She Used To Be Ashamed: Now She's a Disability Model Taking Over NYC Runways
| LAST UPDATE 04/22/2021
After a car accident left her paralyzed, Bri Scalesse thought she'd live an unhappy life. Today, Bri's a supermodel rocking the runways of New York and in a dreamy interabled relationship. This is her story.
This Is Bri
Bri Scalesse was born in September 1994 in a Connecticut town. The future model had a happy childhood filled with fashion inspiration early on, as she was surrounded by women who loved to play with makeup and style it up.
This influenced Bri's passion for everything beauty-related. "I've loved makeup for a really long time," she recalled. "I remember being little and watching my mom and my aunts put on makeup, particularly lipstick. I remember it being a big thing when I was a little girl. I started wearing it really young."
But six years into Bri's life, things took a turn. The young girl was in a car accident and lost her mom. Fortunately, Scalesse's incredible grandmother stepped in to help. But things would never be the same, as the accident left Bri paralyzed from the waist down.
"I suffered a spinal cord injury at the t12 level, which means I'm a paraplegic and use a wheelchair," Scalesse explained. "My injury is incomplete, which means that I do have some sensation. I can move by inner thigh a bit but... can't move really from here [waist] down, can't feel from knees down."
She Felt Shame
"That's me, that's just the way that the cookie crumbled," Bri said as she reflected on the accident that changed her life forever. But at a young age, Scalesse felt ashamed of having a disability. The youngster was often the only student at school with a visible disability.
On top of that, she didn't see herself in the media. "There was a time when I was ashamed to be disabled because disabled women weren't in magazines or on television or in films," Bri shared. "I realized that my wheelchair was going to affect my life and was going to affect the way that people perceived me."
Her First Love
Being a wheelchair user, Bri sometimes felt alone and exasperated. "My body and my chair can sometimes leave me completely frustrated and exhausted and crying," she admitted. Scalesse eventually found a haven from these feelings in creative writing - her first love.
"I started writing in little notebooks when I was little. I remember I'd write little songs and little poems," Bri said. "So I think writing was really my first creative love. But I always loved anything that was artistic and just getting those emotional juices flowing."
Off To College
Being the only student with a disability wasn't easy, but Bri managed to succeed in school and got into Trinity College. After graduating high school, Scalesse moved on to the private liberal arts institution in Hartford, Connecticut. It was there that her writing hobby got serious.
"Writing has just always kind of been a part of me," Bri said. "And then I started writing in college more seriously; my major was creative writing in undergrad." Scalesse excelled academically, but personally, she was in shambles. Bri struggled to love her body and resorted to substances as a way of coping.
Her Studies Were Interrupted
But just as before, Bri graduated despite mounting mental health struggles. And Scalesse was probably a star student considering she got admitted to Columbia University's Master of Fine Arts in Writing program. But as Bri wrote a nonfiction thesis based on her life, things got complicated.
Scalesse tried to keep up with school, manage self-image struggles, and deal with unhealthy substance use, but she suddenly found herself sick and in the hospital. Would Bri be able to make it back to Columbia and finish her Master's Degree? It was unclear.
Many Months in the Hospital
As Bri hoped to be out of the hospital in a few days, she soon realized that wouldn't be happening. Scalesse was so sick during her first semester that she "couldn't sit up by the end of it" and "laid in a hospital for months staring at the ceiling imagining being back at Columbia."
And when Bri finally got out, it wasn't long before she was back in the hospital. Scalesse severely fractured her femur (a bone in the thigh) and was forced to drop out of the second semester at Columbia. After recovering, the 24-year-old finally got back to studying.
(In)Accessibility in the City
While she had faced many struggles since arriving at Columbia, the truth was that there was nowhere else Bri wanted to be. The young writer was in love with the Big Apple. "New York is my favorite place," Scalesse said. "It has a magic, diversity, and sense of openness that I've never experienced anywhere else."
But the city wasn't all rainbows and butterflies. "It also has decades more to go on the proper accessibility buildings and subways," Bri explained. "It is the place that leaves me crying because another elevator is broken and I miss class or am late for a job... Living in New York is not easy."
Learning To Love Her Disability
While city life wasn't easy, Bri said, "it's worth it." NYC's diversity and openness helped put the writer on a path to self-acceptance. Learning to love her body meant learning to love the disability aspect of it, too. And doing so helped Scalesse get sober.
Accepting herself also meant embracing the mobility device she'd used since age six. "My wheelchair is something that I see as not just a medical device, but also as like a piece of me. I named her, and her name is Aphrodite," said Bri. "There is an intimacy between Aphrodite... and me... She is my partner. My wings."
Finding Her Girl Gang
It wasn't just NYC that helped Bri's self-esteem; it was the people - specifically persons with disabilities - who surrounded her. "For most of my young life I rejected the idea of having friends with disabilities," she admitted. "And what a world I was missing out on."
"A night out as three women in chairs means endless comments and stares, and yet we shine, my babes shine, and it's the most beautiful, sexy thing I've ever seen," Bri added. "My community is powerful and resilient and beautiful in ways I am still coming to understand."
