Jillian Mercado radiates ingenuity. Her tone is honest, raw, and unapologetically herself, exactly everything she portrays to her hoards of fans on social media. The haters? She doesn’t have the time to pay them any mind. She’s too busy riding this crazy roller coaster called life, one photo-shoot at a time.
To say spastic muscular dystrophy is a detriment to Mercado would not only be an insult, but just so, so wrong. She’s grateful for the life she lives and the things the universe has thrown her way, a content perspective on life that most people don’t even fathom until the end of their days. Her perseverance and gratitude for life keeps her humble—which is hard, considering the fact that the lucrative model has an extensive portfolio that includes her first-ever modeling gig with Diesel, Tommy Hilfiger, a Times Square billboard for Olay, and a contract with IMG.
But, Mercado is only getting started. The 31-year-old is on a mission to challenge fashion’s perspective of faux-inclusiveness, and is trying to teach all of us one major lesson: inclusivity is more than just a checkmark on a long list of socially acceptable things to do. “People with physical disabilities are always invited to the cookout, but never allowed to eat,” she says. But now, she’s given a seat at the table—and she’s ready to flip the damn table over and say what needs to be heard.
Below, we talk to Mercado about the tribulations of the fashion industry, the importance of therapy, and much more.
Martin L. Brown
What drew you to fashion?
“When I applied to go to FIT, I talked to all of the fashion schools in New York and that school drew me the most because I felt at home, and it gave me a feeling that I truly couldn’t describe. I felt like I was able to express who I was, which was a pretty good indication. For me, I just felt at home in fashion. It’s a community that I relate to, and respects who I am.”
When you were at FIT, were you always dead-set on modeling or did your interests lie somewhere else?
“No, the funny thing is that my plan in my mind was to be an Editor in Chief of a magazine. I was studying publishing and editorial for magazines, and it almost felt like every editorial and interview was your child. To see your work published in a magazine was so exciting, and I wanted to learn everything that I could about the editorial world. I even interned at various magazines in college. My first career choice was to be an editor and have the opportunity to hire more diverse people in the magazines, so I could see more of the faces and people that I didn’t see growing up. I collected them, but I didn’t really see myself in them, so I thought that I’d might as well be the one to change that. I wanted to be like The Wizard from The Wizard of Oz, I wanted to do the magic behind the scenes.”
What made you turn from editorial to modeling?
“I had the amazing opportunity to get casted for Diesel. I think it’s almost been 5 years since that happened, and all I did was sign myself up for an open casting online. I really thought that I wouldn’t get it, especially since there were thousands of people who must’ve signed up. I really thought that my entry would just get lost in the sea of people, and lo and behold a few weeks later I got it. I really had to sit with myself and think, ‘okay, if this does take off or go viral, do I really want to become a model?’ And I feel like things happen for a reason, you’re not doing things if the universe doesn’t think you should do it. So, when I got the gig and the whole shoot came out, it went viral. Once it went viral, I saw this opportunity where it was more of a responsibility to really shake things up in the industry and be a voice to a community that hasn’t been reached to at all. How I see it is… people with physical disabilities are always invited to the cookout, but never allowed to eat. So I was given a plate to eat, and now that I’m here I’m getting so much amazing feedback from everyone in a way where it’s uplifting and empowering. Sometimes there were bullies, and you’re just thankful that you’re not them. With this, and my change of career into becoming a model, there were so many messages sent to me saying, ‘Seeing you made me feel empowered and made me feel like I can do anything in the world.’ I felt like I couldn’t let these people down, and I really had to take this to the next level, then I got signed to the biggest agency in the world [IMG]. The ideal is finally built that people with disabilities can of course model, too. We’re a community of 1-billion and counting in this world. Yet we’re either misrepresented, underrepresented, or not represented at all. Representation extremely matters, so knowing all of that I just knew that modeling had to be my career.”
How has your perspective on self-love evolved throughout your career?
“Modeling actually helped a lot. Every single person in this world goes through this phase of feeling like the world’s ending and that they don’t love themselves. Some people use this fear to break other people down, and it’s horrible. My career definitely taught me how to defend myself from that kind of energy, and to appreciate the life that’s been given to me. I feel like I’m one with myself and unique, and I’m happy to be in this world. That self-love grows inside of me. And when you’re growing your self-love, it shows outside of you and people begin to treat you better. The things that might feel like the end of the world become moments of reflection and a learning phase. You go through that knowing that tomorrow is going to be a better day. Whatever happens to me now, I know I can get through it because of the abundance of self-love that I have. I can show that energy to the world through my career.”
What are some of the lessons that you’ve learned while becoming part of the fashion industry?
“I learned that I can be exactly who I am and show everyone else that they can be who they are without altering their personality to try to satisfy somebody else. I think that we have this really weird phenomena going on, especially in social media, where we’re trying to over-filter ourselves to look like other people, when in reality we shouldn’t look the same at all. It’s interesting to see the Instagrams of the tons of people who tote inclusivity and self-love, yet alter their own face with FaceTune. They’re defeating the purpose of their message. Our filter is the energy we give out to the world. It taught me a lot about self-love and to take little things once at a time. Things happen for a reason, and it’s all just a learning experience. It taught me to look at life in a different lens.”
