case, however, with Aussie online marketplace Everyhuman, which stocks adaptive clothing that is not only functional but fashionable.
Cherie herself was particularly thrilled with the introduction of their new shoe offering, Unpaired which allows customers to buy a single show only, or a pair in different sizes or widths.
"Unpaired is a great idea, it's not wasteful," Cherie says. "I don't know how many left shoes I've thrown out!"
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