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Why Winnie Harlow is Done Being Framed as the Model That “Suffers” from Vitiligo

The international supermodel has already made history with her groundbreaking career. Today, she’s setting her ambitions even higher, from beauty entrepreneur to aspiring actor and beyond.

Skirt, top, Krikor Jabotian. Photo: Nima Benati

After 10 years in the spotlight, with her skin a perpetual focus point in interviews and media coverage, Winnie Harlow is done with being framed as the model that “suffers” from vitiligo. She is ready to move beyond the tiresome narrative and break free from endless questions about childhood bullying and being primarily portrayed as the model defined by her condition. “I’m not ‘suffering’ and how dare people assume that I am,” she says. “Trauma from when I was seven years old is no longer relevant and my skin shouldn’t be the basis of every story. It’s so strange to me that people don’t understand how insulting it is to define me by my skin.”

The 29-year-old quickly rose in the fashion ranks after her appearance on America’s Next Top Model in 2014, which soon led to her walking the runways in the world’s fashion capitals and fronting global campaigns for the likes of MAC and Dior Beauty. Her first ever Vogue cover was shot in Saudi Arabia for Vogue Arabia’s June 2019 issue.

Dress, Valentino; shoes, Giuseppe Zanotti. Photo: Nima Benati

Today, Harlow’s influence in normalizing diversity has been absolute. “Being different isn’t an issue, it’s the stereotypical mentality of others that’s the problem.” Harlow’s unapologetic ownership of her beauty and talent have played a role in creating the barrier-breaking icon who wasn’t considered a contender by an industry with outdated standards. Working with world-renowned British photographer Nick Knight marked a pivotal moment for Harlow, validating her modeling talent and catalyzing her meteoric rise to fame. “He was the first person to tell me that I moved beautifully, that I was a natural in front of the camera; he asked if I was a dancer. That’s when I decided to study modelling as a craft to improve my skills, and it took off from there.”

Born in Canada as Chantelle Brown-Young, Harlow’s moniker is a combination of contradictory homages to cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, and 1930’s screen siren Jean Harlow. It originated as a username on social media and Harlow has gone by the name “Winnie” since high school. “I don’t consider it a separate persona,” she says. “It’s just who I am. When I go home, my family still calls me Chantelle.” Harlow prides herself on her Jamaican heritage and growing up around strong Caribbean women. “My grandmother was my biggest beauty inspiration. We’re both Leos, so we love strong colors and bold prints. She was a hair chameleon, always changing her wigs, which is something I love to do, too. When I was young, I used to sit behind her while she painted her nails the most beautiful shade of red, and then I’d go back later to look for the polish for myself,” she laughs.

Photo: Nima Benati

Harlow’s mother also played a key role in setting beauty standards for the budding icon. Some of her earliest memories are of her mother slathering her in sunscreen. “The only problem was that I hated how it looked on my skin,” says Harlow. It was also around this time that she watched her Jamaican family use fresh aloe vera gel to soothe skin ailments. These early experiences sparked the idea for her sun care line Cay Skin. Launching in 2022 with a curated collection of SPF-forward products, it promises sheer protection and a head-to-toe “island girl glow” as she likes to call it. The name comes from the cays or small islands of the Caribbean. The brand’s selection is set to expand even further to include sun-safe essentials for the face and body, all enriched with sea moss, aloe vera, and niacinamide.

Entrepreneur is just one of the new feathers in Harlow’s professional hat. After her cameo in the Netflix film The Perfect Find, she’s been taking acting lessons in preparation for the next steps in her career. “It’s something I really enjoy doing,” she says. “Whenever I go into anything new, I try and study it completely so even if I don’t pursue it any further, I never consider it to be a failure.” Regardless of what the future holds, Harlow refuses to be pigeonholed. Her very presence in the limelight dismantles stereotypes and exclusionary systems, paving the way for upcoming, diverse talents.

Dress, Balmain. Photo: Nima Benati

Originally published in the March 2024 issue of Vogue Arabia

Style: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Sheena Adae Amoakoh
Makeup: Michel Kiwarkis
Digital operator: Massimo Fusardi
Style assistants: Yasmina Karam, Neymat Master
Photography assistant: Mattia Mazzucchelli
Producer: Sam Allison 

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