Winnie Harlow: A most exceptional woman
From being a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, to gracing the cover of many prestigious magazines, Canadian model Winnie Harlow has become one of the biggest names in fashion, having propelled her way to the top through her inner-confidence and self-worth.
Few supermodels have had a more interesting climb to the top than Winnie Harlow. Growing up in Toronto, she was an enthusiastic child who quickly learned that she would have to contend with the kind of relentless bullying that can ruin young people’s lives. But in her case, the level of abuse she faced in school was of a particularly cruel and brutal kind. At the age of four, Harlow — whose real name is Chantelle Brown-Young and who is the daughter of Jamaican-Canadian parents — was stricken with vitiligo, a rare skin condition involving a lack of pigmentation that results in the formation of pale white patches on one’s face and body. It is not hard to imagine how the constant name-calling from her classmates took its toll on her: “I remember sitting by my window, wishing upon the stars that my skin condition would go away,” she would later remark about that challenging time in her life.
But Harlow chose to fight back and ultimately embrace everything that is beautiful about her striking appearance. Today, she is one of the world’s leading supermodels and currently serving as a judge alongside Heidi Klum and Jeremy Scott on season 2 of Amazon Prime’s hit series Making the Cut, which invites aspiring fashion designers to compete for a million-dollar prize and have their collection sold on Amazon’s online fashion store.
“Jeremy Scott and Heidi Klum are so near and dear to me, they’re good friends,” said Harlow prior to the July première of the show. “They are people I look up to. I’ve walked many times for Moschino [Scott is its creative director], and I’ve guest-judged on Germany’s Next Top Model [which Klum hosted] twice before that Heidi’s asked me to do. So, it was something that was kind of natural.”
It’s an interesting twist of fate for Harlow, whose first big break as a model came with her appearance on Tyra Banks’s America’s Next Top Model (ANTM) show in 2014. That led to her being contacted by legendary British photographer Nick Knight, whom she describes as her “fashion godfather.” Explains Harlow:
“I wouldn’t have a career without him. Nick Knight was my first big gig as a ‘real’ model. Prior to, and during ANTM, I never actually called myself a model, because I always viewed it as a hobby. Then, I received an email directly from Nick, and we made arrangements to work together in London. I was 19, and that shoot … was a magical experience. It’s the reason I’m still modelling today.”
Having turned 27 in July, Harlow is the most successful Black supermodel of her generation and follows in the footsteps of Pat Cleveland, Grace Jones, Alek Wek, Iman, Naomi Campbell, Beverly Johnson and Tyra Banks. Winnie’s highlight reel includes strutting the runway for Victoria’s Secret, Fendi and Marc Jacobs, serving as a campaign spokesmodel for Diesel and MAC cosmetics, appearing in music videos for Beyoncé, Calvin Harris and Sam Smith and landing the covers of Elle and Vogue. Harlow ranks the Victoria’s Secret gig and Vogue covers as two of her greatest achievements.
“Accomplishing things like that, it’s kind of like, ‘What’s the point in making a list anymore?’ It just takes hard work, sacrifice and dedication to make more things happen. I mean, walking Victoria’s Secret was incredible. My first and second Vogue covers are now out, and I’m honoured,” she says.
“To see myself on a Vogue Cover … Is so surreal And so humbling. It’s Something I never Thought would happen”
“Growing up, I couldn’t see myself on Vogue. Modelling was never a dream of mine. It was never something I saw in my future. I never thought anyone like me could be on Vogue covers. So, it wasn’t doubt in myself. It was more about doubt in the industry. But, to see myself on a Vogue cover … is so surreal and so humbling. It’s something I never thought would happen.”
Walking the runway for Victoria’s Secret (VS) was a top-tier priority for Harlow, who achieved that goal in 2018, when she modelled at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
In a 2018 interview with Alyssa Hardy of teenVogue, Harlow shared her thoughts on what it was like to model for Victoria’s Secret and what the significance of it meant to people with nontraditional looks.
“Being the first model with vitiligo to walk in the show was a huge honor for me, and a big step in the right direction for VS. Any step toward a truly equal and diverse modeling industry is great, but for a huge brand like Victoria’s Secret to include models with skin conditions like vitiligo is a huge step to normalizing it in the entire industry. I hope that there’s many more in the future. We need to work toward diversity, not for the sake of it, but to make it the norm. And I hope that this is a big step toward that.”1
Harlow’s success is all the more remarkable in that the fashion industry, perhaps more than any other field, values conventional notions of cosmetic beauty above everything else. But, instead of viewing her vitigilo as an impediment, Harlow chooses to regard it as an attribute that sets her apart and gives her an individual identity within the industry. She has also resisted attempts to identify her with her skin, or otherwise turn her into the poster child for those stricken with the condition.
