Jillian Mercado: A New Face in Fashion
Model and disability activist Jillian Mercado speaks to THIIIRD about her journey into modelling, her life with muscular dystrophy and how she is using her experience to inspire others.
Interview by Natalie Alleyne
In reverence of the release of issue #4 Access, disabled model and activist, Jillian Mercado speaks to THIIIRD about her journey into modelling, her life with muscular dystrophy and how she is using her experience to inspire others.
Born with the rare muscular dystrophy and growing up a wheelchair user, Newyorker Jillian Mercado had never ‘seen herself’ as represented in pop culture. Despite the devastating impact on self-esteem lack of representation often has, Jillian Mercado alchemised this weariness and became signed by the biggest modelling agency in the world. Having worked with world-famous brands, graced the pages of glamorous magazines and even showcased merch for Beyoncé, Jillian has come into being the once missing link in representation.
Along with her enormous contribution to fashion, Mercado engages in disability activism. She hopes to evoke societal awareness and therefore change, while inspiring girls living with disabilities to also open their wings.
N: Thiiird magazine is split into 3 sections, mind, body, soul. The 3 opening questions are a homage to this tripartite. The first question is, who are you in terms of ‘mind’. What type of person are you?
J: There are times when my mind goes into so many dimensions of thoughts. It’s very complex and misunderstood at times but I am very empathic and sensitive to the world around me
N: And in terms of body?
J: My body has gone through so many alterations as far as my disability goes so scars run through my whole vessel. My body has been very patient with my mind. And with that I mean when you born with the disability it’s very hard to love your body when society finds a way to bring the idea of loving your body down to make you feel lesser.
N: And finally the soul, what moves, drives and preserves your spirit?
J: It has to do with the fact that I know that I was brought into this world to represent a community of people that have always been overlooked and not given an opportunity to excel in life. I want to hold the door for someone else. It’s time someone did, that’s what drives me
N: How did you come into modelling, and what were you doing before?
J: When you don’t see something in the world that reflects who you are, it’s very hard to pursue that idea. Before the world of modelling, I was still pursuing a career in fashion. I wanted to become an editor to write and hire people who looked like me on the covers of magazines or in the offices. I worked so hard to get my foot into the fashion door. Modelling came after. On a random day where someone saw my potential and gave me an opportunity to shine brighter, to elevate my life in a different direction while also keeping my mindset representing people who look like me. I just didn’t know I was the model I was looking for in magazines.
N: The general consensus is that muscular dystrophy affects 1 in 3,500 male assigned births and 1 in 50 million female-assigned births. Could you tell us the affect muscular dystrophy has on your body?
J: With my disability, the only thing that really affects me is the tightening of my muscles. Sometimes I can’t control when my muscles contract. So imagine having a part of your body sometimes become a very tense and usually when that happens you relax. It’s automatic. For me it takes a lot to relax in situations of nervousness, excitement, being scared, or even watching television. I can’t really control it but when I need to it’s like meditation, I have to truly remove every thought my mind to relax.
N: And you are the rarest jewel, in that you are a signed model with muscular dystrophy and using a wheelchair. What does this mean to you? What does it mean for society?
J: Well representing a community of people that have been invisible for years especially in the industry that I love the most, which is fashion, is very rewarding and it is an outer body feeling knowing that I was the one that they chose to represent and lead in the world of fashion was having a visible physical disability. It goes beyond words, it’s not about saying that you are inclusive or believe in diversity it’s the action behind those words. And being signed to the biggest agency in the world says everything. It means that as a community, society is slowly but surely listening to us. It means that I can open the door for people to dream and pursue this career. It also gives people guidance and someone to look for. I built a great path and I’m still continuing on it but it takes a whole team to solidify that path
N: What could have been different about your outlook, personal feelings, or maybe worldview, had you seen more models, actors, teachers, just more representation of people with disabilities while growing up?
J: I would have had more choices, not feeling worthless or not wanted. That’s what representation does to you when you don’t see yourself.