Diagnosed with vitiligo, a pigment-diminishing skin condition, at age four, Toronto model Chantelle Winnie faced bullying from classmates, and rejections from modelling agents. So she jump-started her career the 21st-century way: via Instagram—a move that landed her a spot on America’s Next Top Model, plus campaigns for Diesel and, later this year, Sprite. Here, the 21-year-old on breaking big and redefining beauty.
I was a lucky kid, and I grew up connected to a lot of people. My parents separated before I was born, but they remained friends, so I was close to both sides of my family, with siblings and cousins and godparents. I’ve had the same best friend since grade six. I faced challenges as a kid, but who hasn’t? A lot of people have experienced far worse. I was bullied, sure, and it was painful at the time. I even quit high school to get away from it. But I’ve never been the kind of person to let my past predict my future.
When I was 16, Shannon Boodram, a Canadian journalist who is like my big sister now, contacted me through Facebook. She interviewed me and put it on YouTube. The video got thousands of views. That was really exciting, because people in Toronto started recognizing me and saying, “You’re the girl from that YouTube video!” Shannon encouraged me to give modelling a shot, but every agency I went to in Toronto rejected me because of my skin. I remember going to one when I was 17. They sat me down and told me I was gorgeous and my bone structure was amazing and my features were amazing and I should thank my mum and dad for creating such a beautiful girl. Then they told me there was no place for me in the modelling industry unless I wanted to be a makeup artist.
I was discouraged, but I didn’t give up. I just took a detour online—to Instagram, where I posted selfies. That was my first platform for getting my name out there. Social media is a great way to get discovered in the industry because it’s free, it’s worldwide and everyone’s on it—a very powerful combination. That’s where Tyra Banks and America’s Next Top Model found me a couple of years ago. I was working nine to five and going to school in Toronto, but I dropped everything and went to California, the land of dreams, to be on the show. That was the turning point of my career.
Now I’m a model, but on my terms. I rebel against the stigma of being a “model with a skin condition.” That’s not how I see myself. I’m an international model, and the jobs I get, from being the face of Desigual to my new campaign with Sprite, are the jobs of a global model, not a model with vitiligo.