Jillian Mercado is an IMG model with muscular dystrophy, has been featured in campaigns for Diesel, Target and Beyoncé. The New York-born Mercado of Dominican descent studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology. She is now a veteran of the industry with behind the camera experience in working on photo shoots and writing for fashion magazines.
Today it’s her work as a model in front of the camera that is making headlines. She explains with enthusiasm why body positivity and inclusivity are so important to her and other women with disabilities and why she loves her role as a runway pioneer.
I never actually thought I would have a full-blown modeling career. It wasn’t until I saw an online open call Diesel was having that I bit the bullet and gave it a shot. The rest, as they say, is history. It was very challenging for me because the industry had never really accepted people who didn’t fit the stereotypical, narrow-minded definition of beauty.
I’ve had many trying moments in my life. Of course, the initial reaction to basically being looked at as some sub-human object hurts and I want to cry, but each of those moments somehow made me stronger. Instead of getting angry, I use those moments and turn them into fuel to work even harder, to make changes and inspire people.
“I’m so thankful to whoever invented the electric chair and gave me goddamn wings to fly,” “Without this chair I would pretty much be miserable. Not like, ‘Ugh, I can’t walk, miserable, but miserable that I can’t go to an event. Without this chair I wouldn’t be able to see Rihanna tonight.” Jillian told paper magazine in a recent interview
31-year-old Mercado was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child is one of the few working fashion models with a visible disability — the chair presents a stumbling block for people who can’t get past their own projections of what it means.
“It’s either they don’t see you, or they only see the chair, which equals negativity.” Said Mercado.
There was a time, Mercado says, when she played along with her society’s expectations. “At the beginning, when I was younger, I went along with what felt more safe, which was going along with everyone’s thought process,” she said. “Until I was like, ‘Fuck this shit, I feel miserable thinking about this all the time.’ My disability cannot be this depressing.”
The native New Yorker, she described “crummy” middle school experiences with classmates who bullied her, including a group of girls who threatened to throw her down the steps. “I was like, that’s interesting because I take the elevator, but okay,” she says, laughing hard. “It sucks that we live in a world where people who are miserable feel safer to throw somebody under the bus rather than to hold their hand and be here for them.”
Being positive about your body and inclusivity are so important to me because at the end of the day, we are all human. Something all of us have in common is that we simply want to be heard and felt appreciated. I want to keep working until the idea that putting someone like me, or whatever the case may be, on a billboard will be so normal in our society that it won’t even make headlines.
I’ve always loved expressing myself through clothes. I have long been an ally and many of my dearest friends are part of the LGBTQIA community. Living in a progressive city and being almost consumed by a crowd of people who didn’t conform to society’s set gender roles really opened my eyes to all types of expression through fashion. Anyone should be able to wear what they want. My motto is: If you like it, wear it!
I love that fashion is this revolving door of culture and ideas that never stops spinning. It’s always exciting seeing what new things my favorite designers come up with every season. I also love the self-expression of fashion. How you can tell someone exactly who you are — or what you’d like them to think you are — simply by throwing on some fabric. I love that being a model is a way to exercise my creative juices, but also a way to inspire and give hope to girls like me.
My style when I was younger? I think we all look back at pictures of ourselves and cringe, but I wouldn’t change any of those styles for anything. They were what I wanted to wear at that time and what made me feel good at that time. I would tell younger Jillian to keep doing what she’s doing!