5 Models Busting Up The Beauty Status Quo

When I asked the following five models what characteristics they find most beautiful, there was an overarching theme. Their answers had nothing to do with a person's clothing size, hair type, features, or even looks at all. Rather, traits like someone’s natural glow, energy, style, or overall aura took center stage. Perhaps physical traits took a backseat for them because none of these ladies necessarily fits into the cookie-cutter image of what’s “beautiful.” Or maybe because that archaic way of thinking is finally on its way out, and we’re starting to see a broader definition of beauty take its place.

The ladies themselves have very little in common aesthetically, other than that they bring to the industry individualized, singular, and statement-making looks. There’s no blending in for them in a model lineup. Instead they’re here to challenge how we think about beauty, redefine the standards, and shift the conversation from one about exclusivity to one about inclusivity.

Hopefully, the next time you see them on your browsers, in your magazines, or on the runway, they won’t seem out of place at all. In the meantime, remember these names and faces, because there’s a new wave of beauty on the horizon. We’re simply here to help usher it in.
Photographed by Ed Singleton.
Somalia Knight
Somalia Knight’s modeling career is just getting started, but it almost didn’t take off at all for a reason many might be surprised to hear: She was deemed too tall — a characteristic that, one assumes, goes hand in hand with the industry. Standing at a statuesque 5’11”, the 23-year-old can shape-shift her body into poses that might look awkward with any other model.

She moved to New York from, yes, Somalia (an origin question she’s grown tired of answering) almost two years ago and continued to be turned away for half that time. In a move that’s becoming commonplace for many models, she eventually got a haircut and the gigs started rolling in.

Her once shoulder-grazing locks were chopped and shaved into what we’ve come to describe as a high-end mohawk. The right and left sides of her hair are completely buzzed off, and an isolated patch of hair lies atop her head. It’s a cut that would shake most to their core, and Knight was no exception — but her reasoning extended beyond mere appearances. “It took me, like, six months to actually go through with it,” she says. “It’s emotional! My hair was my everything; it was my security blanket.” And her new cut also highlighted something that she actively tried not to emphasize: her prominent ears.

Don’t get it twisted, Knight is in no way ashamed of her standout features. Her Instagram bio reads, in all caps for her 2K followers to see, “I HAVE BIG ASS EARS” — perhaps, in a roundabout way, to stop the questions, comments, and conversation before they start. Though she says it was a defining trait for her when she first started out, she’s ready to move away from it being the focal point in her career. “I think models should just be models. I don't think that I should be described as the girl with the big ears or even a Black model,” she says. “We're in that time period where we need to accept it all.” In other words: It's time to call out a model as a model.
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Victoria Beckham Lace Cami Midi Dress, $2,230, available at Victoria Beckham; Acne top and briefs; Meadowlark Halo Stud Earrings in Gold Plated, $165, available at Meadowlark; Meadowlark Faux Pavé Star Endless Hoop Single Earring in Yellow Gold, $345, available at Meadowlark; Laurence Dacade Magic Poppy Open Toe Sandal, $630, available at Browns.
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Katie Meade
Katie Meade always dreamed of becoming a model. She and her sisters would dress up and pose for the camera when they were younger. This year, at 33, she saw that dream realized when she became the first woman with Down Syndrome to star in a beauty campaign.

In an announcement that pretty much broke the internet back in April, hair-care brand Beauty & Pin-Ups tapped Meade to become the face of its latest hair treatment, aptly titled Fearless. And while it's a word that many would associate with Meade, when she was asked how she would describe herself, the adjective wasn’t on her list. “I would describe myself as motivated, fun, confident, loving, sassy (in a good way), and hard-working,” she told us.

We’d also like to reiterate that last word of choice. Before being appointed the brand's spokesperson, Meade worked closely with the organization Best Buddies and the Special Olympics — and still does. On top of that, she also has a full-time job as an office generalist. But it’s obvious from the contagious ear-to-ear smile that appears on her face once the camera’s propped up and the photographer starts clicking (I swear, by the time we wrapped, everyone had a grin of their own plastered on their face) that modeling is one of her true joys.
Photographed by Ed Singleton
“Being a model is amazing. It means everything to me,” she says. "Not only is it fun to feel beautiful, but I feel like I am inspiring others with disabilities, which makes me proud.”

