Julian W. Lucas, who splits his time between North Park and Philadelphia, has modeled for several national brands, including T-Mobile, Champion and Tommy Hilfiger.

Julian W. Lucas, who splits his time between North Park and Philadelphia, has modeled for several national brands, including T-Mobile, Champion and Tommy Hilfiger. (Courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger/TNS)

A quick look at Julian W. Lucas' Instagram account shows someone who doesn't let life's challenges get in the way. Born with only one arm, Lucas keeps his followers - more than 75,000 of them - motivated with pep talks about staying fit, updates about his modeling career and ways to keep hurdles from tripping you up.

It's a role he doesn't take lightly.

"I want to be able to help play a role in changing our perceptions of beauty and how people live their life from all different walks of life," Lucas says. "I also want to help change our conversation and how we go about diversity. Help get to a place where a person with one arm in the media can simply just 'be' rather than have to be some war vet, car crash survivor, or even an inspirational figure.

"There is some research that shows that people tend to stay clear from people with disabilities, sitting somewhere else if possible. And I get it. I totally see that perspective and fully understand why that would be. It doesn't even anger me, and I honestly don't fault anyone. But I truly believe we can get to a place where that can be a thing of the past, not unlike our comfortableness around race and sexuality. And I truly, truly want to be on the front line of helping change that."

At 30, Lucas has found many ways to do that - as an influencer, as an athlete, as an actor and as a model for brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Champion.

"It's crazy to say, but I'm literally one of the first and only one-handed models/actors," he says. "I would have never thought in a million years I would have accomplished some of the things I have. To be honest, it still feels pretty surreal. I've been extremely fortunate to have been a part of numerous commercials, music videos, movies, print, theater, marketing campaigns, etc. I really believe the disabled community is greatly under-represented in the mainstream, and I'd really love to play a role in changing that."

Lucas moved to San Diego a few years ago but is now bicoastal, splitting his time between North Park and Philadelphia, where his family lives. He graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor's degree in psychology and has been certified as a personal trainer as well as a counselor for Pennsylvania's Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs.

Q: You have a massive Instagram following - 75,600. Your public persona is a mix of your personal story as well as helping others become comfortable with themselves, their body image - a lot of motivational and inspirational posts. Talk about that more - your mission.

A: Oh boy, my mission feels so vast and encompasses so much that I confuse myself sometimes! I want to be a voice for the millions of people out there who don't feel like they have a voice. I want to be able to help facilitate change so people can live so much more freely and confidently. It can't be understated how isolating things can truly get, and I hope to really put an end to that.

I really take pride in my ability to see things from a full 360 degrees, which is definitely a skill I learned while studying psychology along with growing up with one arm. Most people really can only see from one side. They get stuck in one view, one identity. And I'm really grateful that I don't fall prey to that. That I really can find common ground with just about anyone. ...

I was a counselor at a very poor men's inpatient rehab facility in rural America, working with people truly from all different backgrounds ... . I've really been deep in the trenches with people from all over in terms of background. Even when I see people who look different, I sometimes have this 'this looks weird' reaction. My hope is that through my work and what I have accomplished is that I can make those uncomfortable feelings go away for most people. Growing up with one arm, I feel like I can connect with people on such a deeper level then the average person. I feel as though I have so much more common ground and really feel connected to other people's struggles. Ultimately, I truly just want to be able to play my part in making this world a better place.

What I love most about North Park ...

I really love the diversity. There's such an amazing mix of people from all different walks of life. Different sexualities, cultures, etc. There's just this energy that really is specific to San Diego that I'm yet to experience anywhere else. People live way more free and it's really motivating and inspiring to me.

Q: You've been in numerous ad campaigns - from Tommy Hilfiger to T-Mobile. How did you get your start doing that, and what has been the most rewarding one so far?

A: It all started with taking a leap of faith! I had always wanted to live in California. I had never even been before. The farthest west I had ever been was Minnesota for a baseball tournament. So one day I packed up my '99 Mercury Mystique and drove cross-country with my best friend to San Diego. I didn't know anyone except him, and we just found a place on Craigslist.

Once I was here, I was really motivated to take chances. I had never posted pictures really showing my arm. The pictures on things like Facebook were always cropped up. And one day, I decided to post a shirtless gym picture on my Tinder profile and then Instagram and the reaction I got was nothing short of life-changing. From that point on, I began to post more and more pictures and really grew an awesome following on Instagram.

