Winnie Harlow talks self-confidence, happiness and making her mom proud.
By Jennifer Lee
Photography by Nicholas Routzen
Winnie Harlow is a 22-year-old model, steadily gaining “it” status since debuting on the fashion scene at Desigual’s New York Fashion Week (NYFW) show in February of 2015. Flash forward to this past NYFW, and see the Mississauga, Ontario native established among the ranks of top models with another busy season, including walking the runway for Coach.
Though the success she’s found in her career has her rubbing shoulders with the glitterati, Winnie remains grounded and every bit the thoughtful human she was raised to be. Seeing her on stage at WE Day California highlighted as much for mom, Lisa Brown. “That was mind boggling, it just blew me away,” she gushes. “I was so proud, but I also felt like a fan. I was like ‘wow, that’s my baby!’ That was a proud moment for me.”
As her mother witnessed firsthand at the Forum arena in Los Angeles—surrounded by youth from across the region—Winnie is more than your average role model. She is a seed of motivation, encouraging youth to forge their own perspective and their own opportunities in life. An active champion of self-love, Winnie has participated in everything from the Dove Self-Esteem Project panel at the 2015 Women in the World event in London (where she opened up about being diagnosed with vitiligo at age four, a pigment condition that causes white patches to form on skin) to travelling the aforementioned WE Day circuit in the name of youth empowerment.
When pursing one’s dreams, perseverance is only as enduring as one’s confidence is strong. In Winnie’s life, her accomplishments have all been earned by proving the truth of this statement. “When I first wanted to be a model, everyone was really against it,” Winne recalls. “My dad was like, ‘it’s a one-in-a-million thing’ and my mom was like ‘she is one-in-a-million!’ So you know, just believing in yourself is something I would really like to pass on [to future generations].”
Growing up, Winnie’s mom was the unwavering voice of encouragement in her life. Today, she remains a steadfast source of support. “I always want to be that soft place where she can lean on,” says Lisa.
On the topic of mothers, Winnie recalls meeting the mamas of Kenya during her first ME to WE trip to the region last summer. In awe of the esteem these matriarchs have amassed in their community, Winnie is quick to reply when asked if she would like to revisit and share the experience with the number one mama in her life. “I would love to bring my mom,” she exclaims.
From the set of ME to WE’s spring 2017 shoot, Winnie takes a break to talk confidence and the woman who helped her find it.
As someone who has been on a ME to WE trip, you have a unique understanding of the story behind Rafiki bracelets. How did it feel to meet the women responsible for crafting pieces like the ones you modelled today?
It was amazingly inspirational. I want to go back again this year… I hope I have time to. I feel like it’s an experience everyone should encounter.
What was your favourite part of the trip?
Walking with the mamas; getting to experience their everyday life, it was just very inspiring to be around. My favourite experience was walking to fetch water with one specific mama. Just her walking down the street and all the kids knowing her… seeing them give her respect, seeing how people are treated in their community and how they interact with each other in their community, just how much of a family it felt like—on the street—it was really beautiful.
Let’s talk a bit about your own mother. Growing up was she an inspiration in your life?
She was always an inspiration and she still is to this day. I was not raised in the same home as my father, [though] he was very present, but because of that… it was like a single mother type of relationship, where we did everything together. We went on vacations together… we did a lot of things where it was just her and I.
What’s one piece of advice your mother shared that has shaped your own character and your perspective on how you want to live?
I think one thing that my mom always says is: this too shall pass. I think it’s really good to remember, that no matter what you’re going through—even if it’s good—remember that this, too, can end. Take every day and enjoy it. And if it’s something bad… remember that this too shall pass. It won’t be bad for long.
Someday, if you have children, is there something that you would like them to learn from you?
I would like them to learn—wait, I’m putting more eggs in my basket, them?! [Laughing.]
I probably want my child to be nothing like me. [Laughing.] I was a lot of trouble growing up! So I hope she’s nothing like me!
Isn’t that what they say happens?
Exactly! My mom was always like, “you just wait! Your time is coming.”
Okay, back to that life lesson, what do you think you want to pass on?
Something that my grandfather passed down to my mom: you know what’s best for you, so you can’t let people dictate what you should be doing with your life.
The importance of being yourself and following your own path can sometimes get lost. For example, many girls dream of being “just like” their favourite celebrity, say a model just like you. What would you say to those people?
Be what you want to be. Don’t look at someone and say, “I want to be just like Winnie….” no, be just like yourself. And if you really do aspire to be a model: go for it. But if you just want to live the lifestyle of someone else you see, it’s not the job for you.
With your career taking off and with you learning so many things as more doors opens, is every stage of your life a period of growth that strengthens you as a person?
Yes, 100 percent. Something that I really enjoy about my job is that every single day is a learning process—every single day. As much as this career makes you grow up—in your mind—we [models] are still young and we are learning. Every day is a learning experience.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I don’t! Every day, day by day. All I aspire to is happiness and success.