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
From social pariah to global "it" girl, Harlow sits down with CNN to discuss her remarkable
ascendance to fashion's top table.
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
How did you get into
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.
Can you tell us about
your experience working with photographer Nick Knight?
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
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.