On Tuesday May 6th, Winnie Harlow (aka Chantelle Brown-Young) officially hit over 100,000 followers on Instagram. Among shared pics of photo shoots, inspirational quotes and her latest batch of homemade cupcakes, one image displays an illustration of Harlow by artist Shamekh Al-Bluwi which, like all her posts, is inundated with praise. Statements like “Girl you are flawless!!!!!” and “You’re amazing” and “You look badass omg!” flood the comment stream.
But an inquisitive voice pipes up: “Why has she got white patches all over her? Sorry this isn’t meant to sound rude I’m just [sic] curios???????”
Another voice answers: “It’s because of a condition called vitiligo—it causes the cells responsible for skin pigmentation to die or stop functioning.”
Brown-Young began to develop vitiligo at an early age and therefore faced many challenges, especially in school where she received cruel nicknames like “zebra” and “cow.” But over time she learned to embrace her true self, sharing that confidence with the world through platforms such as Twitter and Instagram and, as a result, followers also living with vitiligo have found a new role model. Fans comment: “I honestly wish you were around when I was growing up and For the first time ever, I am not ashamed of my vitiligo. Thank you.”
Aside from the fact that Brown-Young is a gorgeous young woman, her condition has marked her as a pioneer—a thriving new icon and an inspiring spokesperson for celebrating (and flaunting) the skin she’s in. In the past, she has walked numerous runways for Fashion Art Toronto, starred in a provocative music video for singer-songwriter JMSN and was the darling for the “Natural Me” campaign employed by writer and TV personality Shannon Boodram.
But this past week, the 19-year-old Toronto native has officially gone viral. With the breaking news of her entry into Cycle 21 of America’s Next Top Model (airing this summer) and after releasing a series of stunning editorial images from British photographer Nick Knight, Brown-Young has become an overnight celebrity, with posts from BuzzFeed, Perez Hilton, The Daily Mail and Access Hollywood applauding her unconventional beauty.
Needless to say, the world has fallen in love with the spellbinding pattern of Brown-Young’s complexion, so much so that she is the first Canadian model to ever be admitted to ANTM. Shannon Boodram claimed that the producers went to extra lengths to get Brown-Young on the show: “they saw that light in her.” And who can blame them?? These days, it’s all about pushing the beauty standard. Social acceptance and niche group representation is trending hard—a kind of “Glee effect” that has finally deemed everyone worthy, especially for a shot at stardom.
Not all the reactions on Harlow’s Instagram are positive. One user says: “I don’t see why she won’t just bleach the rest of herself she’s 50% pale already.” This comment naturally caused a caterwaul of incensed responses, none from Brown-Young herself, but dozens from her supporters. “Why should she risk her health to bleach her skin when shes fine the way she is?”; “Bleach yourself and share how it feels”; “Why must she adjust herself to suit you?…she is perfect and inspiring many kids who have to deal with idiotic people like you.” Clearly, Winnie Harlow has people talking.
Such choric online clashes are customary in social media, but in this case they are a reminder of the kind of ignorance Brown-Young has had to face all her life. They are also an assurance that, despite what some people think, those who love and appreciate her will rage in her honour. But the promising homegrown talent has developed the right approach—good nature, optimism and a mature self-love that is remarkable for someone her age. In 2011, Brown-Young stated, “If God wanted me to be black, I’d be black. If he wanted me to be white, I’d be white. Instead he wanted me to be both—an original.” With an attitude like that, Brown-Young is destined for glory. We can’t wait to cheer her on on the new season of ANTM!