Videographer: Leonn Ward
47 minutes into Beyoncé’s latest visual album, Lemonade, Warsan Shire’s poetry, voiced by Queen B, ebbs away into “Freedom”, and we catch our first glimpse of Canadian model Winnie Harlow. Sitting alongside Zendaya Coleman, a symbol-laden Harlow takes a place at Bey’s altar, swathed in white and topped off with a crown of golden thorns. She peers into a mirror. The scene cuts away to a clip of her standing in a field, flanked by countless other women of colour (and girls too, with a cameo appearance from Blue Ivy Carter). The women stand silent, tall. As the music fades, Hattie White, Jay Z’s grandmother,chuckles: “I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”
To read about Harlow is to dive headfirst into an analysis of her skin colour. Whether in broadsheet pages or plastered across the sidebar of shame, the combination of her vitiligo and international ascension to notoriety has left her as the condition’s reluctant “spokesperson”. Over thousands of column inches, the media has painstakingly perpetuated the idea that Harlow feels as though she too was served lemons, retelling the story of a childhood spent bullied for her appearance infinite times. In person though, the 21-year-old bears no sign of bitterness — other than the burden of having to carry the weight of the unwanted title of “spokesperson”.
Away from the mania of her Wonderland shoot, in an all- beige-everything office, we finally sit down. The sharp-tongued reality star diva-turned-activist I was expecting to meet is nowhere to be found. Instead, my first impression of Harlow is a little more hazy and a little less concentrated than the on-screen caricature created for her. At times, she seems conflicted between her own reality and the made-up reality of celebrity.
On paper, Harlow reads as a ready-made role model: an aesthetically unconventional girl from Toronto who capitalised on her differences and within two years of her 2014 appearance on America’s Next Top Model became a muse for Nick Knight, brand ambassador for Desigual, the face of Diesel, a music video extra for Eminem and Rihanna and catwalk model for London’s sequin king, Ashish. “I personally don’t know why I’m seen as a role model,” she tells me, fiddling with a plastic brain teaser toy in her lap. “I like to call myself more an inspiration if anything. I’m happy to inspire your seven-year-old child, but I do not want to be her role model.”
It’s the last thing I had expected to hear. After all, the overwhelming majority of her editorial shoots have seen her painted in an angelic, PG-13 light, with a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, butter- wouldn’t-melt expression translated across double-page spreads. She also appeared on American talk show, The Real surprising April Rose, a 10-year-old aspiring model with vitiligo. Harlow has even given self-confidence talks on behalf of “real” beauty pioneers Dove. “I give kudos to people like Zendaya who are like: ‘Yes, I want to inspire young kids.’ And I’m like: ‘Girl, that’s a lot of work!’” She raises her eyebrows and shakes her head, dismissing herself. “She is a role model.”
The way Harlow sees it, her private self as Chantelle Brown- Young isn’t in the public eye enough for people to follow her.“The rest of the world just knows ‘Winnie’, right? So, I guess Winnie has some fame. Chantelle’s just a hood chick who got a chance, who’s from the hood in Toronto and got a chance at a very sick career.” In reality, “Winnie” is so famous that Harlow tells me: “My mum will sometimes call me Winnie, it’s so annoying, I’m like, ‘Who are you talking to?’”
As Cosmopolitan reported in an interview released as soon as Lemonade dropped, Harlow didn’t even know what she was signing herself up for when Beyoncé’s people got in touch. She didn’t even know they were Beyoncé’s people. “It seemed super-sketchy,” she explains of a “random” email asking her to go to New Orleans for a shoot. It took a call from Bey’s personal assistant to a friend of Harlow’s to try and connect the pair, but as soon as the hallowed name was dropped into conversation, Harlow was on the first flight to New Orleans. “Anything for Beyoncé,” she tells me.
The story behind her fleeting appearance in Rihanna and Drake’s video for “Work” is similar. “I had no idea that they were filming in Toronto,” Harlow begins to rant. “I should have cussed Drake off for not calling me and telling me that at least, so rude! Thank you for reminding me that I haven’t brought that up!” After seeing Rihanna leaving the set via her friend BoiWonder’s snapchat, Harlow got straight on the phone to ask him: “Why ain’t you tell me you were on the set?” Harlow text Rihanna and was quickly summoned to the location, at Toronto restaurant The Real Jerk, nine hours into filming.
Her friends — Drake (who she calls “a really corny dude, in the coolest way possible”) and Rihanna — have seemingly welcomed Harlow with open haute couture-clad arms. Is she starting to feel like an equal in the A-list arena? Harlow laughs, aghast: “Have you seen Drake’s house?” I suppose Harlow’s not going to be snapped outside her own Champagne Papi-esque snow- dipped mansion any time soon. Then again, she does have some things in common with rap’s most loveable sadboy. “I remember when America’s Next Top Model first came out, I got so heated about bad comments [that] I was going on Instagram and making posts about it,” Harlow confesses, admitting that a friend at Sony would text her to tell her to take down all of her internet angst. “I was very lucky that he did do that… People who were close to Drake, they were like: ‘Yeah, when he first started out, we had to take his phone from him sometimes.’”
It becomes apparent as we chat that there’s a division between the life of “Winnie Harlow” and the life of Chantelle Brown-Young. Winnie has been on tour with Drizzy and has RiRi on speed dial, Chantelle-Young’s life “consists of planting sunflowers, that’s what I did before I left, doing laundry and starving because I don’t know how to cook.” Harlow versus Chantelle-Young. As I get up to leave our interview, Harlow tells me, exasperated, not to brand her — again — with that “spokesperson” tag. Just a week later, she takes to the international stage of Instagram to share a post entitled, “Clarification”. “I am not a ‘Vitiligo Spokesperon’.” Harlow writes in an iPhone note.“Stop trying to pin that on me… I am a 21 year old who looks beyond the box that people try to place me in…” I wonder whether her 1.1million followers will listen.