Jearlean Taylor wowed the owner of the modeling agency and school with her fierce walk, long legs and cover girl face.
But underneath what looked like a flawless model body, Taylor carried a secret she feared would topple a promising career before it began.
The Baltimore woman is one of 750,000 Americans living with an ostomy, a surgical opening that allows people to release urine and waste from their bodies into small pouches. Living with an ostomy can be discomfiting. People with them worry what others may think and what happens if a bag breaks. They fret about intimacy. Some isolate themselves rather than risk embarrassment.
Taylor had two ostomies and kept both pouches hidden and flattened with shape wear and inconspicuous clothing, but knew the day would come when someone would ask her to model a bikini or crop top.
"He told me he was going to put me in a fashion show, and I got nervous," Taylor said.
She decided to tell the agency head. To her surprise, he was encouraging.
"I am not worried about that," he told her. "Because you've got talent."
That day nearly two decades ago was an awakening for Taylor, now 49, who has lived with ostomy bags since she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma at age 2. The cancer attacks the soft tissue and is most common in children and young adults.
Doctors removed Taylor's bladder, rectum and uterus, leaving her with a permanent colostomy for bowel waste and a urostomy to remove urine.
Having to wear the ostomy pouches caused Taylor emotional stress during her years growing up in Southwest Baltimore. Modeling gave her a new confidence.
"It helped me realize that your circumstances don't have to dictate your life," she said.
Taylor is now one of the country's most outspoken advocates for people who have an ostomy, said Ed Pfueller, communications and outreach manager with the Maine-based United Ostomy Associations of America Inc.
"The fact that she has an ostomy really hasn't stopped her at all," he said. "Her career is thriving and she is displaying a lot of confidence, and I think that is inspiring to people."
Taylor is part of a movement of people who proudly display and openly talk about their ostomy. The trend is being driven partly by social media. People with an ostomy share their stories and photos on public forums, forming a community of people who no longer feel alone.
An internet search shows scores of women in bikinis with visible ostomy bags. Among them is Bethany Townsend of Worcester, England, who became an internet sensation three years ago after she posted a picture of herself — bikini-clad and fitted with two colostomy bags — on Instagram. She started using the bags because of complications from Crohn's disease. The malady causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract, which can spread deep into the layers of bowel tissue.
British body builder and model Blake Beckford also gained widespread notice after posing shirtless to display his ileostomy bag. He had his colon removed after years of suffering from ulcerative colitis, a bowel disease that causes inflammation and ulcers in the digestive tract.
Acceptance of ostomy is growing as the face of those who need them is changing. Digestive diseases and cancers that can lead to people wearing ostomy bags are afflicting younger people at higher rates than before.
The American Cancer Society last week reported a sharp increase in colorectal cancers in people under 50, including those in their 20s and 30s. Among Americans 50 and older, cases of colon and rectal cancer have dropped 32 percent since 2000, largely due to screening, while cases among those younger than 50 rose 22 percent.
Members of this younger generation see a lot of life ahead of them and don't want an ostomy to slow them down, Pfueller said.
Even though her family was supportive, Taylor remembers feeling alone at times growing up with an ostomy.
She missed a year of elementary school after kids teased her for smelling bad. Her parents hired a nurse to help her learn to better clean and empty her ostomy while at school.
"I was a kid," she said. "I didn't know how to take care of ostomy bags. The other kids made so much fun of me and it was hurtful."
Once in middle school her ostomy burst while on the bus home from school. An unknowing bus driver thought someone had released a stink bomb and wouldn't let the kids leave until someone confessed. Taylor cowered in her seat, embarrassed.
Taylor participated in sports and made good friends at Southwestern High School. She went on to marry and pursue a successful career in hospitality. But her ostomies were always in the back of her mind. Would the pouches get too full and burst? Could people see them?
Starting to model in her early 30s helped her find peace with her condition.
Still, at first, she didn't tell all designers or photographers about her bags. She would say she was a cancer survivor with surgical scars to avoid wearing revealing clothes.
But with each runway she walked and each magazine spread she posed for, Taylor felt more confident. She also began keeping a journal about her experiences. She eventually began telling people about her ostomy and in some cases even posing with them visible.
Taylor now has her own modeling agency, J & Company Christian Modeling in Baltimore, which caters to models who aren't necessarily the stereotypical stick-thin, flawless cover girls. She turned her journals into a book, "Pretty Girl Blues," which chronicles her life with ostomy.
Taylor now travels the country to speak about living with ostomy. She also started a support group called Osto Beauties.
Danielle Dodson is one of those "osto beauties." She met Taylor at a bridal shower 15 years ago. Dodson had her rectum and large intestine removed because of ulcerative colitis. She was 27 when it happened and felt there was no one else her age going through the same ordeal. She dealt with her condition alone for years.
That changed when she met Taylor, who was fashionable and seemed comfortable in her skin. They became buddies. Taylor put Dodson in a runway show and helped her accept herself.
"She was an inspiration and helped me see I could be myself," Dodson said. "She helped me get out of my box."
Taylor said using her condition to help others is now what makes her feel best.
"I used to think my bags were a burden," she said. "Now I know they are a blessing."