14-month old Taya Kennedy has become the darling of the child-modelling world.
Taya has Down’s Syndrome but she was selected, not to fulfil a quota, or out of sympathy or adhere to the dictums of some politically-correct code of positive discrimination. Taya was picked because she is a star in her own right, one brimming with the confidence of a natural performer.
“Taya is an incredibly photogenic, warm and smiley child, and that shines through in her photographs,” says Alysia Lewis, owner of Urban Angels, the prestigious UK model agency that has signed her up.
We only open our books twice a year and select just a few new children each season.
‘The standard is high; the desire for places strong. Taya is one of 50 children we chose from 2,000 applicants.
“That she has Down’s Syndrome did not enter the equation. We chose her because of her vibrancy and sense of fun. Not all children are comfortable in front of a lens and with a photographer looking at them ” especially when they are so young. But Taya was so relaxed and happy. She was just what we were looking for.”
Retailers, including the Early Learning Centre and Mothercare, are already queuing up to feature the bright-eyed toddler in their advertising campaigns.
And Taya’s devoted mum, Gemma Andre, couldn’t be more proud.
The story of Taya, her single-minded mum and proud father Robbie Kennedy is an uplifting one. Gemma, 29, a mortgage adviser with Santander, has never accepted that constraints must be imposed on her daughter because she has a disability.
She believes that her only child is capable of achieving any dream, however elevated.
“Already Taya attends a mainstream nursery,” she says.
Her father and I want her to go to an ordinary school, too. After her birth, I was given a list of things she wouldn’t achieve; accomplishments she could never hope to master.
“It was so dispiriting. I was told her teeth would not all develop. But already she has seven baby teeth. I was warned she would be slow to speak. But she already says “dad, mum, nana, cat and ta”.
So now I take no notice of what the experts say.
‘And I am determined Taya will have as many chances in life as any other child. I want her to go to dancing school. She loves music and has a sense of rhythm; she sways and claps her hands when I sing to her.
‘After her birth, I was given a list of things she wouldn’t achieve; accomplishments she could never hope to master. It was so dispiriting… Now I take no notice of what the experts say,’ said Gemma
“I”m already saving for her to have driving lessons. I have a fund for her to go to university. I want to prove to Taya that any goal in life is attainable. It doesn’t matter that she has Down’s Syndrome. She can still achieve. I want her to be an inspiration to others.”
Gemma sounds optimistic because Taya has already defied so many of the experts” other predictions about her future too. Gemma and Robbie have always refused to dwell on the limitations imposed by their daughter’s condition. Instead they have fostered her strengths.
“I was told that children with Down”s Syndrome are not expected to walk until they are three to five years old, ” says Gemma.
But Taya is already standing. She is a strong little character and her physiotherapist has told me that she thinks she will be walking by Christmas.
“Her muscle tone is excellent; just like a normal child’s. So it would be the best present I could have if Taya took her first steps on Christmas Day.”
Taya, however, has not surpassed such milestones by luck alone, for Gemma has exceptional reserves of grit and determination: “I’ve played games with her to develop her muscles; I do exercises with her. She stands on my knees and her little legs are firm. I’ve bought her a toy animal with a swivelling seat that bounces. She shrieks with laughter when she plays on it. She loves it and it also strengthens her legs.”
Supported by her mum, Diane, 58, a social worker whose area of expertise is disabled children, Gemma has discovered that Taya responds well to visual stimulation.
“She likes sensory toys: light tubes, bubbles, mirrors. She reacts positively when we mime to her, so the whole family is learning sign language.”
Taya was born in September 2010. Although the pregnancy was not planned, Gemma and her partner of three years Robbie, 23, were delighted.
“I had no debts, a good job; I knew I could give our baby a good quality of life,” she says.
When she gave birth to her 5lb 3oz baby girl, she had no inkling that anything was wrong.
“I remember thinking, ” She has beautiful oval eyes. They look Oriental.” When Robbie cut the cord we both cried with happiness.”
Ten minutes later their joy was abruptly usurped by fear and anxiety.
A doctor told us, “I think she has Down’s Syndrome” and then he just walked away.
From that moment I was mourning for the child I hadn’t had. We couldn’t help but selfishly wonder why this had happened to us. We weren’t prepared for it. We couldn’t celebrate. We felt numb and grief-stricken; just devastated.
Bit by bit, the extent of Taya’s disabilities emerged.
“Down’s Syndrome babies are born with very poor muscle tone. Taya was more floppy than a rag doll. It was as if she had no bones,” recalls Gemma.
She had a single crease in her palm, a gap between her toes and a flat nose that signals sinus problems. She has deficiencies in her sight and hearing, her bowels and heart.
‘Tests showed her heart had two holes in it, but we were told not to worry, that she would be unaffected by the condition. All these things, we knew, were characteristic of Down’s children.
“We didn’t know what to expect or hope for. We were literally sent home with a booklet. But from that moment I knew I had to fight Taya’s corner, to research everything I could about her condition and do all I could to ensure she would have every chance in life.”
She began by challenging the doctors who insisted she would be unable to breastfeed: They dismissed the idea as soon as Taya was born. They said she could not suckle because Down’s children have over-sized tongues and weak jaw muscles.
“But I was determined to prove them wrong. For a month I went to a breast-feeding class. I knew it would boost Taya’s weakened immune system if I fed her. It would also help with her speech because it would strengthen her jaw muscles. I wanted to do all I could to give her the best start. In the end, I breastfed her for nine months.”
Taya, despite her disabilities, has a sunny disposition.
“She wakes up with a smile on her face and goes to sleep smiling. She hardly ever cries,” says her mum. “I was worried at first because she was so peaceful.”
And even when, aged two-and-a-half months, Taya was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation to repair the holes in her heart ” she spent three days in intensive care, her condition critical ” Gemma recalls that she was not only robust and quick to recover, but that her cheerfulness did not falter.
Taya, in turn, has learned to pose for the camera. She beams on cue and is always alert and interested. Even so, Gemma had never thought her little girl ” beautiful though she is ” could be a model.
It was her cousin Eletta, 30, who planted the seed in her mind. Eletta is raising five children, her own three and her nine-year-old twin brothers after her mother died in a car crash.
It was Eletta who proposed Gemma look at the Urban Angels’ website. She liked the ethos of the company, its ethnically-diverse range of models and its philosophy of inclusion. Its list of clients was impressive, too.
It provides children for advertising campaigns for a huge range of companies, from Burberry and Stella McCartney to The White Company and GAP, as well as Sainsbury’s, M&S, ASDA and H&M.
“It would not have occurred to me to put Taya forward unless Eletta had suggested it,” says Gemma.
“But I decided to send a couple of pictures I’d taken on my iPhone. There was an application form to fill in, too. No one asked the question, “Is your child disabled?” So I didn’t mention it.
Soon afterwards, I got a call from a woman at the agency who said: “We loved your pictures. Could you come to Manchester with your daughter for a photo shoot? ”
I thought we had nothing to lose. Mum said, “You should tell them Taya has Down’s”, but I decided not to. I didn’t want her to be chosen as the token disabled child. If she was going to be picked, then it had to be on her own merit.
And it was quickly evident that Taya loved the camera. The pictures of her, mesmerised by bubbles, chuckling with glee, resplendent in a frothy white dress, are entrancing.
When she smiles, misconceptions melt away. That is how Taya became the darling of the modelling world.