After painful surgery and recovery, Oakville teen not just a model, but role model too

A 16-year-old model from Oakville, Ont., who recently made her Paris Fashion Week debut is not just remarkable because she's only been in the business for six months — but also because she overcame scoliosis and spinal surgery to get there.

Before and after Instagram posts of Emm Arruda's spinal surgery inspires other teens with scoliosis

Two years ago, Emm Arruda had major surgery called spinal fusion for scoliosis, straightening her back using titanium rods and screws. (@emm_arruda/Instagram)

A 16-year-old model from Oakville, Ont., who made her Paris Fashion Week debut on Friday is not just remarkable because she's only been in the business for six months.

Emm Arruda was born with scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine that occurs most often during the growth spurt just before puberty.

She'd long been interested in modelling, but in a business that craves perfection, she didn't think the profession would ever be a possibility because of her condition.

"It made me self-conscious of my body. I wouldn't wear tight shirts or something with a symbol on it because you could see it was turned sideways," Arruda said between fittings and auditions in Paris. 

She added that she would instead wear baggy clothing to hide the pronounced S-curve in her back.

Signed 6 months after surgery

Two years ago, Arruda had major surgery called spinal fusion. Doctors straightened her back using titanium rods and screws. These will grow together with the spinal bone, fusing it into the proper position.  

"We were terrified of the surgery but Emm really wanted to do it so we supported her," said her mom, Liz Arruda. "I'm ready to cry just thinking about it."

Her recovery took six months. Meanwhile, a friend of her mother's sent photos of Arruda to modelling agent Chantale Nadeau, who wanted to sign her right away.

"She has this incredible posture and I figured out why later. Because of her scoliosis, she actually has a metal rod in her back, so she is very, very straight," said Nadeau.

Arruda's first appearance was at Toronto Fashion Week where she walked for fashion labels Mackage, Narces and Maram Paris. That was followed by appearances at New York Fashion Week and the chance to model for fashion powerhouse Dior during Paris Fashion Week.

Something special

Nadeau says booking agents seem to sense that there's something special about Arruda, even without knowing her full story.

"What she went through makes her really strong. And this is good for this industry because it's a tough industry. You have to take a lot of rejection and work really hard," Nadeau said.

Chantale Nadeau, who signed Emm Arruda not knowing the story of her surgery, says the experience will be useful in "tough industry" of fashion. (CBC)

Initially, Arruda says she'd hesitate when asked about the 40-centimetre scar running down the middle of her back.

"When I first started modelling I didn't want to tell people because I thought it was a bad thing … But then I realized it is a good thing. It can inspire other people and help other people," said Arruda.

After she posted before-and-after pictures of her surgery on Instagram, she received hundreds of messages, many from teens with scoliosis — and others just inspired by her story.

"A lot of girls on Instagram were texting her and asking about the surgery. She's someone they look up to. Not just a model — a role model," said her mother.

​When they ask for advice, this is what Emm Arruda tells them: "You may not think that something is possible … but you can overcome anything if you actually believe that you can."