“I’m not my skin. People make it such a thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, she is the spokesperson.’ No, I’m not a spokesperson. I happen to have vitiligo and I’m proud of it, but I’m also not a spokesperson for it just because you want me to be, or just because I have a skin condition.”
Adds Harlow: “I don’t think that’s my job just because I have a skin condition. It’s not that I’m ashamed of having vitiligo, or that I don’t like it, or that I use it to get to where I am and now I’m trying to get away from it. There’s no getting away from it, it is a part of me. But, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t define me.”
This is the kind of tough-minded attitude that Winnie Harlow — she took her stage name from Winnie the Pooh and 1930s Hollywood screen star Jean Harlow — was forced to adopt ever since she was a young girl who was bullied relentlessly in middle and high school. The abuse reached such terrific proportions that she was eventually forced to drop out. She still regards that as a decisive moment in her life.
“People worry too much About what other people Think, but what other people Think isn’t what’s going to Make you happy in your life, And it’s your life to live”
“[Dropping out of high school] was possibly the best thing that could have happened, because I found a rejuvenated sense of self. I learned to love who I am, despite what anyone would say about or to me. This gave me the courage to really stand up to anyone or any obstacle in my life,“ she says.
“People worry too much about what other people think, but what other people think isn’t what’s going to make you happy in your life, and it’s your life to live.”
In the meantime, Harlow has found love in the time of the pandemic. Having previously dated Formula One racing champion Lewis Hamilton and rapper Wiz Khalifa, she has spent the past year living in Los Angeles with Kyle Kuzma, a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers. Apart from posting cute selfies of each other on Instagram, Harlow has thrown her support behind Kuzma’s creation of a line of T-shirts that are being sold to raise money for Black Lives Matter charities.
“That was really inspiring to me as well, as I’m up here with him. It’s definitely a topic of discussion every day. As a Black woman and a Black man, it’s very important to us.”
More on vitiligo
Dr. Dawn Davis, a dermatology expert at the Mayo Clinic, explained in an email to Dolce Magazine what vitiligo is and the impacts of it on people who have this condition.
“Vitiligo is a skin condition where the pigment-producing cells in the skin, the melanocyte, are attacked by the immune system, causing loss of pigment (hypo-pigmentation and depigmentation),” explains Davis. “Vitiligo can occur in all ages, ethnicities/races and genders. It can be very impactful on an individual’s mental health and well-being, particularly in areas of skin where the pigment changes are obvious to others. Patients often experience bullying, disrespectful remarks from others and have concerns it impacts their social activities.”
An ambassador for reinterpreting and reshaping the traditional concepts and norms of traditional beauty, Winnie Harlow is defined by her beauty and singular flair for fashion, rather than any condition that she has.
The supermodel recently partnered with global fashion brand PrettyLittleThing, whose press statement says, “With a specially curated collection consisting of pieces that not only show Winnie’s eclectic taste and style, these also encapsulate the individuality and body confidence that Winnie exudes.” PrettyLittleThing’s CEO, Umar Kamani, says of the collaboration with Harlow: “I have been following Winnie’s career for a very long time now, and she is the ultimate body-positive advocate. I am so delighted we’ve been able to bring this campaign to life and have had Winnie’s involvement from the very start. Having Teyana Taylor creatively direct this campaign and be on set with Winnie really enabled us to bring together two powerful females and capture such a vibrant campaign.” From a young girl who was bullied so badly in high school that she wasn’t sure what her purpose in life could possibly be, to a much loved supermodel who counts Nicki Minaj and Heidi Klum in her circle of friends, Winnie Harlow has accomplished what she set out to do from the beginning of her career. She has attained prominent visibility on the covers of the most prestigious fashion magazines in the publishing world; she has walked the runway for Victoria’s Secret; and along the way, she has been true to her herself — to that inner level of confidence and self-worth that has propelled her to the top of the fashion industry.
1teenVogue. “Winnie Harlow Thinks Victoria’s Secret Should Make Diversity the Norm.” December 3, 2018. www.teenvogue.com
WRITTEN BY JAN JANSSEN AND CECE M. SCOTT