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Just one person turned up to her 16th birthday party, but now teenager Kate Grant, who has Down's syndrome, is a star of the fashion world... and her journey to the catwalk has been turned into a heartwarming BBC NI film

 

By Lisa Smyth

With the support of her family, Kate Grant has battled isolation, prejudice and health issues to fulfil her dream of walking down the catwalk. Ahead of a BBC NI True North documentary on Monday, Lisa Smyth meets the fiesty 19-year-old from Cookstown and her equally determined mum.

A Northern Ireland teenager with Down's syndrome is set to inspire people across the UK in a programme revealing her bid to break into the fickle world of fashion. Kate Grant made headlines last year when she worked the catwalk at Belfast Fashion Week. It was the first time a person with Down's syndrome had modelled at the event - and the 19-year-old student has revealed more ambitious plans as she gets ready to leave school.

"I want to model in London and Liverpool, because my brothers live there," says Kate. "I want to go to New York, to Milan and Paris. I love hair and fashion. I love it all. I love it so much, I'm never going to give up. I'm just trying to get people to pay me more!"

For those who don't know Kate, her words might seem like nothing more than a fanciful notion.

But within minutes of meeting this sassy and determined young woman, it becomes clear that she isn't prepared to let anything stand in her way of achieving her dreams.

"I don't like it when people say 'no' to me. I only like it when they say 'yes'," she says, with refreshing confidence.

One of four children, Kate lives near Cookstown, Co Tyrone, with her parents, Deirdre and John. She has two older brothers, Patrick (29) and Michael (22), and a younger sister, Ella (16), who are all fiercely proud of their sister.

The family allowed cameras to follow them for six weeks at the end of last year, as Kate began to navigate her way through the world of fashion.

The result is True North: Role Model, a BBC One Northern Ireland programme, which charts Kate's journey as she takes on the demanding world of fashion and endeavours to make her dream of working as a model a reality.

They have already enjoyed a special preview of the programme and Kate is delighted with the result. "I lost my words, it was very moving for me," she says.

It isn't difficult to see why Kate found the film emotional, or why she was invited to take part in the BBC series.

In less than 12 months, she has already graced magazine covers and appeared at a number of fashion shows across Northern Ireland. The most recent of these was Fashion Academy's show at the Galgorm Hotel in Ballymena.

Deirdre, who helps out in her husband John's veterinary clinic, says of the experience: "Kate was amazing. I can honestly say it was one of the first shows where she was treated as one of the girls and allowed to get on with it.

"She was expected to be professional and she was professional. She knew what she had to do and where she had to be.

"She went down the catwalk, did her turn and went back up again. She knew she only had a few minutes to get into her next outfit. It was wonderful to see her being treated like everyone else."

It is this determination that her eldest daughter should be allowed to flourish like everyone else - that she should not be held back by any perceived disability - that is how Kate found herself modelling in the first place.

Kate's journey to the catwalk began after Deirdre posted an appeal on her Facebook page asking for help to make Kate's dream of being a model come true.

The Belfast Telegraph picked up on the appeal and carried a two-page interview with mum and daughter. Cathy Martin, who runs Belfast Fashionweek, read our story - and immediately offered Kate the chance to make her dream come true.

The post, which went on to garner almost 7,000 responses in a matter of days, read: "Every door was closed in her face because she has Down's syndrome, but she has the same aspirations as any other girl who wants to be a model. Please support her. Like and share. Just maybe her dream will come true."

Deirdre explains: "At the time, I was just venting my frustration. I really didn't expect anything to come out of it at all. I was actually quite surprised at the reaction, but I did it for Kate. I've always worked very hard to make sure she isn't held back. I'm one of those people that, if I take an interest in something, I give it 100%.

"Where Kate was concerned, where all my children are concerned, but particularly with Kate, I knew from the first day if I wanted her to progress and be the best she is able to be, I would have to work hard and give it my all.

"The doctors told me that a lot of stimulation would help to activate the brain and that's what I did. I stimulated Kate every day and in every way I could think.

"If I was going anywhere, I would describe colours, shapes. I was constantly talking and that wasn't the type of person that I was, but I knew it was important to do it.

"I took Kate to physiotherapy, occupational therapy - everything that she needed. This was my job and I was going to give it 100%. I wasn't going to be one of those mothers that would just accept that their child has Down's syndrome and give up."

At that stage, there were still a lot of children with Down's syndrome who were very old-fashioned.

"You would see them with their haircuts that were just horrendous. It was like they had just had a bowl put around their head," adds Deirdre.

"They would be dressed so dowdy. I just couldn't allow Kate to grow up like that, so I suppose, in a way, Kate is a product of me trying to make sure that she wasn't just going to be the stereotypical image of a person with Down's syndrome."

However, while Deirdre was instrumental in sparking Kate's interest in fashion and make-up and getting her recognised in the first place, the savvy teen hasn't rested on her laurels, either.

She has attended a number of modelling courses and spends countless hours practicing make-up techniques and perfecting her walk and poses for the camera. She also embarked on a weight-loss programme and managed to shed an incredible 24lbs - all in the hope of finally making it as a model.

It is typical of Kate's indomitable spirit - something that has no doubt developed as a result of the knock-backs she has experienced throughout her life.

She admits herself that she has gone through some difficult times, while Deirdre recalls a particularly upsetting event when only one person turned up for her 16th birthday party.

"I invited lots of people, but you just don't get a reply," she says.

"One of those things about having special needs, where friends are concerned, is that it can be a very isolating world. Kate meets a lot of people, a lot of people come into her life, but not a lot of people stay.

"It's difficult, as a mother. I would say that Kate's best friend is her sister, Ella. They have a lovely bond. It has never been put on Ella to take on that role, it just happened naturally and she really has Kate's best interests at heart."

Indeed, speaking on the programme, it is clear that Ella holds her sister in high regard and views her as a role model: "Kate has enough courage and confidence to be able to talk to anyone. It's brilliant that she can, because there are a lot of people with Down's syndrome who do feel a wee bit overshadowed because of their disability."

Kate herself is aware of the unending support she receives from her family. Of Deirdre, who is her greatest champion, she says: "I've had a lot of difficult times. As a baby, my mum was very kind and generous-hearted to me.

"She has helped me with my diet. I have had difficulty with my legs and arms and mum took me to physio and I'm brilliant now. I give credit to my mum for always doing her best for me."

So, what next for Kate?

She is due to continue her studies, including catering and life studies, but her heart lies in modelling and after spending time with Kate, it is easy to imagine her building the career she wants.

As for Deirdre, she is happy as long as Kate is happy and she hopes she will continue to be a role model and break down barriers for people with Down's syndrome.

"I suppose this whole journey started because of my hopes as a mother for Kate," she says.

"It's been a rollercoaster of a journey, but we've embraced it and we can't wait for the next stage of the journey.

"It can be difficult for a parent who is just starting out, who has maybe just found out their child has Down's syndrome, and I want them to know what Kate can do.

"Our society should be embracing people that are different. People with disabilities should be included. I want them to know that they can follow their dreams just like everyone else."

True North: Role Model, BBC One Northern Ireland, this Monday, 10.40pm. The film will also be shown on BBC One for audiences across the UK in the coming weeks

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