The untold truth of Elly Mayday

Model and body-positive activist Elly Mayday died on March 1, 2019, after a long battle with ovarian cancer. Mayday's family shared the news in a post via their late daughter's Instagram account. Mayday was just 30 years old. "She dreamed of making an impact on people's lives," her family wrote. "She achieved this through the creation of Elly Mayday which allowed her to connect with all of you. Her constant support and love from her followers held a special place in her heart." 

In January 2019, she shared a photo of herself in a hospital bed and revealed her body was struggling to recover from bowel surgery. "That's all my life has been pretty much since I got out [of the hospital] in October so that's why I don't post much," she explained, "even though I know you guys are cool with me complaining here and there." The model reassured her fans that she wouldn't be giving up, but, sadly, her body succumbed to the disease just two months later. Her life ended much too soon, but it is one worth remembering. Here's the untold truth about the late, the great, Elly Mayday.

The real Elly Mayday

"Elly Mayday's given name was Ashley Shandrel Luther," the model's family confirmed in an Instagram post. In an interview with The Australian Women's Weekly (via Now to Love), it was revealed that the model chose the name Elly Mayday when she first began modeling. The star was partially inspired by Elly May Clampett, Donna Douglas' characters in the television series The Beverly Hillbillies. As Variety explained, Elly May Clampett was well-known for her "shapely figure, form-fitting jeans and cascade of blond curls." As a curvy woman entering the world of modeling, you can see why Mayday would be inspired by the character.

And, although her given name was not exactly a secret — her family still referred to her using the name Ashley — the alias she assumed so very early on in her career would prove to have staying power. Even after her untimely death, the star is forever cemented into pop culture as Elly Mayday.

She grew up on a farm in Canada

Mayday took to Instagram in 2018 to share a photo of her grandparents' barn. Riskan Hope Farm, which is in Saskatchewan, Canada is "directly across the field from the farm where I was raised," Mayday revealed. The model said it was her grandmother who gave the farm the punny name because she thought it was an apt description of farming. "She was a witty, outgoing bird, always looking for a laugh… I like to think I got my personality from her," Mayday added. 

Growing up on a farm meant she learned about "life and death" differently than other children, Mayday explained in an article for Flare. As a young girl, she witnessed cattle giving birth, which wasn't always a magical experience.  "Sometimes a calf would be born still, dead, and I would feel so sad for the mother," the model wrote. "Other times, the mothers who had their own healthy babies rejected them — not allowing them to feed and wanting nothing to do with them." Though, the model also learned "the beauty of adoption" after seeing a cow care for an unwanted calf. Still, this wasn't exactly a typical childhood.

She didn't start out as a model

When Mayday was just 13 years old, she left home to attend a boarding school in Regina, the capital of her home province Saskatchewan, Canada. After Mayday graduated high school, she went off to college in Vancouver and began studying psychology and gender studies. While in Vancouver, she rented a room in the same building as her brother and, later, got a job as a flight attendant with Sunwing airline. In her spare time, she also started waiting tables.

Through her job with the Canadian airline, Mayday was able to travel everywhere from Jamaica to Cuba. Mayday recalled when speaking to The Australian Women's Weekly (via Now to Love), saying, "I always enjoyed being a flight attendant. I love being around people and going to new places." In fact, her aviation career even provided more inspiration for the alias she would later adopt. The aspiring model combined The Beverly Hillbillies character Elly May's name with "Mayday" — a distress signal used by aircrafts. 

She was diagnosed with cancer in 2013

While Mayday was working as a flight attendant in 2013, she received the devastating diagnosis of stage 3 ovarian cancer. "It covered the walls of my lower cavity and was slowly creeping up my left side," Mayday explained in an article she penned for Flare. "So, while most women my age were thinking about that job interview next week or the guy they met at the bar last night — I was figuring out how to survive the next foreseeable months." After being diagnosed, Mayday had to take extended sick leave from her job to begin treatment, which involved numerous surgeries and chemotherapy. In 2015, Mayday admitted to The Australian Women's Weekly (via Now to Love) that she was both "angry" and "devastated" when she first learned of her cancer diagnosis.

