The Real Catwalk is more than just a fashion event — it's a means of empowering and celebrating people in all their unique glory. Founded by model and activist KhrystyAna, The Real Catwalk Project is an inclusive project that works to combat conventional beauty standards and establish a new way forward for the fashion and beauty industry. This year, models were photographed by Mark Elzey, wearing looks by Guvanch, and spoke about what it is that makes The Real Catwalk so special an experience for them — and for anyone who comes across this pure expression of joy.
"The Real Catwalk represents everything that the industry is lacking: true inclusion and diversity. It is a safe space, a place to be honest and free.
"It’s important for me to show up for the projects that promote real inclusivity, because my passions aren’t only for me. Everything I do is so much bigger than me, quite naturally I’d have to support projects that resonate deeply."
"I have been in the modeling industry for the past four years and have worked at every size, from a size 14 to a size 2. Although a lot of progress has been made, the industry still demands unrealistic expectations for a model’s body whether they are 'straight-sized,' 'plus-sized,' or 'in between-sized.' I felt I could never meet the industry’s standards for my body which has led to years of me struggling with eating disorders in order to have particular measurements for work. I took some time off from modeling because of the coronavirus and did a lot of soul searching. I have decided to start modeling again on my terms. Instead of trying to maintain unrealistic expectations for my body, I am committed to my health and eating disorder recovery.
"When I was growing up there were not many figures in the media whom I could relate, which ultimately impacted my self-worth and how I perceived myself... I think it is important to be a part of projects showcasing real inclusivity because it aligns with my personal beliefs. Every person deserves to pursue their happiness, feel beautiful and comfortable in their own skin."
"I was born missing the lower half of my right arm, and growing up I always wanted to become a model. I was always discouraged because I never saw any models on the runway that looked like me, so I thought that I could not be a model, because I didn’t 'look' like a model. The Real Catwalk shows beauty as it should — in different shapes, sizes, looks, and includes everyone’s uniqueness. You really feel embraced by everyone, and you are able to be yourself. KhrystyAna cheers everyone on and makes you feel super comfortable in your skin, you don’t have to pretend to be anything that you are not, you come as yourself and you are celebrated.
"It is so important for me to show up for projects that advocate for REAL inclusivity, because I want to show young black girls with limb differences that if they want to model, they can — and I am proof of that.”
"I know what it is like growing up in a body that is not celebrated. There were no women in wheelchairs on the runways or in magazines when I was a little girl. There was no one validating the beauty of disability. The Real Catwalk celebrates ALL beauty and bodies. The Real Catwalk is a chance for me to represent wheelchair users and disability in a way I never saw. The Real Catwalk is the chance to make my community feel seen and loved.
"I felt so incredibly powerful at the end of the runway... I felt like I was coming into myself, my full power, in a way I didn’t expect... Inclusivity is central to who I am because I haven’t been included in conversations with the fashion community and the media. The visible disability community has had almost no representation until recent years. Being included in fashion and in the media means children will grow up and see themselves. They won’t feel like outcasts. They will say, I’m like that model or actress. I matter.”
"The Real Catwalk will always be my public proclamation of self love, it is a public celebration where I uplift and empower not only myself but bodies like mine, that go against the status quo of our society’s beauty standards. I love watching folks who have been told for so many years that their bodies will never amount to anything literally bloom in front of my eyes, that shedding of hurt and shame and fear falling off every inch of their bodies for just a moment. I have done some serious self love work and I know for sure how to recognize that moment when one feels empowered, supported and free. It’s like watching some kind of ethereal birth.
"I want others to feel what I felt the first time I jump in the Real Catwalk , all the built up energy ready to burst open. Since my first walk, my career as a Trans Plus Size model has really skyrocketed! From Calvin Klein to Nike, the Real Catwalk has really set me up with the tools to be able to be confident and perform the gig in front of some of the world’s biggest clients. It was so important for me to continue to show up and be a part of this movement, to show that we are capable and worthy of the highest success... No longer can we settle for tokenism or one moment of diversity, it is time for inclusivity to be threaded within this industry and this fashion community. The Real Catwalk will light this match and set a new runway on fire!!!"
"A magazine cover featuring seven young CIS women, of varying ethnicities, is not diversity. Diversity is size and age and ability and identity and difference and every intersection among them. Knowing the Real Catwalk sees this vast and beautiful human landscape and showcases its inclusive possibilities, I couldn’t say 'yes' fast enough when asked to join the show.
"I’m 55. I was discovered by a model scout at 50, and quickly gained a reputation for crashing New York Fashion Week castings for brands that didn’t invite me (and that weren’t even thinking beyond the 18-to-24 demographic). It was the beginning of my continuing crusade to help open doors to the enormous population of under-represented models. The Real Catwalk is the show that shatters obsolete standards of beauty and shows its audience and the industry that inclusivity is the only path forward. Every viewer will see a piece of themself on our runway. It was an honor to be included among such excellence, and to help open minds in this positively transformative production!"
