pioneering model jillian mercado joins img
With the news of Jillian's signing to major modelling agency, IMG, we revisit our interview from The Beautiful Issue, with the model and disability activist who's changing the game when it comes to beauty.
''I feel like it's really important to have a good family support system,'' says American blogger and fashion editor Jillian Mercado. ''It really helps if you have one person in your family who really believes in you, and loves you unconditionally.'' Despite growing up with a genetic disease that is characterised by muscle weakness, which can cause the limbs to draw inwards and eventually necessitate the use of a wheelchair, 27-year-old Jillian has always felt beautiful.
Born and bred in New York City, Jillian was three years old when her parents began to realise that she was different. A misdiagnosis and seven surgeries later, all of which have left permanent marks on her body, she was finally correctly diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy at the age of 12. What could have potentially been a life-ending moment, Jillian sees as the point where her life's mission began. She made a decision to never let her condition hold her back or stop her from achieving her dreams. Perhaps this is why her first ever wheelchair, which was purple with an American flag bumper sticker on the side, made her feel like Wonder Woman: invincible.
''Even when I was little, I never had a negative perception of myself, as far as beauty goes.'' And why should she? She's just like any other girl, brought up with a mother constantly telling her how beautiful she was (''Even if my hair was a mess'') and a grandmother fondly nagging her to put on weight. "In the Dominican Republic, where my family are from, it's the curvaceous women who are the most beautiful - you know luscious lips, big booty, big tits. They don't understand our whole obsession with skinny models.''
Sure, it has not always been easy: ''I have really huge scars on my body, and when I was younger, I remember going to the beach and being like, 'Oh, my God, people are gonna think I'm weird.''' But not once has Jillian thought of giving up. "As you get older, you don't mind as much. It's not like I can scrape them off. And it's not like I'm never gonna go to the beach. Even though the world is against you, there comes a point when you think, 'You know what? Screw life!' and you just go for it.'' And after enrolling in the Fashion Institute of Technology, go for it is exactly what she did.
"I always knew I wanted to be in fashion,'' she says excitedly. "I was always fascinated with my mum's style. She was a seamstress and she embroidered baby clothes, while my dad worked at a shoe store in Chelsea.'' But how was she able to reconcile working in a world that champions unrealistic ideals of beauty, ones that she might not necessarily conform to, and ones that she would inevitably be measured against? "When I realised the industry had these standards of beauty that I didn't fit, I was nervous and scared, but there was nothing else I wanted to do. I'd rather do something I love, in a place where people may or may not accept me, than be in an office job that I hate." Not only does the industry's seeming obsession with looks, or rather a specific criteria of looks, leave Jillian unfazed, it has given her the motivation necessary to go in all guns blazing, and has made her the fearless woman she is today.
Despite only a few setbacks - a potential boss mistakenly asked if she was there for the giveaway - Jillian eventually got an internship at Allure magazine. "At first people were really confused. And I never understood why. But then I realised, 'Oh, they're just not used to seeing someone different.' And from then on I realised I needed to contribute something, to make as much difference as I could.'' Which is why she started her now hugely successful style blog Manufactured 1987. "People were really surprised that someone like me was changing the game for things like beauty and fashion. But since setting it up, I've found that there are a lot of people who can relate to it. So many people have told me, 'I dress like you, but I'm too scared to go out, because I'm scared of what people might say.' Which is crazy. You shouldn't care what people think! It's so important to embrace your body, and go, 'This is my body and I love it.' I love my body, even though I'm four feet tall - well five, actually."
Social media has helped Jillian a lot in terms of making her the role model she is today. Not only does it allow her to inspire others, but seeing the amount of support she gets gives her the confidence she needs to get through life. "Someone commented on a picture of mine saying, 'Oh wow, your legs are so pretty, I didn't think that someone with muscular dystrophy would have such pretty legs.' Even though my scars were showing and everything. Things like that are just so motivating.''
And from role model to real life model, earlier this year Jillian was picked by Nicola Formichetti to star in Diesel's campaign for spring/summer 2014. Featuring young creatives from all over the world, We Are Connected is a global representation of youth culture and an exploration of beauty in all its different forms. Despite what some journalists have written, Jillian did not enter the casting call as a joke. She entered it because, well, why not? Far from this being some Cinderella story - a box that so many people try to put her in - Jillian's rise to success is the result of sheer dedication and drive. "I wasn't going to not get picked because of who I am or what I look like,'' she says, resolutely, "I just thought that there would be no way that my email would stand out amongst millions of others!"
Shot by Inez and Vinoodh, the campaign was one of the most beautiful Diesel campaigns to date. "It was one of the most amazing days of my life. Everyone was so sweet. I never felt like I had to be someone else to fit in." Since the campaign's release, Jillian has been booked for two Nordstrom campaigns, and signed major modelling agency. "I'm the most realistic person in the world," she reflects, "I know that it's not going to be easy. There will always be people who are stuck in their ways, and who are afraid of change and difference, but they give me the motivation to keep going. If everything were perfect, then it wouldn't be fun! For me, the most beautiful thing is confidence - even if you're scared of the public seeing you, even when the world is against you. When people have that confidence and energy in them to keep going, no matter what, that's beautiful to me.''
Text Tish Weinstock
Photography Barbara Anastacio
Styling Lecibeth Martinez
Hair Joey George @ artlist
Make-up Asami Matsuda @ artlist
i-D The Beautiful Issue, No. 334, Winter 2014