For first-time model Claire Freeman, taking to the Milan catwalk – in her late 30s – was a dream come true. Amid a sea of seasoned international teens and 20-somethings, the pretty New Zealander felt nervous but exhilarated as Italian voices commanded her, "Don't smile, look fierce!", while electro music pumped and flashbulbs popped around the glamorous Versace Theatre.
"And then," recalls the Christchurch-based PhD student, "just before I went out, they put this beautiful headpiece on me. It was a work of art, but it felt like it weighed a tonne. Not the best headgear for a woman with a broken neck!"
A tetraplegic since the age of 17 following a car accident in 1995, Claire is living proof that with a determined spirit, anything is possible.
The talented high-school graduate had been lying down in the back seat of the car when her mum Barbara fell asleep at the wheel while driving her to a design school interview.
"I took the seatbelt off because it was digging into my ribs," she recalls. "In a split second, my life changed. But at first, I just thought my body was in shock and I would be OK soon enough."
Talking to Woman's Day at her self-designed cliff-top home with floor-to-ceiling windows and breathtaking vistas, it's clear nothing can hold Claire back. Stylish and glam, she nips around town in a sports car with modified steering, her power wheelchair folded into the back seat.
Even when it became apparent she would be a wheelchair user for life, the vivacious redhead didn't let her disability stop her.
She got into design school, embraced student life and never had a problem finding boyfriends. "I remember going to parties where I'd dress up really sexy, have a few wines and sit in the corner," she grins.
"Guys would come over and I'd sit and listen to their stories all night. They'd say, 'Wow, you're so awesome, listening to me like that.' And I'd be like, 'Thanks ... and by the way, the reason I haven't moved is because I have a broken neck!'"
After gaining her degree, she applied – and was rejected – for dozens of jobs. She eventually landed her dream design role in Christchurch, yet was living in her car at one point because she couldn't find suitable disabled accommodation.
Claire admits that forgiving her mother Barbara, 68, was a process that took years – "there was a lot of repressed anger" – but the two are now close.
The modelling gig came about by chance after she started an Instagram account, posting photos in her wheelchair with two-year-old Griffon-pug-cross Ralphy.
"Until then, I'd only taken pictures on Facebook which made it look like I wasn't in a wheelchair," she says. "I didn't want old school friends to think I was still disabled."
With her stunning looks and sexy, sassy spirit, the page soon attracted the attention of a Milan-based woman who had set up an inclusive model agency.
"She asked me to be in the show but I didn't think anything would come of it, and I was immersed in my PhD," tells Claire, who is studying towards a doctorate in Health Science.
In mid-February, a couple of weeks before Milan Fashion Week, a plane ticket arrived. After a gruelling 30-hour flight, Claire made it to Italy. Despite falling sick, she says she loved her catwalk experience, which was documented by a Kiwi film crew for the upcoming Attitude episode, Model in Milan.
"My life's crazy anyway, but it's probably the most exciting thing I've done – and the most surreal," says Claire. "And it all came about because I'm in a wheelchair."
Her Milan modelling triumph is even more poignant considering she had twice before attempted suicide.
She had even contemplated assisted suicide just over the Italian border in Switzerland, where it's legal for people with terminal or chronic, painful conditions – such as tetraplegia – to end their lives.
In addition to coping with a battle to conceive and a painful marriage break-up, she lost the use of her fingers – her livelihood as a graphic designer – when crucial surgery on her neck went wrong. The combination, she says, was "a perfect storm" for suicidal thoughts.
But the Instagram page and connecting with fans around the world changed all that, with women across the globe revealing how she had helped save them.
A volunteer for Youthline, she now lobbies against assisted suicide laws. And as for her future as a fashion model?
"I see myself more as a role model," she smiles. "I want to change people's perceptions of wheelchair users. If you have an injury, it's not the end of the world. There will be bad times and you'll have to grieve properly. But you'll come through it stronger and with more skills than you can ever imagine."
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