For three years, Mayday had sought treatment for abdominal bloating as well as pain in both her stomach and lower back. But, without a primary care provider, Mayday often visited emergency rooms or walk-in clinics and, as she explained to the Regina-Leader Post, no one followed up with her about her medical care.

The beginning of a new career

Shortly before Mayday was diagnosed with cancer in 2013, she began her first foray into modeling. It all began when the young woman entered a pin-up modeling contest at a local car show. "I started out modeling because a lot of people said I was pretty, but no one would give me work because I wasn't super tall or skinny enough," Mayday explained in an interview with The Australian Women's Weekly (via Now to Love)  "So I went into pin-up because I liked the vintage style — it embraces my curves." Although she admitted that she initially joined the competition just for fun, she did want to become a model in order that she might empower other women who looked like her. 

After winning, local companies began contacting her. "Soon, enough agencies from the U.S. were interested in signing me," she told Vancouver Sun. Mayday would go on to have her image displayed in New York City's Time Square, which the model later dubbed a "big moment." 

Doctors originally blamed her symptoms on her weight

Serious diagnosis aside, Mayday wasn't going to give up on her career. The model revealed to Vancouver Sun that she'd been diagnosed around the same time as she'd been offered two modeling contracts. "Instead of stepping out of the light," she revealed, "I welcomed it." She certainly did. Throughout her lifetime, Mayday never shied away from discussing her health publicly — and that started early on in her battle with cancer.

After being dismissed by doctors time and time again, Mayday realized she needed to take her health into her own hands. In an effort to help other young women, she spoke out about her experience. In an interview with People in 2015, the model said her pain had become so bad that she ended up in the E.R. some four times. Each time, a doctor would prescribe her painkillers and send her on her way. One medical professional even blamed her pain on her weight. "The doctor told me to work out my core," she revealed. "We're undermined being younger, being women," said Mayday. "I started to realize no one is going to help me unless I help myself."

She was criticized for "using" her cancer

Despite raising awareness for ovarian cancer, encouraging young women to push for proper medical care, and, of course, helping propel all body types into mainstream modeling, Mayday was not exempt from criticism. As her career and subsequent fame grew, some people — including a few of Mayday's own friends — began to resent the model.

"People said I was using cancer to make money or get famous," she revealed in an interview with Australian Women's Weekly (via Now to Love). How could anyone really say that she was leveraging a stage 3 cancer diagnosis for something so trivial as recognition? Although it seems mind-boggling, the model realized that envy likely played a role. "It's strange to have people jealous of you when you are sick — I never wanted to be famous because of my cancer — but you can't let people get you down," she told the magazine. "It says more about them than me." 

She was body-shamed for losing weight

Throughout her much too short life, Mayday had been both fat-shamed and thin-shamed. Before being diagnosed with cancer, doctors looked to attribute her symptoms to a lack of exercise or her bodyweight. And, after being diagnosed and going through treatment, others criticized her weight loss. Really, people? "I dropped 60 [pounds] in total and got down to 120 [pounds]," Mayday told People back in 2015. The model's rapid weight loss wasn't intentional by any means, but was rather the result of chemotherapy and stress. "Those people weren't really my fans," she asserted. "People are quick to judge or quick to say what's on the tip of their tongue without thinking about the person behind it."

As Mayday's health deteriorated, the thin-shaming increased. Just two months before Mayday passed away, the model had to petition her Instagram followers to stop calling attention to her weight. "I'd appreciate less comments on this as they are unnecessary," she wrote. "It's like when people say to a tall person, 'Whoa you're really tall,' like… do y'all think they don't know?"

She continued to work while receiving treatment

As part of Mayday's treatment, the model had to undergo major surgeries, which led to the model being left with scars. After starting chemotherapy, the star not only lost a significant amount of weight, but she also lost her hair. But if you had thought she would retire from modeling, you'd have been wrong. 

Not only did Mayday continue to model, she often decided to do so without wearing a wig and without covering up her surgical scars. Why? "Ovarian cancer needs more awareness and more funding," Mayday told Vancouver Sun. "I also feel that there are far too many women who shy away due to the physical changes they experience during treatment — and even throughout life." The model continued, adding, "Confidence is the most beautiful thing in the world and I wanted to show that it can still be yours through cancer." 

