Winnie Harlow: “[Vitiligo] Is Not the Only Thing About Me”

by Alexandra Ilyashov

It’s been quite a whirlwind for Winnie Harlow. In the past two years, the model made good on nabbing a Vogue cover (or two!) and a VS show—a pair of high-profile dream projects she first told us about in 2018 and the sort of goals that many catwalk stars spend far longer chasing, if ever accomplishing. So, what’s Harlow striving for next? Well, it’s sort of a plan to not have a plan, with all sorts of exciting surprise encounters and opportunities along the way.

What’s new with you, Winnie?
Things have been great. I’m just kind of focused this year on not focusing on work so much. I’m really excited for Fashion Week to be coming around, but I’m kind of just focusing on taking care of myself, mentally and physically. I’m not slowing down at all, actually, but I’m just making sure there’s time and space for necessary things, like going to the dentist or doctor, getting a massage, and making sure my skin is good and healthy, with all the chemical products and stuff we use in our industries, being in entertainment. Or reading a book, and taking time to sit on the couch and catch up with whatever shows I’ve been bingeing.

What’s in your Netflix queue currently?
Don’t judge me, but I just finished Scandal. I started a few months ago, and I literally just binged seven seasons, so that was a lot of fun. I never wanted to get into it because seven seasons seems intimidating, but I’m really happy I did. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m back on track now with You, Season 2. I was obsessed with the first season and for the past month I’ve been trying to start Season 2, but every time I try to start, I get busy again and have to run out to a fitting or whatever the case is. Such is life!

Did you make any New Year’s resolutions or goals for 2020?
I used to make a list of things to achieve, but once those things were achieved, it was kind of pointless for me to make a list; I’d accomplished things beyond my dreams. So I couldn’t even imagine anything more to put down on the list, because the things coming to me were just so incredible, I couldn’t even think of them in the first place. Random things came out of the woodwork.

Winnie Harlow (Jacques Burga)

What sorts of surprising opportunities?
Being in Beyoncé’s new music video, or Calvin Harris and Sam Smith’s music video. Stuff like that, I would’ve never been like, “Oh, yeah, one day I want to do a music video with Calvin Harris and Sam Smith, because that’s kind of far-fetched. I was like, “Okay, you know what? God has created a plan for me, and I can’t really write the story, it’s already written.” So my job is just to put the work and the grind into the opportunities I take. Personally, I like videos and film in general more than stills or runway. Not that there isn’t room to mess up in photos, because there is, but it’s kind of terrifying to walk a runway. With film, it’s like, cool, if you get something wrong, you look back at it, if you didn’t like it, you can redo it, to get it right. With runway, you’ve got one shot; that’s how you look, that’s it.

In mid-2018, you told us your biggest career goals were nabbing a Vogue cover and walking the Victoria’s Secret show. A year and a half later, you’ve done both. How did that feel?
With accomplishing things like that, it’s kind of like, “What’s the point in making a list anymore? If I can achieve stuff like that, and it’s already written.” It just takes hard work, sacrifice, and dedication to make more things happen. It was insane. I mean, walking Victoria’s Secret was incredible. My first and second Vogue covers are now out, and I’m honored. I mean, being 16 years old, growing up, I couldn’t see myself on Vogue. It wasn’t something I didn’t think was possible because I couldn’t do it; modeling 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 now is so surreal, and so humbling. It’s something I never thought would happen.

You shared news of these huge career milestones in emotional Instagram posts. How has your relationship to social media changed as your career has progressed?
As I’ve become more successful, I’ve also become more cautious of what I post, which kind of makes social media not as fun as when, once upon a time, I was 17 and posting whatever I wanted to post. It got to a point where I was posting whatever, and an agent would be like, “Maybe you should remove that!” It’s kind of become a part of my job and of my career as I’ve gotten older, and I understand. But that growth out of social media just being something for fun was difficult, to say the least.

Though you’re sharing a bit less, do you still peruse social media to see what other people are up to?
Yeah, for sure. I definitely love the fact that I can watch people’s Insta Stories back to back, and kind of feel near, even with the distance, to my friends, family, and peers, so I do use social media outside of actually posting.

Do you have any traditions for how to celebrate career wins you’re especially proud of, like these major roles?
No. Maybe I should. That’s a good idea! It’s a good addition to my whole self-care plans—acknowledging my successes. It all kind of goes really quickly. Once a cover’s out, it’s out, and then it’s like, on to the next. I kind of forget to stop and just appreciate the things that I’ve accomplished. Until now!

