Meet 15-year-old Rya Ngaida from Aumsville, Oregon.
I first met Rya at the Art of Inspiration Fashion Show at Portland Women's Expo. Her spiral curls bounced in perfect rhythm with her confident stride as all of the models were choreographed by the show director backstage. The tall, confident 14-year-old in front of me looked nothing like the awkward freshman I had been.
When I meet models for the first time, I am always intimidated by their "effortless" status in the industry. In an industry that worships exterior beauty, models are often stripped of their identity, being assigned the role of a clothes hanger.
"Just sit and look pretty, hun," I once heard a photographer tell a model who had offered an idea for a pose for a photo. Don't open your mouth, don't tell me your opinion, just sit and look pretty.
What I love about Rya is that she doesn't let the constant pressures of the industry define who she is as a person. Instead of sitting in the corner editing selfies, she is talking with other people backstage. She's dancing behind the curtains, grabbing the next girl's hand, inviting her to join in.
Rya enjoys her job, and has been successful, but that doesn't mean it's been easy for her.
"I have been in the fashion industry for three years. I got to where I am with a lot of hard work, but also rejection," she said.
"One of the rewarding things about modeling is after you book and finish a job," she said. "There's this rush of confidence because you're surrounded by people who wanted you there and you know they picked you out of all the people that auditioned."
Rya says that the most challenging thing about her job is auditioning. Standing in front of a group of people while they judge you on your appearance is not easy for anyone, let alone a teenage girl.
Am I tall enough? Am I thin enough? Is my hair pretty enough? Am I the perfect fit they want?
All questions that bombard her as she stands, often wearing next to nothing, before designers.
"Learning not to take rejection personally is very difficult as a teenager. How do I handle it? I'm not sure that I handle it very well, after all I am a teenager and I care what designers think about me. My momma has most definitely seen a lot of tears over the years."
Rya's advice on handling those fears? The chance of rejection?
"To be completely honest, it is a harsh world out there and everybody feels like they're not good enough sometimes. You need to find what you love most about yourself and focus on that."
And yet, when I first met Rya, her confidence was what stood out to me. What kind of strength must that take to not only endure that kind of pressure, while at the same time, being the one to make sure everyone else is feeling special?
The fashion world is a cutthroat industry. It's not always first-nature to step down from your own goals to help out the competition, but with Rya, I think it is.
"I think its easy to be friendly to the other models around a set or backstage. They all are so beautiful [in and out] and a lot of them have had the same experiences as you and can give you advice on how they deal with the rejection that everyone gets."
Many see the fashion industry as a world of superficiality. But Rya, a girl who takes the time to get to know people for who they really are, doesn't see it that way at all.
"Basically we are all in the same game, and its very important that we have each others backs. This is a very hard industry and its good to have other people that are going through or have gone through the same things you."
At Desi Alleger's Paint the Runway Purple, my models had a lot of down-time while the dozens of other models had their hair and makeup done. I watched as Rya bounced from group to group, meeting everyone and spreading sparkles wherever she went.
"That has definitely been my favorite show so far," she said. It was just a fun day.
She even invited our team to her upcoming 15th birthday party at her house. She didn't even know us, but she invited us, sat us around her kitchen table, and we all sang happy birthday to her like we'd been friends since kindergarten.
While Rya's look and style are both very unique to her, she finds inspiration from stars such as Jaden Smith and Miley Cyrus.
"The clothes that they wear are completely themselves and they don't care about what anyone thinks about them or their style," She said. "They inspired me to do the same thing at my high school no matter the stares I get."
It's not always easy balancing fashion and being in high school.
"I think the stereotypes toward women in this industry are ridiculous. Even at my highschool I am expected to be ditzy and look good every single day."
When she's not strutting the runway or shooting commercials, Rya is just an all American teenager like you or me. She's an athlete, a classmate, and a sister. She likes to read books, take pictures, and draw.
She also shares my love of tea and all things Johnny Cash.
I think the media and the industry has stripped models of what makes them human. So many girls ache with "I want to look like that," but what if we saw these women for who they really are? What if we could see models like Rya for more than their elegant figures and perfect curls? What if it was the integrity, the kindness and true humanness that we could be inspired by, saying,
"I want to be like that."
Follow Rya on Instagram @r.rry to keep up with her amazing adventures!