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Finnish-Nigerian woman with Down’s syndrome strides down the runway as a Model

by Milicent Atieno
Down’s syndrome

20-year-old Maija Mattila’s interest in modelling began at a tender age after seeing Polina Hiekkaa make those strides before a panel of judges during a reality TV show. From a tender age, Maija wanted to become a model, but we all know the fashion industry is a cut-throat business where what’s good and ‘not good’ is viewed from a limited field of view from a key hole. Maija was born with Down’s syndrome, and what despite her challenge, she soldiered on to pursue her dreams.

She began watching YouTube videos of her role model, Polina Hiekkala, and practising her walks at home. Her mother, Anna-Erika Mattila, admits it was very difficult for her to support how daughter’s dreams knowing very well the fashion industry might not accommodate her condition.

I wanted her to have more realistic ambitions,” say Anna-Erika.

Maija, being of mixed race and living in a predominantly white society received more than her fair share of bullying at school. She was bullied because of her darker tone skin shade, “And then there’s Down’s syndrome on top of that,” said her mother.

All the same, Maija was not about to give up on her dreams, and the fact she had strong support from friends and family helped her to soldier on. On her 18th birthday, a family friend gave her a gift voucher for a professional photo shoot. That was the moment Maija got a taste of her dream becoming a reality, to have the camera lenses focus on the moves, walks, and pose she has been practicing at home.Down’s syndrome

That shoot was conducted by the Finnish Broadcasting Company, from which a team running a youth-focuses news program learned of Maija. They got interested in her story, and filmed her shoot and pieced together a story for their online show, and Maija went viral.

Not long after that, Maija was on one interview after the other across radios and magazines; then more photo shoots started following her. Maija has also been receiving modelling gigs every now and then the biggest of which being with popular Helsinki-based jeweler Kalevala Koru. She also models during the African Fashion Festival Helsinki.

The Fashion Industry has no special treatment for anyone

Maija says the industry has been rough, the fashion industry rules apply to her, just like any other model in the trade.

The hardest thing about modelling has been losing weight,” said Maija.

Her mother says Maija has lost at least 15kg (2st 5lb) over the past few years. Maija did not particularly like giving up ice cream, chocolate, and all the sweet snacks she loved. She admits that life without some pudding sucks, but her dream to become a model trumps the little sweet things.

Maija is among the growing but still short list of models in the world with Down’s syndrome. Other notable models with the condition include the Australian, Madeline Stuart.

Maija’s African heritage

Maija’s mother is Finnish and her father Nigerian. She has lived all her life in her mother’s country and sometimes when they are out and about, “people often ask me where I have adopted Maija” says her mother.

Her mother says people are naturally curious and Maija’s darker complexion and Down’s syndrome. She further said that Maija had a difficult time understanding how her own mother had different skin color from her.

Although Maija’s father has not been active in her life, she has nonetheless taken interest in Africa, particularly Nigeria.

I want to go (to Nigeria), to just holiday and bathe in the Sun,” said Maija.

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