Skip to content

South African Model Laura Ashleigh Meyer on Disability Representation in Fashion


In recent years, as the fashion industry has made strides to propel itself into a more progressive future, there is still a large gap in the industry where certain people are left out of the conversation. Lack of visibility for the disabled community in fashion is still a prominent issue in the industry even in the age of diversity and inclusion. Having authentic representation of people with disabilities in all facets of fashion is an integral step in transitioning out of the longstanding era of exclusivity into a space where the many different people, perspectives, and stories that contribute to the industry’s success are recognized and celebrated. It is for this reason that Laura Ashleigh Meyer, a model and aspiring fashion designer with a physical disability – a spinal defect she’s had from birth – is using her platform to take action to fill this gap. 

Born and raised in East London in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Meyer’s interest in fashion started early, sifting through magazines and tracking trends. Taking up fashion design in high school, her passion for modelling emerged through her search for models with physical disabilities to showcase her designs and the realization that there was still work to be done to bring models with disabilities to the forefront. 

In June, Meyer signed with Topco Models and already has a campaign with the South African jewelry brand, LORNE, under her belt. It is her hope that throughout her career of modeling and design she can be an authentic and unwavering representation of disabled people in fashion.

The Folklore spoke to Laura Ashleigh Meyer about setting a new beauty standard in fashion and how she hopes to make lasting change in the industry.

Interview: South African model Laura Ashleigh
Photography: Samantha Pinto

How would you describe yourself? Tell us about your background.

Based on my journey thus far, I would best describe myself as an individual who aims to serve others, to help them feel as comfortable in their skin as I feel in mine. Personally, I know how challenging it may be for some, but I really hope to empower and inspire others. I think this passion of mine has been developing through various stages of my life, and being in a position to actually go into the world and physically do my best to make a difference is invigorating. 

I grew up in East London in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. I was born alongside my twin sister who is able-bodied and I always aspired to keep up with her on my tiny little crutches. My mother raised us with nothing but love, support and encouragement. That kind of upbringing gave me so much confidence to tackle life head-on from a very early age.

I went to mainstream schools all the way through and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. After high school, I went on to study for a BA in fashion at FEDISA in Cape Town and graduated last year. I am currently completing my Honours in fashion alongside working at establishing my career as a model. 

How did you get your start as a model and how long have you been in the industry? 

This whole experience happened completely by chance. I was discovered via Instagram by this incredible fashion photography and styling duo, Armand Dicker and Anthony Hinrichsen. They both reached out to me in February of this year. I ended up flying down to meet them and shot the Lorne campaign two days later in Cape Town. We worked quite well on set and the guys were just so impressed by it all that they were on a mission to reach out and find me an agency. Topco showed interest within a few weeks after the shoot and I flew out to meet them as soon as I could. The conversation that we had was everything I could have hoped for. This was an agency that also just wanted to create change and be more inclusive and it was so exciting. So, as of right now, I have been “in the industry” for five very short, but incredibly productive months.  

Interview: South African model Laura AshleighPhotography: Samantha Pinto

You joined Topco Models this past June. Congratulations! What was your experience like joining a leading South African modeling agency?

Thank you! It exceeded my expectations. I was quite nervous because I’d somehow visualized any form of an agency to be like a scene out of The Devil Wears Prada, but they were the complete opposite. It is really exciting getting to be a part of an agency that is just as determined to drive change within the industry. I really respect and appreciate the effort that Topco has put into my modeling career and I love the fact that they are not only inclusive, but foster a transformative culture within the agency. Everyone that I’ve worked with thus far has been extremely accommodating and welcoming of my path in the industry. 

You recently starred in a gorgeous campaign for South African jewelry brand LORNE, and wore a dress from SELFI. What was it like working with the brand? Do you have any favorite pieces from the LORNE and SELFI collections? 

It was amazing! I loved how beautifully abstract the pieces were. They were literal works of art. My favourite piece from the LORNE collection has to be the pair that I wore, the Inner Urge, because it was a very subtle look, but it portrayed the image of effortless elegance.

From the SELFI collection, I wasn’t familiar with them before wearing that dress, but I have been glued to their brand page ever since. All of their pieces are stunning and my favourite is the looks with the Clay Pot sleeves. I love the volume of them, they’re just gorgeous. 

Interview: South African model Laura AshleighLaura in the Lorne campaign, wearing the Art of Folding earrings.
Photography: Armand Dicker | Styling: Anthony Hinrichsen | Hair and makeup: Amy Louise | Nails: AW Nails | Retouch: Lauren Bubb | Digital assistant: Sibongile Mditshwa | Photography assistant: Aa’ishah Satchipia

What is your favorite part of being a model? 

