2015 Torontonians of the Year: Model and activist for equality, Chantelle Winnie Harlow

Chantelle Winnie Harlow​, model

When she was four years old, Chantelle Brown-Young (professionally known as Winnie Harlow) was diagnosed with vitiligo. Her immune system had begun to treat her melanin as though it were a disease, attacking it. As a result, her skin began to change from a solid caramel to a canvas punctuated with white. Today, the 21-year-old modelling sensation has a healthy relationship with her appearance, but this wasn’t always the case.  

In a 2014 Tedx talk, the model recalls how her mother used to try and hide the vitiligo on her face for family photos. “My mom is a lot darker than me, so can you imagine me having a dark paste of a face, and the rest of me is light brown, white,” says Harlow. She knew her mom wasn’t trying to alienate her, but she felt alienated nonetheless. 

Harlow is known for speaking up about the bullying she endured throughout her life and raising awareness about vitiligo and equality. She released a personal essay earlier this year about bullying, abuse and her skin condition, which received acclaim across the globe. Harlow also sparked a debate about the nature of blackface earlier this year when she stood up for her fans who were doing their makeup in homage to her. 

“It is very clear to me when someone is showing love, and I appreciate these people recreating, loving and broadcasting something to the world that once upon a time I cried myself to sleep over,” she wrote.

Despite some negative backlash, Harlow asserts, “I still stand behind my comments.”

Harlow dealt with bullies for much of her adolescence. In second grade, things were going swimmingly for her at a new school with new friends until her pals began ignoring her. When pressed, the girls told her that their parents didn’t want them playing with her because they might catch her skin condition. For years, the taunting continued. Before she dropped out of high school, Harlow would be called names ranging from “cow” to “zebra” to “milky.”

“Being forced to drop out of school due to bullying gave me a lot of time to reflect and find me, the true me. I began telling myself encouraging words, reading empowering literature,” she says. As a teen, she wanted to be a journalist, not a model. She discovered modelling after doing a shoot just for fun. 

Many a “no” greeted her while she shopped for a modelling agency. “While they thought I was pretty, they really didn't see the vision or where they could place me, so they would ultimately say no,” says Harlow, who has since proven her commercial appeal by posing for brands such as Diesel, Desigual and Sprite. 

Shortly after this chorus of nos, the creator of America’s Next Top Model, Tyra Banks, would hand-pick Harlow for the 21st season of the show after seeing her Instagram feed. She placed sixth. 

Between photo shoots and runway gigs, Harlow continues to make time for vitiligo awareness and outreach, with the goal of starting a not-for-profit supporting anti-bullying and equality in developing communities.

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO