They're young, beautiful, poised and ambitious and confined to wheelchairs. Meet the new stars of the catwalk, at a modelling competition for the disabled. Ten young women from across Europe joined the competition in the northern German city of Hanover this month.
In smart casual togs or long evening dresses in brilliant colours, Milena of Macedonia, Gerardina of Italy and Germany's Ines relished the limelight as hundreds of spectators looked on and a professional jury sized them up. Each of the women was aiming to see her face splashed across a magazine cover or featured in a television commercial.
"It's possible!" said Jelena Zdravkovic, 23, a pretty blonde Serb. "But there is still a lot to do to fight prejudice because people often do not think that beauty and a disability can go together."
The young psychology student, who is enrolled at a German university and has suffered from muscular dystrophy since birth, was the first winner of the "International Beauties in Motion" competition.
Each of the women rolled their wheelchairs down the catwalk with precisely choreographed moves set to the music of Madonna and Prince. The 10 candidates were handpicked from more than 200 applicants dreaming of a chance in the fashion world.
"These women do not want pity. They are models like any other. And they are quite simply sexy," said American jury member Bruce Darnell, known in Germany for his part in supermodel Heidi Klum's reality television show Germany's Next Top Model.
Between make-up applications, contestants admit they find the whole experience rather amusing -- particularly posing with animals for a wall calendar, with or without their wheelchairs. "I love getting up on stage, performing," said an Austrian of Zambian origin, Khelesiya Erdkoenig.
"But nothing is easy: we always have to fight to show we can do the same thing as the 'pedestrians' (people who are not disabled)," said Erdkoenig, a petite, dynamic professional singer who has been handicapped since age two. The clothes on display have all the style and elegance of a top-level fashion show. "They are nothing special, I could have designed them for women who are not disabled," designer and jury member Mira Koetters said.
"There is one difference however -- the disabled have more difficulty putting on some of the skintight dresses."
An organiser of the event, Renate Weidner of the disabled rights group Partizip, said the biggest challenge facing the models was bias.
"The United States and England are far ahead in this area -- there you see handicapped people in television commercials and they can make a living in this field. Here it is still impossible," she said. Nina Wortmann, a German who took part in a similar contest in 2004, one year after the accident that left her a paraplegic, said the models offered a healthy lesson in positive body image and self-esteem for those still dealing with the shock of a sudden disability.
"What counts in this business is being motivated, not slumping down in the wheelchair, and keeping your head held high," said Wortmann, who was part of the jury. "Just think of all the non-disabled people who walk down the street closed to the world with their eyes lowered to the ground?"