Jillian Mercado always loved fashion. But flipping through magazines as a little girl, she didn't see anyone who looked like her: a person with muscular dystrophy who uses a wheelchair. So Jillian set out to change that.
A Difficult Birth
Jillian Mercado was born in New York City's Harlem neighborhood on April 30, 1987. While her parents were ecstatic to welcome the young girl into the world, complications during labor made the experience a difficult one.
"During my day of birth, the doctor dislocated my hip," Jillian explained. "Which led me to have a disability." According to hospital staff, the dislocated bone wasn't the only condition she was born with: Mercado was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which affects a person's ability to move and maintain balance.
A New York Childhood
Growing up, Jillian was different from many people around her. But the New Yorker said that she was surrounded by people of different backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities, so being different wasn't too uncommon in the diverse city. Mercado herself identified as Latina since her parents came from the Dominican Republic.
"I grew up walking two blocks and meeting all sorts of people from all over the world," Jillian recalled. "And that itself is so beautiful." The young child's Dominican background influenced much of her life and identity. But perhaps the most influential thing in her childhood was fashion.
Her Love for Fashion
Jillian's dad worked as a shoe salesman and her mom was a dressmaker. "I used to spend a lot of time with her [my mom] because the noise of the sewing machine soothed me," Mercado said in an interview with POPSUGAR. "My favorite time was spending time with her and watching her sew."
This instilled an early passion for the stylish industry. "Loving fashion so much - there is no word for it, it was something that I needed like water," Jillian explained. Mercado lived a happy childhood but one day, a doctor's appointment led to shocking news.
She Didn't Have Cerebral Palsy
"During a random doctor's checkup, the doctor told me that I don't have cerebral palsy anymore," Jillian explained. At 13 years old, she's been misdiagnosed at birth. "I never had it and what I have is actually spastic muscular dystrophy," Jill said.
"My muscles get tight in certain areas in extremely random situations and times," she said of the newly-diagnosed condition. But one thing didn't change: Jillian would still use a wheelchair. "Ever since I can remember, or have recollection, I have always been in a wheelchair," Mercado explained.
Life in the City
While New York City was certainly a diverse place to grow up in, living with a disability wasn't always easy in the Big Apple. Mercado realized early on that simple things, like taking the subway, became much more complicated when using a wheelchair.
Constantly broken elevators made public transportation a nightmare. "The only reason I've made it this far is because I'm really good at finding a silver lining to any horrible situation," Jillian said. "You have to have this extra like seventh sense, which is patience."
Her Disability Didn't Cause Suffering
Although being a wheelchair-user in a crowded, fast-paced city was difficult at times, Jillian didn't blame these challenges on her condition of muscular dystrophy. Mercado knew that if the world was more accessible, she'd be able to live a fulfilling life with a disability.
"I've never suffered because I'm disabled, not once," Jill said. "I, although, have suffered because the world doesn't treat people who have disabilities with the respect they deserve." Mercado soon realized that people had plenty of misunderstandings about life with muscular dystrophy.
It was the physical environment and, sadly, the people around her who at times made Jillian feel excluded from society. This might've been in part because of the myths surrounding the lives of people with disabilities. Mercado explained that people have a "lot of misconceptions."
According to Jill, people often think that those with disabilities "have no social life. We stay at home all day and do nothing. We do not date - that's a funny one. We do not do anything really but feel miserable for our lives." Mercado knew her life was drastically different from what many imagined it to be.
"Having a Disabiltiy Is Like a Superpower."
For Jillian, her muscular dystrophy was an important - and positive - part of her identity. "I always say that having a disability is like a superpower," she explained. "It's something that people never understand, but it's so magical in itself. I appreciate the world and my life more than the average person does."
But embracing her disability didn't make other people's prejudices that much easier to swallow, especially when Jillian was still young. And while fashion was often an escape from life's difficulties, Mercado soon realized the industry had its own inclusion problems.
A Sad Realization
"I was obsessed with magazines when I was younger," Jillian explained. "At that time I wanted to be an editor or an editor-in-chief of a magazine." And then Mercado had a sad realization about the fashion industry that she loved so much: "I didn't see anyone in the magazines that looked like me," she said.
"I remember when I was on AOL.com, and I would search 'wheelchair model,' nothing will show up," Jill added. "In regards to disability and advertisement, it's usually something like a hospital advertisement; something very degrading. It's never empowering."
The lack of representation in the fashion world understandably took its toll on Mercado's self-esteem. After all, it was her biggest hobby and passion. "Growing up with television and media really takes a toll on how we shape what it means to be beautiful," she said.
