Flying around the world as a model is a fast-paced glamorous life for any young woman, but Jade Willoughby had a childhood illness that almost had her living life as a “bubble boy.”

Willoughby (Ojibway from Whitesand First Nation and Jamaican) is just 23 years old but has already lived a very eventful life.

Based out of New York City, N.Y., she is represented by Wilhemina Models, travels for bookings worldwide and has just walked two shows at New York Fashion Week.

She is one of three Native models who’ve made their mark on the international stage.

Her childhood in Thunder Bay, Ont., had a much different tone.

Around the age of seven years old, she suddenly developed Nephrotic Syndrome. It’s a rare kidney disease that causes protein to be lost in the urine, which results in severe swelling, water retention and a compromised immune system.

After her and her father first noticed her legs swelling in the bathtub, it took her doctors over three months to properly diagnose her.

Jade Willoughby

Jade Willoughby is represented by Wilhemina Models and has just walked two shows at New York Fashion Week. (Andrew De Francesco)

 

They had to research her case overseas to be able to fully treat her in the small northwestern Ontario town.

“I was constantly in and out of remission from the time I got sick. Most of my childhood was spent in the hospital up until I was about 13,” Willoughby said. “There were several points in my life where I couldn’t walk because the water retention was so dramatic.”

During this point in time, she was ridiculed for her looks. She was called "chipmunk cheeks," and strangers would come up to her to touch her face.

When she was able to go to school for brief periods, she experienced severe bullying not only for her swollen appearance, but also for being aboriginal and mixed race. She took hits from all sides.

“I was essentially in a little quarantine. I couldn’t interact with any more people than who lived in my household. I was home schooled, so needless to say I didn’t necessarily have the best social skills in the world,” she said. “My illness has created a lot of challenges for me that have helped me to get where I am now and that was a big one — was the fact that I had virtually no social skills outside of my parents and my brothers and sisters.”

At the age of 16 as she hit puberty, her hormones changed and her disease went into remission. She gradually decreased her medication and one night her retention all went away.

It was this remission that revived Willoughby’s desire to pursue modelling. When she was six years old, before her illness, she saw her first runway show on television and knew that was what she wanted to do.

After years of battling illness that left her isolated and unable to function at times, she was finally ready to tackle the world of fashion.

Jade Willoughby

Jade Willoughby overcame a childhood illness to pursue her dream of modelling. (Beau Partlow)

Her early life gave her a good foundation to handle the tough modelling industry, where rejection is a daily part of life and the road to the top is paved with those who are willing to claw at you.  

“[Early on] I learned a very hard lesson about the darker sides of the modelling industry — dealing with unprofessionalism and improper business management,” she said. “Some incidences occurred, nothing major. It ended up that someone was messing with my career and essentially trying to sabotage my career. I had to take a step away, and I stopped modelling. I thought I was done. I hung up my proverbial heels.”

It was through Facebook that she got back in the game.

A Florida-based talent scout at Benz Model & Talent Agency reached out to her and encouraged Willoughby to pursue her dream of walking the runway. The scout invited her to join her in New York to shop her around to the top agencies, where she went and won.

She landed a contract with Wilhemina Models — her dream agent.

It wasn’t all dream-like for Willoughby, though.

When she first arrived in New York City to visit the agencies, she experienced severe culture shock as she hadn’t travelled on her own before and had to quickly adapt without relying on her family for the first time in her life.

'Anytime it gets to hard I always remember the people in my life that I’ve lost... I’ve lost, very recently several of my family members to suicide.'- Jade Willoughby

She has quickly gotten up to speed, and she now calls Manhattan home, where she resides in a model apartment.

She is still able to travel around the world for her gigs, and she also goes back to Canada to do speaking engagements and visit with family.

“I draw a lot of my strength from the fact that I do have my moments like anyone else where I break down,” she said. “I’ve had my days were I say, 'I don’t want to do this anymore. It's too hard. I’m lonely. I want to go home. I want to stop.'”

Willoughby is far from stopping, though. Her cultural grounding in jingle dress dancing, and her family support help keep her motivated to continue modelling.

“Anytime it gets to hard, I always remember the people in my life that I’ve lost because they had things that were too hard — that was hard for them. I’ve lost, very recently, several of my family members to suicide,” she said. “When things get too hard, I draw back on the memories of my loved ones and think, 'I have to do it. I can’t give up because no matter how hard it gets or how much I’ve been beaten to the ground and I’m tired, that I have to get up because they couldn’t get up.'”