How Shaholly Ayers overcame the odds to become a successful model

By Michelle Ward Trainor
July 27, 2017 01:46 PM
Credit: Pete Mui

Born without her right arm below the elbow, the model has posed for magazines and catalogs and became the first amputee to walk New York Fashion Week without a prosthetic. But she says her rise to the top hasn’t been easy.

“I was bullied throughout my childhood,” she tells PEOPLE. “People would say to me, ‘Oh you would be so pretty if you had two arms.’ They were always focused on the fact that I was missing my arm.”

So she made it her mission to change people’s perceptions.

“It was such a big deal for everybody. I started thinking, if everyone thinks that you’re wrong or bad, does that make you bad?” she says. “I think that was the beginning of me thinking, ‘How do I change how people see me?’ I thought visually. People are only going to get it if they see it visually. That’s how I [turned to] modeling.”

At first, the Hawaii-based beauty was rejected by local agencies. “They said, ‘No way, you’re never going to be able to do this. You don’t have two arms,’ ” says Ayers, who started pursing modeling over ten years ago. “After that came the realization, ‘OK I’m going to have try really hard.’ ”

Credit: Richard Heaton

Ayers started producing her own shoots and networking with photographers, makeup artists and local boutiques to get work. Then came her big break in 2014: She booked Nordstrom’s Anniversary Sale catalog.

“That was huge. It was a really big deal, a national catalog,” Ayers, who regularly posts her modeling photos on Instagram, says. “It was a dream come true. I felt like I’d arrived.”

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The model was just featured in her third Nordstrom’s catalog, but this time wearing a prosthesis. “I like that I’m wearing the prosthesis because you can tell they are being inclusive. It’s a little more obvious,” explains Ayers, who says she’s “very thankful” to work for the department store chain and hopes more big companies follow suit and include amputee models.

As the Brand Ambassador of Global Disability Inclusion, a consulting firm that creates marketing strategies for companies to include people with disabilities, Ayers also hopes to bring awareness.

And although she’s experienced success, Ayers does admit to being self-conscious about her disability at times.

“I do struggle with it sometimes. Being in this industry for as long as I have, I’ve been experiencing a lot of rejection, but it gives you a thicker skin,” she says. “Putting yourself out there does give you that confidence…and I love what I’m doing, it’s educating people.”