Meade’s mother, Becky, tells us that the attention Katie’s received in the last few months has been surreal, overwhelming, but always exciting. Her presence in the industry is the inspiration the beauty world is desperately missing, and she hopes this is just the beginning of the industry broadening its net. “I hope doors will continue to open so people like Katie will have more opportunities to find jobs, develop friendships, and feel good about themselves and their accomplishments,” she says.

As for Katie, she’s well aware that her presence is helping to redefine beauty standards. But she doesn’t want people to see only her disability when they come across her image. Instead she wants them to see simply happiness, confidence, and a beautiful face.

At the end of the day — like the other models on this list — she's just a girl, standing in front of a photographer, asking an industry to take notice.

Thii top
; Versace skirt;
model's own shoes and jewelry.
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Lula Kenfe
When asked what feature model Lula Kenfe finds most beautiful about herself, she doesn’t hesitate — nor does she boast. “Everything,” she says matter-of-factly while laughing. “Honestly, I think everything about me is beautiful.” We’d be remiss if we didn’t pinpoint her sculpted features, close-to-perfect skin, and lion-esque mane of curls that threatens to take up the whole frame, though.

The 22-year-old is an international find and was scouted by Wilhelmina in her home country of Ethiopia, a place where, she says, modeling isn’t that popular — or too favored. “I got really lucky…there are no agencies or scouting, so you have to go out on your own to find the opportunities,” she says. “At first, my dad didn't approve. He wanted me to go to school and stay in Ethiopia, but I went a different way.” Now that she has her feet firmly placed on the runway and is booking shows with the likes of Zac Posen, Thom Browne, and Kanye West, he’s turned around. “Now he’s really proud of me. He keeps saying: I'm sorry for trying to push you just to go to school — he's happy now.”

When it comes to how beauty is approached in both Ethiopia and the States, Kenfe mentions that back home inner beauty is valued just as much as what’s going on outside. Braided hairstyles are also a focal point, but the Western influence is obvious. Case in point: She used to wear her hair really, really straight. Ironically, it wasn’t until she started modeling in America that she began embracing her natural curls.

As the curly-haired-model story typically goes, she's also had her fair share of backstage nightmare moments. “It can take hours to get the right style. People have to straighten it and blowdry it, so it can take more than an hour, which is a struggle to sit for hours just for one look,” she says. Unfortunately, matters like hairstylists being unfit to deal with natural hair or makeup artists not having foundation to match a model of color's complexion are a commonplace happening in the industry — and an issue more and more models are bringing to the forefront. But Kenfe tries not to let it get her down. With only two years of modeling experience under her belt, she’s still trying to have fun and take in any and every memory — good and bad.

As for what she wants people to see when she walks into the spotlight, images of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Iman, and Brooke Shields in their prime come to mind. “I grew up looking at '80s and '90s beauty, so I want to be like them — elegant,” she says. “You can't see personality in those pictures, but you can see something.”
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Baja East Knit Jumpsuit, $895, available at FWRD; Alynne Lavigne Wave Cross Earrings in Silver, $115, available at Garmentory; Alynne Lavigne Orbit Hoops in Rhodium, $175, available at Garmentory; Malone Souliers shoes.
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Lulu B
Just like Knight, Lulu B can credit a hair change with kick-starting her career. But it’s clear to anyone who encounters the pale beauty that her appeal goes way beyond a bleach job.

The model appeared on set oozing sultry confidence, decked out in an all-white ensemble of Dickies Jeans, worn-in Nike Airs, and a satin white camisole that matched her porcelain skin and platinum-blonde strands. Her Snow White complexion is contrasted with dark eyebrows, naturally rosy cheeks, and a sprinkling of beauty marks across her face, neck, and chest. Lulu’s the kind of pretty you can’t help but stare at. The kind that makes you wonder what kind of luck she possesses that allowed her to win big in the really-great-gene lottery.

