When a celebrity is approached in public, it’s usually by a fan with a selfie request. When Winnie Harlow gets stopped, often it’s by someone eager to thank her. She’s the reason they feel more confident, they tell her. She’s helped them feel more beautiful, less insecure.
As the first world-famous model with vitiligo, an autoimmune condition that causes patches of depigmented skin, Winnie is not only a frontline warrior in the fight for beauty inclusion but also a hero for scores of women and girls who’ve ever felt uncomfortable in their own skin.
Winnie, who has more than 10 million followers on Instagram, has long maintained that she has no desire to be a role model (she prefers “inspiration”).
Still, the impact of her image gracing magazine covers and sky-high billboards, along with her work as the face of countless campaigns, including ones for Fendi, Puma, and M.A.C, is undeniable. A fan once shared with Winnie the story of their mother, who had spent her life covering up her arms, embarrassed by her vitiligo.
“They said, ‘My whole life, my mother never felt beautiful, and then I showed her a picture of you and now she wears short sleeves,’” Winnie says. “It’s beautiful that I can help inspire confidence in people, no matter what walk of life they are from.”
When Winnie, 28, first came into public view in 2014, as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model, her appearance inspired an unusual amount of media attention for the show, then in its 21st cycle.
The press was filled with stories about Winnie, explaining the condition that caused the unique patterns on her skin. With vitiligo, the immune system attacks and destroys melanocytes, the skin cells that produce melanin. While the condition can impact people of any race, age, or gender, it is more likely to first occur when a person is under the age of 50, and it is more noticeable in people with darker complexions, like Winnie.
Vitiligo is often described as a “rare” condition, but in reality, it impacts approximately 1 out of 100 people, which is double the rate of type 1 diabetes, making vitiligo one of the most common autoimmune disorders in the world. Despite its prevalence, representation of people with vitiligo in beauty and fashion was virtually nonexistent. That is, until Winnie hit the scene.
Winnie is lounging in black shorts and a tank top in her Los Angeles living room. She tucks her bare legs under a fluffy blanket and announces to me on a Zoom interview that Winnie Harlow is not, in fact, her real name. She was born, raised, and began her modeling career in a suburb of Toronto as Chantelle Whitney Brown-Young.
Watch Winnie Harlow talk about what she loves most about her body:
As a teenager, she came up with “Winnie Harlow” to use as the name on her Facebook account.
“Winnie” as in Pooh, the bear, she explains, and “Harlow” as in Jean, the movie star.
“Back then, everybody had a nickname. If your name was Chanel, you’d be, like, Chan-Chan Monroe, or whatever. Bubblez with a Z, all that type of stuff,” she laughs. “I loved Winnie the Pooh when I was growing up, and I was also obsessed with Marilyn Monroe, and her inspiration was Jean Harlow.”
Years later, when Winnie was making her first moves as a model, a manager told her the nickname she’d given herself in high school was “stronger” than her real name. And so, she figured, why not go with that?
As a child, Winnie spent summers with her dad in Jamaica and after-school hours hanging out in her mom’s hair salon.
“For Black women especially, when we have our hair done, it’s so empowering,” she says. “I remember watching women come into my mom’s salon and leaving with that spark.” Back then, she hadn’t considered becoming a model. She’d wanted to be a dancer or maybe a journalist.
But when she was about 16, Canadian content creator Shan Boodram saw Winnie on Facebook. Struck by her image, Boodram asked Winnie to appear in a video about natural beauty and encouraged her to pursue modeling.
At first, Winnie was met with rejection. One agent tried to convince her to become a makeup artist instead. Winnie, who says she gets her determination from her mother, kept going forward.
“My younger self always believed in the power of faith, strength, and perseverance, while learning vulnerability and being authentically myself,” she says. “I got a lot of nos along the way, but I just pushed through.”
Winnie walked in local fashion shows and posted pics on Instagram, where she caught Tyra Banks’s eye. After placing sixth on ANTM, Winnie collaborated with British photographer Nick Knight. Shoots for Diesel, Swarovski, and Marc Jacobs followed. Eminem and Beyoncé put Winnie in their music videos. She walked runways in Paris, Milan, and New York.
