More than 100 people attended a fashion show Saturday featuring all visually impaired models, an event hosted by a Hempstead model who is blind and who hopes to crush stigma surrounding the disability.
Annalee Smith, 41, hosted her first fashion show in Valley Stream with 16 models who are visually impaired. She organized the event, too.
“The fact that I can help [by] having this platform, and I can help others and inspire others is good for me. … I feel like at points I have to pinch myself,” she told Newsday.
Smith, who began modeling five years ago and won The Face of Kurvacious Model Competition last year, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of 12. The rare genetic condition deteriorated her peripheral vision.
She explained that growing up, there were few visually impaired role models in the public sphere. And while the first New York fashion show starring all-blind models took the stage in 2016, visually impaired models still don’t have a large presence in fashion.
So Smith began planning her own show over a year ago. She initially planned for only a handful of models, but after announcing the event, she expanded the number of participants after reaching more visually impaired women than she expected.
“I’m inspired even by my own self,” she said.
The sold-out event at VFW Post 1790 benefited the Foundation Fighting Blindness, a national nonprofit that works to raise awareness and drive research for retinal diseases. Smith plans to hold a second show in October during Blind Awareness Month.
The women, on a makeshift runway, modeled outfits from multiple designers, such as casual-wear shop Legendary LLC, Kurvacious Boutique, and plus-size clothing company Ashley Stewart.
The event was Rafia Lawal’s first show. Lawal, 37, of Brooklyn, was diagnosed with cataracts as a young girl while living in Ghana. Her family moved to the United States when she was 10 to gain better access to medical care to slow the progression of glaucoma.
Lawal auditioned for a spot on “America’s Next Top Model” during the show’s early seasons but wasn’t selected. She blames it on her previous lack of confidence and insecurity due to her impairment.
“Instead of looking at the camera, I was kind of closing my eyes,” she said. “I was trying to prevent them from seeing I actually had a disability.”
Now filled with confidence, she said she viewed the event as a chance to shatter the belief that blind or visually impaired women don’t care about fashion.
The show also was the first modeling event for several of the women, including Colette Stroude, 33, of Brooklyn.
Stroude, who was born blind due to a hereditary eye disease, modeled alongside her 15-year-old daughter Heaven Stroude, who also is blind.
“This is so personal to me and my family,” Stroude said.
She said she was drawn to model in the show because blindness and visual impairment are often overlooked when people think about disabilities.
“I was very eager to be able to be part of this platform. … Being surrounded by other individuals who have the same issue as you do, it makes a bigger impact,” Stroude said.