Who is Jillian Mercado?

The model with muscular dystrophy is the new face of Beyoncé's online store

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In the April 2013 issue of ELLE,  New York fashion writer, blogger and new face of Beyoncé's online store Jillian Mercado wrote about the challenges of building a career in fashion when you're in a wheelchair...

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Last September, during the s/s 2013 shows at New York Fashion Week, this street-style picture of me was posted online. It spread like wildfire. I had tons of people writing to tell me what an inspiration I was. Not because of my outfit, but because I’m in fashion and in a wheelchair.

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Born disabled – due to an accident during birth which led to me having spastic muscular dystrophy – and in a wheelchair from the age of 3, I could never help but see things differently. But my reaction wasn’t what you’d expect. I didn’t try to disappear, make myself bland so that no one would notice me and therefore my wheelchair, or try to fit in with the crowd. I actively didn’t want to fit in. I wanted to be accepted for being me.

So why would I want to work in fashion, writing for magazines and websites, where appearance and fitting in seems to matter so much? It wasn’t a desire to prove anyone wrong. I was simply being myself and doing what I always loved. Growing up, my parents would take me on little shopping adventures for clothes and ask for my opinion on what looked best on them; I’d loved colours and fabrics from a young age. They taught me that the only person standing in your way is you. They’ve worked hard to make a good life for my two sisters and me; I didn’t want to waste it, even with a disability.

As I grew up, fashion had become a way to express myself. Some people didn’t understand my desire to stand out when I wore bold make-up and designs and they tried to make me feel awkward. And when I began to experiment with my style in my teens, I was wearing leg braces, which led to an awful nickname of ‘robot’ at school. But mostly, and even worse, I remember the stares of girls in the school hallways.

Leaving school to go to fashion college in New York – where I studied fashion merchandising management – was thrilling. Finally, I had the chance to pursue my dream. But it wasn’t an easy journey at first.

When I went to New York Fashion Week in 2007, it was with some of the students from my college who had been asked to help prepare gift bags and set up chairs. Even though it was behind the scenes, I was so excited.

I went shopping at Gap and got a flower-print dress that hung on my door ready for my big day. I woke up early, as nervous as if I was going on a first date. I took the bus downtown and saw people going into the fashion tents with their invitations in hand. It didn’t even occur to me that no one was expecting a girl in a wheelchair.

At the office where I had to pick up my pass a woman looked at me, asked me to hold on and disappeared. When she came back, she said the college hadn’t informed her that I was disabled. Confused, I politely asked what the problem was. I explained that being in a wheelchair didn’t matter – I could do anything. But she said the tents weren’t accessible and there was no way of me getting in.

My heart dropped and I tried to hold back my tears. How could a few stairs get in the way of what was meant to be one of the most memorable moments of my life so far?

That day, I decided that not only was I going to be in those tents, but I was going to be personally invited. I had to be the one to let people know that being in a wheelchair does not have anything to do with my love for, or ability in, the industry. Until that point, I had never seen anyone in a wheelchair working in the fashion industry or going to Fashion Week. But so what? It only made me more determined to be the first.

Part of my studies involved getting a fashion-industry internship for one term. I got eight interviews and was rejected by seven. Of course, I never said on my CV that I was in a wheelchair – why should I? I believe it doesn’t matter. So the surprise when I arrived for the interview was obvious. But did it bother me? No, I liked it. I knew I was different, but that it could go one of two ways: they could either reject me, or embrace me for having the courage to enter a world where the suspicion is you’ll be judged by your looks.

Luckily, I increasingly find that I am embraced. At the internship I did get – as editorial assistant at American fashion magazine Allure – I was made to feel that I could be myself, no matter what I looked like, and that with hard work you can achieve great results. Since then, I haven’t stopped working.
I write for numerous style websites, as well as my own blog. Sometimes people think I’m at a fashion event as a joke or as a one-off for a good cause, so when they find out that I actually work in the industry like them they are shocked. But there are many more moments where I feel accepted and welcomed: a smile, questions about my outfit or what shows I’m going to.

And these days, I do get invited to shows. Being there in a wheelchair is one of the best feelings, because it shows that being disabled doesn’t have to be an end to your ambitions. Also, nowadays, I’ve realised that I dress how I do because it makes me feel happy. I already look different to other people, but what I choose to wear is a form of standing out that I can control. Being afraid of other people’s opinion of what you wear means you will never let your true self show. And that’s what’s important.

Contrary to expectations, working in the fashion industry has been the first time I’ve felt like I really belong somewhere because, despite what happened at the start, people have accepted me for who I am. I’ve learnt fashion is an industry built on looking different, on standing out. People still make snap judgements or look twice, but if you come into it with determination people will see how dedicated you are and accept you for who you are. If you want something in life you have to go for it: no one else will do it for you, and the end result is so much more satisfying. I plan on sticking around for a long time and people are starting to accept that I’m not going anywhere. So love me for me or close your eyes, because I’m here to stay.

Words by Jillian Mercado

Photographs Joanna McClure

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