Yet Gemma Flanagan says: “I may now need crutches and a wheelchair to get around.
“But my disability doesn’t stop me from following my dream of becoming a model.”
Gemma, 31, from Vauxhall, was a ‘typical Scouse girl’: fun and fashionable, and a cabin crew member for British Airways. Flying high, she was travelling all over the world and embracing life, until illness struck in October 2011.
She was diagnosed with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a condition which affects the nervous system, and which left her completely paralysed.
“I had just come back from a trip to Vegas,” says Gemma. “I felt odd, like I was jet-lagged. My legs were heavy and I had pins and needles. Then I couldn’t bend my arms.”
Gemma collapsed in the street and was taken to A&E where a barrage of tests resulted in her diagnosis.
GBS is a serious disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the nervous system, leading to nerve inflammation and muscle weakness. What triggers it is unknown, but it often follows a minor infection, signs of which can have disappeared before those of GBS emerge.
Recovery may take weeks, months or years with varying degrees of success.
Gemma spent seven months in the Walton Neuro Rehabilitation Unit, undergoing treatment which included having immunoglobulin added to her blood in huge quantities to block the antibodies which caused the inflammation.
And she says: “I had to learn to speak again, hold things, write and even walk…
“I have been told that I’m probably now as good as I’m going to get, which isn’t where I wanted to be!
“But there was one point when I couldn’t speak or eat and I was being tube fed, so I have to remind myself how far I have come.”
Needless to say, it has been life-changing for Gemma.
“I can’t do cabin crew now because of my condition but, on a positive note, I’m happier than I have ever been, possibly because of what I’ve been through.
“I have realised that what I used to worry about is trivial, and not worth worrying about.
“And, while I hated having to come to terms with the way my body was – not just from a vanity point of view because it looked different but because it behaved differently too – I have now grown in confidence and realised what I can do rather than what I can’t.”
Part of that confidence has come from Models of Diversity, an organisation with which Gemma is now involved and which campaigns for brands, designers and stores to represent their disabled customers and use a variety of diverse models alongside regular models – whether that means those of a different race, size or with a disability.
It has recently set up a pressure group, of which Gemma is a member, to contact companies advising them how they can be discriminating against customers like her and failing to represent them.
“I got in touch with Models of Diversity in 2012/13 after hearing about them from a company called Glamsticks which produces and customises walking aids and accessories.
“I wanted something for my brother’s wedding. I had my outfit, my bag, my shoes but they created a black crutch for me, which was covered in crystals. It was amazing – and the first of many.
“They mentioned MOD and I learned about how they campaign to get diversity within fashion and the media.
“In terms of me, it meant working to get models with disabilities used as general models.”
Gemma goes: “I used to do modelling years ago but didn’t think I could do it now. I’m older and I certainly look different. But I realised I could.
“I went for a test shoot with them and my modelling career has gone from there.
“I did a modelling campaign for Fake Bake who were looking for real women and that was an amazing experience, and I did a nude shoot for Cosmopolitan, very tasteful, which was entitled ‘I love my body because….’
“It was about embracing your body and who you are. If you had asked me to do that years ago when I was size eight I’d have probably said ‘no’, but now I’m a size 12, not as toned, with lumps and bumps and I said ‘yes’.
“I think I did it because it is a way of encouraging fashion companies to be tolerant and represent us, to see us as models full stop and not just as a one-off novelty.
“And I did it because I was proud of what my body had been through and it was a celebration of it not having given up on me!”
As well as campaigning for MOD, Gemma is a volunteer for the GBS support line, which was such a help to her.
“I love it. If I’m having a bad day and thinking ‘woe is me’, I can get a call from someone who i s in the position I was in a few years ago and realise that I can help them – and that I have come so far.
“I still have to have physio and there are additional problems that occur because of my GBS, but I get on with it.
“I have a boyfriend, I am confident and I am happy – happy with what and who I am. That’s how I’ve got through this and I am proud of myself for that.”