From ‘cow’ to cover girl, model Winnie Harlow is changing beauty standards

Story highlights

Model Winnie Harlow used to be bullied for her skin

She has vitiligo, a pigmentation condition that causes white patches to develop

Now, Harlow is an international model with over one million instagram followers

CNN  — 

Canadian model Winnie Harlow, born Chantelle Brown-Young, did not have an easy childhood. At the age of four she was diagnosed with vitiligo, an incurable skin pigmentation disease that causes colorless patches to develop on a person’s body.

Bullied for the way she looked, her peers at school taunted her with cruel nicknames such as “cow” and “zebra”. “The bullying was so bad that I was forced to drop out and be home schooled,” Harlow recalls.

Fast-forward to 2016 and Harlow has over one million followers on Instagram, she’s the face of Spanish fashion label Desigual and she’s been shot by fashion photographer and director of online platform SHOWstudio Nick Knight, whose portfolio includes Kate Moss, Lady Gaga and Kanye.

From social pariah to global “it” girl, Harlow sits down with CNN to discuss her remarkable ascendance to fashion’s top table.

Courtesy of Shannon Boodram

CNN: How did you overcome being bullied as a child?

Winnie Harlow: [Dropping out of high school] 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.

How did you get into fashion?

To be completely honest I never thought I could become a model growing up. I actually wanted to be an entertainment journalist. I started pursuing modeling after I had an interview with a Toronto Photographer, Shannon Boodram, and she encouraged me to continue pushing. From there I started to build myself up by leveraging social media.

When “America’s Next Top Model” (ANTM) was casting for the new season I asked all my fans online to tag Tyra Banks so she could see my photos – and they did! My little sister started a Facebook page for me and one of the producers from the show sent a message showing interest. Initially I didn’t believe it but I followed through and ended up being on the show for season 21. After Tyra gave me that opportunity it was my time.

winnie harlow nick knight

Can you tell us about your experience working with photographer Nick Knight?

Nick Knight's Diesel S/S '16 campaign

Nick Knight was my first big gig as a ‘real’ model. Prior to, and during “ANTM” I never actually called myself a model because I always viewed it as a hobby. Then I received an email directly from Nick and we made arrangements to work together in London. That shoot gave me the confidence to continue modeling as a career.

Does prejudice and discrimination still exist within fashion?

I think the industry is opening up but still 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.

Are there any liberating aspects to the fashion industry?

The most liberating thing is being able to just simply be myself and show the fashion industry that beauty can come in many forms.

How important is social media in changing and developing concepts of beauty?

I think it helps. Social media when used positively and correctly can act as a great tool for you to meet people from around the world and ultimately share what you have to offer.

Your look has become a fashion statement in and of itself. What do you think of the backlash against some of the people trying to imitate your condition?

I did share my ideas on my Instagram but to reiterate I think that people are not imitating me in a negative form. They were showing their version of me and I appreciated it.

(NB: Harlow said on the social media platform that “It is very clear to me when someone is showing love. I appreciate these people recreating, loving and broadcasting something that I once cried myself to sleep over.”)

Can you predict what the fashion industry’s desired ‘look’ will be in the future?

Not 100%, but whatever it is, I plan to be at the forefront.

Winnie Harlow’s Instagram inspirations

Social media was crucial to Harlow’s break. But who does she follow? Here’s the model’s top accounts:

@patmcgrathreal, British make-up artist

@edward_enninful, style director of W magazine

@deecosey, Chicago-based artist

@angelcandices, South African Victoria’s Secret model

@bastuchka, Russian artist

@riccardotisci17, artistic director, Givenchy

@mariotestino, Peruvian fashion and portrait photographer