ex-England footballer Phil Neville's daughter was born severely disabled, doctors wrote her off. Now she's a model - thanks to her iron will
Watching helplessly as her newborn daughter gasped for breath in the hospital incubator, her tiny chest rising and falling in frantic bursts, Julie Neville raised her eyes to the ceiling and prayed.
Little Isabella had been born ten weeks prematurely after suffering a stroke in the womb and was on 95 per cent life support to help her breathe and pump blood to her fragile heart and lungs. Five per cent more and she would have been legally pronounced dead.
Tubes criss-crossed her stomach, carrying life-saving medicine to her organs and limbs. Her tiny eyes were squeezed shut, her fists — no bigger than a fingernail — clenched in pain.
‘Her reply has stuck with me ever since,’ says Julie. ‘She told me: “I used to work in an adult intensive care ward before I came here. If these babies were adults, they would have given up by now. But babies keep fighting. They never give up.” ’
Thirteen years later, Julie’s baby has proved that nurse right — time and time again.
From those dark early days when they feared the worst and a diagnosis of cerebral palsy when Isabella was 18 months old, she has grown into a happy, confident teenager — an inspiring feat, especially as Julie and her husband Phil, the former Manchester United and England footballer, were told their daughter would never walk, talk or lead a normal life.
Not only can Isabella walk, run, dance and play sports, she has just achieved another dream: to be signed by a top modelling agency.
She was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months old. She has now grown into a happy, confident teenager. Pictured left with mother Julie and ex-England footballer father Phil
Though Isabella still has difficulty with movement and uses leg splints to get around, she hasn’t been taken on as a disabled model — rather, she is the first less-able-bodied model to be listed on the main books of a British agency.
With her piercing green eyes and alabaster skin, Isabella is a natural.
She is strikingly beautiful, even at such a tender age, with a petite frame and a curtain of glossy brown hair she flicks over her shoulders.
She glides from pose to pose at the photographer’s instruction, hands on hips, swishing her skirt with elegant poise.
Though Isabella still has difficulty with movement and uses leg splints to get around, she hasn’t been taken on as a disabled model. She is the first less-able-bodied model to be listed on the main books of a British agency
Julie is gazing at her daughter tearfully.
‘I never thought I’d see this day,’ she says.
‘Isabella has exceeded everything we thought she would do. I’m really excited to see her achieving her dreams. After what she’s been through, she deserves every minute of this. She’s earned it.’
So, too, have her parents. For when Isabella was born in 2004, Julie, now 41, and Phil, now 40, went through the agony of being told their daughter had just 24 hours to live.
She was Julie’s second baby — their son, Harvey, is now 14 — and her pregnancy had been normal until, at 28 weeks, she woke at 5am one day to find her waters had broken.
Phil was abroad playing for Manchester United, so Julie rang a relative, who rushed her to hospital.
She was pumped full of drugs to stop her labour, and Phil — who had to get special permission from team manager Sir Alex Ferguson to fly home — slept by her side as doctors battled to keep their baby alive.
A fortnight later, Julie suffered a placental abruption — when the placenta tears away from the wall of the uterus — and had to have an emergency Caesarean.
The operation was so urgent that the anaesthetic hadn’t fully kicked in before they started cutting her open. Julie and Isabella were desperately ill after the birth.
Julie was so sick — developing a blood clot and severe anaemia, due to her traumatic labour — that doctors wouldn’t let her leave her bed, and instead brought her a photograph of her baby.
Isabella weighed just 3 lb 3 oz. ‘I wasn’t prepared for how sick she looked,’ says Julie. ‘She was so tiny and her skin seemed translucent.’
A heart-wrenching vigil ensued, with Phil and Julie sleeping beside their baby’s ventilator. But she soon began defying the odds.
Within a few days her lungs were strong enough to work on their own. At five weeks she was well enough to take a bottle. Eventually, at six weeks old and weighing 5 lb, Isabella was allowed home.
But Julie’s joy soon turned to fear as she realised her daughter wasn’t developing.
‘She wouldn’t sit up, she choked on pureed food and she’d vomit 15 or 20 times a day,’ she says.
‘Isabella would drool a lot from her left side and kept slumping over. I knew something wasn’t right.’
At 18 months, after several assessments, cerebral palsy was diagnosed. This neurological condition affects movement and muscle control and is caused by damage to the brain before or during birth.
Isabella weighed just 3 lb 3 oz at birth. ‘I wasn’t prepared for how sick she looked,’ says Julie. ‘She was so tiny and her skin seemed translucent.' Pictured as a toddler
Cerebral Palsy is a neurological condition affects movement and muscle control and is caused by damage to the brain before or during birth. Pictured, Isabella's modelling shots
Each year, 400 babies in Britain are born with cerebral palsy.
An MRI scan revealed that Isabella had suffered a stroke in the womb about six months into Julie’s pregnancy.
Sufferers can be left severely disabled, some with learning difficulties, hearing problems and an inability to swallow. The news hit the Neville family hard. ‘I remember sitting at the top of the stairs and crying my eyes out,’ says Julie.
‘I cried myself to sleep. I woke up there the next day. Then I realised I had to stop.
‘I called my mum to tell her and said: “We don’t want anyone coming round to console us. We need 24 hours to feel sorry for ourselves, then we’ll get on with it.”’
The next morning, Julie and Phil got a joiner in to build low rails around the walls of their £3.5 million home in Manchester.