Where do you see the fashion industry thriving, and where is it flawed?
“With any industry, there’s always ups and downs, but specifically in the fashion industry I feel like we’re now in a time where our frustration of not being represented properly has made the industry grow, and I’m so thankful to be apart of that. We’ve been bringing a lot of well-deserving people and communities to the limelight. Communities are banding together and saying, ‘I’m not going to let you misrepresent me.’ I want to help lead those communities, and I think that right now my generation is becoming a leader. We’re teaching the upcoming generation that they can be exactly who they are, and that beauty isn’t only being skinny, tall, and blonde with blue eyes. People with those features are of course beautiful as well, but that should not be the standard set for beauty because not everyone looks that way. It reminds me of the movie Pleasantville, if everyone’s the same then the world becomes really boring. We had this idea where people should be this one carbon copy of the same thing, but now we know that isn’t true. I think that’s where we’re thriving, because we’re really twisting and turning the age-old ideas of beauty. It touches me to see people’s reactions to the de-brainwashing of beauty ideals. Right now, the industry is opening up to that, and we’re seeing really great results with a lot of companies that have been around for a very long time. But, where it’s wrong is that tokenism is definitely something that people need to be careful of. It can be very obvious when it comes to tokenism. If you have one person there just to check them off your list, we can tell. We have to work on that a little more to not allow for that kind of treatment to happen.”
Martin L. Brown
How are you pushing for inclusiveness in fashion, and to better the industry as a whole?
“I feel like by working with companies and brands that are really understanding the message I’m trying to spread, I’m working towards making a difference. I feel like there’s a major difference between diversity and inclusiveness—diversity is treated like a checklist. I mean, it’s great that we have different sizes, abilities, and skin tones in front of the lens, but hopefully the company will embrace that within their offices. Not just models: I want a diverse group of people within the company, hair and makeup teams, all of that stuff. If you mean what you say, bring that diversity into the workplace. There are a lot of companies that are bringing it in front of the scene, but then cancel it out with the things that they do in their workplace. So, for me personally, we always talk about different job offers and different things that I can be apart of, and we always talk about whether the brand is actually doing their part on the inclusivity front as well. I feel like I’m in a position where I’m grateful that I can talk about these things with my team and make sure that what we’re doing is right—not only for myself, but for the people who are going to be viewing it as well.”
What is the message you’re trying to convey to people?
“I think authenticity. Just being yourself and staying true to who you are is the most beautiful thing that you can be. You don’t even need to pretend to be anyone else. If you don’t like spaghetti, but 10 million people do, that doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to eat it to make other people happy. You don’t have to change who your are to fit this ideal that everyone else is doing. I think that individuality is very, very important. It’s fascinating to see multiple colors and multiple variations of people, and I want all of the people that follow me or keep up with what I’m up to to know that we’re all different in a very amazing, beautiful way. Nobody should be ashamed of who they are. Just try your best to thrive as a human in this world.”
How would you describe your fashion aesthetic?
“By heart, I’ve always been a New Yorker, so it’s just very New York: all black, leather jackets, boots, they’ve all been part of my aesthetic. I always wear things that I genuinely love wearing. I don’t go by trends or whatever is deemed ‘cool’ at the moment. I wear whatever makes me feel beautiful and powerful. That’s an aesthetic that I always try to live by, every single day.”
“I think that we have this really weird phenomena going on, especially in social media, where we’re trying to over-filter ourselves to look like other people, when in reality we shouldn’t look the same at all.”
What does your beauty routine look like?
“Ever since I was young, I always went through my mom’s makeup and put on her lipsticks, and unfortunately break them because I had no idea what I was doing. At the moment, I’m so into skincare right now and I’m pulling an Alicia Keys and creating the most glowy skin I can ever have by moisturizing, using witch hazel oil, toners, maybe a bit of mascara and a groomed eyebrow with a tinted lip. But I’m trying to show some love to my skin a little bit more to keep that healthy glow, and it’s very important to me now to do that.”
Over the past year, everyone’s been ditching the heavy makeup for a minimal look. People are looking to skincare over makeup, and I think it has to do with the therapeutic elements of it.
“I absolutely agree. It’s very calming for me do practice my skincare routine every morning and night, especially right before I go to sleep. It’s very relaxing and you get to take a moment with yourself to reflect on the day, and it’s definitely another form of meditation for me. I think it’s really important, and it’s really become a major trend that people are following. Instead of the heavy ’80’s look with pounds of eyeshadow on, now we just use a kiss of highlight. It’s beautiful, and I love that.”
Which brands brands do you think are doing everything right?