Winnie Harlow (Jacques Burga)

You deserve it! We’re intrigued by your friendship with Kim Kardashian. You must be pretty close, based on the friendship necklace you gave her as a holiday gift, which Kim shared on social media. How and when did you meet?
I met Kim in passing multiple times, because obviously Kendall [Jenner] and I work in the same industry, and her family has always been supportive of her career. So I met them various times over the years. But it wasn’t until two or three years ago when a mutual friend of Kim and mine told me Kim wanted to get my number to give me a call, because she had something she wanted to talk to me about, and asked if it was okay to give her my number. I was like, Yeah, for sure. So Kim messaged me, asked me a few questions, and asked if I could jump on the phone. We talked on the phone for an hour or so, about autoimmune disorders, dermatology, life, my upbringing, a whole bunch of stuff, just getting to know each other. That was our first personal encounter.

How did you become closer?
From there, she invited me to her baby shower and stuff like that. I started hanging out with Kim and her family more often, whether it was her inviting me to [Kanye West’s] Sunday Service [religious worship events]. Or Kylie [Jenner] inviting me to her birthday party. I just ended up hanging out with them more and more often, and as we hung out, that’s how you build bonds. It kind of flowed naturally. Then I had an idea for something to do with beauty. I brought the idea to her and she was really excited, and wanted to do something even quicker than my idea [would take], because she was so happy I wanted to work with her. She suggested we do a makeup collab. I was obviously excited she wanted do something. It just happened naturally.

You’ve been candid about why it’s complicated, but important, for you to be vocal about your experience with vitiligo, and how you don’t necessarily want to be a spokesperson for the condition. How open or private do you find you want to be about vitiligo recently?
It’s my skin, so it’s the first thing you see. There’s no such thing as privacy. But it’s not a privacy thing for me. It’s the same thing as having one token black person and asking them, “How would you guys say this in your slang?” 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. That’s not how life works. That makes it difficult. It’s not about me being private about my skin condition. I love talking about it. But it’s not the only thing about me.

Winnie Harlow (Jacques Burga)

You told us back in 2018 that you wanted to see more diversity backstage in terms of hairstylists and makeup artists of color, who really know how to work with diverse types of hair and skin. Has there been much progress in the past two years?
Nope! I’m not gonna lie. Though, in some cases, I have actually seen a big difference; I recently walked for Jeremy Scott and his idea for the runway was to have braids and finger waves, which stem from black heritage. I usually come prepared when it comes to going backstage, just because of my experience over quite a few years in the modeling industry, and I came prepared for Jeremy’s show. But I was pleasantly surprised to see the majority of hairstylists and glam [makeup artists] backstage were black, or were well-versed in black hair. I was shocked, surprised, and proud of those decisions being made. From walking in couture shows in Europe, there’s definitely still tons of growth to be made and had. My thing is, I also don’t know if this is my experience because of who I am or the voice that I have, which would be disappointing. I feel like this should be the experience for all models, or anyone in entertainment who has to deal with glam. I don’t want it to be just my experience; I want it to be everyone else’s experience. But I have experienced glam backstage being more open to what the model feels comfortable with; that’s not to say the entire look, but what color or shade, or how something is applied to the skin.

How can backstage pros help foster a more welcoming environment for all models?
I’ve had someone ask me, “Is it okay if I use my fingers to blend?”—which is an appropriate question to ask! Because just smearing your fingers in someone’s face wouldn’t be normal in any other setting. But there are also preferences of how a makeup artist likes to do their art. So coming to a mutual understanding, that both people are in each other’s face, and just doing it in a respectful way, is important. It’s about treating people like humans, regardless of their career titles.

Absolutely. So we won’t ask about your career goals because the sky’s the limit. But if you could manifest anything else…
I mean, to pick a couple, just off the top of my brain, an American Vogue cover, for sure, and more couture shows. And you know what? Something I feel like I’m already doing now—is the fact that I’m doing couture shows and I’ve put on so much weight since Victoria’s Secret, and I lost so much weight for Victoria’s Secret; well, not losing weight, but training to tighten my body and muscles because, obviously, walking in lingerie is way different than walking down the runway in clothes. The fact I’ve now walked couture shows at the weight I feel comfortable in. I mean, I haven’t worked out in a long time, and I feel kind of proud of the industry for accepting that. Not saying I’m plus size or anything, but I’m definitely not as skinny as I was in the beginning of my career. The fact that I’m still walking couture shows and other fashion shows, not being exactly sample size? I’m proud. I’ll be going back down to sample sizes because summertime is coming around, but that’s a personal choice. I don’t feel like it’s demanded of me.

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