"I feel like, personally, if I would have seen someone who had a disability on television or in media, I believe that I would have been less scared to be myself," Jillian continued. "I would always zoom in on everything on my own body because I felt that I was dealt a bad hand."
Going To College
Mercado felt left out of the fashion world. The pages of Jillian's favorite magazines were filled with women that didn't look like her, and she sometimes couldn't help but wonder whether there was even a place for someone with a visible disability in the competitive industry.
But Jillian's love and passion for fashion were bigger than her. Despite feeling unrepresented, Mercado continued to be drawn in by the publications and catwalks. After high school, she studied fashion merchandising at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology from 2006 to 2010.
A Working Gal
The college student's time at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology cemented her love for everything clothing and style. Mercado had an innate talent for fashion, and it showed in her classwork and extra-curricular activities. It wasn't long before Jillian landed some eye-opening internships.
Mercado's success as a student led to internships at Veranda and Allure magazine. At this stage in her career, the young woman worked mainly behind-the-scenes in the fashion industry. "I felt very at home, like this was my destiny," she recalled. But it wasn't always easy to be a fashionista with a disability.
"I Had To Work a Million Times Harder"
Jillian had big dreams. "I thought in the future I'd become editor in chief somewhere and hire a diverse group of models," she explained. "But as I was on my journey to become an awesome editor, I thought, 'Where are all my peoples who have disabilities?' It concerned me that such a large community of people were being ignored."
The lack of diversity pushed Mercado to work extra hard. "In my mind, I felt like I had to work a million times harder to prove to everyone in the fashion world that I was there, and for them to not see my disability, to see me first," Jillian said. It might've been unfair, but the young professional's persistence paid off.
Covering NY's Fashion Week
Founded in 1991, Allure magazine was already a highly-celebrated women's publication by the time Jillian joined their team as an intern. Her incredible work ethic and intelligence got Mercado noticed by the right people, and she quickly earned some incredible opportunities.
It wasn't long before the aspiring editor-in-chief started attending New York's world-renowned Fashion week. Jillian continued attending the famous event for years as a volunteer and started covering affairs for society photographer Patrick McMullan's PMc Magazine.
Getting in Front of the Camera
For years, Mercado climbed the professional ladder of the fashion industry. But always behind the camera. From covering catwalk events to blogging about street style, Jillian envisioned herself working behind-the-scenes and rising the ranks to be an editor.
"I honestly didn't consider modeling as a career because I didn't think that it was such a thing," she said. But at the same time, Mercado was haunted by the lack of models with visible disabilities. Then an opportunity to change the lack of representation came around, and Jillian couldn't resist.
A Big-Time Modeling Gig
About four years after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology, Jillian came across a world-wide open call for an upcoming Diesel campaign. The fashion blogger decided to give modeling a shot and auditioned for the Italian retail clothing company, known for its stylish denim.
"I decided to just be that person that I didn't see and really take the industry and shake things up," Mercado explained. Jill was in shock when she landed the gig. "When I got the email that I was one of 24 models in the Diesel campaign, I immediately looked to see if it was fake," she said.
The Public Response
Mercado starred in her first campaign in 2014. "When that image came out, my world literally turned upside down. It went viral," she shared. Nicola Formichetti, the label's artistic director who selected Jillian for the job, recalled how "She became globally famous. You know, 'That girl in the wheelchair in the Diesel ad.'"
The blogger-turned-model added, "I got an outpouring of messages and emails from strangers all around the world, which shows the beauty of social media and how much power it has." She said that a lot of the messages contained sentiments like, "If I'd only seen this when I was younger, I would have pursued this career choice."
She Caught the Attention of IMG Models
"After my first campaign, my whole life completely 180-ed. The Today Show, they called me, they wanted to interview me," Mercado excitedly said. Then, the unthinkable happened: she got signed by IMG Models. "So like my co-worker is Kate Moss," Jillian said at the time. "That is so beyond awesome."
Mercado and the prominent modeling agency made things official in August of 2015. "We were all emotional," said Ivan Bart, President of IMG Models, about taking on Jillian. "It was an extremely exciting signing, and we knew that we had a great opportunity."
After the Deisel campaign and joining IMG models, Jillian started getting one job after another. She modeled for the likes of Nordstrom and was in former Vogue Paris editor Carine Roitfeld's CR Fashion Book. But in some ways, it still didn't seem real to Mercado.
"It took me a while to say that I'm a model because, in my mind, I was still struggling with the idea of having model and disability in the same sentence," Jillian explained. But when the Queen of the hive herself hired Mercado to model her latest merchandise, things got real.
