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Sofía Jirau, the first Victoria's Secret model with Down Syndrome, pictured in front of the Eiffel Tower
Sofía Jirau, the first Victoria's Secret model with Down Syndrome, pictured in front of the Eiffel Tower | Photo courtesy of INprende

Woman from Puerto Rico becomes first Victoria’s Secret model with Down syndrome

At five years old, I paraded around the house with my siblings. With a closet full of costumes, I grabbed the Hannah Montana wig, my mom's heels, and any accessories I could find. I pretended to stroll down catwalk.

Interview Subject
Sofía Jirau was born on March 23, 1997, in Puerto Rico. She is the second of four siblings.

From a very young age, she engaged in speech, occupational and physical therapies. Raised alongside her siblings, she says she knew she could do the same things as anyone else.

At 22 she modeled for the first time, for a local designer. The following year, she made her big debut at New York Fashion Week. She launched her own brand of clothes and accessories called Alavett. This year she became the first woman with Down syndrome to be featured in a Victoria’s Secret campaign.
background information
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder caused when abnormal cell division produces extra genetic material from chromosome 21. It is one of the most common genetic congenital malformations, affecting approximately 1 in 800 babies.

Other models with Down Syndrome include American Jamie Brewer, who rose to fame for her work on the series American Horror Story and was the first woman with Down Syndrome to model at New York Fashion Week.

Maria Júlia de Araujo was part of the Brazilian Fashion Week, where she walked for 40 brands in a single season. She is an ambassador for L’Oréal.

Mikayla Holmgren was the first girl with Down syndrome to participate in an American beauty pageant.

Ellie Goldstein of Britain was one of the first models with Down Syndrome to collaborate with Gucci. She is currently an ambassador for Adidas.

Marián Ávila of Spain debuted on the catwalks with the Valencian designer Lina Lavin at a charity event to help people affected by fibromyalgia in Madrid. There she was discovered by the organizers of the Seville Fashion Week.

Beth Matthews of Britian is a member of the Zebedee modeling agency, which specializes in inclusive profiles. She already had her first photo shoot for Vogue.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – At 22 years old, as a model with Down Syndrome, I made it to New York Fashion Week. Two years later, I modeled for Victoria’s Secret. I never once doubted I would be featured at a major fashion event.

I remember the moment. Moving down the catwalk with my eyes on a fixed point, I held my head high. The crowd surrounding me applauded and shouted words of encouragement. In a short, glittering, animal print dress with black boots, I turned at the end of the runway and shook my hair. I felt like a superstar.

With family support, girl with Down Syndrome learns she can do anything

My mother discovered I had Down Syndrome on March 23, 1997. After giving birth to me, the doctors quickly recognized I displayed some of the features of Down’s.

Though unexpected, she assimilated quickly. “What do I do to help her,” my mom asked. Two weeks later, I started my first therapy. My mother raised me the same as my siblings, who do not have the health issues I do. I learned that anything is possible for me if I try hard enough.

Those of us with Down Syndrome have one more chromosome than most people. I consider it “the chromosome of love!” With that in mind, I look for the positive aspects of life and see the beauty in everyone and everything all the time.

Challenges exist. I have to try harder and practice more at things which may come natural to others. For example, my mom had to remind me frequently when I was young to keep my tongue inside my mouth and learning to speak took me a while. Yet, with family support, I always managed.

I still see myself as a child in my mom’s minivan. Wherever she went, the four of us followed behind her. On those rides, I would be the one singing and dancing. I loved “La Camisa Negra” by Juanes or songs by Celia Cruz – the Queen of Salsa – who my Cuban grandparents introduced me to.

My mother and father remained honest about my condition and said I would need a little more help than others. It felt natural and I enjoyed my therapies because I knew I needed them, and they would help me. Today, I can do things like anyone else.

Childhood dreams briefly interrupted

At five years old, I paraded around the house with my siblings. With a closet full of costumes, I grabbed the Hannah Montana wig, my mom’s heels, and any accessories I could find. I pretended to stroll down the catwalk.

