Is Chantelle Winnie - The Black Model With Vitiligo - The Most Important Beauty Symbol In The World?

LIKE THE LATE MICHAEL JACKSON, black model Chantelle Winnie was once teased for her vitiligo skin disease. But now some of the biggest names in fashion are in love with her. By Ben Arogundade. [Feb.10.2016]


WHAT DOES BLACK BEAUTY look like now? Just when we think we know its parameters, along comes someone who challenges our perceptions — this time in the form of Chantelle Winnie, aka Winnie Harlow, the startling Canadian black model who has the skin disease vitiligo, the same condition that once afflicted the late Michael Jackson. After being bullied and ostracised as a child, she is now being courted by top fashion photographers, magazines, artists and designer brands.

She was born Chantelle Brown-Young on July 27, 1994, in Toronto Canada, to parents of Jamaican heritage. At the age of four she contracted vitiligo — sometimes referred to as leucoderma — a chronic autoimmune disorder that causes a loss of pigment on sections of the skin. This de-pigmentation is not uniform, but manifests in blotches and patches around the body, particularly the face and hands. It occurs when melanocytes — the bodily cells responsible for skin pigment — die or cease functioning. The condition, which is non-contagious, but for which there is no cure, affects roughly two per cent of the population. It is not specific to black people, and affects all ethnicities, but is simply more visible as a result of their darker pigment.

“My skin’s not a normal sight,” Winnie told The Observer. This was apparent throughout her school life, as Chantelle was repeatedly teased and bullied for having vitiligo. Classmates likened her to a cow, and “mooed” at her, while others steered clear completely, mistakenly thinking that vitiligo was contagious. She was also beaten up, sometimes by groups of girls who would ambush her. She moved school several times in an effort to escape persecution and to find acceptance. “I remember sitting by my window, wishing upon the stars that my skin condition would go away,” she told Cosmopolitan. “I wondered, ‘Why me?’”

Her life took a sudden turn for the better when Toronto-based YouTube personality Shannon Boodram came across pictures of Chantelle posted on her Facebook page, and was struck by her beauty. “She said the camera loved me and that I should be a model,” Winnie recalled. “I had never thought about modeling — it just hadn't seemed possible.” Boodram made a YouTube video of Chantelle that soon went viral. With her confidence boosted, Winnie’s continuing posting pictures of herself on social media. Eventually she caught the eye of a casting director for Tyra Banks TV hit, America’s Next Top Model (ANTM), who subsequently invited her onto the show.

Winnie immediately quit her job and flew to LA. She was 19 years old. “The moment I laid eyes on Chantelle, I wanted her on Top Model,” Banks recalled. “Her beauty is undeniable and her skin breaks down barriers of what is considered beautiful.” But when Winnie appeared on the show she did not succeed in breaking down its barriers, and was eliminated early. It seemed as if, with her vitiligo, she could only progress so far. At the time, Winnie felt betrayed by Banks, after all her introductory fanfare about diversity — but as it turned out the show became a doorway to more opportunities. She was contacted by a raft of people keen to work with her, including British fashion photographer Nick Knight, who has shot Kate Moss for Vogue, as well as Bjork, Lady Gaga and Kanye West. He placed her in an ad campaign he was shooting for Diesel, and along the way she also featured for design label Desigual, together with Brazilian supermodel Adriana Lima. In 2015 she found herself on the runways of New York and Madrid, alongside Naomi Campbell.

Perhaps her most significant moment so far came in August 2015 when she made the front cover of Italian fashion magazine L’Officiel’s September edition. This was a breakthrough moment in fashion history — the first time that a model with vitiligo, black or white, had featured on the front of such a publication — and with her skin condition fully exposed to the world. It was a shocking, startling, magnificent statement about the new possibilities for twenty first century beauty.

By contrast, when the late Michael Jackson endured the vitiligo skin disease, he considered it a mark of shame, concealing it with pale make-up and skin bleaching — but just a few years forward from this, here was Winnie making the opposite assertion — that vitiligo was not to be hidden away, but was something to be accepted and even celebrated. She’d succeeded where Jackson had failed.

In doing so Chantelle has become a role model to a generation of young people around the world. “Recently I returned to the middle school where I once cried in the hallways,” she said. “I talked to the students about having confidence and lifting each other up. I could remember being in their position. I never would have imagined this future for myself when I was a kid at the school. Looking back, I can see that the students who bullied me were just like me, trying to fit in.”

Winnie is careful about not being seen simply as just a spokes-model for vitiligo sufferers. “I am not my skin,” she stresses. “I am a model with a skin condition.”

It is a reality she seems to have fully embraced now, turning her back on all of the so-called treatments for vitiligo — such as UVA light therapy, skin dye, medication, and even surgery — in order to be who she is. Nevertheless, many still make inaccurate assumptions about her. “I get comments saying that I’m a leper, that I control how my skin changes, that I bleach my skin, that my skin’s burned,” she says. “None of those are true.”

Winnie’s ultimate ambition is to blow up the fashion world by gracing the cover of Vogue and walking for Chanel and all the other majors — but for all the industry’s perpetual talk about fashion being about change and renewal, hers may be a change too far, in what is actually a very conservative, homogenized business.

The fact is, Winnie’s skin is more striking than any product she could ever sell. On one level, like it or not, she is a poster child for radical difference, and the ongoing conversation about her vitiligo skin condition often so dominates that many forget that she actually also has what it takes as a model, both technically and in terms of her beauty. It is worth noting that to date, despite all her successes, she is still without a major modelling agency.

Nevertheless, hers is journey that is still unfolding. Right now she is an important figure in promoting a broader and more diverse aesthetic message that challenges our prevailing perceptions about beauty — and that is a cause the world needs.

Ben Arogundade's book Black Beauty is out now.

BLACK AND WHITE: Chantelle Winnie, otherwise known as Winnie Harlow, is fashion's most radical beauty. Like the late Michael Jackson, she suffers from vitiligo, the skin disease that erases pigment.

The Creativity of Author, Designer & Publisher Ben Arogundade





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