What happens when destiny – or Vogue – brings together two of the most striking faces in the world? Beauty unfolds as Winnie Harlow and Shahad Salman march through Saudi Arabia’s Sadus heritage village
If you believe in coincidences, or in the universal laws of attraction, then this is a story for you. Shahad Salman, 23, was just a regular girl living in Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s most holy city. Like many other Saudis, she uses social media to share snapshots of her life with the world – mainly, her passion for fashion and beauty. Well… regular might not be the right word to describe her. Slender and with magnetic eyes, she has luscious hair that falls to her waist, perfectly framing her face with a sea of curls. Her brown skin tone stops, turning white around her full lips and the length of her arms. She has a long-term skin condition called vitiligo, characterized by patches of skin that have lost their pigment.
On the other side of the world, Canadian top model Winnie Harlow, 24, shares Salman’s unique looks. After being bullied at school, her notorious participation in America’s Next Top Model saw her grab the attention of the industry and be catapulted to stardom. The runways of Tommy Hilfiger, Prabal Gurung, and more followed.
It is now a hot May afternoon in Riyadh and the two women meet for the first time. The reason for their encounter is Vogue Arabia’s second annual Saudi issue cover. Following last year’s success and disruptive front page featuring HRH Princess Hayfa bint Abdullah Al Saud behind a steering wheel, expectations are high.
The magazine’s team ran intense casting meetings to find the right talent that could represent a new chapter for the Kingdom as it opens up to international tourism in the future. “Did you see Shahad on Instagram? She looks exactly like Winnie!” an editor suggested. “Why don’t we bring Winnie to Saudi and photograph them together?”
What was initially a doubtful happening soon became reality unfolding in front of our very eyes. “Almost a year ago, Shahad made a post on Instagram with our pictures next to each other. She wrote in the caption that it was ‘weird’ how similar we looked,” shares Harlow, with her arm around the Saudi model’s shoulders. “I commented saying that it was not weird, but that she was so gorgeous! I’m honored that girls like her look up to me and I’m happy that we are spending time together here in her country.”
The following day is shoot day. The team gathers at 3am to drive to Sadus, a heritage mud village one hour outside Riyadh. Upon arrival, the women sit in a majlis converted into a makeup room, both getting matching metallic eye liner. The resemblance is incredible. The sun is up when all the prepping is done. Salman is the first to stand before the lens of Dan Beleiu, who recently shot Cara Delevingne for Balmain. Fearless, she moves and takes direction like a pro, while twirling across a traditional carpet rolled out in a quiet, wild garden. She shows an unexpected maturity for someone who has barely modeled, and doesn’t seem intimidated by the large production team. Behind the photographer, Salman’s mother and best friend struggle to hold back their tears while they analyze every pose, as if observing a tennis match. “I started modeling by coincidence,” Salman later confides. “Some time ago, a makeup artist from Riyadh posted a picture of Winnie on social media, asking if there was any girl in Saudi Arabia with the same skin condition for a campaign. My family was not keen on me participating, but a after I spoke to my mother, she gave me permission. Everything happened in 24 hours.”
She has since been featured in a Farfetch campaign and look books for a few local designers. Not bad for a beginner from a country where modeling agencies don’t exist and the profession is new – and often misunderstood. “In the beginning, my family was unsure, but I was able to push them to accept. Before, I didn’t feel good about myself and I didn’t like the way I looked. Winnie was the person who gave me the confidence to fight for what I like. I feel that now I, too, can inspire other girls from the region,” she says. “Anytime you decide that you’re going to make something an advantage for you, it becomes one,” states Harlow when asked if she has ever let her vitiligo slow her down. “You have to make that choice and decide if you’re going to make the best of what life has given you.”
Perhaps not intentionally, Harlow has become one of the poster girls for the refreshing diversity movement that aims to offer equal opportunities to women of all races and shapes to be fairly portrayed in the media. If we look at some of the biggest new fashion and beauty launches – from the Fenty lingerie runway show to the more recent Gucci lipsticks launch, where rocker Dani Miller proudly displayed her natural, gapped-tooth smile- being conventionally pretty is no longer relevant. “I think people approach diversity as a trend, but that’s wrong. Representation is the right thing to do. It’s important for youth to be able to look at a cover of Vogue and see someone who looks like them, “defends Harlow. “Just like how Shahad saw someone who looks like her and that built her confidence. Now other Arab girls will feel the same. It is like a cycle moving forward.”
Originally from Toronto, Harlow aspired to be a journalist, but started modeling for friends who ran small clothing lines. She also walked urban runway shows as favors. Now residing in New York City, she is busier than ever. In a first for the magazine, she posed for Sports Illustrated, along with Vogue Arabia cover star Halima Aden; she recently announced a collaboration with Steve Madden; and she starred in a MAC Viva Glam campaign that’s dear to her heart. “My team and I created the concept. I was so amazed when unexpectedly I saw the images printed in the pages of Vogue,” she says. “Seeing myself on big billboards and magazines is just incredible and crazy to me. No matter how many times I see it, it’s always as though it’s for the first time.”
Speaking of firsts, after a long day, the sun starts to set while both models are standing atop one of the orange mud houses. The light fades, but this creates a magical atmosphere. Salman looks sharp in a modest black Givenchy dress, while Harlow is dramatic in a black full skirt creation by Saudi Arabian designer Mohammed Ashi. There’s a sense of accomplishment in the air, as all the team seem to agree in silence that this Vogue cover is much more than just two women wearing pretty clothes. For the first time, an international top model has own to Saudi Arabia to be photographed with a local talent – something that would have been unthinkable mere months ago. We’re also reminded that women from opposite sides of the world and cultures can have more in common than you might imagine, and that what makes us different can bring us together. It is now a dark night in Sadus, but the future could not be brighter.
Originally published in the June 2019 issue of Vogue Arabia
Editor-In-Chief Manuel Arnaut
Photographer Dan Beleiu
Fashion Director Katie Trotter
Models Winnie Harlow at First Access Ent and Shahad Salman
Editorial & Fashion coordinator Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Hair Stylist Nabil Harlow at Open Talent Paris using Leonor Greyl hair care
Make-up Artist Kate Mur using Dior Makeup
Photo assistant Giorgio Lattanzi
Local photo assistant Abdulaziz Salem
Shot on location at Sadus Village, Saudi Arabia
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