Rebekah Marine is proud to call herself “The Bionic Model.” The nickname is an obvious nod to Marine’s right arm — a high-tech prosthetic. And while she’s made headlines for her stunning looks, she wants more from life than just being really, really good looking. A motivational speaker and budding author, Marine also travels the country inspiring others and challenging conventional ideas about both beauty and limitations. She’s an ambassador for The Lucky Fin Project and regularly mentors children with upper limb differences.
At New York Fashion Week this year, the 29-year-old model walked the runway with Gianna Schiavone, a six-year-old who, like Marine, was born without a forearm. Marine wore her bionic prosthesis, Schiavone went bare-armed, the two cutting impressive figures as they modeled matching gowns at the FTL Moda show.
In a recent conversation, Marine opened up about what it was like growing up different, her experience with fame, and how it feels to work in an industry where diversity is just now finally being embraced.
It’s been said that you’re changing the face of modeling? Is that something you originally set out to do?
Not originally. I didn’t really know what I was set out to do when I first started this journey. I knew I wanted to make a difference somehow… I just didn’t realize how great of an impact I would eventually have on people. It’s actually humbling to be at the forefront of this huge change in the industry. It’s very flattering to be a part of it.
Most recently, you walked in New York Fashion Week with Gianna, a six-year-old who also has a limb difference.
Gianna and I met through the Lucky Fin Project, which is a nonprofit organization that I’m an ambassador for. Gianna is everything fashion. She loves lip gloss and trying on new clothes. When I had the opportunity to bring her into the show, I knew she was going to be a great fit for it, and I knew she would be a natural. It’s just such a huge moment for both of us, because for me it was like I’m passing the torch to future generations, and for her, she’s setting the pace for other little girls who may struggle with confidence issues. I think it was a huge deal for a lot of little girls out there.
Growing up, what was your confidence like? I’m thinking about Gianna walking the fashion runway with you. What would that have been like for you?
Gianna has so much more confidence than I did at that age. I think a large part of that has to do with the people that she has access to, and the people that she can look up to and see doing big things in life. I didn’t have that growing up. I didn’t know anybody like me. It was kind of a struggle to figure out where I fit in in this world.
I really didn’t realize that I was different until probably my teenage years when everyone, all the girls started dating, and I wasn’t. I kind of started realizing, oh, I’m not like the others. I think it hit me hard. I remember when my mom took me to an agency in New York City when I was probably 12 or 13 and they told me “you can’t model, this isn’t your career choice.” I think that’s when I kind of became secluded and very self conscious of myself.
It sounds like your parents were really supportive. They’ve always pushed you in a good way?
Yeah. My parents never believed in coddling me or treating me any differently. If I wanted to model, they were going to support me in every possible way that they could. They were just going to give me all the opportunities and the access that I needed as a 13-year-old, transportation wise and everything. They were just so super supportive. Even if it hurt, getting a no from the agency, it was still something that my parents had my back with.
What was it like to hear that as a 13-year-old? “You’ll never model.”
It was hard because I guess it didn’t register to me that I was that different, that it was going to be an issue. I was like, “Wow. Really?” I literally did not understand why it wasn’t possible, because I’m just a regular girl who likes to play outside and hang out with my friends. To me, I didn’t feel like I was very different. When they said that, that’s kind of when it kind of registered, like, “Ah… I get it.” I’m not as pretty as the others. Modeling is a very superficial industry that is based on looks, so to me it just registered as I’m not pretty.
If that’s the case–modeling being superficial and based on looks–how much do you think this push to put diverse models in Fashion Week is a real push for diversity, and how much of it is “look at us. We’re being so progressive”?
It’s kind of like a trend right now, and I sometimes feel like I’m just part of a product, almost like a hashtag.
Right. I hope it sticks and this is just how the fashion industry is going to keep going. I hope it’s not just a phase or just a one-time thing. I hope it’s an actual change in the industry. I guess only time will tell.
