Winnie Harlow became a public figure in 2014 when she was handpicked from Instagram by Tyra Banks to compete in America’s Next Top Model. And despite being one of the few ANTM alum to actually launch a successful career (she has appeared on the covers of Elle Canada, Marie Claire Mexico, L’Officiel Italia and modeled for Swarovski), she is still commonly known as ‘the model with vitiligo.’
At her ANTM audition Harlow seemed to embrace the idea of being an advocate of unconventional beauty.
“For anyone who thinks negatively of me or my skin I wanna help you be able to see the beauty in every other person that has a disability, a mark, a scar. How can I show you the beauty in differences.”
In the past two years Harlow has become a public face of vitiligo. She met a young fan with the skin condition on The Real, has given a TED Talk about it and was awarded the 2015 Role Model Award by GQ Portugal. But in a candid interview for the January 2017 issue of Elle Canada, Harlow made clear that she’s ready to move on from that role.
“I’m very sick of talking about my skin… I am literally just a human. I have the same brain as you; there’s a skeleton under my skin just like yours. It’s not that serious.”
The actress went on to say that she’s not a “vitiligo spokesperson”
“I don’t put pressure on myself. People try to put it on me—like I speak for women, for black women. There’s so many other pieces to me. I’m not a vitiligo spokesperson just because I have vitiligo. I don’t perm my hair anymore, but I’m not a natural-hair expert just because it grows out of my head like that. I’m just living life. And if that inspires you, I’m proud, but I’m not going to put pressure on myself to be the best person in the world and tell everyone I have vitiligo. If you want to know about it, you can do your research. Either way, I’m not in the dictionary under ‘vitiligo.’”
When asked whether she’s comfortable being a role model, Harlow said she preferred being viewed as an inspiration.
“I feel like I am an inspiration. That’s the word I prefer. I don’t believe that I have to be a role model, someone to be emulated. My mom inspires me, and I take great things from her, but there are things from my mom that I would never do. So I don’t have my mother as a role model, but I do have her as a huge inspiration.”
More power to Winnie for speaking honestly about this. (If we’re being real here, the whole ‘role model’ thing seemed a bit inconsistent with her personality anyway.)
It is patronizing to automatically assign a role of ‘inspiration’ to anyone whose appearance diverges from the mainstream and has a modicum of fame. It often feels like code for, “you leave the house looking like that every day so you must be strong.” There is no doubt that it takes a level of resilience to exist and thrive outside of beauty ideals, but perhaps instead of cramming people into an ‘inspiration’ box, we should ask ourselves why they are being denied visibility in the first place.
There’s no doubt that Harlow’s skin has given her a uniqueness in the fashion industry, but the opportunities gained from that should never come with the price tag of having to be a walking talking Instagram quote.