"The Real Catwalk is a movement that’s way bigger than us. I take part in The Real Catwalk because in feeling empowered in the body that I have I hope this invites other individuals, no matter who they are, to embrace and love themselves unconditionally.
"For me, it’s about breaking the perception of beauty standards in the media. Trans individuals, up until recently, have not been represented in the best light. In a world where being trans is still punishable by death in some countries, being trans is considered a courageous act — and it shouldn’t be. Being your authentic self is so divine, sexy, and liberating.
"It’s so important to show up for projects that advocate real inclusivity so that the industry’s lens of beauty shifts for the better. It’s so easy to find reasons not to love yourself or embrace yourself when the lens of society thinks you shouldn’t. It’s time to change our lenses so that we can clearly see how beautiful we all are... I hope that eventually we can reach a point where we don’t need a movement for us to unconditionally love and embrace all aspects of our being. Being the same is beautiful. Being different is beautiful. We are all gorgeous because we are human beings. All of humanity is so beautiful. If one can’t see this, maybe it's time to change the lens."
"As a college student, the pressure to look a certain way is always present. I have definitely faced this difficulty, being that I don’t look like everyone else around me. I have vitiligo and I have learned to embrace my differences, but what I have learned from my experience is that being different is a gift. The Real Catwalk epitomizes just that. It celebrates uniqueness and empowerment... I think that it is highly important for projects to value real inclusivity because representation matters. Real people are not all one shape, one size, one gender, or one look."
"I support the Real Catwalk because I want people of all ages to know that anything can be accomplished no matter what age one decides to start something. Ageism is still a huge obstacle in the fashion industry. It runs deeper than just being in front of the camera — it's in all aspects of the industry, starting when you walk in the door... Models should be hired for a job because they are a good model and know how to sell/represent a brand. There are many talented models of all ages, size, race and gender! We have to look beyond physical."
"I support the Real Catwalk because of the emphasis on 'real.' For too long, we've seen plus-size models, disabled models, dark skin models, models with scars, older models, etc. sprinkled in fashion shows every once in a while and used as tokenized examples of ‘diversity.’ If these shows actually cared about diversity, they wouldn’t use these models for cool points. I like that the whole point of the Real Catwalk is to show how beautiful we ALL are in our own ways. It’s not a big deal or something to rant about, it’s just us having fun and celebrating ourselves. I appreciate that!
"It is very important for me to participate in projects that showcase real diversity. As a dark skin, plus-sized, Black woman it means everything to me! So many people have been excluded from fashion, but it really is for everyone. I didn’t even think I could be a model until I saw someone who looked like me doing it. And the fact that I may be that person for some young person out there is a true privilege. We all deserve to feel beautiful."
"I’m not a conventional model — never have been and never will be. But I do know there are so many people like me with an autoimmune disease and losing their hair who don’t feel beautiful because of societal norms, some of which are still struggling. I do it for them. "
"Growing up in Russia, I was used to very narrow rules of being attractive and the ever-consistent beauty standards we were taught and reminded of word-of-mouth. But later, when I moved to the USA, I was charmed with how different everyone looked. I’ve met and was fascinated by people of different body shapes, sizes, skin colors, hair textures, sexualities, ages, and abilitie — so many beautiful people. But, something didn’t add up when I watched what was presented in media. The gap between my reality and TV/magazines/catalogs was so shockingly wide. So I created the Real Catwalk, to narrow the wide gap and widen the beauty standards showed to us in the media — the new face of beauty in each and everyone’s beauty. I believe that fashion/beauty/Hollywood affects how we, the observers perceive ourselves, and it can further us away from accepting what we look like as we chase after looking like a person we saw in a heavily retouched cosmetics campaign.
"During NYFW 2021 We are taking the Real Catwalk fully digitally for the first time, considering the pandemic. It is rather a performance piece, where each model told a story by strutting the high fashion walk inside iconic Spring studios, exactly how we are taught to by renowned fashion houses: cold Stare, nearly robotic movement. Guvanch had designed the outfits for them that represented bouquets of flowers. I chose artificial flowers because I wanted them to represent fabricated beauty standards. One flower looked exactly like the next. And at the top of the runway, each model ripped the bouquet off their body and revealed the one and only beauty standard: Exactly how you are is the only beauty standard there was, is, and will ever exist. My voice guided them through the experience and I couldn’t stop being deeply moved by the transformation, seeing them ripping the bouquets and showing off their natural fashion struts, their personalities, contagious confidence.
