It wasn’t that long ago that bionic model, singer and commercial actress Marsha Elle was just practicing being a model, as she put it, in the hopes a big opportunity would come her way. She knew it could be tough. The 27-year-old Miami native born in Haiti was born with proximal fermoral deficiency. She has been wearing a variation of prosthetic legs under her hip bone since she was a kid following amputation. The presence of bionic models, those who wear prosthetic pieces, is not as commonplace, but Marsha wasn’t going to let that stop her. She went from scheduling a gig every three months to “practice” modeling, to in 2018, getting the shock of her life when Jada Pinkett Smith shared one of her photos on her Instagram page out of the blue.
“When Jada reposted my picture, that was me practice modeling!” Marsha told me over the phone. “I saw this photographer, I loved his work. I flew to Minneapolis. What was I doing in Minneapolis? Don’t ask me. I just flew there and thought, ‘I’m going to book a photo shoot, stay there for 48 hours.’ Did the shoot, saved it, said I’m going to build my portfolio and maybe one day I’ll get signed. I kept doing and it took off.”
Took off is an understatement. Nearly two years later, Marsha now has the distinct honor of posing in PLAYBOY as the publication’s April 2020 Playmate. She was hand-selected for the title by actress and body positive advocate Jameela Jamil, who was the guest editor for the issue. It is certainly a unique opportunity for Marsha to be a PLAYBOY Playmate for the purveyors of sex as someone who admits that past confidence issues kept her from even wearing shorts until she was 23. Those same issues tried to rear their head again as she accepted the chance to pose for the magazine.
“At first I was a little nervous. I thought, I want to do this, but can I do it?” she said. “Because not even just because of my prosthetic, but I still battle with my weight and still have my little insecurities. I’ve always tried to reaffirm that I’m beautiful, and that I’m not going to let it stop me. I kind of was like, yes, but at the same time like, ‘Oh God, I hope I can do it.'”
Nevertheless, she fully embraced her sexuality for the shoot on a sandy beach in Mexico, and in some moments, stripped down completely. In no time flat, she was in her element, and whether by practice or trade, she was a full-fledged model posing for PLAYBOY.
“I wasn’t posing nude. That just happened to be what happened,” she said. “It was so much more than any gig I’ve ever done. I wasn’t just promoting a brand. My story was embedded in this April 2020 pictorial.”
“Now when I got on set, I have to say that it was exhilarating,” she added. “The team was amazing. There were five or six of us in Tulum and it was a beautiful, private beach. We were the only ones there. I felt comfortable and very catered to, for a lack of a better word. They really did cater to the talent and to what we were trying to do. Everything was so organized that I felt like the nude part, it didn’t even bother me. We were working on an art project, and everyone came, from wardrobe to makeup, to my wonderful photographer Ana Dias, everyone was ready to make this epic. So I felt extremely exhilarated and comfortable.”
And for Marsha, she’s seen her confidence naturally bloom in ways it hadn’t in the past by being in front of the camera. Once shy of having her leg out and having people focus too hard on it, she started popping up in commercials, performing her music (she has an EP called Brave) and even being a lingerie model for campaigns. Wanting to portray herself well for young women with a disability, she takes representing for them seriously.
“With a lot of the gigs that I do get, I’m either the first or one of my likeness and it’s a lot of pressure in my head a little bit,” she said. “I think I do that to myself to make sure I’m a good representation of a disabled Black woman. That’s exactly what I’m doing and I want to be mindful and sensitive of the entire group I’m representing and also embody the campaign that I’m doing. So it builds my confidence to know that they trust me to do this and with PLAYBOY, that was exciting that they really believed in me to carry out April 2020.”
It was also important. PLAYBOY, since it’s first issue was released in 1953, has had quite the say so in culture when it comes to defining what is deemed sexy. With that in mind, diversifying the bodies put on display and who gets to reach PLAYBOY Playmate status is necessary — and significant. Marsha was reminded of this when other disabled women started contacting her about the photo spread.
“It’s definitely an honor and it’s not of even just because it’s PLAYBOY, but because this is is big,” she said. “This morning a young lady, she’s actually disabled, she inboxed me and said, ‘I saw you on PLAYBOY. This is so comforting.’ She’s in Pakistan and she reached out. I got [a message] from a young lady in the U.K., too. It’s big because when you’re disabled, disability is never something seen as desirable, and that’s the reality. People will either shun it, some cultures will consider it to be, in ignorance, a curse. But we’re sensual. We’re human.”
“This spread shows the beauty in me being more than just my disability,” she added. “I look at my prosthetic as an aid. It helped me to get into the water. It helps me to stand and stand proudly and to be a whole person. I don’t look at it as a negative, and to see PLAYBOY showing there’s beauty in me as a whole and my prosthetic is part of me and doesn’t make me weird, it’s important. It’s good that we can show our legs, or our disability, whatever it may be, and make it normal. It transcends further than just me being sexy, it’s me being normal. It’s me being a human. I have a sensual side. The spread was well put together, but overall, it really made a difference in the community of people who are disabled. It’s huge. It’s never been done before.”
As for what’s next for the multifaceted beauty, she hopes to put out an album in the fall. She has some commercials she’s been able to book despite the pandemic. Marsha is also hoping to take her talents from print and TV to runway, and overall, continue to make herself and other amputees very visible in modeling.
“I aspire to maybe walk a runway. I have Prada on my board,” she said. “But I really want to do some heavy modeling and one day be able to grace the runways for a major designer. I just want to continue to develop and represent in this industry.”