‘Down syndrome hasn’t stopped me being a girl boss’ shares make-up consultant Leisel Shepherd

''Just seeing my happy customers makes me happy too.''

With an infectious grin, Leisel Shepherd will tell you that her main loves in life are her mum, make-up and making videos for social media. And she now gets to work with all three every day!

Defying doctor’s “expectations” for a bleak future, the 20-year-old has Down syndrome, but her developmental delays haven’t stopped her from going into business as a Nutrimetics consultant, serving up skincare tips to the many customers she’s become a hit with.

“This job has been life-changing for Leisel,” says mum Brenda, 53, who works alongside her in a supportive role from their home in Red Beach, north of Auckland.

“It’s boosted her confidence, improved her speech and it’s been a safe way to try and give her independence out in the community with other adults.

Mum and daughter make a formidable make-up team.

“She’s blossomed. We answer emails together and she’s learning to put the orders into the computer. There’s been no negative feedback. Customers have only commented on how bright and enthusiastic she is.”

“Don’t forget fun,” interjects energetic Leisel.

“Yes, and she adores doing live selling videos too – you never know what random tangent she’ll go off on, but it’s entertaining. Her humour and joy for life melts my heart every day. I’m so proud of her.”

“I’m proud of you too Mum!” enthuses Leisel, who is the first sales consultant with this type of condition to work for the international beauty company.

“Neither of us had done anything like this before, so it’s a big learning curve for both of us, but we are having such a great time,” adds her mum.

Leisel agrees. “I like unpacking boxes to assemble and distribute orders, as well as practising putting my make-up on without any help.”

She also uses her dad Paul, 52, and brothers Alex, 22, and Hunter, 18, as guinea pigs, trialling her clay masks.

“Mum and I do lots of skincare treatments for ladies. And I love get-togethers in cafés because then I get to have cake!” Leisel laughs. “Just seeing my happy customers makes me happy too.”

Leisel is no wallflower either. At a recent company conference in Australia, she decided to get up on stage to dance along to a bagpipe performance, which got the crowd of 350 cheering.

“That’s because I’m a rock star,” she exclaims.

Leisel with her supportive family (from left) Paul, Alex, Brenda and Hunter.

Speaking to Woman’s Day ahead of World Down Syndrome Day on March 21, Brenda says she wasn’t given much hope for her daughter’s future during the pregnancy.

“Paul and I went for the 18-week scan and the radiographer told us, ‘We can see there’s something wrong with your baby’s heart,'” she recalls.

“They took us into another room and a specialist came to speak to us. He said, ‘Your baby has this, this and this’ – listing off the things that were wrong, and finished by saying, ‘You should think about a termination’ and then left.

“We were in total shock. You never know what you’re going to be like in that situation, but I couldn’t think about having a termination.”

The determined mum visited her obstetrician, who told her that 60% of children with her baby’s heart condition have Down syndrome.

The then-Christchurch-based couple decided to have an amniocentesis (a medical procedure used primarily in prenatal diagnosis of chromosomal abnormalities), where Downs was confirmed.

In New Zealand, between 50 and 80 babies are born with the condition each year.

Brenda continues, “We kept having scans to monitor her heart because they didn’t know if they could fix it or not. She had a wall missing in her heart and only one mitral valve instead of two.

“At the last scan, we were told that anything they could do would only be palliative. I used to talk to Leisel in my tummy and tell her, ‘You’re not allowed to die!’ I always had faith she would survive and be OK.”

Leisel was delivered by elective Caesarean at 38 weeks, where doctors discovered they were able to fix her heart and successfully carried out surgery two months later.

The newborn after a heart op.

“I was really brave, wasn’t I Mum?” gushes Leisel, looking through an album filled with photos of her as a baby attached to copious wires and tubes.

More heart surgery was needed when the girl turned 10, to repair a leaky valve.

“Right from the pregnancy, the heart problems were always more of a concern to us than Down syndrome, which is a hard thing to have, but it’s not a bad thing,” tells Brenda.

“Leisel’s brought joy to our family and togetherness. We’ve had to stick together as a team because of not having any extended family in Auckland.

“We’ve always treated her like she was one of us and have tried to treat her age- appropriately, just with allowances and not baby her.”

A confident swimmer, Leisel is also hoping to one day qualify for the Special Olympics in freestyle and breaststroke.

But first, there’s her 21st birthday celebration to plan for later this month.

Sharing her wish list with readers, the birthday girl tells, “I want two things: a big party with all the people I love and an ice-cream maker!”

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