On set, her look is referred to as Khaleesi, ruler of the cool girls. But the label takes on new meaning when you realize she’s 16 years old and just finished her junior year of high school — a fact that's not exactly obvious once you strike up a conversation. Her age might read Z List, but her spirit and wisdom are far older.

It’s clear a lot of qualities from her inclusiveness-focused generation have rubbed off, though. One of these is her enchanting social-media presence; another is her interest in activism and working with authentic brands. She gravitates toward companies with a message and lists Aerie and ASOS as two that she admires. Some key aspects of the industry she wants to change: the heavy-handed Photoshopping and how the media refers to women’s bodies.

“So many companies can't feature a curvy person without retouching something.... Cellulite, rolls, and things like that need to be seen and not retouched, because it's natural and everybody gets them,” she says. “The term 'dressing for your body type' needs to change as well. I never liked that term because you should be able to wear whatever the hell you want. Whenever I see people describing body types as fruits, I see that as companies putting a label on a body type to try and make it seem more appealing.”

Like some models, Lulu doesn’t shudder at the plus-size descriptor. "In an ideal world, I feel like there wouldn't be those labels, but I don't see it as degrading,” she says. “That's what I am, and I feel really beautiful as so.” But she is impatiently awaiting the day when her dress size doesn’t dictate how she’s treated or what kind of work she does. “There are little micro-aggressions that will happen… If you're going to a shoot with just plus-sized girls, they tend to cater it more unhealthy. Everyone thinks that plus-sized models just eat Taco Bell,” she says. “They'll never pair a plus-sized model with a male model. You get to notice different things and see how a plus-sized model is treated on set, as compared to a straight-sized model.”
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Model's own top; Tunnel Vision Jeans; Delpozo glove.

Photographed by Ed Singleton
Model Siobhan Atwellformerly known as Seth — started out as an androgynous, gender-fluid model, posing for both male and female lookbooks. It wasn’t until this past February, right before Fashion Week, that she decided to make the transition from male to fully female. Hailing from Canada and already a mainstay in the fashion industry (she’s a muse to Hood by Air designer Shayne Oliver), Atwell is well on her way to taking over — while at the same time shifting — the industry.

She tells us that she started taking her hormones about a month ago. Her biggest fear? A happening many women dread monthly. “Everyone was like: You're going to be crazy now and PMS-ing,” she says. “I'm just like, Wow, I hope not [laughs]. I've been fine so far, and I haven't noticed anything super weird, so I'm excited to see what it brings in the next few months.”

Though only a couple of weeks into her transition, she already evokes female sensuality through and through — down to her crop top, thong sandals, high-waisted shorts, and set of long limbs that easily fill them out. Her straight black hair grazes her bum and her look conjures up images of Kendall Jenner mixed with Emily Ratajkowski, while her razor-sharp brows and piercing eyes stare deep into your soul.

The 22-year-old says that she still represents the underserved gender-fluid community, but she does want to start doing female-focused work at some point. “Once I start getting more of a body and stuff, I might want to do some bikini work, more like Miami, L.A., but still high fashion in New York,” she says, listing Adriana Lima as her inspiration. Gig-wise, she wants to start doing campaigns for forward-thinking brands — she lists Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, and Jeremy Scott as dream labels.
Photographed by Ed Singleton
Although the industry has made a huge shift over the past couple of years in supporting and accepting trans models, Atwell says that it hasn't made her job any easier. “Even if you are a diverse model, we have to work harder on proving that we are talented,” she says. “I feel like the industry needs to look past our diversity and just look at our talent.” Her hope: to move away from placing individuals in a box. She doesn’t want to be booked because she’s trans — or solely for trans campaigns — she wants to be booked because she’s talented. “Yes, I'm trans, but I'm also a real model, a girl model, and a woman,” she says. “I can do any job that other supermodels do.”

Christopher Kane Multi Strap Tape Dress, $2,695, available at Christopher Kane;
Mikhael Kale coat.
You've never seen beauty quite like this before. Check out our Beauty Innovator Awards for the smartest, funkiest, most fresh to death products of the year.

More from Celebs & Influencers