Since Jillian Mercado first came onto the fashion scene as a student at FIT she’s been determined to defy the odds. Diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child, the inspiring model has worked past her disability landing landmark campaigns for Diesel, tv spots for Target and shoots for the pages of CR Fashion Book. We talked to the social media model maven about when she fell in love with fashion, the needed push for diversity in the industry, and her hopes for what is next.
When you first aspired to get into fashion how did you use your tumblr blog, manufacturedin1987, as an outlet of expression?
My blog is a tricky situation. For me, when I do something, I’m 100% dedicated to doing it. I try my best to post really important stuff and not to post [things] to fill in days or gaps. The funny thing is that I started my blog a really long time ago when I was in college and a friend of mine told me that I should start blogging. For me during that time I didn’t know that people would want to know about my life and what I wear. At the time my friend worked at Sephora in Times Square and I interned at Allure, she said, “The fact that you intern at Allure and have a disability is enough proof that you should start blogging. People will be interested in what you’re doing. Believe me, just try it!” I signed up on Tumblr when Tumblr first started. I posted a photo of myself during fashion week and I was a little insecure about it—I didn’t know if people were going to like it. My whole focus was on what other people thought about it and not what I thought about it. The photo went viral—that gave me more confidence to keep talking about my life; I found a huge community of people who were going through the same thing or wanted to learn more.
So how was it looking at fashion from your perspective growing up? What intrigued you about the industry so much?
When people ask me, “How’d you get into Fashion?” I think back to when I was a child. I remember hanging out with my mom, a seamstress. She would often bring her work home so she could finish it and I would ask many questions about the different sewing methods while she was working. She mainly crafted embroideries. Out of my other two sisters, I was the one fascinated with materials. My dad used to work at a shoe store and bring shoes home to my mom. I would would wear them around the house saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m a model!” I was very intrigued with learning brands, colors, materials—fashion and clothes, but I didn’t exactly know there was career opportunity in the industry. When I was a senior in high school, my friend told me about Fashion Institute of Technology and encouraged me to take a campus tour. At that point I was reading fashion magazines. When I toured FIT, I knew that was where I wanted to be—the sewing room gave me goosebumps; the atmosphere, the creative soul was in one building. I applied, was admitted, and received a flood of opportunities.
I also see that beauty has been a big part of your World? What is it about makeup and hair that you love as a form of expressions?
I have a very adventurous mind and outlook on life. In middle school I used to collect hundreds of magazines—I used to hoard them almost. Especially Allure, W, and NYLON. With Allure, I used to what to befriend the kind of girl in the magazine; I love playing with makeup. I tested and ruined so much of mother’s makeup, I always loved the feeling of enhancing your beauty. A lot of people have the notion that when you put on makeup, you must be hiding something, but it’s not that. I feel beautiful when I put makeup on—I feel beautiful without it; I just love lipstick and I love making my long eyelashes even longer!
You’ve been in campaigns for Diesel, Nordstrom, Target, and Beyonce’s Ivy Park line, along with an editorial appearances in CR. What has been the most enlightening part of your journey behind the camera? Moments that you loved?
It’s funny, going into this industry you think you’re inches away from the pits of hell and fire just because of who you are. Fashion’s has a reputation of being a very mean place and everyone’s catty—I absolutely experienced that, but depending on how passionate you are [you can overcome]. I tell my friends all the time, “If I start changing, you can slap me across the face! Give me a reality check.” Despite the many campaigns, I haven’t changed who I am. I’m still the same humble person now that I was at the beginning. At the start of photoshoots I’m still super nervous. I try not miss the fact that all of this is part of the mission for diversity for a better future for everyone.
Not discounting the many women before you with other disabilities in this business, what have been your challenges of being one of the first models with a disability signed to a major agency?
As a model in mainstream, I’ve made it my responsibility to make it part of my mission. I take it upon myself to seek out movements that are positive for the world we have. Diversity is a thing that should have happened a long time ago. Latinos and other people of color not on the runway is a huge problem… don’t get me started on that runway show that played Beyoncé and not one model of color walked in the presentation. That’s such a problem. It’s even more a responsibility for me seeing that I am experiencing the disability. Growing up I didn’t see girls like me in NYLON, W, or Allure. It’s important for me to show that if you want to be in this industry that you can be. It’s been hard; I’ve worked my patootles off to get to where I am. There very well could be a little me out there wanting to see themselves. It’s been an adventure. Even in the bad adventures, I’ve felt talked down upon and not asked questions directly. Thankfully, it hasn’t been an everyday thing.
What do you think the industry needs to work on in terms of diversity?
Seriously, I’ve only been in modeling for three, maybe four years, but I’ve been behind the camera for eight. I know the thought process behind production from castings to music selection. People like myself, Ashley Graham, and Hari Nef have our little armies fighting to change the landscape. It’s been 10 years I feel that change like this has last happened. It’s slowly moving, but it’s better than none at all. We can be sexy, we can sell clothes, we can even handle press if your just give us the opportunity. When I hear a designer did not hire a model of color because their skin color did not match the rest of the colors, it makes me wonder if the designer is listening to themselves. At the end of the day you want to sell your clothes, are you now picking who your clothes are sold to?
Do you think London and Paris are more accepting of diversity than New York?
I have no idea. I was born in New York and the one thing I love comparative to other places I have been is that it has diversity—people from every inch of the world come to live in New York. I studied marketing at FIT, I know that there are cooler things out there than what we see. I was ecstatic to hear New York Fashion Week Men’s was happening. I prefer the Men’s more than the Women’s now.
You’ve pushed so many boundaries, what is next?
Honestly, I never know what’s next until a week before when my agent tells me. I remember hearing celebrities say that when I was younger and thought that was a bogus excuse, but it’s really true! If I knew what was next I probably couldn’t hold the secret—I’d be too excited to tell the world! I would love to land my first fashion cover or be in a really amazing presentation or show. My goal in life is to have a fashion moment similar to Alexander McQueen’s Fall/Winter 2006 show featuring hologram Kate Moss. If Alexander was alive today, I would die to be in his show. Hands down, my favorite designer. My first day at Allure was the day of his passing.