I crossed the entire house until I reached the living room. There, we lined up tables and chairs to section off space for a stage. Sometimes my older sister and I played the models in a fashion show. Other times, I transformed into the lead singer in a talent show, dancing alongside my two younger brothers. Even then, I knew my future included modeling.

Before that time came, I turned to sports, wanting to spend more time with my brothers in their activities. For me, my family is my world. So, I took up volleyball, synchronized swimming, and basketball. Then, at 17 years old, I had to undergo heart surgery.

Sofia Jirau poses confidently in a photo shoot. | Photo Courtesy of INprende

Born with an Atrioventricular Canal Defect, a condition often association with Down Syndrome, I had two heart murmurs. Over the long term, the defect can cause the heart to overwork and result in heart failure. Though they knew of my condition early, they did not want to operate on a child, but rather allow for the possibility the defects could disappear on their own. One heart murmur disappeared but the other did not.

I had to go to the doctor all the time growing up, more so than my siblings. I became accustomed to it. Before a trip to Disney with the family, I had to ask the doctor if I could ride the roller coaster. When my health results came back positive, I could play like the other children.

When the remaining heart murmur began growing inside me, they opted to perform heart surgery. I never had surgery before and felt scared, uncertain of what could happen. They explained everything and despite my own fear, I told everyone else to calm down. “Don’t worry,” I assured them, “I’m going to be fine.” As always, everything worked out fine and even after surgery, I have a big heart in me, with love for the whole world.

After first fashion week, she launches the #NoLimits campaign

My dream to become a model began to take shape when the Puerto Rican Down Syndrome Foundation put me in contact with INprende [an organization that offers business education and skill development to empower professionals and entrepreneurs toward continuous development]. The company helped me start my modeling business. I launched my brand Alavett, a virtual store featuring accessories, clothing, and household products. On the very first day, I wrote down “Alavett” which means “I love it,” and it’s one of my favorite phrases.

Alessandra Correa, the founder of INprende, eventually told me about the trip to New York. “We’re going there to model. Are you ready,” she asked me? I responded, “Pal mambo,” which means “prepared for everything.”

Sofia Jirau doing what she loves most: modeling | Photo courtesy of INprende

In New York, I did photo shoots and catwalks. Everyone applauded me. I hugged people as I finished the runway, before heading back to my family. It felt exciting, like being in a movie. Today, I enjoy fame. People ask me for photos on the street. Boys and girls with different health issues tell me I inspire them. The recognition never leaves me overwhelmed. This is what I always wanted to do, and now I can.

Since then, I realize I can do more to help people with Down Syndrome like me. I started the #NoLimits campaign for the Down Syndrome community to show people they can do what they want despite having this health issue. They can break down barriers and dream big. Both inside and out, there are no limits.

Modeling, Victoria’s Secret, and falling in love

I believe I can do everything because I am not afraid. The word “fear” does not exist in my body or my vocabulary. When it shows up, I put it in a pocket or take it out to the street. I know I am just the same as everyone else. I am an intelligent, educated woman, as my mother taught me.

Two years later, I became the first model with Down Syndrome in the history of Victoria’s Secret. I feel terrific about the whole experience. It surprised me a little, but also felt like something I knew would happen.

One time during a photo session in the conference room, Christopher Gonzalez appeared. We looked at each other, and at that very moment, we fell in love. Chris is like me. He’s up for everything. He works as a chef, owns his own food truck, and has Down Syndrome.

One night, he texted me, “Sofía Jirau Gonzalez, do you want to be my girlfriend?” I said yes and we have been together for two years now. My heart belongs to him.

Today, I look at myself in the mirror and I say, “Sofia Jirau has arrived, and she is ready for anything!” I wake up early every morning, eat my breakfast, get ready, and go to work.

I do this to fight for my dreams, and I dream of the big leagues. I do everything I can to achieve my objectives. My next set of goals includes becoming a fashion designer and a dancer on stage, like Jennifer Lopez or Shakira.

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Journalist and broadcaster. He works in graphics and radio, and he is always looking for stories that deserve to be told. A devotee of Juan Román Riquelme.