Meet Jillian Mercado, the Disabled Model Who Graced Teen Vogue’s September Cover

Lead Photo: Art by Alan López for Remezcla
Art by Alan López for Remezcla
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The fashion industry may tout itself as progressive, but it has a history of excluding others. As a matter of fact, in its 126-year history, only one Black photographer has shot the cover of Vogue – thanks in large part to Beyoncé. And it’s not just people of color who often find themselves shut out of this world, it’s also anyone who doesn’t fit into their narrow standard of beauty, meaning that the disabled community hardly ever ends up inside the (virtual or IRL) pages of fashion magazines. Teen Vogue hopes to change that.

For its September issue, aka publications’ most important issue of the year, the online magazine has spotlighted three disabled models on three different covers. The accompanying article, titled What It’s Like to Be a Disabled Model in the Fashion Industry,” features Chelsea Werner, Mama Cax, and Jillian Mercado – all of whom have different disabilities. Written by Keah Brown, the piece spotlights the way they navigate the industry, touching on representation, diversity on the runway, and more.

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I don’t even know what to say right now. I am left with an overwhelming feeling of happiness and gratitude. All I ever wanted as a child was to see my self represented in an industry that I loved so much. And here we are… on the SEPTEMBER ISSUE OF @teenvogue!!! — When you want something so bad, manifest it with all your heart and soul, blood sweat and tears because nothing is impossible, no matter if the whole world is against you, you have the strength and power to make it happen. This cover just proves all of that hard work. — I want to thank every single person who has helped me get to where I am today, you believed in me when no one else did. I want to thank my agency @imgmodels @ivanmbart for helping me pave the way when it’s hard for me to do it by myself. My mom, sisters and friends for keeping me grounded and cheering me on every single milestone in my life. But most importantly I want to dedicate this moment to my younger self, we did it mama! All those nights of self-doubt were for this moment. Your patience and dedication made today happen. Go hug yourself and cry of happiness because we are just getting started! — I also want to take this moment and say that for those of you out there like my younger self, here is proof that you can be anything you set your mind to, this is for you as well. Let it be a lesson that if you want to see change happen in the world for good be the one to change it yourself. I believe in you. — Shout out to to my sis @mamacaxx and the lovely @showtimewerner for sharing this moment with me! – Team: Photograper @camilafalquez, style @lanajaylackey, makeup @makiryoke, hair @edwardlampley, manicure @yukie_miyakawa_nails and set design @danielleselig

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And while the piece is worth a read for everyone, we can’t deny that we’re especially excited to see a disabled Latina on the cover of this magazine. Dominican-American Mercado is changing the face of fashion and advocating for the disabled community in all industries. “There wasn’t anyone who looked like me in any magazines or mainstream media, TV, or anything,” she tells Teen Vogue. “It excluded me from something that I was very passionate about. It was definitely confusing because I knew my worth in the world. I knew that there’s [so many] people out there like me, but we are never included in any conversations.”

As she gets one of her biggest platforms, we set out find five additional things about the model, who’s proving that disability shouldn’t be a barrier toward your dream career.

Learn more about her below.

Her first campaign was for Diesel.

In a 2017 interview with Fusion, Mercado details how she “sticks out like a sore thumb” with her disability, yet her mentality through life is to prove an unfair world wrong. When she stumbled upon an open casting call for Nicola Formichetti’s We Are Connected campaign for Diesel, she was hesitant. Her disability is visual, and how would that hold up against the aesthetics of high fashion?

But Formichetti wanted to spotlight all types of people, even those with disabilities. She decided to take the plunge and was one of 24 models selected. Upon being chosen, Mercado said she hoped the campaign would compel people to start thinking of disability differently. And while there’s still a ways to go, people have certainly started seeing Mercado as not just a model in a wheelchair, but one on par with Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen. (Fun fact: Mercado’s represented by IMG, the same agency who reps those two fierce ladies.)

She's Survived Bullying

People are fearful of what they don’t understand and that comes through clearest when they’re confronted with a disability. Mercado has discussed in detail her struggles with bullying and how she was often the only person in her school with a physical disability.

In a 2017 interview with Paper magazine Mercado said she refused to give in to other’s negativity. “I had to make a decision to stay in this corner of misery or just turn around and go on to being the happiest I can be.”

She wants to elevate the voices of Latinas.

Mercado is a triple threat: “I’m Latina and a woman, so that’s two notches…I have a disability which is not invisible…so that’s three right there,” she told Paper.

But the New York-born Mercado wants to use her platform to not just elevate the women with disabilities, but Latinas in general. “The reason why I’m here is to give a voice to a community that hasn’t had one in mass media,” she added.

In 2016 she was included as one of a dozen Latina models in an ad campaign for Target that played during Telemundo’s Billboard Latin Music Awards and is one of a growing movement of Latinx disabled models, which includes Mexican model Tamara Mena and Puerto-Rican/Sicilian model Dru Presta.

She's fighting for greater accessibility.

Anyone with a physical disability will tell you that traveling ain’t easy. Mercado is well aware of this and is pushing for change. Not only has her presence compelled the fashion industry to look at their own accessibility issues, she’s also fighting to make the world more accessible. Living in New York, Mercado frequently travels by subway, but only about 20 percent of stations are wheelchair accessible.

When going to fashion shows and other events, her approach is to “dip my toes in to see what happens,” which can lead to problems, as she details in Paper. During Fashion Week, she was forced to advocate for herself when others told her to alert them of her presence weeks in advance. “I’m always an advocate, and I talk about it as much as I can if they’re not prepared,” she said. If anything, Mercado is as lighthearted as she can be about a subject that goes woefully underreported. She added, “I always say I need my own travel show because there’s no information online [about accessibility].” Someone really should take her up on that!

She has muscular dystrophy, but didn't know that right away.

Disabilities are complex and often hard to diagnose. Officially, Mercado has spastic muscular dystrophy, a hereditary condition that leads to muscle weakness and degeneration. But at birth, Mercado was actually diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a completely different disease usually the result of brain damage. Until she was 13, Mercado believed that was what she had until going to a different doctor who told her, surprise, she didn’t have CP, because she never had it in the first place. Mercado received the proper diagnosis and has lived her life with muscular dystrophy.