"This is the very essence of the Real Catwalk. People from all over the world sent their at-home struts imitating the 'Reveal' and more than ever we feel together apart on a mission to tell the world to it's OKAY to love yourself JUST as you are. If these people do not inspire you to look at the mirror and say, 'BEAUTIFUL!' then I don’t know who will."
"I take part in the Real Catwalk because I want to show my younger self, and young girls like me, that they are beautiful, they are model gorgeous, and they can do absolutely anything they want to in this lifetime regardless of their size. I walk the Real Catwalk because it represents what our world looks like; colorful, diverse, unique, and special. It shows the world what every catwalk should aspire to be.
"It is extremely important to me to be involved in projects like the Real Catwalk because without the push for inclusivity and diversity within the industry, not only would I not have a place in this industry, but neither would the people that deserve it so much more. The people that have never been represented, and never felt seen. I feel passionate that everyone should be fighting for diversity and inclusion within the industry, whether or not it affects them personally. We should all want to see a catwalk where everyone is represented; an industry that reflects our world."
"I remember being a part of the very first manifestation of the Real Catwalk that KhrystyAna put together. There were only seven of us and I never imagined that it would soon thereafter turn into something much, much bigger than that. I think for me the most beautiful thing about the Real Catwalk is the community it builds and the hope and courage it can give people, even to those don’t directly participate.
"We have come a long way with promoting body positivity, but there is still a lot of work to do, and there is something really powerful in taking that into your own hands and being the impetus for change rather than waiting on the fashion industry or media to create that change. When everyone shows up exactly as they are and together we celebrate our uniqueness, we create space for each other and provide a sense of safety, love, and joy."
"Before I joined the Real Catwalk in 2018, I was at a semi-low point in my life. Social media was how I remained present, but I put up a facade, always trying to be perfect and please everyone, when in actuality I struggled with my identity and relationships — constantly questioning and doubting my abilities and career choice. I felt like an impostor, living in this bubble that would eventually burst and people would figure out I am not exactly who they imagined me to be.
The Real Catwalk allowed me to widen my gaze, openly express who I am and to just embrace the moment. Ever since then I’ve begun more acts of self-love and self-care whilst staying true to myself. It’s all a work in progress but I’m definitely happier and proud of how far I’ve come... It’s a celebratory way of expressing the love and acceptance we have for all bodies and minds in the boldest, most raw and real way possible. Our bodies are the vessels that carry us through life, through thick and thin and learning to accept it and all of its imperfections is what makes us human. I believe everyone deserves love, respect, and value which is why I feel it is crucial to show up for these projects that advocate for REAL inclusivity, because there isn’t enough of it."
"I think it’s really important to understand and be able to see beauty — individual beauty, not being a copy of someone, but being yourself, your best beautiful self, loved , gorgeous, unique. No one in the word is you, no one can’t be as magic as you."
"I was lucky enough to discover the Real Catwalk in its first year. It blew me away. I knew I wanted to take part if it ever happened again because those first images screamed true beauty: People, just as they were, hand in hand, perfection. I wanted to hold their hands, too. The more we support each other, the stronger we are!
"Since then I have participated each year, and each year it’s my favorite event. You are just surrounded by love! Hugging, smiling, dancing, kissing, cheering at every turn! It’s addictive, inspiring! REAL inclusivity means everyone, but especially those who are marginalized by society and government. We need more events, media, and organizations that cater to this.
"This year’s runway has pushed boundaries further. With the digital medium we were able to have participants who normally wouldn’t be able to join AND on top of that Khrystyana produced a New York Fashion Week show! To fully explain how amazing that is, I would need far more than the word limit we’re allotted. All I can say is: I’m proud.
"I'm proud to participate in this wonderful celebration of diversity. I'm blown away by the talent, beauty, and loving kindness of everyone involved in this event. Projects like this are so important to me because it's all about real inclusivity — not a facade to sell something, not part of a public relations agenda, just beautiful people who challenge you to witness the power of their beauty, which has been purposefully obscured in media. We've always been here. Why is it a novelty for us to have some spotlight now?
"I hope the Real Catwalk can become a template for the media and fashion industries at large, inspiring otherized peoples to also step into the spotlight, and daring casting directors to challenge convention. It's been an honor to walk the runway with these diverse deities of beauty. In the isolation and chaos of the pandemic, I had forgotten much of my own power and very much needed this super team of gorgeous gods to remind me of what I'm worth. I feel like my soul just got a giant hug!"
"I have been a part of the Real Catwalk several times for so many reasons, and the biggest one has always been to help. I have always liked working with people and trying to contribute something positive in their lives, either with advice or as a guide for certain things I may have prominent knowledge in... My culture is very machismo, and does not understand diversity or that every person is a little different; therefore, it was very difficult for me to grow up in that environment when I felt that I did not belong and my opinions were not valid.
