After a big break courtesy of Nick Knight, a starring role in major campaigns, and a memorable moment in Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” music video, Toronto-born Jamaican model Winnie Harlow is undeniably the model to watch.
Your birth name is Chantelle Brown-Young. Where did the name Winnie Harlow come from?
It’s literally just from Winnie the Pooh! I was a big fan growing up, and it was actually from a joke with some friends. We were on the phone with some boys, I grabbed the phone from one of my girls, and was like, “Don’t give my friends attitude!” And the boys asked, “Who is this?” I looked over, my friend was wearing a Winnie the Pooh T-shirt, so I said my name was Winnie. When I started working, it felt kind of natural to just continue with it. Harlow comes from Jean Harlow; I’m a really big Marilyn Monroe fan, but I didn’t want to use Monroe, because that felt cheesy. But Jean Harlow was one of Marilyn’s really big career inspirations, so I took the name Harlow. I do love my actual name a lot. At the beginning, I tried to go by Chantelle Winnie, but then decided to keep Winnie Harlow and Chantelle separate. My family calls me Chantelle.
What was your first breakout career moment?
Getting to work with Nick Knight. It was the first time I actually felt like I could model. Nick told me I really knew how to work with my body, and that I knew how to model from head to toe. He told me I should show the other models how to move; I was like, “Nick Knight is telling me I should teach people what to do, and I don’t even know what I’m doing, I’m just trying to wing it!” [Laughs]
Do you have any dance training?
When I was a child, my first career goal was to be a ballerina. I used to take ballet, until I pulled my groin. Twice. The first time, I recovered, but when I did it again, that was the end of that. I’m also Jamaican, so I definitely know how to move my waistline!
You’ve talked about wanting to be an entertainment journalist when you were a kid. Why did that path appeal to you?
It was intriguing to me because I watched MTV, BET, E! News when I was growing up. I always enjoyed seeing Terrence J on BET. I felt like I had the personality to pursue a job like that. When MTV in Canada did a VJ search, I remember standing in this massive line at age 17. I didn’t get it because they said I didn’t have enough experience, and that I should probably go to school for journalism. But then I started pursuing modeling, so that didn’t happen.
But you recently hosted the MTV VMAs red carpet, so you’re sort of pursuing that goal, no?
I was so nervous! My first thing on-air was me interviewing Shawn Mendes, and luckily, I knew Shawn prior to this, so before we started, I gave him a big hug and was like, “Please help me, I’m so nervous!” Being on the red carpet was too much adrenaline for me. Entertainment journalism is not something I want to pursue anymore, but I’m so grateful I got to live out a dream.
Any other major game-changing moments in your career?
My first campaign for Desigual was a pivotal moment for me. They had my face all over the world—in Times Square, Tokyo, all over the Barcelona airport. That was the world’s first major introduction to me as a model. Seeing a video of myself in Times Square was just surreal.
How have you used your platform to challenge conventional beauty standards?
My career, in and of itself, speaks to that. My goal has always been to do what I wanted, and I want people to see they can achieve whatever they want to do, not just to follow in my footsteps. If you want to be a doctor and someone’s telling you that you can’t, push even harder. Prove them wrong! Or, moreover, prove yourself right.
What did people tell you to do career-wise?
When I was 16 or 17, a few people had told me I should model, so I went to downtown Toronto with my mom to meet with some modeling agencies. The head of one agency said to me, “You have such beautiful bone structure, you can thank your mom for that, but there’s not really a place for you in the industry, and if you want to be anywhere near the industry, you should probably go into makeup.” It was a total slap in the face. But it really pushed me to be like, “Okay, that’s your opinion, cool, but my opinion is different, and I’m going to prove myself right.”
You’re candid about your vitiligo—talking about how you don’t want to be called a “sufferer” or have this condition define you. Why did you speak out?
I’ve never seen myself as a sufferer. People dig so deep into the fact that I was bullied, and this whole story of me being an ugly duckling. No, I actually was never an ugly duckling. I was always a swan; I was just told not to see that. The problem is seeing [vitiligo] as a problem from the jump. The issue was me being bullied, not me having vitiligo. It’s odd to me that people didn’t understand how rude it is to define me by my skin. Just because I have vitiligo doesn’t make me the spokesperson for it. So it’s not me trying to be empowering—it’s me trying to be myself.
What kinds of meaningful feedback have you gotten about being so frank?
Every day, I get comments on social media; I don’t go through my DMs, because that’s a lot. But I’m really grateful for feedback, when people tell me things like, “I put on some weight, and I was scared to go to the beach, but you gave me the confidence to be like, ’No, this is me, I’m in this body, I love this body,’ ” and that’s amazing.
How have you seen the industry evolve?
Just being able to see myself and friends like Adwoa [Aboah] and really beautiful women of color, and women of different sizes, on magazine covers is a major thing. Just a little while back, it wasn’t odd to see a bunch of girls who looked the same on covers.
Where is there still room for improvement?
I’d like to see more progress backstage, at Fashion Week, and on photo shoots when it comes to the care of black hair, because it’s so fragile. But I hope that comes with changes in diversity [of models and talent] that’s already happening. Booking people who are well-versed in black hair is important. A lot of people can do great styles but damage the hair.
Any fellow boundary breakers who really inspire you?
My best friend. Two years ago, she was shot in both legs at a party. There was a guy she met in the hospital who broke his leg the same day she did; he’s still in a wheelchair, and she’s already walking. She has the most positive attitude and pushes me to go harder in life.
What’s on your bucket list these days?
I have quite a few ideas! But my biggest goals right now are appearing on a Vogue cover and walking for Victoria’s Secret. I hope those come true very soon.