Sheffield-based talent agency Zebedee Management aims to redefine the perception of beauty, disability and diversity. Laura Drysdale speaks to some of its Yorkshire models.
The glee on little Frankie Porter’s face is clear to see. Dressed as a glistening blue bauble, he jumps with excitement as the audience bursts into rapturous applause following his school Christmas show.
It’s not his real one though. No, Frankie is one of the near-sixty children who have taken centre stage in this year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas advert The Big Night.
The five-year-old from Horbury, near Wakefield, is represented by Zebedee Management, a specialist modelling agency which aims to raise the profile of disabled babies, children and adults, from all over the country, in the fashion and advertising industries.
Frankie, who has Down Syndrome, joined the agency in March, the same weekend his family was told he also has type one diabetes. “It has been really nice to have something positive to focus on,” says mum Vicky. “It can be so easy to get bogged down with things going on so it’s really good to have something positive to focus on that he enjoys.”
Since joining, Frankie has also modelled for Marks and Spencer’s easy-wear adaptive clothing range.
“He’s really sociable. He has got two brothers and a sister and he just loves the camera,” Vicky says. “He really enjoys it. You can tell when he gets there and he is all smiles.”
Since launching in February last year, Zebedee has championed diversity, helping the near 300 people now on its books become stars of film, television, advertising and fashion.
“In the fashion and media industries, there’s been a lot of old-school mentality and disabled is now really seen as the last taboo,” says Zebedee cofounder Zoe Proctor.
“Disabled people should be fairly represented. They have a lot to offer like any person in society - and, from a brand’s point of view, economically it has been proven time and time again that if you are inclusive, and show diversity in your campaigns, then they can be really successful.
“Disabled people just want to be seen out there as the norm, not tokenism.”
Zoe, who lives in North Lincolnshire, teaches performing arts to young adults with disabilities and has several years of experience in the modelling industry herself.
She set up the Sheffield-based not-for-profit talent agency with sister-in-law Laura Johnson, a social worker from the city, with the hope of “redefining the perception of beauty, disability and diversity”.
If the selection of feedback the agency has published on its website is anything to go by, it is already making a huge difference.
“Zebedee Management have taken a step into making a large acceptance of children and adults with disabilities into a world where many would never get the opportunity,” writes one parent of a child with disabilities. “My son has been to a photo shoot and was made to feel like a VIP. He was seen and not his disabilities,” says another.
Their sentiments are echoed by Vicky, who has the future in mind. “When [Frankie] looks around, he will see people that are like him or who have different disabilities and who are all achieving things.”
“It’s great that Zoe and Laura are doing fantastic things,” she continues. “They have adults and children with a huge range of disabilities and they are putting them out there and getting them work that they should have.”
‘Inspirational’ is how Jessica Britton describes it. Her 17-year-old son Harry has been with Zebedee from its early days. “Everyone supports each other. You see other people getting jobs and it feels like an inspirational movement. It’s not just about the modelling, it is about changing attitudes and making people see you differently as an individual rather than as disabled. It is quite special.”
Harry, who took part in the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics in Sheffield in 2017, has Down Syndrome as well as traits of ADHD, OCD, anxiety and Pathological Demand Avoidance.
“He has this big personality and a huge sense of humour,” Jessica says of her son, who is studying performing arts and sport at college. “He’s a real performer, a showman. He loves showing off.”
Modelling didn’t seem an obvious choice though. “I wouldn’t have thought of modelling as something he wants to do because you have to stand still and follow instructions,” Jessica muses.
“But it is like flicking a light on for him. Put him in front of the camera and he throws the poses and does exactly what he is asked. It really brings out the real Harry. He lights up when he gets to do his modelling and he makes everybody laugh. It opens up his personality. He just loves it.”
Harry, who lives in Dronfield, has modelled in River Island on three occasions including as part of its Labels are for Clothes campaign. He says he enjoys posing, meeting new friends and looking on Instagram at pictures showing him with his peers on shoots.
“As a teenager in the industry it is really difficult to get work full stop so I just think that is a huge achievement for Harry and to be invited back [to River Island] as well because they like his look and like working with him.”
Opportunities like that are nothing short of life changing, she says. They focus on Harry and his style and clothes - not his disability. “It is so exciting that people believe in Harry and see potential in him, whereas all too often people don’t and see his hyperactivity and challenging behaviours.”
Like Harry, five-year-old Gabriel Sohotha has also modelled for River Island - and on the back of the work, was invited to appear on ITV’s Lorraine with mum Rebecca.
“I am really proud of what he has been able to achieve,” she says. “It is a fantastic opportunity for him to show what his strengths are really. He’s very young but a confident, capable and very able boy and just because he also has Down Syndrome doesn’t mean he can’t achieve great things.”
Gabriel, from Huddersfield, joined Zebedee when he was four. “He goes for mainstream jobs and he gets them based on merit and not anything else,” explains Rebecca.
It is crucial that disabled people feature in modelling and advertising, she says, to break down barriers and show that individuals are not defined by disabilities. “We are all beautiful and it just demonstrates that we are a diverse society.”
As the stories of Frankie, Harry and Gabriel suggest, 2018 has been a successful year for Zebedee. Its models, actors and artists have landed contracts and assignments with Asda, Landrover, Matalan, Disney, and the BBC, among others.
But Zoe acknowledges there is still a long way to go - and would like to work with more high fashion and designer brands in particular. “We want to grow and we want to work with all brands. We want to be seen as a main go-to agency, not just an agency that represents disabled talent. We just want to be up there with the big players.”
Around 80 models on Zebedee’s books hit the catwalk on Saturday in celebration of the achievements of each individual that the agency represents this year.
The Christmas Catwalk event was held at Sheffield Hallam University’s Student Union and included modelling and dancing. Zebedee said the overall focus of the night was one of happiness, celebration, success, recognition, inclusivity and thankfulness.
“It has been the most joyous celebratory event I think I have ever done and it’s been absolutely wonderful,” Zoe said. “We are so blessed to have such amazing support and by far the most inspirational talent on any agencies books.”
To find out more, visit www.zebedeemanagement.co.uk