As a teenager she was bullied and called “cow” and “zebra.”
Given Winnie Harlow’s childhood, no one would have imagined she would rise to the top of the fashion industry. Born Chantelle Brown-Young in Toronto, Harlow was diagnosed with vitiligo at the age of 4. Vitiligo causes the loss of skin pigmentation in blotches as the result of the death of cells that produce melanin. The discoloration often begins on areas exposed to the sun and then slowly progresses throughout the body. In school, Harlow was mercilessly bullied for her disorder. Her classmates taunted her with names like “zebra” and “cow.” “The bullying was so bad that I was forced to drop out and be homeschooled,” Harlow recalls.
Dropping out of high school would become a blessing in disguise for Harlow. She says it “was possibly the best thing that could have happened, because I found a rejuvenated sense of self. I learned 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 or any obstacle in my life.”
With her renewed sense of self-confidence she pursued a career in entertainment journalism, but after a chance meeting with a Toronto photographer, her interest turned to modeling. “She encouraged me to continue pushing. From there I started to build myself up by leveraging social media,” Harlow says.
When she learned that America’s Top Model was casting for its 21st cycle, she asked all of her Instagram followers to tag its host/executive producer, Tyra Banks, in their posts to draw attention to her photos. Soon after, she received a message from the show’s producers. “Initially I didn’t believe it, but I followed through and ended up being on the show for season 21,” Harlow says. “After Tyra gave me that opportunity it was my time.” America’s Top Model would introduce Harlow to an international audience and the fashion world at large. Although she came in sixth out of 14 contestants, her incredible photos and personality made a huge impression.
Today, Harlow is the face of Spanish fashion label Desigual and has done some recent shoots for Diesel and Vogue. Harlow sees her success as a way to change the fashion industry’s perception of beauty and to pave the way for others with nontraditional appearances. “I want to see different faces on the covers of magazines, the stars of movies, featured on billboards,” she says. “It’s time we open the market up and embrace people from all walks of life.”