So far, besides getting spoilt in hair and makeup and getting to wear gorgeous clothes, it has been lovely getting to receive reactions from others to these shoots and the feedback that I have been receiving, especially from other people with disabilities. I get so overwhelmed (in the best way) that I just have to pinch myself. 

You always just hope that your efforts are being well-received and are making that difference. 

In your downtime what do you do to unwind? What are your hobbies? 

My favourite activity to unwind is binging a good Netflix series or spending a day on the beach. I enjoy cooking or baking in my spare time. I also love reading and getting lost in a good book. 

Interview: South African model Laura AshleighLaura (left) in the Lorne campaign, wearing a dress by SELFI.
Photography: Armand Dicker | Styling: Anthony Hinrichsen | Hair and makeup: Amy Louise | Nails: AW Nails | Retouch: Lauren Bubb | Digital assistant: Sibongile Mditshwa | Photography assistant: Aa’ishah Satchipia

In addition to modeling, you also have a degree in fashion. What drew you to fashion and modeling in particular? Do you have a particular story or experience that solidified your decision? 

Fashion was always something that I gravitated towards throughout the years. I would be glued to teen magazines to keep an eye on what the celebrities were wearing and what kind of trends were emerging. It was more of a hobby, I didn’t know that a career in fashion was possible until I got an opportunity to give fashion design a try in high school, I enjoyed going through the whole experience of what it took to be a designer; the entire process was such a rush. That cemented fashion as my desired career. 

As I progressed through my studies, I was able to gain clarity on my path and I have been going full-steam ahead ever since. It is no longer a career for my enjoyment only, but something that I want to do for the enjoyment of others too.

Modeling and fashion go hand-in-hand. It was something that I was passionate about at the end of my studies when it came to selecting models to wear and showcase my collection. I would not compromise on the desire to have physically disabled models representing my range. Going through the whole experience made me realize that it is very little to no representation of people with disabilities in fashion. That kind of frustration sparked an interest to step up to the challenge and make that change myself.

 Interview: South African model Laura AshleighPhotography: Eddie Prince | Styling: Katja Macke | Makeup: Chloe Hicks

Are there other areas of fashion that you would like to venture into in the future and how do you plan to use that to make a positive change within fashion? 

I would like to develop a clothing brand for persons with disabilities in South Africa. We have very little access to such and there is an obvious need as well, so I really would like to create something where persons with different abilities can find clothing that meets their needs. 

Other than the design side of fashion, I have a keen interest in making a meaningful contribution to the transformation of the corporate sector by advocating and advancing inclusivity across the fashion value chain. The corporate fashion world sparked an interest as I have yet to see persons with disabilities in prominent roles and I believe that those roles will have the ability to make real, impactful change. 

Interview: South African model Laura Ashleigh Photography: Eddie Prince | Styling: Katja Macke | Makeup: Chloe Hicks

As a model living with disability, what has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the fashion industry? 

I think just being able to figure out what my body can and can’t do. I don’t want to change my body type or pose in ridiculously uncomfortable ways. I am so firm on the idea of being authentic in front of the camera and having others work with me as I am. 

What further work do you wish to see fulfilled to combat ableist beauty standards in the fashion industry? 

Representation in the media, both locally and globally, still isn’t as prominent as it should be. People with disabilities can be brought to the forefront a lot more. There’s a quote by Jillian Mercado [American actress and model who’s a wheelchair user] that says “I want to keep working until the idea that putting someone like me… on a billboard will be so normal in our society that it won’t even make headlines”. I think that having a concept such as this one in the media so often would normalize it and would aid in changing the “traditional” societal views of people with disabilities. 

Interview: South African model Laura Ashleigh Photography: Samantha Pinto

What does beauty mean to you and what does authentic representation of all forms of beauty in the modeling industry look like to you? 

Beauty, to me, is being able to celebrate what makes you unique. It’s having the ability to own who you are without fear of judgment from others. 

Authentic representation, I think, is seeing an influx of different shapes and sizes in the media and forming a genuine and well-intentioned storyline. No disability is truly the same and I think that there is a lot of room to explore and celebrate disabilities in all forms, not just a select few. I would like to see a range of different disabilities that people might not have even heard of or seen. 

Talent: Laura Ashleigh Meyer @laura_ashleigh_
Agency: Topco Models @topcomodels
Words: Tasha Nicole Smith @tashnicolesmith