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Winnie Harlow: Why We Love The Icon In The Making

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Winnie Harlow, black models, vitiligo, black excellence, skin conditions

Chantelle Brown-Young aka Winnie Harlow, a Canadian born model who was named Model of the Year in 2017, rose to stardom not only for her undeniable beauty, but also for her veracious stance on issues affecting young women of color. Harlow has graced the cover of several high-profile campaigns, international covers and placed a spotlight on people living with Vitiligo.

Vitiligo is  a long-term skin condition characterized by patches of the skin losing their pigment. The patches of skin affected become white and usually have sharp margins and is typically more noticeable in those with darker skin. Winnie, being the only model in the industry to have this skin condition, is paving the way for others with Vitiligo and de-stigmatizing the condition all together.

Back in 2014, she posted a YouTube video titled “Vitiligo: A Skin Condition, not a Life Changer”, where she talked about the condition and answered questions about her life living with vitiligo. She also spoke at a TED presentation on her experience with Vitiligo. Her activism towards her skin condition has done some good to say the least.  A black artist named Kay Black of ‘Kay Customz’ came out with vitiligo and albino-skinned dolls. All the porcelain dolls are handmade and aim to promote representation among black women. She even made a point to say the dolls are inspired by Winnie after she saw her on America’s Next Top Model. She then realized that not only would it be great to have a doll that represents Winnie, but all girls with the condition.

Right now, the vitiligo and albino dolls are only available via request. Kay also accepts orders to customize dolls for women who have these skin conditions. Not only is she inspiring the general public, Compton rapper The Game customized a doll for his daughter modeled after Harlow back in 2014.

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In an Instagram post he explained “Short story: I was in Amsterdam & I was gifted this doll by a very sweet woman “Ellen Brudet” who is a doll maker & she wanted to make my daughter one of her dolls…. I had to pick how I wanted it & out of the things I could’ve thought of… I had an idea to have her create one that favored one of my favorite people @winnieharlow (whom I’ve never met but ghost follow lol & admire) because her strength, confidence & perfect imperfections are the type of things I want to instill in my baby as well as explain to her that beauty is not based on others opinion of what others think a person may or may not look like physically but simply in God’s creations which we are all cut from. So I finished my tour & couldn’t wait to get home & give my daughter this doll… educate her on beauty & how it comes from within. I pull it out my backpack & Cali says “Ooooh Daddy, it’s Winnie, I love her… she’s so cute” & I’m like awwww damn… there goes my daddy teaching his daughter something moment lmaooo… she was already hip & didn’t need to be put on… but that’s children these days, smarter than we think & very appreciative.. Thank You again Ellen & @colouredgoodies for creating a moment for not only my child but the others your dolls have touched.” After that, other prominent black figures like Tia Mowry and Mike Epps posted the Winnie dolls to help promote them.

Most recently, Winnie has been named as a Global Brand Ambassador for Tommy Hilfiger and will star in the brand’s Fall 2018 campaign. Hilfiger himself commented on the announcement of the new ambassadorship in a statement on May 23, describing Winnie as an “icon of tomorrow,” captivating audiences with her drive and fiery energy.
“They are leading the way for the next generation of Tommy women, approaching everything with confidence and optimism. These shared qualities and values are why I’m excited to welcome them into our family,” said Hilfiger.

Harlow also gave a statement in a press release. “I’ve always believed in the power of embracing who you are and breaking conventions, so I am proud to partner with an incredible designer who truly shares this spirit,” Winnie said. “I’ve always loved the brand’s classic American cool style and I’m excited to share my favorite pieces with all TOMMY HILFIGER fans.”

But Winnie hasn’t always been at the top as she is now.

The model turned brand ambassador started her career by joining America’s Next Top Model. She was a season favorite by many, but Keith Carlos was crowned the winner of the season. Winnie (who went by the name Chantelle at the time) competed back in 2014.

Since then, with no help from the series as she has made known, she has risen to become one of fashion’s most sought after faces in the modeling industry.

Winnie wasn’t always seen as a unique beauty, though. In an interview with Vogue, she talks about her different experiences with bullying as a child in grade school. “As the new kid at school, I was trying hard to find my footing. I thought I had made friends with a couple of girls, until they stopped talking to me. When I confronted them, they said their mothers had warned them to stay away, because they might catch my skin condition.”

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This is common when it comes to skin conditions people know little about. There is a stigma that affects the way people with skin conditions are treated, making them feel inadequate or as “other.” 

“…Soon after, my mom went to the school and explained to my class that I had a skin condition called vitiligo, which occurs when the cells that produce melanin die or stop functioning. The disease had left me with a loss of skin color in patches across my body — my arms, knees, face. It’s not contagious. There is no cure. Starting with that incident in the third grade, it would define the way people treated me.”

“One night at a basketball game, I sat by myself while a girl mooed at me. I turned around and rolled my eyes. She kept mooing, and I told her to stop. A group of older kids prodded her, saying, “You’re gonna let her talk to you like that?” After the game, outside in the cold, she rushed toward me, shoving me. People crowded around us. I didn’t want to fight. With vitiligo, my skin is sensitive in extreme temperatures. To get out of the situation, I let her beat me up. The next day, she came at me again. This time, I snapped, defending myself extremely well. I never had to fight her again. But it was only the first of many similar incidents.” The verbal harassment led to her changing schools numerous times and dropping out of high school, after which she contemplated committing suicide.

After being eliminated from Top Model, Winnie landed ad campaigns for Diesel and Desigual, where she’s a brand ambassador to this day.

Winnie isn’t just unique in her looks, she is also strong and fierce in her personality and voice. She has no problem letting others know who she is and what she stands for. After a newspaper posted a picture of Harlow at the beach in a bikini and wrote an article about Winnie “suffering” from vitiligo, she wasn’t so happy about it. In fact, she took to social media to let others know exactly how she felt about the article.

In a long post on Instagram, Winnie wrote: “…and all other tabloids, magazines and people who write articles on me PSA: I’m not a “Vitiligo Sufferer”. I’m not a “Vitiligo model”.
“I am Winnie. I am a model. And I happen to have Vitiligo.” She continued, “Stop putting these titles on me or anyone else. I AM NOT SUFFERING! If anything I’m SUCCEEDING at showing people that their differences don’t make them WHO they are! All our differences are a part of who we are but they don’t define us! I’m sick of every headline ending in “Vitiligo Sufferer” or “Suffers from Vitiligo. Do you see me suffering? The only thing I’m Suffering from are your headlines and the closed minds of humans who have one beauty standard locked into their minds when there are multiple standards of beauty!”

“The beach was damn fine that day, nothing to suffer about!” she finished up.

And she’s right, nobody with vitiligo is suffering. Beauty comes in all shades, complexions and patterns. Winnie is literally paving the way for others like her. With this being a condition that primarily affects the black community, she is making it possible for more black women and men with the condition to have a career in modeling, acting or any other public figure position.

It won’t be too long until vitiligo no longer has a harsh stigma attached to it and Winnie is to thank for that. With fans on social media begging her to partner up with Barbie and every major name brand breaking down her door to get her on their campaign, she truly is an icon in the making.