It Changed Her Life
Finding a community of people who understood the struggles and the lows, as well as the highs and happiness, of living with a disability changed Bri's life. "Loving and being loved by other disabled women has made me feel more full than I ever knew I could," she shared.
"I personally feel extremely proud calling myself a disabled woman, but it took a long time of shame to get here," Scalesse continued. "My disability makes me the soft and strong woman that I am and am in love with." But others didn't necessarily think the same way...
"You Might Be Able to Walk"
While Bri began accepting her body in all of its beautiful forms, others insisted she should change. "I had someone... [say], 'Ma'am, if your legs were stronger, you might be able to walk,'" Scalesse said. Other times, strangers advised Bri's able-bodied friends to not be alone with her without nurses.
"As a person in a chair, I'm accustomed to getting stared at everywhere I go," Scalesse explained. "I'm accustomed to people asking me... what happened to me or what's wrong with me. I'm accustomed to people feeling like they have a right to know more about and ogle at my body because I'm disabled."
She Doesn't Want To Be Inspiring
While Bri certainly doesn't want to be told she could be non-disabled if she just tried hard enough, the writer also doesn't want to be viewed as "inspiring" for having a disability. As Scalesse became more confident, the now 25-year-old yearned to make another one of her dreams come true: modeling.
Scalesse wanted to be in front of the camera not to inspire others but to represent her disabled peers. "Every time I set in front of a camera I... in some small way represent my community that deserves to be displayed and marketed to and portrayed in all forms of media," she explained. And so Bri set out on a new career.
Insecurities at New York Fashion Week
And with Bri's killer looks, it's no surprise the writer-turned-model was soon getting booked for gigs. It wasn't long before Scalesse had her first New York Fashion Week presentation. But the exciting event put Bri in a vulnerable position she'd never been in before.
"I spent A LOT of time stressing over how my legs looked at my first NYFW presentation. I had to give up complete control," she said. "I'm... proud to be disabled but I've always posed my legs in a certain way on social media to 'normalize' them. Here, they are raw and real."
Her Runway Debut
But once she ripped off the bandaid of not having control over photograph angles and how her legs were pictured, Bri was ready to hit the runway. Scalesse's runway debut came at New York Bridal Week in a show for Theia Couture. It was a magical experience, to say the least.
"I thought, 'I belong here. I'm supposed to be here' ... Their eyes were falling on all of me, the clothes, the hair, the makeup, not just on the wheelchair," Bri said. "I'm so used to having eyes on me even when I go down the street. [But this time] I wasn't being ogled at for all the wrong reasons; I felt beautiful."
Modeling For Project Runway
After rolling down the runway for the first time, Bri got a chance to do it all again for the award-winning series Project Runway. She modeled the gorgeous designs of Season 18th's runner-up Nancy Volpe-Beringer. "Her collection was about sustainability... and inclusivity," explained Scalesse.
"Watching this moment felt like arriving at something I had been craving since I was injured at six years old," Bri added. "A woman in a wheelchair can be anything she wants to be. And perhaps most importantly, a woman in a wheelchair deserves to be seen."
Finding Love (or Not)
But as Bri continued studying at Columbia and simultaneously launched a modeling career, one aspect of the supermodel's life didn't see as much success. Scalesse's dating life was quite rough; people seemed to focus only on her wheelchair. But this was hardly a surprise to Bri.
Scalesse had long before "realized that my wheelchair was going to affect the way that people perceived me," she explained. "Even to the point where it was like, 'Your body will never be attractive, no one will ever find your disabled body attractive.'" Still, Bri wanted to put herself out there and downloaded some dating apps.
She Hid Her Wheelchair
It wasn't the first time Bri gave online dating a go. But in the past, she hadn't felt so comfortable and confident in her body. That, mixed with men asking intrusive questions about why Scalesse used a wheelchair, led the 20-something-year-old to hide her disability on social media.
Bri posted pictures that hid her wheelchair, hoping that would lead to more matches with eligible bachelors. And while it might have, it didn't match the model with the right kind of men. The results when they found out she had a disability became rather predictable.
Regrets About Swiping Right
But this time around, Bri was at a point in her self-love journey where she wasn't interested in hiding her disability or wheelchair - so Scalesse let the pictures show everything. "You definitely do get people who say really strange things and ask really forward questions," Bri said.
"Sometimes they'll use the chair as a part of the pickup line," she added. "Right off the bat, will say you know, 'What happened?' 'Why are you like this?' 'Is this forever?' 'Is this a permanent thing?' Before even saying like, 'Hey,' 'Hi,' 'What's up?'" But then someone surprised her...
He Was Different
In 2019, Bri was on the Hinge app and matched with someone named Sheldon Nguyen. It didn't take long for the model to realize this boy was different from the others. "He just seemed like down to earth and cool and handsome," Scalesse shared. So what did Sheldon think of her?
