Winnie Harlow, born Chantelle Brown-Young, has struggled with the rare skin disease vitiligo for most of her life. When she was a kid, other children called her a cow and a zebra. Modeling agencies in Toronto turned her down. She wasn’t supposed to be on America’s Next Top Model, front campaigns for Diesel, or work with famed photographer Nick Knight, who directed Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” music video. But at 21, she’s accomplished all of that and more.
And this is just the beginning. Meet the Toronto native who Drake raps about in “Know Yourself” and calls the “6 Goddess.”
This feature originally appears in Complex's August/September issue.
People know you for your work but also for your vitiligo. Does that bother you?
I am happy with my skin, and I’m proud of my skin, which is why I wear it so boldly. But if a job wanted me to, say, try a smoky eye and cover the vitiligo around my eye, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. I’m not my skin. I think people put too much into it. If someone freaks out because they covered the color of my eye with makeup, it’s like, “Yeah, they also put red nail polish on me and purple lipstick. My lips are not naturally purple.” They did alter it, but it’s not that big of a deal. It’s literally just a job.
When did you start embracing your skin?
It wasn’t so much a conscious effort of me trying to see it as something beautiful, but more so accepting myself for the way that I am. Not to say that it’s a positive or a negative, but just to say it’s me, and I love me, so everyone else is going to have to deal with it. [Laughs.]
Even to this day, people will ask me, “Don’t you feel that? Don’t you feel everyone staring at you?” and I really don’t. I almost never realize it unless someone’s being super obnoxious and directly staring at me long enough for me to catch their eye. That’s me being comfortable and happy with me. I know what I look like, so I know what people are looking at, but it just doesn’t faze me. Or it doesn’t faze me as much as it did when I was 15. It’s weird to me for people to stare at me, because I feel like I’m normal. I don’t see what there is to stare about.
There are modeling agencies now for “non-traditional” models. What do you think about that?
I think it’s amazing. It’s not for everyone, but it shows minds are opening to new and different things. I personally wouldn’t want to sign to an agency like that, because I am not a “special model.” I’m not the vitiligo model. I’m just a model. I happen to have vitiligo, but that’s not what I am.
You wanted to be a journalist when you were young. What drew you to that?
I loved reading magazines about the entertainment world. Shows like 106 & Park and that type of stuff. What Bow Wow does right now—that’s what I wanted to do. Even as a little girl, my mom never wanted me to watch BET, but when I was at my grandparents’ house, and my older cousins were there and I could watch it, I was infatuated with the idea that I could one day be a DJ or the host of a show.
We’ve seen you on Drake’s Instagram and vice versa, and he raps about you in “Know Yourself.” How do you guys know each other?
I’m friends with his producer, 40, so I met everyone through him. I’m just like, the little sister. They call me the “6 Goddess.”
What did you think when you heard your name in his song?
I hear a lot of the songs before they’re released, but I didn’t hear that [lyric] in particular. When I did hear it, I looked it up on Genius, and I saw a picture of us, so I was like, “Aw, that’s cool.”
What was your reaction when Nick Knight reached out to you?
At the time I wasn’t really into modeling, so I had no idea who this photographer was. If I was actually going to fly somewhere, I needed to know who this person was, so I did a bunch of research on his work, and my jaw hit the floor. He and his wife flew me out, and we did this amazing, epic photo shoot that was also a video shoot for SHOWstudio. I flew home happy to have that in my portfolio.
What was it like working with him?
Nick tells you what he’s looking for. He shows you what you’re wearing, then he tells you the emotion, the feeling, and gives you all kinds of direction. Then you look at the set together, and he just lets you go. I’ve worked with a lot of photographers who give very exact directions and take pictures of you as a statue in whatever position they want you to be in. With him, he lets you do whatever you want, and it’s more of a collaboration rather than a statue and a painter.