Modeling Diversity

Model, athlete, and nail artist Karneshia Shantel has never let spina bifida get in the way of her dreams.

By Rosalind Fournier

Karneshia Shantel has described her wheelchair as both her best friend and worst enemy. But it’s also something more basic—a means to get her where she wants to go. And Shantel is nothing if not a woman on the go.

Shantel was born with spinal bifida, a congenital defect of the spine that can, as in Shantel’s case, cause paralysis from the waist down. But growing up as one of three children in Senatobia, Mississippi, she took her cue from a family who “didn’t treat me any differently,” she says. “I feel like they did their best to make sure I felt like everybody else.”

Shantel adds that she didn’t give them much choice, anyway. “Everyone in my family, they know that I’m a little rebel. I do what I want.”

While she was still at home, Shantel’s mother signed her up for a basketball league designed for people with disabilities, which gave her a way to stay active and competitive, a chance to travel, and an introduction to others with disabilities who, like her, wanted to live healthy, positive lives. After high school, Shantel attended the University of Mississippi and got a degree in nutrition science before moving to Birmingham and trying nursing school for a semester.

“I quickly figured out it wasn’t for me,” she remembers. Instead, she went to school to become a certified nail tech and also earned an MBA in marketing.

Working magic on women’s nails came naturally, and she has an Instagram, @shantelznailz, to prove it, with literally hundreds of pictures of her custom nail art. “You’d be amazed by the people who contact you and want very specific things done,” Shantel says. It also provides her with a regular income while she also pursues other adventures, which grow more ambitious by the day—beginning with her bold foray into modeling.

“I’m a big media person, and when I was looking at different shows, different magazines, or my social media, I just didn’t see a lot of representation of people with disabilities,” Shantel says. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to try modeling. I love the camera, and I want to see more diversity. So I’m just going to go at it full force and see where it gets me.’”

She started with a few photo shoots, then began to show up for modeling casting calls locally. In 2016, she was selected for her first fashion show. It was what she’d been working for, but she remembers being terrified anyway. “It was very nerve wracking, and my hands were sweating,” Shantel remembers. “But once you get out there, you’re out there, so you just gotta do it.” Then came the thrill of watching the audience react: “The first time feels like, ‘Oh, wow. They like me!’

“You can see them thinking, ‘Hey, she’s really serious about this. This isn’t a game for her,’” she continues. “So seeing people’s faces when I model is very rewarding for me.” She’s gone on to do Magic City Fashion Week twice, among other local shows, and begun going on casting calls in other cities as well.

Shantel doesn’t recall ever having discussed her disability with the people who hire her for photo shoots or fashion shows, though she feels sure that people get it—the idea that making the fashion world more inclusive is both exciting and overdue. “Nobody’s actually said that, but I’m pretty sure that’s how people feel,” she says. “The designers embrace it. They’ll tell me, ‘I have to have you in my clothes!’ That’s amazing to me. They just get your measurements like they get everybody else’s, and I remember one who actually made my dress and fitted me the day of the show. It was amazing to watch.”

But one of Shantel’s biggest, most unexpected breaks so far came after she began modeling and was contacted by Bancroft Media, a U.K.-based company that produces “content celebrating a diverse range of incredible true stories.” They found Shantel on Instagram and wanted to shoot a video telling her story. “It was really a surprise,” she says. “But I thought it was a good platform. I looked them up and said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it.” The video, part of a series called “Shake My Beauty,” topped 1 million views in eight days.

“I did not expect it to reach people the way it did, honestly,” Shantel says. “I’m still floored by it today, to see how many views and how far it’s gone. Even if I go out of the state, somebody will stop me and say, ‘Hey, you look familiar—I think I saw your video!’ This happened most recently in New Orleans. That blows my mind.”

Along with her modeling, the video features other aspects of Shantel’s life, including her love of basketball. She plays on a team at Lakeshore Foundation, which enables and encourages people with physical disabilities and chronic illnesses to engage in an active lifestyle, including playing sports. (Lakeshore is designated as an official U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Site and has produced a number of Paralympic athletes.) She practices with the team twice a week and tries to work out there three additional times per week, keeping her in such excellent shape she’s able to do pull-ups with her bright-purple sports wheelchair still strapped on.

Along with modeling, basketball gives Shantel another opportunity to travel, too. “Two years ago we went to New York City for a tournament, and last year we went to Orlando,” she says. “It’s pretty cool to experience different places, meeting new people who play basketball and are into the same things that you’re into in similar situations. There’s a whole community out there that people are unaware of.”

But it won’t remain that way if Shantel has any say. She’s eager to expand her marketing skills to any and all media, including a web-based show called “Klaw Talk” she expects to launch in the coming weeks. “I’ll have people come and basically sit and talk to me while we’re having a nail appointment,” she says. “They’ll be my real clients telling real stories—people who are making an impact and want to spread whatever they’re doing for the community and the world. I’m excited about it.” Shantel is also a weekly blogger for the site, which was started by a disability fashion stylist based in L.A. and tells stories from the perspectives of people with disabilities about different aspects of their lives. She plans to visit L.A. to spend time soon with its founder, Stephanie Thomas, whom she considers a mentor.

“I know the path I’m on is going to take me places that I’ve probably never seen,” Shantel says. “Never even dreamed of seeing. Wherever I can see more inclusion in the media, that’s what I’m going for.”


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