Diagnosed with the skin depigmentation condition vitiligo as a small child, model Winnie Harlow spent her early years feeling very alone. "Growing up, I never saw anyone like me on TV, billboards or on the runways. I felt like I was the only person in the world like me," she said in a recent interview.
Now Harlow works alongside one of her supermodel colleagues, Heidi Klum, on the fashion competition series Making The Cut (which also features fashion world legend Tim Gunn and designer Jeremy Scott). "My 16-year-old self would never think that this would be my life. Naomi Campbell texted me a couple days ago,” she told People. “Stuff like that is insane. When I look back on it, I'm like, 'That's pretty cool.'"
To get there, however, she had to go up against some real obstacles — including powerful industry insiders who made her feel like modelling wasn’t for her. In 2014, Harlow appeared on America’s Next Top Model. "At that point in my life,” she said, “I was told or made to feel like I couldn't model or that it wasn't for me.” Though Harlow has remained fairly tight-lipped about her time on ANTM, it’s clear that it wasn’t all love and light and smizing. “My mother always said, ‘If you don't got nothing good to say, don't say nothing at all,’” quipped the Jamaican-Canadian model.
Despite the lack of encouragement on the ANTM set, Harlow said that for her it was representation that mattered most and so failure was not an option. "My plan was to never fail," she said. "I'm from the hood, and my goal was to never go back. I wanted to take care of my mom and my sister and make my dad proud."
Mission: accomplished. But Harlow’s presence in the fashion world has gone one massive step further. “This feeling is indescribable,” wrote Harlow in a recent Instagram post featuring a young girl with vitiligo posing next to an ad for the model’s collaboration with Paul Mitchell. “Look at her beautiful smile! I see younger me in her, and I’m proud she sees herself represented.”
Growing up, Harlow was bullied for the way she looked but, as a guest on Kelly Clarkson’s show last week, the model said it taught her an important lesson: to stop focussing on what other people think. “It was my opinion of myself that I needed to keep me happy. Like, I think I'm beautiful, I think I'm funny — I don't have to look to other people to know those things about myself"
As for her plans for the future, Harlow is hoping that more opportunities like Making The Cut come her way. "Walking a runway is the most empowering feeling — showcasing someone's designs that they've entrusted you to show the world. But I do enjoy doing film and TV and letting my voice be heard," she added. "You can't get as much personality through pictures — and I have a very big personality."
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