To me it’s a two way street. If New York Fashion Week wants to use me to show that they’re embracing diversity, that’s great, and for me, at the same time, they’re giving me the opportunity to show little girls that they can do whatever they want to do. It sounds funny, but it’s like we’re kind of using each other. Maybe it’s for different reasons:If their goal is that they want to get the positive press out of it, that’s what it is and that’s fine, but at the end of the day, for me, I’m actually getting something back, and I think that’s the most important part.
What are you getting back from it, and how are you using the platform?
The fashion industry is just such a huge platform for me to prove to people that you can do anything that you want to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be modeling. It’s just something that I wanted to challenge myself in. It’s something I had an interest in when I was a kid. But it can be anything. If you want to be an astronaut, or if you want to be a scientist, the whole point of it is that you’re pushing yourself to live outside of your comfort zone, and to forget about the insecurities that we all have. Because we all do have them. Some are more visible than others.
Do you think that that might have been part of your thinking when you got into modeling when you were younger? You mentioned that you didn’t register your differences when you were a teen.
I think that was more of a decision I made when I was an adult, and I started this whole process. I had self confidence issues and felt very insecure about myself for a decade, really, and it wasn’t until I was 22 that I told myself, “I can’t keep living this way. I can’t hide from the world my entire life.” I remember talking to a friend, who eventually pushed me in the idea of modeling in the prosthetic, and he was the one who told me, “You have this purpose in life that you have to fulfill.” That’s when it clicked in my head that I should be pushing outside of my comfort zone. I shouldn’t be hiding from myself.
Do you think people would have accepted you as a model without the prosthetic as an adult? Gianna didn’t wear one when you walked together.
I don’t think me wearing a prosthetic or not makes a difference. It’s just me as the bionic model, I think people kind of expect to see that. I love wearing it. I think it’s a great piece of technology and Touch Bionics has been so great to me, and I’m proud to wear it. It’s almost like a fashion statement. It’s a really cool accessory. When I was Gianna’s age, I didn’t wear one. I wouldn’t expect her to wear one either. It’s a matter of preference, I guess.
Can you tell me about the prosthetic?
I wear the Touch Bionics iLimb Quantum, which is one of the most advanced prosthetic hands on the market right now. All the individual fingers move through sensors that are build into my socket. The nice thing about this specific hand is that it has motion sensors, so all I have to do is move my hand to a certain direction and it will change into a certain grip that I need to do a certain task.
I’ve been with Touch Bionics for a little over a year. When I turned 22, I got a prosthetic that wasn’t really a great fit for me. It didn’t really do a lot. It just looked more or less like a claw. I didn’t wear it so often. It was a struggle. Touch Bionics stepped in and offered me to become one of their ambassadors, and now I wear the iLimb. I wear it a lot more. I love going out with it. I love being able to multitask and hold one thing and be able to have my phone in my left hand. It just relieves a lot of pressure from when I’m just doing everyday tasks.
Things that I still struggle with are just maybe typing, because I type about 80 words per minute, and with a prosthetic, it almost slows me down, so it’s been a challenge learning to use a second hand. When you go 29 years doing everything a certain way, it’s definitely hard to kind of reverse learn everything.
Speaking of being 29: You’re a little older than some other models. What have you learned about the modeling industry, about fashion week, that you maybe wish somebody would have known if they were wandering in, like most girls do, like you wanted to, at 12 or 13?
Everything they say about the fashion industry is true. It’s very cutthroat, and it’s very competitive, and you have to have a really thick skin to be in the kind of industry that critiques every inch of your body. It can be frustrating, and it’s difficult, but the reward is so great, especially in the position that I am, to be able to inspire people and to lift people up. That’s why I keep doing it, because I feel like it’s helping people feel like they’re not alone.
You’ve gotten a lot of attention recently. What’s it like getting so big so quickly?
