When a mixed-race girl with Down’s syndrome sat down to watch Finland’s Next Top Model, it might have seemed a distant world. But for Maija Mattila, it started the dream that changed her life.
Maija watched in awe as the tall, dark, aspiring model walked in front of judges of the reality TV show and posed for the camera. This was Polina Hiekkala, and she was doing everything Maija wanted to do.
Maija’s hazel brown eyes light up when she talks about modelling.
The young Finnish-Nigerian woman explains how she has watched countless hours of catwalk videos on YouTube since being inspired by Hiekkala in 2012.
“I started practising my walk at home, in front of the mirror,” she says.
Maija, who was born with Down’s syndrome and is now 20, leans gently against her mother and laughs shyly when recalling her early steps towards a modelling career.
Her mother, Anna-Erika Mattila, admits it was difficult to support her daughter’s dream in the beginning.
“I wanted her to have more realistic ambitions,” she says.
At school, Maija was bullied because of the colour of her skin. Maija’s father is from Nigeria. Her mum is Finnish.
“And then there’s Down’s syndrome on top of that,” says her mother.
Despite significant hurdles, Maija has pursued her dream. All the way, she has had support from friends and family.
For her 18th birthday, a family friend gave Maija a gift voucher for a professional photo shoot. It became another life-changing moment.
The shoot was held at the Finnish Broadcasting Company, where the team behind a youth-focused news programme caught wind of it.
They liked her story, so they filmed her photo shoot and put together a package for their online show. It went viral.
Shortly afterwards, Maija was doing radio and magazine interviews – and more photo shoots.
“My biggest campaign so far has been for Kalevala Koru,” says Maija, name-checking a well-known Helsinki jeweller.
“I loved doing the catwalk at African Fashion Festival Helsinki,” she adds.
Life without pudding
It has not all been straightforward, though. Fashion industry rules apply to her, like anyone else.
“The hardest thing about modelling has been losing weight,” she says.
Her mother adds that Maija has lost 15kg (2st 5lb) over a couple of years. Naturally enough, the sacrifices have been tough. Last summer Maija gave up ice cream, chocolate and all sweets.
Life without pudding is hard, she says, but the desire to become a model trumps her sweet tooth.
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Though there are very few models in the world with Down’s syndrome, Maija’s mum believes their time is coming, suggesting there is room for more diversity in the modelling industry.
She speaks about Madeline Stuart, an Australian model with Down’s syndrome, who recently landed a contract.
“It would be great if Maija and Madeline could do a shoot together one day, it would be like chocolate and vanilla,” she says.
When walking around town, says Anna-Erika Mattila, “people often ask me where I have adopted Maija”.
She is not offended by this, more amused. People are naturally curious, she says, referring to Maija’s darker complexion and her Down’s syndrome.
Skin colour also interests Maija. When she was younger she had difficulty understanding why her mother’s colour was different to hers.
And although Maija’s father has not been in her life, she has taken a keen interest in Africa.
“I want to go [to Nigeria], to just holiday and bathe in the sun,” she says, adding how much she loves Nigerian singer Yemi Alade.
She also hopes her journey will inspire others.
“I want to be an example to others and encourage everybody to pursue their dreams and be proud of their skin colour.”