Winnie Harlow didn’t realize she was any different until others pointed out, including the modeling agents who rejected her. Now she is one of the most memorable faces in fashion.
“I don’t think I realized at first that I was any different,” says Los Angeles-based model Winnie Harlow, of how a diagnosis of childhood vitiligo impacted her outlook on her life. “It was due to my upbringing. It was only when I was in the world that I could feel the differences.
While reactions to Harlow’s appearance have shifted from devastating intimidation to praise and admiration, her uniqueness is what ultimately made her a star in the fashion world. Vogue Reruns and catwalk appearances at some of the most exclusive events, like Jean Paul Gaultier’s 50th Anniversary Show, are testament to the power of her self-control and determination, and these are traits she has cultivated ever since. some time.
“My grandmother took me with her to pick up my cousin from school one day, and a little child came to me and said, ‘What’s on your skin? ‘”, She recalls. “My grandmother has a very strong personality and is very confident, and I grew up around her. She remembers that I replied: “My child, my skin does not concern you”. It was my energy growing up.
Harlow’s ability to conserve and develop this energy has led to his landing campaigns for Puma, Fendi and Diesel – all noble achievements after less than a decade in the industry. Her foray into modeling began after a friend urged her to attend a casting for the annual Fashion Art Toronto event. Harlow, who worked at La Senza in the Yorkdale Mall at the time, rejected the suggestion, but her friend persisted and Harlow relented. “I thought I should at least give it a try,” she says. “I got out of work one day and took a bus to go to the casting; I was in a ton of shows this week. It was encouraging and I’m really happy to have listened to my friend.
It was a watershed moment for Harlow showing him “what the fashion industry could look like”. Until then, she had been rejected by modeling agencies. “People weren’t sure what to do or where to put me or how to book me because it had never been done before,” she says. “It was my challenge at the start. I just had to make a voice to be heard.
Harlow’s ambition was bolstered by meeting TV and online personality Shannon Boodram, who discovered her and made a viral music video in 2011 about vitiligo and the fact that it doesn’t remove none of Harlow’s exceptional qualities. “I’m grateful for Shannon’s eye – for seeing a story there,” Harlow says. “She was the first person to say she could see me on the cover of Vogue. It wasn’t something I could visualize because I hadn’t seen it. But she had this visionary eye.
In fact, Harlow remembers looking at posters in the store where she worked – all featuring “white girls with blond hair and blue eyes” – and thinking she wanted to be in that position someday. “I worked at La Senza and ended up walking the runway for Victoria’s Secret,” she says. “It was a loop moment for me.”
The tenacity Harlow has displayed throughout her career perhaps shines the most when she talks about her fears. Recalling our cover shoot in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California (a place known for its intimidating wildlife), she says, “I thought there were snakes, and it was rather scary, but I’ve worked around them before, for a Nike shoot. “She’s also scared of swimming, but she learned the technique for doing an underwater photoshoot.” While I was crying at the one of the lessons, I turned around and kept pushing myself. I’m just the type of person who can’t let my fears stop my progress. “
While Harlow doesn’t allow fear to consume her, when she talks about the anxiety that the uncertainty of the events of 2020 caused, she says she “tends to internalize things a lot. Sometimes complicated or frustrating things are hard to verbalize, but it’s good to talk about them. Her confidants of choice include her mother and boyfriend, NBA player Kyle Kuzma – she flew to Orlando to join her team’s quarantine “bubble” last August.
Voting her Jamaican grandmother (a fellow Leo) as a strong influence in her life, Harlow now counts Naomi Campbell as a “powerful force” in her career, adding that the legendary model named her for her birthday this year. This connection is a far cry from her attempts to enter the fashion industry so many years ago, when she was told that if she wanted to work in the industry, she “should be a makeup artist”.
Now Harlow is sought after not only for her beauty but also for the ingenuity she brings to editorial shoots. “I’m proud to be more involved in the process now,” she says of her work, reflecting on how social media has made her feel more connected to her followers – even though her favorite interactions are with them are always when she meets them on the street during fashion week.
“I remember getting a DM from a fan in the Middle East who also has Vitiligo,” she says of her chance interaction with Shahad Salman. “She showed me comparative pictures of her and me, and they were so similar. A little later, I had the opportunity to make a Vogue Arabia cover, and we were trying to figure out how we could make it powerful. The idea hit that we could have a shoot with Shahad. It’s not just me who am the first; it is about my ability to open the door for others.
This notion sets Harlow apart from others in the fashion industry – an industry that is notoriously narrow in terms of the people it allows in its field. And it illustrates the idea that if people have someone to look up to, which she points out not having when it comes to modeling, it can make all the difference.
Harlow’s desire to expand perceptions is also evident in his downtime activities; one of her favorite stress relievers is spending time with a coloring book. “Disney Princesses are my thing,” she says. “I do my own takes on them. I like to make them ethnic or black, because there hasn’t been a black Disney princess in a very long time. I like to change up and make a character be of a different race or have different hair – give them a pink lace wig instead of black or blonde hair. I’ve done some pink ombre wigs myself – I also want to see myself as a Disney princess.
As imaginative as his approach may be, Harlow quickly highlights the importance of keeping ideas and admiration grounded in reality. “Personally, I don’t believe in models, because a model is by definition someone who has set a pedestal and who is seen as something that is not even human,” she notes. “We are all humans…. You can’t think that anyone in the world is perfect, and that’s what this role model suggests. I look at people off the pedestal and think we are all equal. It’s more about inspiration. And that’s something Harlow, more than anyone, knows a thing or two about.
Photograph by GREG SWALES. Styling by CHRIS HORAN. Creative direction by GEORGE ANTONOPOULOS. Hair by ALEXANDER ARMAND. Make-up by ADAM BURRELL for The Only Agency. Nails by JOLENE BRODEUR for Aprés Nail. Fashion assistant: LAUREN JEWORSKI.