Extraordinary Ellie is strutting down catwalks and modelling for Vogue

Doctors said she would never walk or talk… a nurse suggested her parents ‘leave her’ at the hospital. Now 21, extraordinary Ellie is strutting down catwalks for Gucci and modelling for Vogue

  • Ellie made history as the first model with Down’s syndrome to feature in major international campaigns
  • READ MORE: Down’s syndrome model Ellie Goldstein shares her feelings on new inclusive Barbie doll she helped to launch

Aged 21, Ellie Goldstein has just collected the keys to the home she bought, in a beautiful Essex conservation area, thanks to her earnings from modelling assignments, including appearing on that most coveted of covers, Vogue magazine, in May.

As the mortgage company, which confirmed Ellie’s eligibility based on her past three years’ earnings observed, being in a position to buy a house at an age when most sit precariously atop a mountain of student debt — she is also studying performing arts at college — is quite the achievement.

In fact, given the doctor’s prognosis, when Ellie, who has Down’s syndrome, was born that she would ‘never walk or talk’, and one nurse’s suggestion that her parents might want to just ‘leave her’ at the hospital, it seems nothing short of a miracle.

Ellie, who has also written a book about her life, aptly titled Against All Odds, agrees: ‘So now I’m a model, an author, a student and a homeowner,’ she says, beaming proudly. ‘I’d like to tell that to the doctor who said I’d never walk or talk!’

She has defied all expectations since her birth in December 2001, going on to make history as the first model with Down’s syndrome to feature in major international campaigns — Gucci hired her for its Unconventional Beauty adverts, landing her the cover of Italian Vogue in 2020.

Role model: Ellie has been on numerous photoshoots. Aged 21, she is not only a model, but also an author, a student and a homeowner 

At her birth, numerous antenatal scans had failed to detect any abnormalities, so her parents, and the medical staff, were shocked to discover Ellie had Down’s, as well as heart problems that required life-saving surgery, after she was delivered by Caesarean section.

Her mum, Yvonne, 59, who has supported Ellie every step of the way, admits she struggled to accept her daughter’s diagnosis, and even to bond with her, during those first few weeks.

All the feeding, nappy changing and soothing to sleep were done by Ellie’s dad, Mark, 63, a property manager, who would tell Yvonne: ‘We’ll take it one day at a time,’ while she looked after their older daughter, Amy, now 29.

‘The way they (the medics) handled it, that we might want to give her up, made me nervous about getting close to Ellie,’ recalls Yvonne. 

‘I couldn’t really bond. I’d think: “What’s the point of getting close? She’s not going to be here for long?” I was very confused about what it all meant; we were just told to “read the leaflets”, but they left me in no doubt it was bad.

In fact, within a few weeks of her birth, as Ellie began responding to her parents with a gummy smile, Yvonne, who says she and Mark never discussed not keeping their daughter, found her maternal instincts over-riding all fears for the future and a bond did indeed begin to develop.

Although Yvonne struggled to look at her daughter’s face, with its telltale Down’s features, in those early days, she now recognises that it’s beautiful.

So lovely, in fact, it has graced the covers of numerous magazines, including Elle and Glamour, featured in promotions for Gucci Beauty, Adidas, TK Maxx, Body Shop, Boots, Spotify, Victoria’s Secret and Sports Direct, and even hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London on two occasions.

Ellie appeared on the cover of British Vogue in May 2023. Three years earlier, soon after Gucci had hired her for its Unconventional Beauty adverts, she featured on the cover of Italian Vogue

Ellie has been flown to Sweden, Italy and Germany for photoshoots, and has just strutted her stuff on the catwalk at London Fashion Week, modelling designs from two labels, London Represents and Unhidden, while, later this month, she is heading to Paris to receive a prestigious Business of Fashion award.

As well as being ‘treated like a princess’ on photoshoots, Ellie has also been showered with designer gifts — clothes and bags from Gucci and Kurt Geiger — and helped create her own dress for Adidas, pale pink with ‘Role Model’ written on the back.

When Mattel launched its first Barbie with Down’s syndrome earlier this year, it was Ellie the company hired to help promote the doll.

‘I’ve done so much modelling and I love it,’ says Ellie, with infectious enthusiasm.

‘They send cars to collect me, give me cooked breakfasts, and there are teams of people to do my hair and make-up and pick lovely clothes for me.

‘And I adored doing the Barbie job — it was great to finally see a doll that looked like me.’

Yvonne, understandably, couldn’t be prouder. 

‘I often say to Mark: “Can you believe how things are turning out?’ ” she says.

