The fashion industry has always been notorious for making a lot of people feel unseen. If you weren’t a tall, white, skinny, blonde, cisgender, and heterosexual woman, you didn’t meet the world’s Eurocentric and incredibly narrow standards of beauty. And if you were disabled you were totally left out of the conversation. Lack of representation is damaging on a number of levels. It makes people feel invisible, erased, and can greatly impact their self-esteem and even mental health. Fortunately, things are finally starting to change and it’s all thanks to the many folks who haven’t politely asked but unapologetically demanded to be seen, like Jillian Mercado. If you’re a fan of a fashion, chances are you’ve heard of this badass Dominicana. The 32-year-old model who was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child and has used a wheelchair since she was 12, refuses to let her physical disability limit her. She has become a powerful and important force in the fashion world, paving the way for other girls like her to feel seen, heard, and represented.
Not only is Jillian signed with one of the top modeling agencies in the world — IMG Models — but she’s also an advocate and activist for the disabled or differently abled community. She has used her platform to elevate her community and just recently spoke on a body positivity panel at the We All Grow summit in Long Beach, California hosted by Carolina Conteras (a.k.a Miss Rizos) and sponsored by Dove. Jillian spoke alongside other Latina powerhouses including author and Founder of Circle de Luz, Rosie Molinary, actress Shakira Barrera, and photographer Nolwen Cifuentes, on why diverse representation matters.
Jillian definitely didn’t always know she wanted to pursue a career in fashion or that she would one day be involved in activist work, but what she did know since she was a little girl, was that she loved fashion and yearned to see girls that looked like her on the cover of magazines.
“I think at a very young age I realized I was always the only one like me — whether it was in my classrooms or just walking in the street with my mom. I felt like I was the only one growing up who had disabilities. I knew there were other kids who had disabilities like me but for some odd reason — even at places like the bodega — I was still usually the only one who looked like me,” she shares with HipLatina.
Growing up in the Upper West Side in NYC with Dominican parents who both worked in fashion-related industries was what inspired Jillian to really appreciate style. Her mother worked as a seamstress embroidering baby clothes (which explains her swaggy baby style) and her dad was a shoe salesman. But as much as fashion felt like home for her, she struggled to find someone who looked like her in the industry that she could look up to and model her career after.
“I was really looking for that one person that I could follow their path and see how they did it but unfortunately, I couldn’t find a single person. I was like well, I guess I’m going to have to be that person,” she says. And that’s exactly what she did. But Jillian’s career journey wasn’t an easy one. She started off studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) and then took on a number of fashion internships to help her fully understand the industry.
“I interned so much. There was one semester in college where I had two internships at the same time — plus school — and back in the day, they weren’t paid. I think the only thing we got was a stipend for a metro card,” she says. “But I really took advantage of internships and snuck my way into top parties and top fashion shows. I worked with everyone I could find to get myself even closer and closer to being an editor. At the time I wanted to become an editor to hire people like me to be featured in magazines. Then I got the opportunity to do a Diesel campaign and be in front of the scenes and that went viral because it was the first ever campaign where a model that had a visible disability was being featured as a model period and not for their disability.”
Jillian modeled in the Diesel campaign alongside the artist James Astronaut in 2014, after years of her attending shows and writing about fashion on her blog Manufactured 1987. The campaign went viral, drastically increased her social media followings, and quickly set her on an entirely different career path that she hadn’t set out for herself — fashion modeling. Even though it wasn’t the initial plan, Jillian quickly recognized how significant this role was.
“That campaign went viral and the number of messages I got from people all around the world of all ages, saying things like, ‘I couldn’t even believe this was possible and the fact that you got here in a way that wasn’t like hospital campaign, you know.’ It wasn’t degrading our actual existence — it was elevating,” she says. “I was like oh shit, I guess I gotta take things up a notch and make sure this is not the only thing that happens. That was my fear that this was going to be it — a one-time thing.”
Things quickly starting happening for Jillian. Shortly after she was signed to a model agency and went on to work with brands like Nordstrom and Target. She modeled merch for Beyoncé’s formation tour and last year posed for an Olay campaign that landed her on a billboard in Times Square — it was major. One of her proudest moments though was landing on the cover for Teen Vogue’s September 2018 cover alongside Chelsea Werner and Mama Cax. The in-demand model is now currently working on her own book.
“I’m literally writing a book right now and it’s more like what the hell has been my life thus far. I literally just started working on it,” she says. “My book is going to be about how I am as a person but in the form of a book. There’s going to be stickers and lots of colors and a coloring book section, along with lots of photos and sketches from when I was younger.”
But despite the success, Jillian will be the first to admit that being the first to really make it in an industry comes with just as many struggles as it does blessings. Despite how high in-demand she may be these days, she still deals with her fair share of discrimination and stupid comments from ignorant folks on a very regular basis whether it’s at the gym, at a shoot, or after introducing herself to someone new. In fact, even today she still struggles with introducing herself as a professional model because of the reactions she receives sometimes.
“It took me a long ass time to tell people [I’m a model] if they were like, ‘Oh what do you do?” Sometimes, I still catch myself doing this today where I’ll respond and say, ‘Oh I work in fashion.’ I’m not quick to say I’m a model because every time that I would say that, people would be like, ‘Oh that’s so sweet or oh my god that’s amazing,’ but not in an uplifting way,” she says. “In my community, we call it inspiration porn, where it’s very pleasing ( or inspirational) to the viewer but they aren’t actually acknowledging and celebrating the person behind it. Mama Cax and I talk about this all the time… what they’re saying is well, I’m glad it’s not me — in a way.”
She stresses the importance of people taking the time to educate themselves about people with disabilities while also being mindful of the questions they ask and the terms they use. Jillian is personally comfortable referring to herself as a disabled woman but she says not everyone with disabilities feels comfortable being called that and thus prefer terms like differently abled.
“There are so many things I’ve learned even having a disability myself. What I hear is basically that it’s a personal preference,” she says. “I think it’s important to ask a person beforehand if they are comfortable with you calling them something. I know handicapped is deleted. No one should ever be saying that or special. My blood boils when I hear that. But again, some people like it and some people don’t. I personally don’t. I am a person who has a disability. That’s who I am. The same way I am a person who has brown eyes and that’s it.”
As far as advocating and activism go, she also doesn’t feel like people with disabilities should be the only ones advocating for themselves. This is where the rest of us can step up and use our platforms to help others take up space.
“I definitely think it’s important to just listen to the community and see what is missing that they’re screaming about, whether it’s that they aren’t getting represented or talked about,” she says. “It’s very important to do so and ask a million and ten questions.”
Jillian Mercado is beyond just inspirational. She’s a determined force who kept on going and made herself be seen in a world who rejected, ignored, and often times discriminated against her. She’s successfully lived out her dreams and has proven to all of us what happens when you learn to love and accept yourself and let purpose be your guide. Acknowledge her and her work, celebrate her spirit and accomplishments and advocate for other individuals like her to be seen and represented. Let’s not let the work end with her.