Sufferers can be left severely disabled, some with learning difficulties, hearing problems and an inability to swallow. The news hit the Neville family hard. ‘I remember sitting at the top of the stairs and crying my eyes out,’ says Julie
Julie and Phil had their garage walls and floor lined with foam to make her a soft play area
‘I was like a woman possessed,’ says Julie.
‘I spent several hours a day encouraging her to stand and use her legs. And it worked.
‘She was three years and three months old when she took her first steps. Until then, I felt as if I was drowning. Those steps marked the start of the rest of our lives.’
Julie spent several hours a day working with Isabella to get her to stand an use her legs. She took her first steps at three years and three months
Despite her designer wardrobe and deep tan, Julie, the daughter of a wealthy construction boss, is far from being a stereotypical footballer’s wife. She fell for Phil after dating his team-mate David Beckham, and the couple married in 1999.
In 2015, the Nevilles moved from Manchester to Valencia, in Spain, after Harvey was offered a place at a prestigious football academy nearby.
Phil works there as a coach and TV pundit, while Julie, who ran a health food shop before the move, spends her days doing charity work and looking after the children.
Today, Isabella is totally unrecognisable from the toddler with a toothy grin who first appeared in the Press a decade ago, unable to walk without a metal frame and too shy to utter a word.
Weekly physiotherapy sessions and regular hospital check-ups have enabled her to ditch the frame.
She wears plastic leg splints, which she has used to support her muscles day and night since her diagnosis and will probably wear for the rest of her life, though she can take them off for modelling.
Isabella is chatty, intelligent and humble about her remarkable achievements.
She attends the renowned Caxton College, a British-run private school in Valencia, where she is top of her class and regularly competes against her classmates in running and swimming.
‘I love trying everything,’ she says. ‘If they can do it, I can do it, too.’
Mum Julie adds: ‘She has wonderful friends. She’ll come out of school not carrying anything and I’ll spot ten friends trotting along behind her with her bag, her splints and her PE kit.
Isabella wears plastic leg splints, which she has used to support her muscles day and night since her diagnosis and will probably wear for the rest of her life, though she can take them off for modelling. Pictured, Isabella with mother Julie
‘The school has been very good, too. They offered to let her use the lift, but she likes to take the stairs so she can be like everyone else.’
Isabella is close to her brother. Just 17 months older, Harvey wasn’t immune from the trauma the family endured when she was little.
Once, Julie found him cowering in a corner as he watched his parents trying to resuscitate his sister, who had stopped breathing.
‘We’re best friends,’ says Isabella. ‘Everything I had to do for my treatment, I asked him to do it first. So he’d get in the scanner to show me it wasn’t scary; he’d get a plaster cast, then I was brave enough to have one myself. He’s been there for me every day.’
But not everyone is so supportive. One day last year, Isabella came out of school sobbing after a boy moaned about having her on his swimming team
But not everyone is so supportive. One day last year, Isabella came out of school sobbing after a boy moaned about having her on his swimming team. Worse, she’s been targeted by vicious online trolls.
‘We had someone tweet us saying they were selling T-shirts captioned “Phil Neville’s daughter is a spastic, she is a Cyclops and has eight toes”. I felt sick,’ says Julie.
‘What kind of person writes such vile messages about a little girl?’
She’s taught Isabella, who has her own profile on Instagram, to ignore hateful comments. ‘Phil and I want to take care of her and ensure that she’s not exploited in any way. We know modelling is a fickle industry.
‘When we told Phil we’d had a call from Source Models [to whom Julie had sent photographs of Isabella late last year], he said: “No way!” But he gave in because he knows how much she wants it.
Isabella has become more interested in fashion as she has grown older.
‘I admire models such as Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid,’ she says. ‘A few of my friends are signed to agencies, so I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time.
‘The first time I modelled I was nervous, but there have been cameras around since I was little so I soon got used to doing it. It’s a lot of fun. It makes me feel good.’
One day she would like to model for Abercrombie & Fitch and Adidas, but Isabella’s aspirations are higher than simply strutting down a catwalk.
Isabella dreams of modelling for Abercrombie & Fitch and Adidas, but she would also like to collaborate with a designer to make fashionable shoes she could wear over her splints
Her dream is to collaborate with a designer on fashionable, girly shoes to fit over her leg splints.
‘I don’t mind wearing my splints,’ she says. ‘They’re normal to me. But you can wear only one type of shoe and it’s boring wearing the same ones every day. I’d like to wear glittery pumps, Skechers and Ugg boots like my friends.’
Julie admits there have been days when she wondered if she was doing the right thing, pushing Isabella to lead a ‘normal’ life.
‘We’ve always taught her there’s nothing she can’t achieve. Yes, it might be more difficult, but if she wants to do something, she can.
‘Then, a few years ago, she said to me: “One day, Mummy, I’d like to run a race with other children with cerebral palsy, so maybe I wouldn’t be at the back.”
‘And I went home and panicked. I thought, are we doing this for us?
‘Are we the ones trying to lead a normal life and is she suffering because of it?
‘But she has gritty determination built into her character. She surprises us every day.’
As if on cue, Isabella stumbles slightly on set. The photographer has asked her to cross one leg in front of the other, and she has momentarily lost her balance.
‘Sorry,’ she says, giggling. ‘It’s just my legs. Sometimes they’re annoying, but they make me special. As a model, it’s good to stand out.’