Joan Smalls Talks UN Girl Up Campaign and Finding Backbone in Porter Edit September 6, 2019

Supermodel, activist and Puerto Rican beauty Joan Smalls wears lean, fierce fashion drama from Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Dodo Bar Or, Givenchy, Valentino and more, styled by Lilli Milhiser. Billy Kidd is behind the lens for Porter Edit September 6, 2019. Gillian Brett conducts the interview.

True words of wisdom spring forth from Joan Smalls in the first paragraph, in response to a question about how her friends might describe her:

“Funny,” she starts, “energetic, genuine, a little spicy. Crazy at times, but a good crazy. I’m just being myself,” she says.

“There’s a saying in Spanish that goes, ‘No soy un billete de cien para caerle bien a todo el mundo.’ It kind of means, ‘I’m not a hundred-dollar bill, so I know not everybody’s going to like me.’”

Smalls talks about improvements in the fashion industry around diversity, before moving to her own identity. We live in times when lines of demarcation around skin color, identity and cultural appropriation border on extreme. And this trait is predominant among people who fashion themselves as progressives. Joan Smalls articulates a more advanced understanding of identity, without negating traits like skin color that have obviously helped others to define her.

What if diversity is at the core of one’s identity?

As the daughter of an Afro-Irish accountant father and a Puerto Rican social worker mother, and with Spanish, Taíno and South Asian ancestry, diversity has always been at the core of her identity. “I grew up in a household that was multicultural,” she says of her upbringing on a six-acre farm in Hatillo, northern Puerto Rico. “So, I wanted to experience the world and to be able to grow from other people who are worldly. That’s so important – it’s not just about education, it’s about surrounding yourself with people who are likeminded, people who want to strive, who have ambition.”

Smalls explains why she hides out during fashion weeks, as the demands of social media are overwhelming. Ultimately, though, Joan Smalls finds social media to be empowering — especially when models are trained to be seen and not heard. Note from Anne: that’s because of the take-down of the original supermodel boss ladies. They totally threatened the fashion industry status quo.

Small speaks with great enthusiasm about her work for the United Nations Girl Up Campaigna global movement that aims to inspire “young women – and men – to empower their communities and speak out about whatever issues they see in society”. When Smalls speaks at one of many Girl Up summits around the world, she’s moved by the passionate young campaigners she’s met along the way: “It was just incredible to see the youth be so involved in a better future.”

Joan Smalls’ closing the interview words reaffirm her opening message. Life is full of mistakes; events don’t work out, and everyone will not like you. Having conquered scoliosis (sideways curvature of the spine), Smalls understands the importance of backbone. Figuratively speaking, Smalls’ backbone is central to her inner strength, too.

“If something doesn’t work out, just take it for what it is, don’t hold on to it, and move on. You find growth in failure and that’s how you become a success. It comes from continuing to try.”