Smiling at the camera and striking a pose for my now husband Dennis, he grinned back at me. It was September 2017 and I couldn’t believe I was living out my dream of being a model. “You look beautiful”, Dennis said as he knelt down to find the perfect angle, before lifting me back into my prosthetic legs.
I was born with a rare condition called Dysmelia, which meant that my legs were twisted and shorter than normal and my feet were missing toes. My left arm was also longer than my right and my hands were deformed.
For much of my early childhood in Hagen, Germany, I was in and out of hospital while surgeons performed more than 20 operations on my legs and, eventually metal frames were inserted to help hold the bones together.
When they finally told me, aged six that I’d be able to walk, and I felt the sensation of the path beneath my feet for the first time, I felt like the world was my oyster. “Im going to be a pilot, Mummy” I said.
It took a lot of determination to learn to walk, but the rest of my childhood, I was able to live normally. I needed metal leg braces to help me get around, but there was nothing I couldn’t do. Then in 2001, when I was 18, my world came crashing down during a routine check-up on the metal frames inside my legs.
“I’m so sorry”, the doctor said. “You have blood poisoning. We’re going to have to amputate both legs as soon as possible, otherwise you could die.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as he explained the area around some of the metal screws holding my bones together had become infected. I’d had a bit of pain in my legs, but it hadn’t seemed like anything unusual and I’d had no other symptoms. I was only 18, and felt as if my future was being ripped away from me. I began crying, jumped up from my seat and ran out of the hospital, determined that I wasn’t going to go through with the procedure. But I was caught by a group of nurses and my dad, who managed to talk me into going back into the building.
Doctors explained that without the amputation, I was putting myself in an extremely serious situation, So a few days later, I agreed to g ahead with the operation.
I was admitted to hospital and surgeons amputated both legs 20cm above the knee. I was devastated, but knew it was my only option if I wanted to survive.
When I woke up from the anesthetic, I was in excruciating pain and I was so scared about what I’d look like, I didn’t dare peek under the hospital covers.
After a week, I was allowed to leave the bed in a wheelchair, and I knew It was time to face myself.
Staring in the mirror at my new body and bandaged legs, I was surprised to find that I felt a sense of acceptance, rather than shock. “So this is what a legless woman looks like … pretty small!” I laughed.
I was just one metre tall, but I didn’t feel weird – I was too busy taking in my new reality. From that point on, I coped by trying not to think too much about the future and focusing on healing quickly.
All I wanted to do was be fitted with prosthetic legs so I could learn to walk again. It was hard to adapt at first. I had to learn how to use my wheelchair so I could cook and go shopping, but I also taught myself to get around at home crawling on the floor, using my hands. After two months, I was finally fitted with my legs.
Determined to finish my education I went back to school, and in 2003, a teacher signed me up for the German Miss Wheelchair competition. “It will give you confidence,” she said.
I loved fashion, so I decided to go along with it for fun.
It was like a normal beauty pageant, except everyone was in wheelchairs, and I got wear stunning dresses.
At the end of the day, we gathered on the stage ready for the jury of fashion designers and models to choose the winner – and when I heard my name called, I couldn’t believe it. I never imagined I might win and was over the moon.
Afterwards I was inundated with offers of modeling contracts from agencies and shopping centres, but wanted to carry on with my studies.
Then in 2015 I met Dennis, through a friend. I’d had a few boyfriends before, but felt my disability was never fully accepted. Dennis was caring, intelligent and a lot of fun. Within a few, we were in love.
“You’re so inspirational”, he told me one day. “I love taking photos – why don’t you model for me”. Dennis’ excitement made me feel so special that I decided to give it a try. And after seeing my photos from Miss Wheelchair, he was filled with ideas. Normally I’d never be pictured – or have gone out – without wearing my prosthetics, but after a few weeks, I felt brave enough to show Dennis my stumps. And from the moment we started shooting, I felt completely comfortable.
In fact, his photography made my confidence soar. Now because I know Dennis loves me the way I am, he has given me the confidence to venture out without them – and I don’t even mind if people stare. I now do a shoot twice a week and Dennis usually takes photos of me sat beside my prosthetics in idyllic settings. We make things fun by using props such as a pair of trousers, to try to show my disability in a different light.
We publish out photos on Instagram and despite only going public in October, we already have more than 6,000 followers.
I don’t currently make any money from it, but other amputees often writ to tell me how much my photos help them – and that’s enough for me.
In the future, I’d love to try the catwalk and maybe even some tasteful lingerie modeling. More women with disabilities should definitely give it a go – I have stumps instead of legs and two deformed hands, but I’m happy.
It doesn’t matter if you have limbs or no limbs, whether you walk or whether you’re in a wheelchair; the most important thing is being confident with who you are.