Spotlight on: Winnie Harlow

For as long as we’ve known, women have been subjected to high and often unattainable beauty standards which has led to widespread struggles with body image and self esteem. This is exacerbated by the beauty and fashion industry facade which often lacks diversity and inclusivity. For most women, we’ve grown up seeing copy and pasted models who fit into a size zero with luscious locks of hair, evenly proportioned eyes, a “perfectly“ shaped nose, blemish-free skin and long legs. 

Although there’s still plenty of progress to be made for the beauty and fashion industry to be representative, a range of women have broken barriers by challenging conventional standards. This encourages people in society to appreciate each other and themselves despite differences, and paves the way for a variety of women to participate in these industries. These are significant achievements that should not be written out of history, as it is often done when a woman accomplishes something spectacular. 

One of several exceptional women who has contributed to the changing face of beauty and fashion is Canadian model, spokesperson and activist with vitiligo, Winnie Harlow. Vitiligo is an incurable, long-term skin condition where colourless patches develop on the skin due to insufficient melanin. It can appear on any area of skin but more commonly on the face, neck, hands and in skin creases. 

Winnie Harlow, born as Chantelle Brown-Young, has dealt with vitiligo since she was four years old. At the present age of 26, she has come a long way from her tough childhood. Harlow was bullied for her appearance, being called nasty nicknames such as “cow” and “zebra” by her peers at school. The bullying intensified to the point that she had to transfer schools and eventually dropped out to be homeschooled while also experiencing suicidal thoughts. 

Credit: Jamie Bruce/Essence

However, fast forward to 2014 and Harlow’s successful and uplifting career was about to begin. She began working in beauty and fashion as an Instagram model, which led to America’s Next Top Model host, Tyra Banks, inviting her to compete. Harlow’s popularity grew from her participation as a contestant on ANTM’s 21st cycle, where she became one out of fourteen finalists. Although she was eliminated in the second week of the finals, she competed in a show known as the Comeback Series. This series consisted of other eliminated contestants whose objective was to return to the main show. Harlow won the highest amount of audience votes which led to her return to the main competition. However, she was eliminated again. 

Nonetheless, Harlow attained subsequent achievements which makes her one of the most prominent models today. After ANTM, she signed a contract with the Spanish clothing brand, Desigual, and became the face of their brand. In the same year, she walked for the spring/summer collection of UK clothing brand, Ashish, in London Fashion Week. 

Over the years, she has featured in numerous magazines such as Ebony, i-D, Dazed, Glamour, Complex, Cosmopolitan as well as the fashion websites of and Vogue Italia. She also starred in advertising campaigns for Diesel, Fendi, Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Swarovski, Steve Madden, Nike, Puma, Mac and Victoria’s Secret. Moreover, she has appeared in several music videos and commercials as well as been nominated for and won several awards.  

Image: Daniele Venturelli/Amfar Getty Images via Harper’s Bazaar

Although she expresses her gratitude towards ANTM in a 2018 interview with Teen Vogue, she attributes her success to Nick Knight, an acclaimed British fashion photographer who reached out to Harlow online. In a 2016 interview with CNN, she described modeling as a hobby prior to and during ANTM but after receiving an email from Knight, “That shoot gave [her] the confidence to continue modeling as a career.”

Alongside her triumphs in the beauty and fashion industry, Harlow has been an advocate for people with vitiligo even before her career jumpstarted. In 2011, she uploaded a video on Youtube titled ‘Vitiligo: A Skin Condition, not a Life Changer.’ Three years later, she gave a TED talk about her experience with vitiligo. Harlow’s most recent work is her global ambassadorship this year with Paul Mitchell, a hair care and styling brand. This is the first since the brand was founded in 1980. Throughout her career, Harlow has shown us that she is multi-talented and unafraid to take on different opportunities. 

In light of International Women’s Day, Harlow is an inspiring woman who should be celebrated as she has proven to us that failures are not a setback but rather motivation to work harder and rise from a low. She has also encouraged us to embrace our differences as she has demonstrated and said herself that “beauty can come in many forms.”

Header image: Grazia UK