Penn State alumnus Julian W. Lucas is part of Tommy Hilfiger’s Tommy Adaptive line. But there’s something about him that sets him apart from most mainstream models — he was born with one arm.
Though he experienced challenges throughout his life, the actor and model embraced his differences in the clothing line, which features clothing specifically made for people with disabilities.
Some of the clothing includes pants with magnets instead of zippers or buttons and button-up shirts with magnets in place of buttons.
“Everyone should have [these clothes],” Lucas said. “This shouldn’t even be just specific to people with disabilities.”
Lucas said that working with the Tommy Hilfiger brand was motivating and inspiring.
“[Regarding] some brands, especially nowadays, diversity is so popular, whether it’s race or whether it’s sexuality or physical disabilities,” he said. “Diversity is…trending, I guess.”
He added that some campaigns seem “inauthentic,” but working with Hilfiger was an exception.
“It’s just so forced. It just feels, like, you know, you’re just trying to get notability or sell you something,” Lucas said. “With Tommy, it was clear that they really care.”
` Lucas felt the adaptations they made were “thoughtful,” and it was clear to him the people who were working on the line were very passionate about it. He said he also found himself in a place where he was able to give “words of wisdom” to parents whose children have disabilities and were also modeling the line.
“I really feel like I have so much to offer in that regard, so it was really great for me to be in that situation, to be able to talk to these parents,” Lucas said. “At the heart of things… it’s because I genuinely love to help people. I always wanted to build a life around helping people, so at this point in time, it feels like I can really help a lot of people in this regard.”
His service began long before modeling for this campaign, as he tried to help others during his college years as well.
Lucas was involved in a THON organization, but saw the helping mentality throughout campus.
When he first came to campus, Lucas said he noticed little things like people holding doors open, even when it wasn’t completely convenient for them.
David Palmer roomed with Lucas at Penn State during his junior year and Lucas’ senior year.
The two had met at a party at Temple, and Palmer said they “hit it off immediately.”
“We both found ourselves having more fun outside the party and just shooting the breeze with this guy’s neighbors and you know, bringing it on ourselves to make sure we’re having our own fun,” Palmer said.
The pair spent the night learning more about each other and finding they had similar interests.
“As time went on,” Palmer said, “We both kind of found that we both liked to have fun, but at the same time, we both found ourselves asking those big ‘what do we want to do with our life’ questions and how do we find a meaningful life and how do we contribute?”
Palmer said that he and Lucas are still best friends.
“We really confided in one another to figure out what we want to get out of this world and our work.” Palmer said. “How can we be of help to others? That’s still very much the theme of our conversations nowadays and it’s hard to keep our phone conversations under three hours.”
Now, he’s found success as a model and actor, he said he owes much of his confidence to Penn State.
“I’ve learned so much there, and over the years, especially after graduating, it’s one of those things that I kind of look back and I would say going to Penn State was easily one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” Lucas said.
As a child, Lucas said his parents taught him to “never say never,” but also made him aware of the injustices he would face.
He was first exposed to this when he started playing baseball. Lucas’ father had told him, “When you’re trying out for a team, coaches are always going to look for a reason to cut you. That’s just the way it’s going to be.”
Over time, he found truth in this.
“If I made an error, it was never just because ‘I just made an error,’” he said. “It was ‘I made an error because I have one arm.’”
Lucas says he was fortunate to have a natural level of athleticism — he went on to play semi-pro baseball and competitive basketball.
One of Lucas’ close friends, Dan Pelberg, remembers playing baseball against Lucas when they were kids.
“He was the kid with one arm who was a great athlete,” Pelberg said. “When you’re a kid, it's easy to remember that.”
Pelberg said that the two of them were very different, but in a way that was complementary.
“I’m much more of a detailed oriented person,” Pelberg said. “He’s much more of a ‘head in the clouds’ person in the best kind of way.”
As they got closer, Pelberg said it was easy to forget Lucas only had one arm because he was so good. In ninth grade, Pelberg said he and Lucas became best friends.
“He’s probably the most passionate person I know,” Pelberg said. “That passion can be applied to relationships, that passion can be applied to his thirst for knowledge, the way he handles his health and fitness. Everything he does, he does with such passion.”
Pelberg said something that stands out to him the most about Lucas is his ability to be vulnerable.
“Just to put yourself out there, to do the modeling stuff. To do the work he’s done in comedy… it takes a lot to go out there, even more so when you know all eyes are on you already from the get-go.”
Lucas continued to experience discrimination, but said he wasn’t totally aware of it.
His disability impacted him in other ways in high school, too, when he started to care more about physical appearance — especially regarding how girls would see him.
In high school, he said he became close with a girl he talked to every day. He remembers her calling him one night crying, and asked her what was wrong.
“She was, like, ‘You know, all the girls were talking about how hot you would be if you didn’t have one arm.’ At that time, it didn’t really hit me… I kind of moved past it.”
This eventually changed, he said.
“I still remember the moment whe[n] I was walking down the hallway to science class — I went to a pretty crowded school — and there were a lot of kids in the hallway, and I remember I had this moment when I realized so many eyes were on me.”
He recalls learning in psychology that when someone tells another person they feel like everyone is watching them, it’s customary to tell them that isn’t true. But in Lucas’ case, he said it was.
He joked that he had the effect of a celebrity, without any of the perks.
“All of those things really started to compound, and I really developed a lot of anxiety around it, especially once hitting college.”
When he first attended Penn State, Lucas felt he wasn’t being who he really was. He started to take his life more seriously and thought about how he’d feel on his deathbed, how he’d regret living with fear.
“I felt trapped because I’m such an outgoing person, but at the same time I had some of these anxieties that... kept me from being who I wanted to be,” Lucas said. “Going to Penn State really put that out front and center.”
Lucas said Penn State introduced him to a number of passions, including working out, which was his main motivation for a while. Through being health conscious, Lucas said he learned more about self-love.
After graduating with a degree in psychology, Lucas became an alcohol and drug counselor, where he found that he could connect with people over the experience of struggles and suffering, even if they weren’t exactly the same.
“I felt I could be a better counselor because of my own experience with everything,” Lucas said.
Lucas said he’s always struggled with the idea of being an “inspiration” for others, but it’s something he said he’s since come to terms with.
“It was always very frustrating growing up, you know, people always tried to put me in that light,” he said. “It’s like, I just want to be a baseball player. Not a one-armed baseball player, you know.”
He then reached a point where he realized he couldn’t avoid it. He said that he’d encounter people who were genuinely inspired by his ability to tie his own shoes for example.
“At this point in what I’m doing now, I really want to inspire people,” Lucas said. “I want to motivate people, I want people to live a life so much less of fear. I want to encourage people to really take action in their own life.”