“There’s a few, for sure. In terms of beauty, brands like Glossier, Milk Makeup, and obviously Fenty Beauty are doing it right. Fenty Beauty just blew everything out of the water, so those are the beauty brands that I think are doing it right because they’re very diverse but also extremely inclusive. And the great thing with those brands are that there are mostly women behind them, which is so awesome. And as far as fashion goes, brands like ASOS, Aerie from American Eagle, and Target are excelling. It’s never been about tokenism with them, it’s been about continuing the conversation of representation matters. Aerie did the whole ‘no photoshop’ thing, which some people was absolutely fake, but it was genuinely real and I loved it. I could actually see myself in those women, and it felt really good. Just looking at the models I can see how the clothes will actually look on my body, and it’s nice to relate to the person on the ad. They’re going beyond satisfying the ‘trend,’ they’re treating diversity and inclusivity with respect and diligence.”
Martin L. Brown
It’s pretty interesting that you didn’t mention any luxury brands. Why is that?
“I think that when it comes to luxury brands, many of them play on tokenism more than genuine inclusivity. I want to see if they’ll keep up with inclusivity from, like, five year from now or whenever the ‘trend’ of diversity dies down. I want to make sure they’re still doing it before I call any luxury brands truly inclusive. Many luxury brands still have people on their teams who are extremely old school, so let’s give them a few years and see what happens.”
Where do you see the direction of the fashion industry going within the upcoming years?
“Well, who’s to say, you know? I never thought the strides we’ve taken in the industry would ever happen. Brands are actually having conversations on diversity and representation now, but hopefully we don’t treat these important aspects to the industry as just trends. It should be considered the new standard.”
The fashion industry is at such an unpredictable point right now, there’s really no telling where it’s going to go.
“Totally. Look at what happened to Prada with the monkey keychains—if they had more diverse people in their teams, that probably wouldn’t have happened. It’s a lesson for everyone to learn, and it makes brands understand that with the power of social media, people will voice their opinions and call them out for inappropriate behavior. It can really hurt a company if they don’t listen to their audience.”
You’re very vocal on social media. How do you allow yourself to be so vulnerable and open with the online community, as well as people in real life?
“I was always an introvert, and I still feel like I have that introverted side of me. I really just want to talk about the situations that living with disabilities come with. It can be frustrating and annoying sometimes to deal with. My friend said to me that there are a billion other people who are going through what I go through, but are too afraid to speak about it. Since I have a bigger platform, my friend said that it’s important for me to talk about the obstacles of my life to represent my community and to let them know that they’re not alone, and that it’s going to be okay. It happens to so many people, but we don’t talk about it, so I allow myself to be open and vulnerable. I know that there are a lot of people who are grateful for me talking about these issues, so other people who would never understand our daily lives become more educated. I try to be a representative of my community, and I show the good and the struggles. And it’s also not anyone’s fault, we just haven’t had an opportunity to use an outlet to talk about our lives to a wider audience. So that’s why I stay so open, it’s satisfying to know that I’m not the only one. But, it’s also to show society what we go through. I talk about flying a lot, and how horrible it can be for someone in a wheelchair like myself. I have to rely on someone else to make sure that my chair isn’t broken, all of the time. I feel like if I talk about these issues enough on social media, maybe someone who works in a C-Suite for these airlines will hear my story and go, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea it was this bad, let’s see if we can change that and make it better.’ I always post that stuff with a purpose of reaching other people, so the right person can hear it and do something about it.”
Martin L. Brown Â
What are some of our favorite self-care techniques?
“I love going to the movies by myself now. I used to feel really weird about doing that, but I’ve always loved going to the movies. Now I really love going by myself so I can relax and see another world for a few hours. I also love getting facials, they’re so relaxing. My face always glows after a facial, I feel like there’s a flashlight on my face at all times. I’ve been really into meditating through guided meditation, it’s helped me a lot. But, the biggest self-care technique for me is seeing my therapist. I think it’s so important for people to see therapists, so you get to talk about everything you need to talk about to a professional who can really help you. I honestly think it should be mandatory for some professions to have therapy, and it should be free for everyone.”
A lot of people don’t understand the importance of therapy, and it’s so hindering. There’s still a stigma against mental health and therapy.
“I absolutely agree. Being a Latina, I’ve realized how much the community doesn’t understand the importance of seeing a therapist. In my culture, they think if you’re seeing a therapist, you’re crazy. It’s so baffling, because I go to therapy to take care of myself. I try to be the best human I can be by going to therapy and talking about situations in my life. It’s really sad, because I feel like our community needs it the most. A lot of people from the Latinx community would benefit from seeing a therapist, because of the overflowing machismo in our culture, which leads to women getting abused left and right.”
What do your “chill out” days look like?
“I honestly love waking up to an empty apartment. It sounds weird, but I really love letting my body wake up on its own, it’s a luxury nowadays. When I have a free day I shut off my alarm and I shut off my phone until my body wants to get up. I play with my dog, then I go on a rampage on Netflix and cook. Cooking is one of my favorite things to do when I’m chilling out. If I want to be social then I’ll hit up my friends, open a bottle of wine, and just talk about random stuff.”
What are you binging on Netflix?
“Honestly, Netflix should hire me because I binge-watch an enormous amount of shows. Right now, I’ve been watching American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace. It’s so good! It’s blowing my mind into a million different pieces.”
Do you have any upcoming projects you want to talk about?
“I will say that there are a lot of really cool projects in the works, but I can’t say much other than that. But a lot of exciting things happening, for sure!”