I was able to get representation from the fitness modeling agency Naturally Fit. I'm really grateful for them because they opened the doors when all other agencies closed them on me. I had agents who legit told me to give up or to not even try in try at all. I was fortunate enough to book my first real job with Nordstrom. Then, not too long after, the fitness brand Champion reached out, and I worked with them, which was amazing. I had an entire marketing campaign focused on me, which was really mind-blowing. I was then able to connect with an agency in L.A., KMR Diversity. They're amazing there because the diversity division works exclusively with people with disabilities. So I really felt understood and at home with them.

I also studied and performed sketch and improv with Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade in Hollywood. I really grew as a performer there. With the help and guidance of two awesome teachers, Dave Colan and Frank Caeti, they really helped me embrace myself more and allow myself to be more vulnerable on stage. I can't thank them enough.

Q: Of the three descriptions you've used to describe yourself - disabled model, actor and activist - which one is the most important to you, and why?

A: For me, they all coincide with one another. Since having one arm, when I model or act, I'm really doing more than just that. An ad or a show with someone like me isn't just another job. Another advertisement in the endless sea of ads. It's a true accomplishment, it's a statement saying we exist, we're people, we have a place in this world. And it's a huge step forward in the right direction of creating a more accepting and diverse world. With every job I or any of us who may look like me gets, I know that means that we're getting closer and closer to living in a world where people with disabilities are merely no different than anyone else. I hope one day we get to a place where even I get lost in a sea of many, many disabled performers.

Q: Tell us when you realized you could use your disability to help others, and why that is such a big part of what you do.

A: I learned from a very young age that people found me as a source of inspiration. And it was honestly very frustrating and uncomfortable. I just wanted to be treated like everyone else. I was really fortunate to play sports and excel at a pretty high level even playing semi-pro baseball. And so as I grew up playing sports and fortunately succeeding, I was always getting attention. Just tying my shoes and people want to give me a medal! I really shied away from it. But as I grew up, I matured, my outlook grew.

I always wanted to help people, helping people has always been the foundation of how I want to build my life. And it became quite apparent the more I lived my life, the more help I could be by embracing the attention I get from having one arm rather than run away from it. It really wasn't until I moved to San Diego from Philadelphia that I decided to turn a corner and fully accept who I am. I credit the endless sunny days.

Q: Growing up, what was the most challenging hurdle you had to overcome, and how did you do that?

A: So really the most challenging hurdles were overcoming myself. Growing up, I struggled with a lot of anxiety, depression, self-consciousness, insecurities, etc. I used to not even be able to wear a T-shirt in public, let alone walk around shirtless on a beach. It was really exhausting, and I was so frustrated because I felt trapped not being the real version of myself I knew I was. I was a prisoner in my own mind and body. But I really strive now to face my fears. To not let my thoughts get the best of me and to really try and live as authentic as I possibly can.

Q: You're very athletic. Did that help you develop a positive self-image and the confidence you have today?

A: Playing sports and being fit absolutely helped me gain confidence in myself. I was very fortunate to be naturally athletic along with endless hard work and obsession with being the best athlete I could be. My dad really drilled in my mind that coaches would look for any reason to cut me since I have one arm. That if I made an error, it's because I have one arm, not just because I made an error like anyone else. That I had to truly, truly work harder than everyone else. And so I did.

Sports were my absolute passion, so I was constantly playing and practicing and all of my close friends were high level athletes as well. Some even going on to play in the pros. And being able to keep up and even pass a lot of my peers really made me feel like I belonged. I really had a place in athletics growing up. I never had to sit on the sidelines and watch. I was not only able to take part, but also be a person worth having for most teams I played with.

I had a very well-rounded upbringing with sports. Some teams, I was the best player, the leader, and other teams, I was barely sitting on the bench. And I'm incredibly grateful for that. Working out also really helped me grow more confident. I had always been fit, but never really lifted weights until I started to slow down with organized sports. And in the gym, I really got in touch with my body. What I looked like in the mirror. And I was able to be honest with what I loved, what I hoped to change, and what I knew I struggled to accept. And that's still an ongoing and most likely an endless journey, but one definitely worth taking.

Q: What's the most rewarding part of what you do?

A: Really helping and connecting with people. It's so extraordinary when people reach out to me and express how much I have helped them, how I have saved their life, inspired, motivated, etc. I have parents reach out to me and share their own stories about their children with disabilities. Sometimes I help through just some of my work or sharing my story. But often it's also direct conversation with people, especially on Instagram. I'm a psychologist at heart, so helping people with their well-being one on one is really fulfilling to me. I also love to help guide parents with kids with disabilities. I feel like the insights I have gained growing up with one arm can really help a lot of parents and kids. It's indescribable and kind of unfathomable that I can help people on such a deep level. I'm so happy and grateful that I can play that role no matter how big or small, and I'm honestly still processing it all!

