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When he was five years old, Ryan Zaman walked in a fashion show at his primary school. The catwalk was made from gym mats laid out in a T, and the front row was populated not by Wintours and Kardashians but by rapt parents on tiny chairs. Zaman’s mum shot a video and it should be issued with an “extreme cuteness” advisory. At the end, a teacher with a microphone buttonholes Zaman and asks, “Are you famous?”

“Yeah,” he replies.

The audience laughs. “I thought you were,” says the teacher. “Everybody went ‘wit-woo’ when you came out. Do you like modelling?”

“Yeah,” Zaman says, chewing on his thumb nervily, but also clearly not totally unhappy with being the centre of attention.

The fact that Zaman, now 25, is a star model, appearing in postbox-red lipstick and a gold laurel wreath on the front of the first issue of Perfect magazine – one of the other covers is Kate Moss – could be seen as predestined then. But the truth is that Zaman never really believed he would make it in fashion, and he still pinches himself that it seems to be happening for him. He was too short: 5ft 7in. He wasn’t ripped. His legs were skinny. He didn’t consider himself especially attractive. Until January this year, Zaman still worked nine-to-five in the civil service, writing briefs for ministers on international trade policy.

But more than anything, he didn’t see anyone like him becoming a model. Zaman has cerebral palsy: he was born three months premature and his first weeks of life were spent hooked up to an incubator. Doctors weren’t sure if he would ever walk and, when he was 15, both of his knees were broken in surgery in order to relieve the tension in his hamstrings. Moreover, the fashion world, with its strict edicts on human beauty, has not exactly been progressive when it comes to disability. Despite making up 22% of the UK population, disabled people have rarely appeared in fashion magazines or in advertising campaigns. Clothes are not designed with them in mind. Zaman wryly notes that there are more clothing ranges for dogs than for disabled people.

‘I’m trying to help other people with the connections I have. And that’s where it moves from being a diverse thing to an inclusion thing.’ Shirt and trousers by Dries Van Noten (, sandals by and necklace by
‘I’m trying to help other people with the connections I have. And that’s where it moves from being a diverse thing to an inclusion thing.’ Shirt and trousers by Dries Van Noten (, sandals by and necklace by Photograph: Danny Kasirye/The Observer

Now that he has got his foot in the door, he wants to change that. Not so long ago, models were enigmatic: they were seen but rarely heard. Zaman feels he has a responsibility to make it easier for those who follow him. Alongside modelling, he hosts a podcast, The Right Foot Forward, where he speaks to a guest about disability and inclusion in the fashion industry. An early conversation was with Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy and was one of the first people with a physical disability to be the face of a global fashion campaign, when Diesel selected her in 2014. The Right Foot Forward is also a website, and Zaman has begun producing shoots with disabled people in front of and behind the camera.

Zaman is in many ways an unlikely activist. Until very recently – even the middle of last year – he was deeply uncomfortable talking about his disability. When he first met his current boyfriend a couple of years ago, he didn’t tell him about his condition for a month (his boyfriend had a friend with cerebral palsy, so knew already). But Zaman has been quick to find a powerful and inspiring voice.

“The word ‘diversity’ gets thrown around quite a lot to the point where it’s now meaningless,” says Zaman. “I see it as quite a face-value word, or a face-value ideology. Like, ‘Let’s throw a black or brown person in there, let’s throw an Asian person, let’s throw a person in a wheelchair in there and then we’re diverse.’ Which is quite tokenistic and we all know how tokenism is problematic.

“So part of what I’m doing with the podcast and the website is building my own networks to also try to help other people with the connections I have,” he goes on. “And that’s where it moves from being a diverse thing to an inclusion thing.”

I meet Zaman in Highbury Fields, not far from where he lives in north London, and we walk round the neighbourhood for an hour and a half, as he explains how someone jumps from a desk job on Whitehall to the covers of edgy magazines. It’s true, he’s not that tall, and he’s dressed inconspicuously in a blue T-shirt and skater shoes, but it’s not hard to see why he’s in demand as a model. He has full lips and ash-blonde hair; his blue eyes are pale and soulful, and when he smiles it’s so joyous, like getting an injection of vitamin D and serotonin. Fashion editors have told Zaman they like him because he’s “versatile”, though he’s not totally sure what that means.

He grew up in Stockport, just down from Manchester. His parents only knew he had cerebral palsy when he was three, after they took him to doctors because he was struggling to walk. Their marriage broke up when Zaman was 10 and, soon after, his mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. He became her primary carer, and only when she had the all-clear did he have the surgery he needed on his hamstrings. Then it was straight into learning to walk again – twice, first with locked-in splints, then without – and GCSEs. “I didn’t have time to think about being a dickhead, really,” says Zaman. “So then I became an idiot in my early 20s and I think a lot of that built-up frustration came out when I went to uni.”

His degree at Leicester University was in American studies, and Zaman also had his first experience of modelling. A friend roped him into a shoot with his cousin, who was a photographer. Later, they went to Romania to do a fashion story for 10 Magazine. “I got to wear some nice clothes and get some dodgy haircuts,” Zaman recalls. “Me and my mate were just like, ‘Oh, this is a bit of a jolly during the Easter holidays before we do our exams.’”

Zaman thought no more about fashion until the first lockdown. His work for the civil service continued remotely, but his partner, photographer Conor Clinch, found that the jobs dried up instantly. The weather was unseasonably warm and, desperate for an escape from their one-bed flat, Clinch convinced Zaman to go to a local park to take some pictures. They borrowed some clothes from a friend who works for Hugo Boss and, with some clever post-production, Clinch managed to make “a grotty pond in a park” look like the desert, complete with cacti. The fashion magazine Wonderland liked the photographs and ran them.