It’s funny. There’s a guy named Noah Galloway. He was on Dancing with the Stars. He’s missing his arm and his leg. He got really, really big. When I started getting a lot of press, I asked him how he deals with the comments. The number one piece of advice he gave me was, “Don’t read them.” I try to stay off of reading it, but obviously I’m always curious to see what somebody outside of my circle of friends is going to say about me. For the most part I’ve read a lot of great, positive remarks about what I’m doing. A lot of people praise me for working with the kids, and that’s so awesome to see that it’s being recognized and acknowledged.
But, obviously, you see the negative comments, like, “How can she be insecure if she’s this beautiful model?” That’s frustrating, because just because someone is a model or someone is somewhat pretty doesn’t mean that they’re the most confident person in the world. I think we all struggle with some flaws and self confidence issues, and just because someone is pretty doesn’t mean that they’re perfectly happy.
I think that’s the biggest misconception.
What would you say to something like that? You just said that people have problems. What would you say if somebody says “the limb difference isn’t an issue because you are conventionally beautiful, so that’s it. Of course, you can be a model.”
It’s frustrating, because obviously I can only talk about my story so much and reach so many people and defend myself. I wish people would know that I’m not perfect. I’m just a regular girl who’s just trying to make a difference in this world, and if I can inspire one person, that’s great. I’ve accomplished it. That’s all I want to do.
I wish people weren’t so quick to jump down my throat about my career choice, because modeling is very superficial and people are like, “Well, she wouldn’t be getting this press if she wasn’t so pretty.” I chose to model, so of course I’m going to get press about being a pretty person.
What do you say to people who say things like those modeling agents when you were 13 who say to “stick to your limitations”?
I don’t think anybody should ever live by those standards. We get one life, and we should be able to explore anything that we want. I’m not 5’9″. I’m not the typical skinny, tall model, but I still enjoy it, I’m still going to keep pushing, even if it means getting 100 “no’s.” As long as there’s that one “yes.”
I think the biggest message is to just be you and to celebrate you and your uniqueness and what makes you special. I always say, we should be celebrating uniqueness. That’s my biggest thing. It’s so true. I think we forget that, that we’re all very unique and just because one person says no doesn’t mean the second person is going to.
It’s just all about finding your niche, especially in the modeling industry.
How do you celebrate your uniqueness?
I think it’s just a matter of just owning it and being confident in the cards you were dealt. Obviously, sometimes people don’t understand or they can’t comprehend the cards that they were dealt, and it’s all about taking advantage of what you do have, and what you can give.
I said this to my friend the other day and it’s something that I don’t really talk about: When I was a little girl I used to write notes under my pillow that said, “I wish I would wake up with two hands.” Now, looking back on it I’m so glad that that didn’t happen, because I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. Sometimes we often wish that we want certain things to be a certain way, but in time we later realize that everything is there for a purpose and for a reason.
That’s something that I don’t really talk about too much: the dark insecurities that I had, wishing to be normal and wanting to be like all the other girls. I’m just super glad that I am different. I love being different.
Do you ever still think that way? I’m legally blind and even though it’s how I’ve always been, but every couple of days someone reminds me of it and I still get a twinge of wishing–
You had a sense of normalcy?
Yes. Do you ever still go through that?
Yeah. I think all of us want some sort of normalcy or we all want something different about ourselves. Of course it would be really nice to be able to climb the monkey bars, or just do silly stuff. Of course it would be really, really awesome to have two hands, but I guess it’s all about just making the best of what you do have.
You’re totally right. It would be nice, obviously, to have two hands, but it is what it is.
What do you think is the climate in the fashion world right now? Do you feel accepted? Do you ever worry that you won’t be?
Right now I feel pretty damn accepted. The success I’ve had. It’s funny because I think a lot of the struggle that I have doesn’t necessarily have to do with my hand anymore, it’s my height.
How tall are you?
I’m 5’3″. It’s funny because all of my life I thought I couldn’t model because of my hand, and I think it’s more my height now.
Mark Shrayber is senior Life writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.