When Jillian Mercado was a fashion-obsessed kid growing up in New York, one thing struck her as she pored through her beloved magazines – no one in the pages looked like her.
“I think about me as a young child hoarding magazines and going where am I here? And not finding myself at all.”
Mercado had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy at 13 (“My recollection is of always being in a wheelchair”) and when she couldn’t see people who looked like her in the magazines she had at home, she’d buy others. She still couldn’t see herself.
“I wanted to be part of [fashion] so bad,” the New Yorker told the audience at the 10th annual Women in the World Summit. “And I saw such a lack of representation in that industry.”
Ultimately, she got her start in fashion as an intern while she was at college. She did stints at Conde Nast and Hearst, “wanting to learn the politics behind fashion so I could hire people who looked like me”.
She moved from behind-the-scenes to in front of the camera, modeling for a colleague who cast her in her first campaign.
Now Mercado, the daughter of Dominican immigrants, is changing the way we think about conventional ideas of style and exposing a gap in the fashion industry.
She has starred in campaigns for Diesel, Olay, Bumble 100, CK fragrance, Nordstrom, Target and Tommy Hilfiger. She was also the first model in a wheelchair to grace the digital cover of Teen Vogue. (Behind the scenes, she also worked on the merchandising campaign for Beyonce’s wildly successful Formation world tour.)
“It’s really hard when you’re the first of your kind to take fear and put it to the side and say I’m not going to be fearful of this anymore and I want to teach other people not to be fearful as well,” Mercado told the audience. “So when I have the opportunity to be a voice for my community, I do it.”
Now, when Mercado receives messages on social media from people thanking her, she feels even more inspired to continue to advocate for her community. “Now I don’t do it for myself, I do it to hold the door for someone else.”
And with much work still to do, she has one eye on 2020, hoping to see a Democratic nominee champion those with disabilities, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
“I will find ways to tell my story and tell the story of people who have been invited to the cookout but not allowed to eat,” she explained. “I want to elevate that to the next level. It’s a community of people who have definitely not been put into the light that we see ourselves.”
Additional reporting by Emily Guilfoil.