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TikTok star Tayla Clement can’t smile but says it’s her superpower even after failed surgery left her ‘broken’

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At just 12 years old, New Zealand native Tayla Clement went under the knife for a surgery that doctors promised would finally give her a ‘normal’ smile.

Born with moebius syndrome, a rare congenital condition that can result in facial paralysis, Clement was unable to move the upper part of her face, including her top lip.

For as long as she could remember, other children and even adults had bullied her for her appearance, branding her ‘the girl who can’t smile’.

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Bullied called Tayla Clement ‘the girl who can’t smile’ as a child. (Supplied)

“It sounds really sad and morbid, but bullying was part of my day to day life,” Clement, now 25, tells 9Honey.

“It was normal for me. I expected to go to school and be bullied or excluded, and that created a level of anxiety on its own.”

After years of cruel taunts about her face, the surgery was meant to change everything for Clement and give her the smile she dreamed of. Only, it didn’t work. 

At first, doctors and surgeons tried to hide the results from the 12-year-old and nurses would cover the mirror whenever they wheeled her into the bathroom.

Perhaps they were trying to protect her, but that only made the discovery more crushing.

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Tayla Clement as a child in hospital.
Tayla Clement as a child in hospital. (Supplied)

“Five or six days after the surgery… the nurse that was changing shift must have forgotten to cover the mirror. I remember being wheeled and seeing my face in the mirror,” she says.

“I didn’t want to cry, I didn’t want people to feel bad, but I just remember at that moment I was completely broken… I don’t think any child should have to feel that amount of pain.”

Emotionally and physically scarred, Clement returned to school and her bullies, whose vicious attacks took a massive toll on her mental health and confidence.

The playful, outgoing child her parents had raised disappeared as Clement endured daily taunts about her face and insulin pump, as she’s a Type 1 diabetic.

“I really don’t understand why I was bullied for that,” she says of the digs about her pump.

“I was just so desperate to fit in and to be wanted and to be liked and to be in the popular group and to have friends, because I really had no one.”

Tayla Clement as a child leaving hospital after the failed surgery.
Tayla Clement as a child leaving hospital after the failed surgery. (Supplied)

The bullying continued into her teen years, when even teachers would exclude her (knowingly or otherwise) because of her physical appearance.

One drama teacher told her in front of an entire class of students that drama “wasn’t for her” because Clement’s limited facial movement made it difficult to emote on stage.

“She said it in front of a whole class. I remember all the kids giggling and laughing… it still blows my mind that that sort of stuff happened,” the 25-year-old admits now.

But for years Clement believed the constant attacks and subtle cruelties were her fault, even as she approached her 20s.

“I really thought that I deserved to be bullied.”

Depression and anxiety took hold and on no less than six occasions, Clement considered ending her life.

“I really thought that I deserved to be bullied and I deserved to feel sad and angry and upset and depressed all the time, because it happened to me from such a young age and for so many years of my life that it was just normal,” she says.

“It took a lot for me to…  realise that it actually had nothing to do with me. I was born the way I was for a reason and that there’s actually a lot of power in that.”

Slowly but surely, Clement found her confidence and became an elite athlete, even achieving a world record in shot put, but social media is where she found true fame.

Tayla Clement poses with a medal.
Tayla Clement poses with a medal. (Supplied)

Now the 25-year-old has more than 70,000 social media followers across TikTok and Instagram, where she’s amassed a huge and supportive community by simply sharing her story.

What started as a small outlet to voice her experiences and educate others has turned into something bigger than Clement could have ever imagined and it has changed her life completely.

“Honestly it makes me so emotional because little Tayla really needed someone like my present self to like represent her and do the things that I’m doing now in the media,” she says.

“Everything that I went through, as bad and as horrible and as traumatic as it was, it was meant to happen to me so that I could be in this position now and inspire people.”

She’s already racked up more than 2.3 million likes on TikTok, where she invites people to learn more about moebius syndrome and diabetes.

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A lover of bikinis and activewear, Clement’s insulin pump and Dexcom monitor are often on display, something she wishes she’d been exposed to as a girl.

“It’s just crazy to me that people still think they have to hide it,” she says, adding that many diabetic young women have reached out to say she’s made them more confident.

Though there may be hate comments left on her videos, she never sees them mixed in among all the kind and loving messages.

“You’d think for someone in my position putting themselves out there, it’s just going to draw hate and I was fully prepared for that,” she laughs.

“It used to be my downfall… now it’s my superpower.”

“But what I’ve come to learn is that whenever someone is getting hated on or bullied, it’s nothing to do with that actual person and everything to do with the person that’s actually directing the hate.

“It just makes me feel sorry for people that feel like they need to hate someone, because I’ve never met someone who is happy and confident in themselves who is willing to go out of their way to bully someone.”

It’s been over a decade since the operation that was meant to give Clement a ‘normal’ smile failed, but these days she’s grateful that it didn’t work.

Without her unique appearance she’d never have the platform she has today and wouldn’t have become the role model she so desperately wanted as a little girl.

TikTok star Tayla Clement shows off her unique appearance and insulin pump.
TikTok star Tayla Clement shows off her unique appearance and insulin pump. (Supplied)

Her confidence was hard-won and now it’s taking her to even greater heights after signing an international modelling contract, symbolising big change in the industry.

“I’ve got a really physical difference about me, which is my moebius syndrome, but I’ve also got Type One diabetes and I’m not scared about showing it. I think those two together are really powerful,” Clement says.

Though she knows it may open her up to more bullying, she’s not scared of being called ‘the girl who can’t smile’ anymore. I fact, it’s become her online moniker.

“It’s something that used to be my downfall, but now I use it as my superpower,” she says.

“It’s what makes me different and it’s what enables me to help others, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted in life.”

Clement is hopeful that her presence online can help change the narrative around physical differences and prove that people like her don’t need to be “fixed” or changed to be worthy of respect and kindness.

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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