Supportive: Ellie with her mother Yvonne. Yvonne contacted ‘inclusive’ talent agency Zebedee which, after a trial photoshoot, added Ellie to its books in 2016

‘People actually recognise Ellie when we’re out and, if you Google her name, she’s everywhere.

‘Of course, Ellie is special to us but it’s wonderful that the rest of the world can now see how amazing she is, too. She’s proof that people who have difficulties are capable of so much more than some might think.

‘I’ll never forget the doctor who marched into my room after the birth holding her up and saying: “This is Ellie, she’s got Down’s Syndrome. She won’t walk or talk. She won’t go to university”. 

‘Or the nurse who came in and said: “Do you want to leave her here? That’s what the last mum with one of these did.”

‘Fortunately, we could see, within a few weeks, that she was bright, cheeky and determined. So, we decided: we’re going to bring her up as Ellie first and put the fact she’s got Down’s syndrome aside as much as possible.’

Aged five months, when Ellie was considered big and strong enough to cope, she was admitted to London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital for a ten-hour operation to close holes in her heart, something up to half of babies with Down’s are born with.

With a small heart that required so much repair, the odds of her not surviving the operation were high.

‘I’ll never forget the sensation of the blood draining from my body when I had to sign the consent forms, knowing the risks to Ellie’s life were so high, but even higher if she didn’t have surgery,’ recalls Yvonne, tears filling her eyes.

Ellie is pictured at Glamour Women of the Year Awards in London in 2022. She appeared on the cover of Glamour magazine in September 2020

Yvonne and Mark walked the streets of London for hours, too anxious ‘to say even one word to one another’. 

When they returned to the hospital they learnt the surgeons had struggled to get Ellie’s heart to work again, after taking her off bypass, and her recovery over the following 48 hours would be critical.

She spent ten days in intensive care and another week in the high dependency unit.

But, fighter that she is, she recovered and, after three weeks, the Goldsteins took their baby daughter home.

Their approach of not allowing her condition to be the most significant thing about Ellie has served her well. 

Contrary to predictions, she could take a few steps aged 18 months, though progress was slower than for most toddlers, as her parents worked on building her muscle tone, with the help of physiotherapy and, by her third birthday, she was speaking in sentences.

Even more astonishing, by the time Ellie started in reception class at the local, mainstream, state school, in Ilford, Essex, she was already able to read, thanks to her love of Topsy And Tim books.

However, her school years were not all plain-sailing. 

Despite struggling with writing and maths, when Ellie moved to secondary school at 11, an assessment showed she had a reading age of 18

Although the children were inclusive, Yvonne got the impression some of the parents, and even the headteacher, were less enamoured of Ellie.

‘We’d looked around some of the special needs schools and the children just weren’t as able as Ellie, so we knew it was better for her to be around kids she could look up to and copy their behaviours,’ says Yvonne. 

‘But I’d overhear parents saying: “She shouldn’t be here”. I think it’s because they used to get her condition mixed up with her character — she’s lively, mischievous — and they wanted to know why she was being cheeky and trying to take other kids’ books home in her bag. I’d tell them it was because she loved books.

‘One of the mothers referred to me as Ellie’s “carer”. Another complained that Ellie had knocked her child’s coat off its peg onto the floor. 

‘She was an easy target and the headmistress didn’t help. She once called to say Ellie had broken the toilet by pulling the handle out of the wall and I had to point out that she wasn’t Superwoman.’

Indeed, standing at just 4ft 9in, it’s hard to imagine anyone feeling cross with Ellie, who has always had a learning support assistant with her in the classroom.

Despite struggling with writing and maths, when Ellie moved to secondary school at 11, an assessment showed she had a reading age of 18. 

It was only as she progressed to this next stage that Yvonne and Mark told Ellie that she had Down’s, on the advice of the school’s special educational needs coordinator.

One of numerous public appearances, Ellie was invited onto ITV’s ‘This Morning’ in April 2023

‘We didn’t know how to tell her, because Ellie was always looking in the mirror and saying “I’m perfect”,’ says Yvonne.

Ellie, grinning, chips in: ‘Of course! I’m really cute.’

‘I was worried it would affect her confidence and her character,’ continues Yvonne.

‘School suggested looking at a book with Ellie, which explained that things are harder and might take longer to achieve if you have Down’s. 

‘It had pictures and I remember Ellie looking at them and saying: “I don’t look like that. I’m me.” ’

While she made friends and enjoyed lessons, by year nine, when Ellie was 13, the work had become too demanding and she would get into trouble for ‘acting up’ in class. 

