The Making the Cut judge opens up about becoming one of the biggest faces in fashion and breaking beauty standards around the globe

By Kaitlyn Frey and Reporting By Emily Strohm
July 22, 2021 10:00 AM
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When Winnie Harlow was growing up, she never imagined she would become a model, let alone one of the most recognizable faces in the fashion world.

"My 16-year-old self would never think that this would be my life," the Making the Cut judge tells PEOPLE in this week's issue, on newsstands Friday. "Naomi Campbell texted me a couple days ago. Stuff like that is insane. When I look back on it, I'm like, 'That's pretty cool.' "

The 26-year-old model, who was diagnosed at age 4 with vitiligo (a condition in which the skin loses its pigment cells), has made it her mission to redefine beauty standards and break barriers in fashion.

"Growing up, I never saw anyone like me on TV, billboards or on the runways," she says. "I felt like I was the only person in the world like me."

Byblos - Runway: Milan Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2019/20
Credit: Jacopo Raule/Getty

When her friend, journalist Shannon Boodram, encouraged Harlow to pursue modeling after taking some photographs of her as a teen, the star realized how much of an impact she could actually have on the industry.

"The more I did it, the more of a following I gained on social media," Harlow explains. "I was getting a lot of love and support and people telling me that I inspired them. So I was like, 'If doing this thing that's just fun for me is inspiring people, then it's a win-win.'"

Harlow's main entrance into the public eye came in 2014 at age 19 when she competed on cycle 19 of America's Next Top Model. While she didn't win the reality modeling competition series hosted by Tyra Banks, she was in the final rounds.

Winnie Harlow
Credit: Antony Jones/Getty Images

"At that point in my life, I was told or made to feel like I couldn't model or that it wasn't for me," says Harlow, who declines to comment further on her ANTM experience. "My mother always said, "If you don't got nothing good to say, don't say nothing at all."

Winnie Harlow Making the Cut
Credit: Ali Goldstein/Amazon Prime Video

After the show, Harlow returned home and thought, "Maybe this isn't made for me." But she soon realized quitting wouldn't be an option.

"My plan was to never fail," she says. "I'm from the hood, and my goal was to never go back. I wanted to take care of my mom and my sister and make my dad proud."

Now, as a judge on Amazon Prime Video's fashion competition series Making the Cut alongside hosts Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn, and fellow judge Jeremy Scott, it all has come full circle. And being on-screen is something that Harlow is ready to do even more of.

"Walking a runway is the most empowering feeling, showcasing someone's designs that they've entrusted you to show the world. But I do enjoy doing film and TV and letting my voice be heard," she says. "You can't get as much personality through pictures—and I have a very big personality."