Then last summer, Zaman and Clinch moved to a new flat and – in a not very high-fashion detail – they had to vacate it for two weeks when they found the kitchen had damp. Deciding they might as well go away, they picked Italy, and Clinch pitched the idea of a short film to Love, the influential fashion magazine. At first, Clinch imagined a three-minute short, showing Zaman driving around Puglia in a 1980 Maserati, but it quickly became something more personal. The final cut was just over nine minutes, with a voiceover from Zaman about his experiences with cerebral palsy, intercut with home videos from his youth, such as the fashion show mentioned above and heartbreaking footage of him as a baby on a ventilator in the hospital, his tiny chest heaving violently up and down, desperate for air.

Clinch’s film is beautiful and is an ideal showcase for Zaman as a model and as a compelling personality. It also led to an introduction to Katie Grand, the stylist and editor who had not long left Love, which she founded in 2009, to start new venture Perfect. As a tastemaker to have in your corner, Grand is as good as it gets and she has fully embraced Zaman as a model and advocate, both in the new magazine and on social media.

“Ryan, it goes without saying, is an exceptional human,” says Grand. “He’s smart, articulate, thoughtful and beautiful. He has a way of discussing his cerebral palsy that puts able-bodied people at ease: there is no stigma or discomfort attached in the discussion. The fact that it even becomes an open and easy discussion is seismic.”

It’s frequently hilarious to hear Zaman talk about his experiences as a model. When Grand asked him to shoot the Perfect cover, he said he would, but only after 5pm, when his civil service job finished for the day. On the call sheet, he saw “KM” and had to ask Clinch what it stood for: “Whoa, like, Kate Moss, OK, fine,” says Zaman. “I was sat in the [makeup] chair next to her and I think I was reeling for about a week. I was like, ‘What just happened?’ Katie likes to introduce people and she finds it funny to make people starstruck. Then it’s all just gone from there.”

‘When he smiles it’s so joyous, like getting an injection of vitamin D and serotonin’: Ryan Zaman wears shirt by and trousers by Marni (
‘When he smiles it’s so joyous, like getting an injection of vitamin D and serotonin’: Ryan Zaman wears shirt by and trousers by Marni ( Photograph: Danny Kasirye/The Observer

Grand explains her rationale slightly differently. “The first time I worked with Ryan I felt we hadn’t got him right,” she says. “We were shooting Kate Moss and Gwendoline Christie on an additional day for the same story so I asked Ryan to come back. It was a logistical call but I suppose in the back of my mind I knew the combination of Kate and Gwen would be loud and fun and to have Ryan in the mix created a very special group of people.”

The history of disability in fashion is brief and not that edifying. In the mid-1950s Levi’s made a pair of jeans, from stretch denim and with full-length zippers in the side seams, designed for disabled people. In 1997, Alexander McQueen put out a call to recruit disabled people to wear his designs, which led to “Access-Able”, a 14-page feature shot by Nick Knight in the style magazine Dazed & Confused. Then double-amputee Aimee Mullins, an American athlete, opened McQueen’s spring/summer 1999 runway show in an extraordinary pair of carved wooden prosthetic boots. In recent times, Tommy Hilfiger and Nike, whose Go FlyEase trainers can be put on hands-free, have both dabbled in “adaptive fashion”.

Giles Duley, who was a fashion photographer before becoming a triple amputee while embedded with the US army in Afghanistan in 2011, believes progress is being made, but slowly. “The issue has always been that there’s a sense of it being a novelty at times,” he says. “Whether it be Alexander McQueen wanting an amputee or Nick Knight doing something – which obviously is progress, and it’s good that that’s represented – it’s still always been they wanted an amputee or they wanted somebody with a disability in that image, as opposed to, ‘We want a model that looks great. We picked this guy and oh, it happens that he has a disability.’ That’s a subtle difference for me.”

For Duley, Zaman is indicative of a shift in fashion where we are less interested now in models who are untouchable; instead, we want characters with personality, to whom we can relate. “Ryan’s obviously a really good-looking guy, but he feels very approachable,” says Duley. “So when you see him in his photographs, it feels like somebody you could know: he’d be your really good-looking mate, as opposed to being this David Gandy-type, perfect model that you can’t imagine even meeting. Ryan represents what is exciting about modelling at the moment, which is that the people are cool, but they also have their own style. They have a sense of who they are and that comes across in the pictures.”

Zaman agrees with Duley: in the past, models have sometimes felt “disposable” but that’s changing. “Hopefully, a lot of people aren’t looking for just a model any more,” he says. “They want people to say things, which I think is great.” As for how long that will last, he’s not sure, but right now he’s having a blast. Zaman was especially pleased to be booked for a shoot to advertise the 70th anniversary of Fred Perry. The tennis player also came from Stockport, and the images are set to be used in a new flagship store in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

“It’s like, ‘Whoa, people from my home town are going to maybe see me in windows in a shop,” says Zaman, his eyes wide. “And also for all those kids and people who never thought I was going to amount to anything…” He laughs and coyly raises his middle finger: “I do get some satisfaction in that.”

Styling by Helen Seamons; grooming by Jennie Roberts at Frank Agency using Aveda and Dermalogica Skincare; photographer’s assistant Madison Blair; styling assistant Peter Bevan; location using

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