Ava Rose

Ava Rose Fullington strikes a pose on a front porch in rural Allendale, S.C. At 8 years old, she has launched a career in modeling. Brad Nettles/Staff

FAIRFAX — Ava Fullington is beating long odds to break into the modeling industry. An African-American girl born with albinism in a tiny South Carolina town near the Georgia border, she is a minority within a minority.

But she is embracing her distinctive looks to send a message of body positivity and acceptance — and she's starting to find success. On Instagram, where she goes by Ava Rose, she has found her way into the world of child modeling, and the opportunities keep rolling in.

"A lot of classmates thought she was mixed or white, and that used to bother her," said Ava's mother, Lawanda Patterson.

Not anymore. Now her classmates see her on Instagram and follow along as she crisscrosses the continent for photo shoots.

"They think it's awesome and cool," Ava said.

People with albinism, a set of inherited disorders, produce little or none of the pigment melanin, which determines the color of the skin, hair and eyes. They often have vision problems, light skin and light-colored eyes. The National Institutes of Health estimate the prevalence of all types of albinism at about 1 in 17,000.

Ava's mother Lawanda Patterson has been a relentless booster since Ava's first modeling session at Myrtle Beach Fashion Week in 2015. Instagram has democratized the modeling world to some extent, helping Ava to get a foot in the door from her rural home in Allendale County, but she and her family still have to travel extensively to photo shoots in Atlanta, Charleston and Nashville.

This summer, Ava was picked up by the Paris Chanel modeling agency out of Memphis, Tenn., which works in advertising and commercials as well as film casting. Patterson said she keeps getting messages from parents of young girls with body image issues who were encouraged to see Ava in the spotlight.

Through Dec. 29, photos of Ava and her 11-year-old sister Logan will be on display as part of an art photography installation at the Upstate Gallery on Main in Spartanburg. The show, “Empowerment Through the Lens of AfroArt," is the work of photographers Kahran and Regis Bethencourt, who have created a calendar of African-American girls with natural hair. Ava was featured in the 2018 calendar for June, which is the month of Albinism Awareness Day.

“The purpose of this series is to illustrate the story of our royal past, celebrate the glory of the here and now, and even dare to forecast the future,” Kahran Bethencourt said in a statement prepared for the gallery. “With this series, we aim to empower children of color to embrace their natural curls and the skin that they’re in.”

Ava Rose

Ava Rose's mother, Lawanda Patterson, has been traveling with her daughter to photo shoots from their rural community in Allendale County. Brad Nettles/Staff

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.