"Obviously, she's beautiful, so that drew me in right away," he said. "She was very, very transparent about using a wheelchair, so that was never anything that was a surprise." Bri added, "I honestly don't remember how much I shared all at once." But would meeting in-person change things?
How Did He Feel About Her Wheelchair?
Fortunately, Sheldon was truly a keeper. It didn't matter that Bri used a wheelchair. In fact, seeing the way she embraced her disability and mobility device helped him do the same. "I don't think I ever had any doubts about dating someone in a wheelchair," he said.
"There may have been some hesitation just because it is something new that comes with its own challenges," Sheldon continued. "And then as soon as I saw how comfortable she was and how comfortable I became, then it wasn't even a second thought." The lovebirds became inseparable.
A Power Couple
Bri and Sheldon are compatible in many ways. One of the obvious ones being that they are both total fashion icons. This stylish couple pretty much looks like models everywhere they go. "One of my best friends described us as 'interracial, interabled, inter-hotness,'" shared Sheldon.
But in other ways, the lovebugs are totally different. "When they say opposites attract, I think that we embody that phrase perfectly," Sheldon said. "I'm very meticulous for a little small detail range of things, and she wants to go out and change the world. I think it's like a perfect balance."
Others Are Judgmental
But while Bri and Sheldon feel sure about their love and are very much attracted to one another, other people don't see their interabled relationship the same way. "Of course, when we're walking down the street, we get a lot of stairs," Sheldon said.
For Bri, it sometimes feels that people question Sheldon's attraction to her or perhaps don't assume the couple is romantically involved. "When he's with me, there's almost a sense of, 'Oh, she has someone with her, she has someone to take care of her,'" Scalesse explained.
Partners in Life and Business
But Bri is used to brushing off the haters, and the lovebugs are too busy doing their thing to care. In fact, in the last year, they've become more than just boyfriend/girlfriend. When the pandemic started and the supermodel's jobs went remote, Sheldon swooped in to help.
Lucky for Bri, her boo is a great partner and photographer. "When quarantine hit and a lot [of the] gigs started to become remote, that's when I kind of stepped in and took on the role of lead photographer," Sheldon explained. All of that quality time brought them closer than they ever expected.
Moving In Together
The couple lived together for some time during the pandemic and realized they were ready to take things to the next level. "Quarantining in Shel's apartment for two months together, we've learned that we thrive not only as a couple but as roommates," Bri shared.
"He is patient as I record the same tiktok seven times and take all day to drink one mug of tea. We like attempting to make various soups together and dancing in the mirror as we brush our teeth at night," she continued. "Yesterday, we signed the lease for our first apartment together."
Getting Signed by a Modeling Agency
Moving in with her boyfriend wasn't the only milestone Bri reached during quarantine. The talented gal got signed by We Speak Model Management, which is dedicated to "breaking traditional beauty standards since 2013." It was a dream come true. "Being signed means SO much more than my own love for what I do," Scalesse said.
"People with disabilities have been denied everything from basic human rights to places in the media," she explained. "My existence... is a revolution against everything the fashion industry's noninclusion of people with disabilities has told me I can be." Bri viewed her signing as a win for the entire disability community.
No doubt, 2020 was an exciting time for the multi-talented writer/supermodel. After a tumultuous few years and many hospital visits, Bri graduated with a Master's Degree from Columbia University. Perhaps the best part? Scalesse's thesis revolved around her struggles and triumphs as a woman with a disability.
"It is peculiar and wonderful and frustrating that my thesis centers on my deeply personal life," Bri said. At 25 years old, Scalesse felt the best she ever had - a graduated writer, a model, and almost two years sober. And to top it all of, Bri had an incredible man by her side.
Their Future Together
Sheldon and Bri have now been dating for around two years and have big plans for their life as a couple. "We are excited to grow together," he shared. "Her career is just beginning to blossom now, and I'm excited to be along for the journey." Scalesse feels the same way.
"I want our future to be together," Bri said. "I would love to get married one day and where we can show that interabled relationships are beautiful." The 25-year-old model wants to show the world that people with disabilities are beautiful and multi-faceted human beings.
Repping Their Love for a Cause
Bri wants to represent the disability community through her modeling gigs, writing, and relationship. She wants others to know that people with disabilities are complicated just like everyone else - capable of experiencing intimacy, love, and heartbreak.
"We need to see more representation in media of people with disabilities loving other people," Bri said. "Whether that is people with disabilities or able-bodied people. And just knowing that we are capable of love." It's been a long journey to having pride in who she is, and Scalesse isn't hiding her true self anymore.
"Nothing I Am More Proud Of"
In fact, Bri said there is "Nothing I am more proud of" than her disability. The supermodel went from feeling shame to rolling down the runway. And Scalesse is only getting started. This star is on a mission to change the world, one modeling gig at a time.
"While we are inspirational because it is not easy to live in an abled bodied world, we are (more importantly) capable. Capable of being whatever we want to be," Scalesse said. Interested in following her adventures? You can follow Bri on the 'Gram @briscalesse.