'Karried Away': Collinsville girl with Down syndrome finds success as model

News-DemocratSeptember 29, 2013 

Justin Bieber music filled the studio as Collinsville teen Karrie Brown, 17, struck her favorite poses during a modeling shoot in California.

Karrie, who has Down syndrome, said the photo session was "fun" but she had no trouble picking her favorite part of the trip -- "Mickey Mouse."

Wet Seal Inc., a junior clothing company, set up the photo shoot and sent Karrie to Disneyland, where she took in a show featuring the cartoon character.

Karrie's dream of becoming a model seemed far-fetched until Laura Winchester and Syndi Sills, friends of Karrie's mother, Sue Brown, created a Facebook fan page called "Karrie Brown -- Modeling the Future" on Aug. 12, Karrie's first day at Collinsville High School.

The Facebook page featured Karrie wearing outfits from Wet Seal, her favorite clothing company. It set off an avalanche of likes, and Karrie's Facebook fans also hammered Wet Seal with e-mails and phone calls about Karrie.

Wet Seal sent Sue an e-mail the day after the Facebook fan page was created. They said if Karrie could get 10,000 likes by Friday, Aug. 16, they would have a special surprise for her, said Sue, an independent contractor who helps individuals with disabilities find employment and build community.

It didn't take until Friday. Karrie's Facebook page had 11,000 likes by noon Aug. 15.

"It's been crazy," Sue said.

Wet Seal's surprise was an all-expense paid trip to their corporate headquarters in Foothill Ranch, Calif., and a model-for-a-day photo shoot.

CEO John Goodman said Wet Seal was excited to welcome Karrie as a special VIP guest at a launch event for the company's new plus-sized clothing line.

"Karrie's enthusiasm and passion for fashion caught our attention and has inspired all of us here at Wet Seal," he said. "As Karrie herself said, she loves Wet Seal because our clothes help her to 'fit in while standing out' and that's something we feel passionately about for all of our customers."

Wet Seal plans to use Karrie's photos on its website -- wetseal.com -- and across its social media sites.

Since returning from her trip earlier this month, Karrie's adventure has continued. She has been featured in several local parades, and was grand marshal of the Collinsville Italian Fest parade Sept. 21. Karrie was all smiles riding in a red Fiat convertible, and throwing candy to parade-goers.

Trip of a lifetime

Karrie and her mother boarded a plane Aug. 29 for the four-day trip to Orange County, Calif. When they walked into the Fairmont Newport Beach hotel lobby, the staff erupted into applause.

"They had a red carpet rolled out for Karrie, and they asked for her autograph," Sue said. "She stopped when she first saw them clapping. Then the grin started, really slow. It was really great."

The next day was Karrie's photo session at Wet Seal's corporate office.

"I still get misty eyed when I think about it," Sue said. "They said, 'who showed her all these poses?' I don't know. She asked for some Justin Bieber music, and she just went to town. It was hilarious watching her."

Karrie's Facebook fan page now has more than 23,000 likes from as far away as Ireland, Scotland, Australia and the United Kingdom. "It's just amazing," Sue said. "It just keeps climbing."

Early years

Sue was 41 when she found out during pregnancy that Karrie had Down syndrome. She called her mother, who came to Sue's house immediately.

"I totally fell apart. She let me cry for about 20 minutes," Sue said. "Then my mom said, 'she might have a disability, but she'll only be disabled if you make her that way.' That's how we dealt with it all along."

Karrie's medical issues started with open heart surgery at 3 days old. She also has a cyst that inflates in her brain and causes seizures and severe migraines.

"She's had quite a few medical issues over the years, which is part of the syndrome that she has," Sue said. "She just keeps bouncing back."

Karrie was diagnosed with autism when she was 8.

"She's off all the medication except she takes something for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)," said her mom.

"If you ask Karrie if she has a disability or special needs, she'll say, 'I just have Down syndrome. She knows kids who have disabilities. She knows kids who have special needs. She doesn't see herself as a person who has a disability, so we call it a 'diagnosis.'"

Sue heard the words "can't" and "never" a lot. For example, Sue was told Karrie would never tie her own shoes. However, after a tremendous amount of practice, Karrie learned to tie her shoes when she was 13 years old.

Growing up

Karrie has attended public schools and is a junior at Collinsville High School.

"She is going to graduate with a diploma," Sue said, noting Karrie is taking resource classes and general education classes and has a 3.46 cumulative grade point average.

Karrie has been selected as Student of the Month at Collinsville High. She was also chosen as the Kohl's Cares Volunteer of the Year for the metro-east community in 2012.

Karrie likes to de-stress in her bedroom after school by dancing and listening to music. On a recent Friday afternoon, Karrie, wearing a bright pink shirt, danced around her room to the singer Pink.

She is taking Zumba, hip-hop dance and gymnastics classes.

She competed in the first Miss Amazing Pageant in Illinois in April and was crowned first runner-up. The pageant is for girls and women with disabilities.

Karrie also competed in the Special Olympics in 2009 in honor of her father Richard who was battling cancer at the time. He died that same year. Her parents divorced in 2001.

What's next?

Karrie's next aspiration is to dance with Ellen on the Ellen Degeneres television show. "That's what we're hoping for," Sue said.

When Karrie was born, Sue was told if Karrie ever walked she would need assistance.

"That's the whole deal with Ellen," Sue said. "The thought that my daughter might actually dance with Ellen when I was told she never would even walk independently, that to me is kind of amazing."

Karrie Brown

Age: 17

Family: Mother Sue Brown and older sister Kate Ratlaff, 23. who works as an actress in California

Hometown: Collinsville

School: Junior at Collinsville High School

Favorite class: Science

Favorite singer: Justin Bieber

Favorite TV show: "Big Bang Theory"

Favorite movie: "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never"

Favorite food: Pizza

To find out more about Karrie: Visit www.facebook.com/karriebrownmodel or her Twitter page @Karried_Away_

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