Winnie Harlow didn’t realize she was different until others pointed out, including the modeling agents who turned her down. Now she is one of the most memorable faces in fashion.
“I don’t think I realized I was any different at first,” says Winnie Harlow, a Toronto-raised, Los Angeles-based model, about how being diagnosed with vitiligo in childhood affected her perception of her life . “That was because of my upbringing. It wasn’t until I was born that I could feel the differences. “
While reactions to Harlow’s performance have shifted from devastating bullying to praise and admiration, her uniqueness has ultimately made her a star in the fashion arena. Fashion Covers and catwalk appearances at some of the most exclusive events, such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s 50th Anniversary Show, speak of the power of her self-possession and determination, and these qualities she has nurtured for some time.
“My grandmother took me one day to pick up my cousin at school and a little kid came up to me and said, ‘What’s on your skin? ‘”She remembers. “My grandmother has a very strong personality and is very confident and I grew up around her. She remembers how I replied, “Child, my skin is none of your business.” That was my energy growing up. “
Harlow’s ability to retain and build on that energy has led to her landing campaigns for Puma, Fendi, and Diesel – all of which have been huge hits in less than a decade in the industry. Her foray into modeling began after a friend asked her to participate in a casting call for the annual Fashion Art Toronto event. Harlow, who was working at La Senza in Yorkdale Shopping Center at the time, pushed the suggestion back, but her friend persisted and Harlow gave in. “I thought I should at least try,” she says. “One day I got off work and took the bus to the casting. I’ve been to a lot of shows that week. It was encouraging and I’m really glad I listened to my friend. “
It was a breakthrough for Harlow to show her “what the fashion industry could be like”. Up until that point, she had been rejected by modeling agencies. “People didn’t really know what to do or where to place me or how to book me because it had never been done before,” she says. “That was my challenge in the beginning. I just had to make a voice for myself to be heard. “
Harlow’s ambitions were fueled by meeting TV and online personality Shannon Boodram, who discovered her and made a viral video clip in 2011 about Vitiligo and the fact that it didn’t detract from Harlow’s standout traits. “I’m grateful for Shannon’s eye – for seeing a story there,” says Harlow. “She was the first person to say she could see me on the cover of Fashion. It wasn’t anything I could imagine because I hadn’t seen it. But she had that visionary eye. “
In fact, Harlow remembers looking at posters in the store she worked in – all with “white girls with blond hair and blue eyes” – and thought she wanted to be in that position one day. “I worked in La Senza and then walked the runway to Victoria’s Secret,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me.”
The tenacity Harlow has shown throughout her career may seem brightest when she talks about her fears. She recalls our cover shoot in Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California (an area known for its intimidating wildlife) and says, “I’ve been thinking about snakes and that was scary, but I have them Ever bypassed shooting for a Nike. “She’s also afraid of swimming, but she’s learned the skill of doing an underwater photo shoot.” While I was crying in one of the lessons, I would step back and push myself further. I’m just the type who can’t let my fears stop my progress. “
While Harlow doesn’t allow fear to consume her, when she talks about the fear that caused the uncertainty of events in 2020 that she “has a tendency to internalize things a lot. Sometimes it is difficult to verbalize complicated or frustrating things, but it is good to talk about. “Her confidants include her mother and boyfriend, NBA player Kyle Kuzma. She flew to Orlando last August to participate in his team’s quarantine bubble.
Harlow describes her Jamaican grandmother (a Leo colleague) as a strong influence in her life and now counts Naomi Campbell as a “powerful force” in her career. The legendary supermodel called her on her birthday this year. That connection is a far cry from her attempts to get into 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 in demand 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 she feels more connected to her followers through social media – although her favorite interactions with them are still when they are on the site hits 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 while later, I got the chance to do one Vogue Arabia Cover, and we were trying to figure out how we could make it powerful. The idea came up that we could take photos with Shahad. It’s not just about being the first; It’s about that I can open the door to others. “
This term sets Harlow apart from others in the fashion industry – an industry notoriously narrow in terms of who lets them into their field. And it’s an example of the idea that people who can look up to what they didn’t have when modeling can make a huge difference.
Harlow’s desire to expand her awareness is also evident in her downtime. One of her favorite stress relievers spends time reading a coloring book. “Disney princesses are my thing,” she says. “I make my own adjustments. I like to make them ethnic or black because there hasn’t been a black Disney princess in a long time. I like switching it up and figuring out a different breed or having different hair – give her a pink lace front wig instead of black or blonde flowing hair. I made pink ombré wigs myself – I want to see myself as a Disney princess too. “
As resourceful as her approach may be, Harlow is quick to point out the importance of anchoring ideas and admiration in reality. “Personally, I don’t believe in role models because a role model is by definition someone who is put on a pedestal and seen as something that isn’t even human,” she notes. “We are all human…. You cannot believe that anyone in the world is perfect, and that suggests the ideal of a role model. I look at people from the podium and I think we are all the same. It’s more about inspiration. “And that’s something Harlow knows more than most about a thing or two.
Photo of GREG SWALES. Styling of CHRIS HORAN. Creative direction of GEORGE ANTONOPOULOS. Hair over ALEXANDER ARMAND. Make-up by ADAM BURRELL for the only agency. Nails over JOLENE BRODEUR for Aprés Nail. Fashion Assistant: LAUREN JEWORSKI.