"With this event, it has been so special to see so many people from different cultures come together and give each other immense support regardless of their origin, sex, religion, etc. This defines me as a person and it is where I feel most complete. What I desire for the Real Catwalk is that it gets to change the world by teaching people that they are special just as they are, that they do not have to change to look good to fit in society."
"I support the Real Catwalk because of the endless representation and inclusivity that it provides; everybody has a place and every has a voice. It gives power to the oppressed in a wonderful display of vulnerability and self confidence. The energy is always magnetic!
"I would love for it to be a televised event or streamed via a streaming platform. Everyone deserves to witness the greatness... I feel like men are often left out of the conversation when it comes to body positivity. The Real Catwalk is so different from any other fashion show because it has such an air of influence just the fact that all of these beings are all walking for a PURPOSE... Representation matters and the REAL Catwalk represents the change that should happen!"
"It’s important for me to show up for the projects that advocate for REAL inclusivity just by being an anomaly as a medium-sized model in the fashion industry. I’m not sample size and I don’t typically fit the mold or the trend in fashion. It’s important that we normalize different bodies, ethnicities, backgrounds, etc because fashion is a part of all of us, fashion is what we see every day.
"I dream of a reality where all shapes and sizes and backgrounds are normalized and not this big talk of the town. I believe that fashion doesn’t need to be broken down but needs to be restructured. With this show, you can be 'Vogue' AND have a different look. I wish for the Real Catwalk to be as big as Savage x Fenty or Victoria’s Secret."
"I support the Real Catwalk because it literally represents everything that I wish I would’ve had growing up. This platform is a safe space for anyone to join, no matter race, background, or sexual orientation. I knew that by joining the Real Catwalk, I would become apart of a loving community and family. The Real Catwalk environment is so kind and warm, I felt at home, I felt seen and heard by all of the people in this space.
"I think that it is extremely important for me to show up to the projects that promote real inclusivity because as a cleft-affected adult, it’s important for the cleft community to see someone in the industry taking on the beauty norms and standards that society has placed on all of us. Representation for the cleft, and craniofacial community is a driving force on why I do what I do. I just hope that people can look at not just me and my story, but everyone’s and will be inspired and motivated to chase and achieve their goals and dreams. To not be held back by the 'beauty standards' of the world and the industry.
"The only way we can accomplish real change, and incite real self-love and acceptance, is through the increased representation of different bodies in media and the fashion industry. The Real Catwalk is a prime example of creating an environment, a space that does just that."
"I take part in this beautiful event, because I think it's so important to see every type of body represented in fashion. Growing up, I never felt like my body type was considered 'sexy' or 'beautiful,' and I always looked for ways to change it to fit the traditional standards of beauty. The Real Catwalk, on the other hand, is a space where you're allowed to love yourself and your body — no matter what.
"The sheer amount of love and support I experienced at the event gave me one of the most incredible feelings I've ever had. I loved talking with the other models and getting to know other people's stories, because we're all so different but we all came together for the common goal of promoting acceptance, self-love and body positivity.
It's important for me to be part of events like these to show people watching that you can achieve your dream, no matter what it is. And I love being a part of things that promote REAL inclusivity because this world is filled with so many different kinds of beautiful and amazing people, and everyone deserves to feel represented in the media."
"I took part in the Real Catwalk for a few major reasons — one being that I love my friend, KhrystyAna so much and will always support her profound initiative to help reshape a tired societal standard of beauty. I was excited to join forces with her and to help share the positive message this runway presentation holds. I also did this for myself. In my career and life, I have felt a lot of pressure to dull myself down in order to be palatable for those who might feel uncomfortable around my queerness. I have always been flamboyant and effeminate by nature, but I am also an empathetic person who naturally tries to make sure everyone around me is okay in every situation. Because of this, I don't usually express myself fully so as not to disrupt anyone else's peace. It is sad to me how so many people lose their peace at the very existence of queerness in another human being.
"It is an unfortunate truth that in today's world we've been seeing more of an uproar from people who genuinely feel uncomfortable by how beautifully different we all really are from one another. I took part in the Real Catwalk as a therapeutic remedy for myself in the midst of so much discourse and outright hatred. I thought to myself, Wouldn't it be great to have an unapologetic day with a bunch of beautiful people in spite of everything going on in the world today?
"I experienced an emotional apex when I took to that runway. I strutted as if I was in a mini Pride parade, and it felt so good to be free in my skin and in the full truth of me for a moment. My greatest wish is for a world where our differences are celebrated amongst one another. I want 'different' to be boring and I want all of us to be freed from a very limited idea about what it means to be beautiful."