“To achieve my goals with the world watching has been scary at times, but all in all, the ultimate blessing,” she says.
Winnie lives in Los Angeles today, in a home she’s almost finished decorating. “Modern glam,” she calls her style. She has a fitting later this afternoon. She is flying to London for Fashion Week the next day.
As a model, Winnie says she needs to stay work-ready, which means she spends a lot of time working out. “I feel most capable when I’m going to the gym consistently,” she says.
Winnie sweats with a trainer, focusing primarily on strength training using body weight and bands.
“Lots of squats, pliés, and TRX,” she says. “My favorite is Russian twists with a ball.” She takes out her phone to show off the fruits of her labor, a photo from her Women’s Health cover shoot near Joshua Tree, California. She’s draped over a giant white ball, looking radiant and strong. “I want to show the world that beauty is whatever we each want it to be,” she says of posing for WH. She has a dancer’s fluidity. “A feline energy,” I comment. “I’m a Leo,” she replies.
After excusing herself for a quick bathroom break, she grabs a Bomb Pop from her freezer on her way back to the sofa. She takes a bite of her snack and comments that sometimes she posts pictures of vegan meals prepared by her chef on Instagram.
“Everyone’s like, ‘You’re vegan? Miss chicken wings?’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no.’ The clarification is that my chefs are vegan. Not me. I love everything you’re not ‘supposed to’ eat.”
Winnie says she relies on her chefs to help her make healthy food decisions, because left to her own devices, “the gloves come off.”
Once, while preparing for a show, she ordered the same meal from Uber Eats—sriracha brussels sprouts and salmon—twice a day, for weeks. As soon as the job was over, “I had someone take me to Krispy Kreme,” she laughs.
In a few weeks, Winnie will make headlines in a yellow Armani Privé gown at her first Academy Awards. But even at home, she looks glamorous. Her hair is freshly done in loose curls. Around her neck she sports a gold chain with the words Be You, a gift from her boyfriend, Washington Wizards forward Kyle Kuzma. The two started dating not long after Kuzma DM’d Winnie during the early weeks of the pandemic and they bonded over their shared love of fashion, art, and design. Kuzma has a Be You tattoo on the top of his left hand.
Winnie pulls her blanket over her lap as talk turns from personal to professional. She calls her latest venture, Cay Skin, a line of sun protection, moisturizers, and lip balm, “her brainchild.”
She was inspired to create the collection after a Bahamas photo shoot left her so badly burned that she required medical care.
“I was shooting from sunup to sundown on the beach,” she says, noting she’d been discouraged from reapplying sunscreen because it left a white cast. “Obviously, shooting on the beach without sunscreen is insane,” she says. “But I did it to get good shots.”
Without melanin, people with vitiligo can be sensitive to the sun. Last March, Winnie shared pics on Instagram showing how the sunburn had permanently altered her vitiligo, creating new spots on her back and thigh.
The importance of sunscreen—and the ashy cast it can leave behind—is something Winnie learned about as a child. “Visiting my dad in Jamaica, he’d slather SPF all over,” she recalls. “I hated it. It was so thick and gray. As an adult, I thought, Okay, this is something I’m going to take on.”
Providing sun protection for every skin shade became her mission. She also wanted the line to reflect her Caribbean roots.
“Every inch of Cay Skin is the embodiment of me,” she says, noting ingredients like sea moss and aloe vera. “My family would cut aloe straight from the root and rub it onto my skin for sunburns, mosquito bites, any type of rash.”
These days, Winnie is taking another bold step—into acting.
In January, she appeared in the thriller Alone at Night. Winnie’s dream role is to play a Bond girl, or a superhero, or Marvel supervillain. It’s not that she’s done with modeling; it’s about the challenge of “what’s new, what’s next, what else?”
Wherever her path leads, from the catwalk to the big screen, Winnie will continue to be an inspiration just by being herself.
Photographed by Daniella Midenge. Styled by Kristen Saladino. Hair: Davontae Washington at Opus Beauty using Unite. Makeup: Kenya Alexis at Opus Beauty using Pat McGrath Labs. Manicure: Loi/glambyloi. Production: Crawford and Co.