By Katherine Duke ’05
Smartphone apps of her own design, plus a wave of media attention, have turned a runway model into a role model. [Coding] Lyndsey Scott ’06 has graced the runway for Victoria’s Secret, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. She’s appeared in Essence and British Vogue. But smartphone apps of her own design, plus a recent wave of media attention, have turned her into a different kind of model: a role model for young women and minorities in computer science. To news outlets that have reported her story, she’s proof that tech geeks can be gorgeous.
It started in December 2013, when Scott (left) was in front of her computer at 3 a.m., “drunk on code,” and decided to post an answer to a question on Quora.com: “What does it feel like to go from physically unattractive to physically attractive?” She wrote of her years as a skinny, bespectacled teen in West Orange, N.J., bullied by classmates, and of her later physical and professional development into a fashion model—a role that has undeniable perks, but in which “many people are shocked to find out that I’m anything other than an airhead,” she wrote—“that I was a comp. sci. major and that I program iOS apps, for example.”
Her answer went viral. “The story transformed,” she says, “and even reversed to some extent, from an ‘ugly duckling to beautiful swan’ story to a ‘model has a secret life as a computer programmer’ story.” When Slate ran Scott’s Quora essay, the top comment came from “Rad Bro,” who marveled, “A Victoria’s Secret model who’s also a bona fide computer nerd? This is like walking into your backyard and finding Santa Claus jousting Bigfoot atop unicorns.” Jezebel and CNN praised Scott as a defier of stereotypes. She calls those stereotypes “rather restrictive”—and she avoids reading online comments on the stories, preferring not to allow strangers to influence her self-image.
Scott began coding in middle school, without realizing it; she simply enjoyed programming games into her calculator. When she tried her first computer science course in college, she took to it easily. “Luckily, at Amherst, I had the opportunity to see that good female programmers are not an impossibility,” she says.
Scott created the iPhone game Code Made Cool to encourage girls to try programming.
Lyndsey Scott self-portrait
She moved to New York to pursue acting and eventually signed on with a modeling agency. In 2009 she became the first African-American model to land an exclusive contract with Calvin Klein (“I pinched myself for months after”), and then came offers from other big names—Gucci, Prada, Vera Wang.
In between, she’s continued to code (mainly in the languages Python and Objective-C). She founded an app-development business, Standable Inc. Her first publicly released app facilitated donations to Educate! (founded by Eric Glustrom ’07 and Boris Bulayev ’07). Next came iPort, which allows models and other artists to display customized portfolios. Scott’s latest app, The Matchmaker, promotes “real-life social networking”: whenever a match—“compatible in love, friendship or business”—is physically nearby, the user’s phone will buzz or chime.
She also advises other coders. She’s earned more than 2,000 “reputation” points for answering programming questions on Stack Overflow, a score that places her near the top 1 percent of all users on the site. A visit to a Harlem middle school, where “several kids wanted to get involved with computers and technology, but not a single one had any experience,” inspired her to become a representative for Code.org and its Hour of Code learning initiative.
“I’m definitely taking this opportunity I’ve been given to promote computer science education, especially among women and people of color,” she says.
Katherine Duke ’05 is the assistant editor of Amherst.
Photograph by Thomas Concordia/Getty Images