Q: What's the most challenging?

A: Is still facing my own inner demons. My own self-doubt and thoughts of discouragement. I've come a very long way. And am so grateful for the person I am today compared to how I may have been in the past. But there's still a ton of work to be done. And I'm really on a mission to continue to grow and be the best person I can be. So I can be the best son, brother, friend, uncle, partner, etc., I can be.

Q: What is the best advice you've ever received?

A: That everything is impermanent, that nothing truly lasts forever. At first glance, that may sound pessimistic, but there's a lot of wisdom to it. It really motivates me to really cherish the good things that I experience, because they won't last forever, and to not take the bad so seriously either, because that too won't last forever. I know one day, everyone I love will die, I will die, and I know that totally sounds morbid, but it really inspires me and helps me stay focused on what matters. To really be present when talking with my mom and dad. To cherish the time I have with them. To take chances in my own life, to live a life with the least amount of regret as possible. I think of the deathbed scenario quite often. On my deathbed, what will I wish I did more of. And what will I wish I did less of. And I try my best to live in accordance with that. Life really is a play of joy and sorrow and I really try to keep myself mindful of that.

Q: When you encounter someone who has a disability, what do you tell them to inspire them?

A: One of the biggest things I try to convey to people is to not make it such a big deal in their life. That it doesn't have to become their identity, the core of who they are. But at the same time, I also try to get people to fully accept and love who they are, to be honest with themselves. A lot of people with physical disabilities struggle with body image, social anxiety and dating. I really try to highlight in my own journey that I struggle with all of those, too. That you can overcome them and live more freely. But it will be uncomfortable, and it takes work, but once you begin to make progress you can really begin to feel so much more comfortable in your own skin.

You have to take chances and don't expect to have it all right away. And that the feelings of fear and anxiety don't necessarily go away, you just get better at accepting them and not letting them run the show. I also try and emphasize to pay bullies no energy! Parents of kids with disabilities especially are quick to come at people and go into attack mode. And I get it, they're protecting and standing up for their child. But really, the best thing to do is worry more about the people who love you, rather than the hate. To just totally ignore the ignorant comments on social media, or the person laughing and making jokes in the grocery store. Just recognize that the average person just doesn't understand, that they haven't had the same experiences you have. And that's OK. Progress takes time. Change takes time. Play your part and keep moving.

Q: What is the one thing people would be most surprised to hear about you?

A: That I struggle with autoimmune disease. Unfortunately for years I have really struggled with my health. And doctors really didn't have answers for me until recently. My joints, muscles, skin and stomach are affected and I go through stretches of time where I become so exhausted that I really can't do much of anything but lay in bed. It's like being hungover without the fun memory of the previous night! It can get really hard sometimes. I also have to eat an extremely limited and restrictive diet because I react to most common foods.

Right now, I really only eat plain meat with just a little salt, white rice, iceberg lettuce, extra virgin olive oil, bananas and dextrose powder, which is pure glucose that diabetics use when their blood sugar is low. I take that because otherwise it's really hard to eat enough carbs and meet my daily needs. I have to closely monitor how many calories I eat daily. If I just eat naturally until I'm full, I'll drop down to dangerous levels of bodyweight. I'm definitely better than I was. I've made a lot of progress. But it's still something I struggle with every single day. People often mistakenly think I eat that way for weight training purposes or that I have an eating disorder. Which is really frustrating to me because trust me, I miss pizza, chocolate and BBQ sauce! I'm a really fun date, "Hey there, can I maybe buy you a cup of water sometime?"

Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: My ideal weekend in San Diego is to hang out with my friends! Definitely like to be active so going for a hike, walking around downtown by the water is really beautiful. Then, of course, hitting up the beach. I really go back and forth between the popular more crowded spots, (I love to people watch) and the more private low-key beaches that you would only know if you lived in San Diego. Totally not revealing my go-to spots! Then I'd love to watch or perform some sketch/improv at Finest City in North Park and after going over to my friend's house for a potluck, where we feast (I mostly watch them eat and live vicariously through them) talk and play games! I was really lucky to meet an amazing group of friends when I moved to San Diego. So really doing anything with them always ends up as an adventure.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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