She had to make a choice about her fertility

Soon after learning she had cancer, Mayday was forced to make a major life decision — and at just 25 years of age. In an article for Flare, the model revealed that she met with a fertility specialist in 2013. "I was told the drugs used to collect eggs would increase my cancer's progression," Mayday wrote. "My options were: delay treatment, collect eggs and potentially die or go through treatment right away, forget about having biological children and potentially live."

At an age during which many women have yet to even begin thinking about settling down and starting a family, Mayday traded her ability to have biological children in the hopes of preserving her life. Mayday underwent a full hysterectomy, which she explained was her "first major operation." Treating her cancer aggressively, as she had, was expected to give Mayday the best chance at survival.

She championed for changed

"I hope within the next year or so we can figure out how to diagnose this earlier than stage 3," Mayday told the Regina-Leader Post back in 2016. But Mayday did more than just hope. That same year, Mayday partnered with Ovarian Cancer Canada to help raise $100,000 for ovarian cancer research. Before the model lost her hair, she also dyed it teal, which is the color used to raise awareness for ovarian cancer. Mayday told the publication, "I made it really public because I just felt like there was a big gap in the system and not enough people were talking about this."

In May 2018, Mayday took to the streets of New York City wearing just her bra, underwear, and a pair of heels. Above her head, she held a handwritten sign that read "World Ovarian Cancer Day." On her Facebook fan page, the model also shared symptoms of the disease and encouraged her followers to help spread the message.

Her cancer was "stable" for a time

When speaking to the Vancouver Sun in spring 2017, Mayday hesitated to call herself a cancer survivor. Instead, she explained, "I like to call myself a cancer 'thriver.'" After undergoing aggressive treatment in 2013, her prognosis started to appear hopeful. However, in 2017, the model's cancer returned once again. Then, in 2018, many of the model's fans were no doubt relieved to see her looking happy and healthy yet again. In April of that year, Mayday revealed some great news in an article for Flare. "I'm now healthy, my cancer is stable, and I just turned 30 — a milestone that has me reflecting on everything I've been through so far," the model wrote.

Sadly, just two months later, she shared a photo of herself to let her followers know she was back in the hospital, but admitted she didn't "have much" in the way answers. The following month, she revealed, "This is the [third] go at cancer, I don't really say remission or celebrate about being a 'survivor' 'cause us Ovarian Cancer girls aren't doing many sprints, we're usually signed up for the marathon."

Her attitude was everything

We wouldn't have blamed Mayday if she didn't maintain a positive attitude after being diagnosed with cancer not once, not twice, but three times. Yet and still, that's just what she did. The body positive model and activist told People, "I've always been the kind of person who does what she wants. I wanted to keep pursuing my dream, I didn't want anything to get in the way, even cancer." And so, she kept on working and kept on fighting. From her Instagram posts, it's evident that she was intent on encouraging others. At the same time, she wasn't one to sugarcoat things either.

Despite being in a lot of pain in the months preceding her death, Mayday wished she "could buy all the patients the softest, cuddliest blanket ever" because it's always what brought her comfort in the hospital. What a true testament to her character. When their 30-year-old daughter passed away in March 2019, her family revealed, "You all inspired Ashley and we hope she did the same for you." Many would agree she had.

A posthumous documentary premiere

Just six days after Mayday passed away, the documentary A Perfect 14 premiered at the 2019 Vancouver International Women in Film Festival. The inspirational film tells the story of three plus-size models: Kerosene Deluxe, Laura Wells, and Elly Mayday. Filmmaker Giovanna Morales Vargas told the Vancouver Courier that Mayday was actually the inspiration for the film. The two women met while waiting tables many years ago. "She always said she wanted to be a model, and I remember people laughing behind her back because she was a curvy lady," the director explained.

Although Mayday did not make it to the premiere, her legacy will continue to live on through the film. Vargas said the documentary had completely changed her views. "Now I look at people and I want to celebrate them," she revealed. "If we encourage humans to be who they are, they're going to help us design and build a better society, a society that we can all contribute to." And doesn't that sound like something Elly Mayday would've wanted?