The headteacher explained that, as she wouldn’t be capable of taking GCSEs, and they didn’t offer a less challenging alternative, Ellie would need to transfer to a school for children with learning difficulties.

Once there, from year ten, Ellie blossomed and passed her Entry Level Certificates (ELCs), offered to children who would struggle to reach the lowest grade at GCSE.

On a friend’s recommendation, Yvonne contacted ‘inclusive’ talent agency Zebedee which, after a trial photoshoot, added Ellie to its books in 2016

However, as there was no sixth form, Ellie then had to switch to a different special school, where she felt less supported.

It was around this time that her modelling career began.

A friend of Yvonne’s had seen the manager of an ‘inclusive’ talent agency, Zebedee — which works with people with disabilities and visible differences — on daytime television and suggested Ellie, whose favourite pastimes have always been singing and dancing, would be a perfect signing.

Yvonne contacted Zebedee which, after a trial photoshoot, added Ellie to its books in 2016. 

Eight months later, Ellie was featured in Superdrug’s Christmas advert. ‘I loved it!,’ Ellie says. ‘I got to dance and wear hair glitter.’

Ellie’s photos on the Gucci site alone attracted 7,000 comments and, while almost all were supportive, as anyone in the public eye will attest, attacks from trolls were, sadly, inevitable.

‘I tried to read most of them and only ever saw two that were not kind,’ says Yvonne as Ellie, sitting beside her, and apparently hearing about this for the first time, interjects: ‘What were they?’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says Yvonne, and Ellie smiles, instantly reassured.

For all her achievements, Ellie is not independent in the way most 21-year-olds can be, and has never left the house without one of her parents or her sister in tow.

Ellie proudly boats that she’s had ‘about 20 boyfriends’ — so many she can’t remember all of their names

‘I don’t know if I’m being overly protective, but she’s vulnerable; she talks to everyone,’ says Yvonne, who gave up her job as a carer three years ago to accompany Ellie on work assignments. 

‘Friends say: “You’ve got to let her do it”, but I’m not comfortable with that.’

Still Ellie proudly boasts that she’s had ‘about 20 boyfriends’ — so many she can’t remember all of their names — although Yvonne has accompanied her on any dates she’s been on.

‘She loves the boys,’ says Yvonne, laughing, as Ellie adds, enthusiastically, ‘Yes!’

Being in the public eye, especially the modelling world, can, of course, be a vulnerable place for anyone, but especially a young woman with Down’s. 

Yvonne, therefore, also keeps a close eye on Ellie’s Instagram account, where she has 89,300 followers, deleting inappropriate messages.

Ellie puts on a creepy voice, which makes us all laugh, to explain: ‘They’ll say, “You look gorgeous, my darling”.’

Although the Goldsteins don’t know whether Ellie will ever be able to live alone, they have encouraged her to buy her own home, where they will live alongside her, while keeping the family house, to encourage her to learn cooking and housekeeping skills and be more independent.

‘We have to think about how she’ll manage when we’re not around,’ says Yvonne, echoing the concerns of many parents of children with special needs. 

‘Her sister, Amy, obviously, will always look out for her and deal with finances, but I wouldn’t put the responsibility for Ellie on Amy, who has her own life.’

The most exciting thing about her new, three-bedroom home, Ellie tells me, is that it has a fish pond, which will have to be covered up when her two-year-old nephew, Amy’s son, Blake, whom she ‘adores’, visits.

‘One day, I would really like to meet someone special and get married,’ she says. ‘I’ll wear a big white dress and do a special dance at my wedding. Blake will wear a little suit and be my page boy.’

In the meantime, Ellie, who is studying drama and dance at New City College in East London has ambitions to do lots more modelling, including in America, and to break into acting, as she’d love to be in one of her favourite shows — EastEnders or Coronation Street.

Yvonne keeps a close eye on Ellie’s Instagram account, where she has 89,300 followers, deleting inappropriate messages

‘My mum believes in me and helps me achieve everything I want,’ she says, looking lovingly at Yvonne. ‘She’s never let anyone hold me back.

‘It makes me feel happy to hear from their parents, that there are children with Down’s, who look up to me and are inspired by me. I think we all need a role model.

‘We all need to see people who look like us in magazines and also on television.

‘I never really saw that when I was growing up, so I love that I can do it for other people.’

  • Against All Odds By Ellie Goldstein (£16.99, SPCK Publishing), the first book in Katie Piper’s The UnSeen series, is published on September 21.

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