"This is literally just the tip of the iceberg," Dolls Kill model Lyric Mariah Heard tells me. "It's time. I'm working." A prominent face for the cool-girl fashion brand, Heard is also one of the industry's most visible models with a physical disability. And while Heard recognizes that her prominence can lead to positive changes within the industry, saying, "There's going to be a moment where you're going to see different [bodies] on every billboard and in every magazine, every editorial, because I'm not stopping," she has a pretty lofty personal goal as well, telling me with a laugh that she won't rest "until me and Naomi Campbell are on a first-name basis."
Heard was born with amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition in which strands from the amniotic sac can separate and entangle parts of the fetus, which can lead to the amputation of digits and limbs; for Heard, she is missing the lower portion of her right leg below the knee, and wears a prosthetic to walk, as well, multiple digits on both hands are missing either entirely or partially. "I went through a lot of bullying, a lot of being put down, all the way up until high school," Heard says, explaining why she didn't have a "typical" childhood. "I didn't really have friends because a lot of kids didn't want to be around me… they didn't want me to touch them. They felt like if I touched them, they were going to catch whatever I had. I was just like, I don't have anything, but okay."
"Going to middle school was definitely the worst three years of my life," Heard adds. "I almost took my life in seventh grade, just because of the extent of the bullying… A lot of extreme body shaming, and extreme hate words were always being thrown at me day by day by day. I never really caught a break." By high school, Heard says, "it wasn't necessarily my hands and my legs that bothered people anymore. I just wasn't a pretty girl."
It was during Heard's sophomore year at Northern Illinois University that she realized she wanted to try modeling. Her partner then was a photographer, who took photos of her for a school project. "When I got those pictures back, I was like, Wow," she says. "That was my very first time ever looking at myself and saying, Wow, she's beautiful."
"After that, I was like, I always want to feel like this," she says, adding, "I want to be able to make myself feel beautiful." Heard soon dropped out to pursue modeling full time, messaging hundreds of photographers ("not over-exaggerating") in order to have five or six shoots in her portfolio.
This isn't a simple success story, though. Even with all her hard work, Heard is still unsigned and attends castings by word of mouth rather than via an agency. This means that when she shows up, "I'm not what they're expecting," she says. "With a lot of these casting directors, they are under pressure to make sure they get their client what the client asks for. If the client didn't ask for someone that looks like me, they're not going to book someone who looks like me." Heard recognizes that it's not just one person who can change the way a brand—or an industry—thinks, but that isn't stopping her from trying. "You go in, and you show them that you are unique. You've got your differences, but everybody does. The blonde is different from the brunette, and you're still considering them," she says.
The brand that first realized—and loved—what was unique about Heard was Dolls Kill. "They were that one," Heard says. She was scouted at an open casting for the brand, having shown up at 5am to wait in a line of thousands of women hoping to be discovered. "About a week later," she says, "I got a callback… I could have jumped out of my chair, screaming, took my shirt off, everything." A month later, Dolls Kill offered her the gig and flew her out to San Francisco.
"Everybody wants to be a Dolls Kill model because they've got that cool factor. Their models don't give a damn. We say what we want, we're very unapologetic, and so are they," Heard explains. "They are such a great representation of accepting people for who they genuinely are. They didn't try to change me. They didn't try to capitalize off the fact that I do have this difference. They were like, 'Hey, we love you because you are a dope model. It just so happens that you have a dope story as well.'" Heard pauses for a moment before adding, "I'm not going to lie to you, your girl felt kind of popular. I was like, Okay, this is what it feels like to be invited to the cool kids' table."
Heard wants to see the same kind of attitude across the fashion industry, but has yet to do so. "I thought I was seeing growth in the industry, but then I feel like I see a lot of backtracking as well," she says. "Because you see these models [walking the runway] for New York Fashion Week, but then where are they on the website? Where are they during your campaigns? But, you want them for the big show." Dolls Kill, though, follows through on all levels, Heard says, "They'll call me to do editorial. They'll call me to do promotion. They'll call me to just come to the store, to hang out when they're having an opening. That is growth. You want people to see that you're actively supporting these [models]."
...You see these models for New York Fashion Week, but then where are they on the website? Where are they during your campaigns? But, you want them for the big show.
So, who else is doing things the right way? "I've got to give it to my girl Rihanna," Heard immediately says."That's my girl, I love her. She does no wrong in my eyes. Since the beginning when Rihanna was just doing Puma, she has always made sure her models are different. Her models don't have to be popular." This reference to popularity is aimed squarely at what Heard sees as a problem within the modeling industry: the rise of influencers. "You see models getting on the runway who do not have the experience, the skill, who have not practiced… [but are there] because they have 100,000-plus followers on Instagram," Heard says. "That's disrespectful to people who are working their ass off day in, day out… [who] don't fit your quote-unquote 'perfect look,' and don't have enough followers for you."
Heard says she has a message for brands who chase influencers, especially if it's the brand's only effort towards diversifying the runway: "You're Regina George. You're a mean girl." She adds, "Why did Regina George want Cady? It was because everybody wanted to know who she was, because she had that clout. That's exactly what these brands are doing."
As anyone who watched Mean Girls knows, the only true recipe for success and happiness comes with being your authentic self, and that's exactly what Heard intends to keep doing. And she has that same message for other aspiring models, or really anyone else who wants to pursue something they never thought they could attain: "You see yourself. Put yourself there. Somebody has to be the first to do it. Always keep that in your head."