Winnie Harlow, happy in her skin
Model and activist Winnie Harlow learnt long ago to ignore the haters and be comfortable in her own skin
SHE was mercilessly mocked for her skin condition and bullied for years in a world that shuns imperfection. But model Winnie Harlow is proud of the vitiligo that sets her apart – and to show her days of hiding are long gone she recently posted a nearly nude selfie on Instagram.
She shared the snap with her 2,6 million followers along with a message of selflove. “The real difference isn’t my skin,” she wrote. “It’s the fact that I don’t find my beauty in the opinions of others. I’m beautiful because I know it. Celebrate your unique beauty today (and every day)!”
Her comments section exploded, with people lavishing praise on the 23-yearold, calling her “beautiful”, “amazingly unique” and “a special gem”.
“You’ve helped me embrace my vitiligo,” one fan wrote. “If I ever have any doubt I just look to you as an example of self-love. Thank you!”
The Canadian beauty – who defied the odds to become one of the biggest names in the modelling industry – has spoken openly about the mocking she endured while growing up, until she realised her opinion was all that really mattered.
“The only reason I didn’t like my skin was because I was told it wasn’t what’s right. Or I was told it wasn’t normal. But who’s to say that?
“Eventually I learnt that my opinion of myself matters so much more than anyone else’s and I wish I’d known it earlier. One day I just didn’t give a f**k any more.”
Her empowering stance hasn’t gone unnoticed among her celebrity peers – people such as Beyoncé.
Last year the pop superstar picked Winnie to appear in her groundbreaking visual album Lemonade, alongside a host of famous faces including tennis star Serena Williams and actress Amandla Stenberg.
Winnie has also appeared in music videos for Eminem and The Black Eyed Peas and can be seen in Beyoncé’s politically charged anthem Freedom, which earned a Grammy nomination for best rap/sung performance.
Of all her celebrity collaborations, working with Beyoncé is the one that really stood out.
“I wanted to thank her for acknowledging me as a strong black woman and uplifting and continuing to empower us all,” Winnie says. “That made her so happy. She said that’s exactly what she wanted to do. I’m so happy to be a part of her iconic story now.”
But Winnie is carving her own iconic story – and her journey from picked-on kid to confident catwalk queen is both brave and inspiring.
DIAGNOSED at age four with vitiligo, the same pigmentation condition pop icon Michael Jackson had, Winnie ( born Chantelle BrownYoung) didn’t have it easy growing up in Toronto. “I was called names like cow, zebra and all manner of disparaging slurs. The despair that it brought was so unbearably dehumanising that I wanted to kill myself.”
The bullying eventually got so bad she dropped out of high school to be homeschooled instead. But that was “possibly the best thing that could’ve happened, because I found a rejuvenated sense of self ”, she says.
“I learnt 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 and any obstacle in my life.”
With her renewed self-confidence she started to pursue a career in entertainment journalism, but after a chance meeting with a photographer her interest turned to modelling. “She [the photographer] encouraged me to continue pushing. From there I started to build myself up by leveraging social media.”
Her big break came after she heard that America’s Next Top Model was casting for its 21st season. She immediately asked all her Instagram followers to tag the show’s host and executive producer, Tyra Banks, hoping to draw attention to her photos. Clearly it worked as soon after that she was contacted by the show’s producers. “Initially I didn’t believe it, but I followed through and ended up being on the show.”
She came sixth out of 14 contestants but her stunning photos and bubbly personality made a huge impression – and the international fashion world sat up and took note.
“After Tyra gave me that opportunity it was my time,” she reflects.
It certainly was. She’s gone on to land major advertising campaigns, including with clothing company Diesel and cooldrink brand Sprite.
Last year also saw her being chosen as one of the BBC’s 100 Women – a series that looks at women who strive to make a difference in the world.
There’s no doubt she’s also paving the way for other models with skin conditions.
“There are a lot more women of colour being represented in a beautiful light,” says Diandra Forrest (27), the first woman with albinism to be signed to a major modelling agency. “The more models there are with different looks, the more role models there will be.”
Winnie agrees the industry is “opening up” but says more change is needed. “The industry needs to accept various forms of beauty as a standard, as opposed to an occurrence now and then.
“I want to see different faces on the covers of magazines, the stars of movies, featured on billboards . . . It’s time we open the market up and embrace people from all walks of life.” ER striking looks have made waves for her in the romance department too. Winnie has been linked to fellow Canadian and rap sensation Drake (30), who gives her a shoutout on his track Know Yourself.
And then there’s ace British Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton (32).
In July she was spotted canoodling with him in Mykonos, Greece, and earlier this month they were seen leaving the GQ Men of the Year Awards in London – although neither has confirmed a romance.
Despite being such a success, there’s one thing the feisty beauty refuses to be called – and that’s a role model. “I’m an inspiration; that’s the word I prefer,” she says. “I don’t believe I have to be a role model, someone to be emulated.
“I’m just a young woman living my life and if people find something in that that’s inspirational, then I’m happy. But I make mistakes. I swear a lot.”
She acknowledges she does become frustrated having to talk about her skin so much. “I’m so sick of it. I’m literally just a human. I have the same brain as you; there’s a skeleton under my skin just like yours. It’s not that serious.”
Her skin condition “shouldn’t be a box people try to keep me in but I feel like that’s going to be a battle throughout my life”, she says.
“All I can do is try to fight it for the next generation. I’m the first of my kind, but one day I hope I’m not the model with vitiligo. I hope I’ll just be Winnie Harlow the model.”
Winnie made headlines for posting this nearly nude selfie online.
Winnie has been romantically linked to rapper Drake (FAR LEFT) and more recently to Formula 1 ace Lewis Hamilton (LEFT).
LEFT: Winnie strutting her stuff on the runway. ABOVE LEFT: She shared this pic on Instagram to wish her mom, Lisa Brown, a happy birthday. ABOVE RIGHT: As a child, pictured with her dad, Windsor Young.