Working for Queen B
In March of 2016, Mercado was announced as one of only three supermodels set to promote merchandise for Beyoncé's Formation World Tour. Suddenly, Jillian found herself on Queen B's official website, rocking shirts and sweaters with some of the singer's famous lines.
"It was such an amazing, heartfelt experience to be a part of Beyoncé's world," Mercado said. "I had people and friends all around the world sending me links or writing comments about the campaign, which just shows you how important diversity is, not only the fashion world but for the entertainment world as well."
Her First Cover
Jillian eventually left IMG models and signed with Creative Artists Agency Worldwide instead. But one thing didn't change: she kept on booking modeling gigs. In a very exciting career moment, the proud Latin New Yorker was featured in a Target marketing campaign that debuted during Telemundo's Billboard Latin Music Awards.
By September 2016, Mercado appeared in editorial features for Glamour and Cosmopolitan magazines. At the end of that year, Jillian landed her first cover - a flower-filled spread with Posture Magazine. In February 2017, she appeared in Galore and later on the cover of Glassbook. Mercado was on a mission to change the industry.
"I Love When People Stare."
While Jillian once struggled with imagining her place in the fashion industry, she now embraced her supermodel reputation. Mercado enjoyed the stares from strangers on the street that had once made her uneasy. "I love when people stare," she said. "I love it now when people stare."
"It's a very uncomfortable feeling, but when you start embracing it you convert those stares into 'They must be seeing something amazing in me so that's why they're staring,'" Mercado added. "Having my makeup look on point and perfect, it's a longer stare, and I kind of enjoy that."
Not Diverse Enough
While Jillian grew in confidence and booked one campaign after another, she was still troubled by the style industry's lack of variety. "When you look at entertainment and the fashion world, people get praise for diversity in skin and size, but no one ever talks about disability," Mercado said.
"So I always try to bring it up in conversation," she continued. "Especially when people are talking about diversity and inclusion in their brands, I'm like, 'What else besides size and color are you changing up here?'" But Jillian didn't want to stop at representation - she aimed to change the definition of beauty itself.
Challenging Beauty Standards
"I do not know who was the first person who said, 'Well, this is the model of what someone is supposed to look like,' I've always had trouble with that," Mercado said. "Maybe it's because of my Dominican stubbornness and being a New Yorker and that we just give no [explicit] and because New York is diverse."
As one of the few professional models with a visible physical disability in the industry, Jillian made it her goal to help others understand that having a disability wasn't just okay - it was sexy and hot. "People [with disabilities] should see themselves in an editorial, in a magazine, or a commercial," Mercado said.
She Doesn't Want To Be Your Inspiration
Since rising in popularity and challenging beauty standards, Jillian has often been labeled "inspiring" by many people and magazines. But Mercado said she's not here to be the world's inspiration. "We're [people with disabilities] so much more than here to inspire other people," she explained. "
I think that a lot of people might get offended by that," Jillian continued. "People are always trying to 'save' us, but really they should be trying to save themselves. People think we need to be saved because we're different. But people who throw that negativity out, it's really because they are looking at their own reflection."
A Teen Vogue Moment
In her quest to change the world, Jillian was noticed by Teen Vogue magazine. The star was one of three models featured in the publication's September 2018 issue that highlighted "The new faces of fashion." When discussing the feature, Mercado gushed, "I don't even know what to say right now."
"All I ever wanted as a child was to see myself represented in an industry that I loved so much. And here we are... on the SEPTEMBER ISSUE OF Teen Vogue!!!" she wrote on Facebook. "When you want something... no matter if the whole world is against you, you have the strength and power to make it happen."
Her Runway Debut
More success followed Jillian's Teen Vogue editorial. The hard-working woman who once covered everything behind-the-scenes at New York Fashion Week suddenly found herself on the catwalk of the annual event. Mercado made her runway debut at The Blonds' Fall 2020 show in February of 2020.
"Knowing that somewhere, someplace, there's a younger me freaking the hell out that she sees herself on the runway [is mindblowing]," Jillian said following the show. Dressed in head-to-toe gold and looking like a total queen, Mercado rocked the runway in her power wheelchair. Then something unbelievable happened.
The L Word: Generation Q
Jillian went from never imagining herself as a model to rolling down New York Fashion Week catwalks. Now, she found herself in front of the camera for entirely different reasons: Mercado landed a recurring role in the continuation of the 2000s hit show The L Word.
The L Word: Generation Q follows a group of lesbian and bisexual friends exploring life and love in Los Angeles. As she announced her latest gig, Mercado took the chance to reveal her own sexuality. "Being a woman, having a disability, being Dominican, and finally, I can add to that magical layer being queer," Jillian said.
She's a Triple-Threat
Jillian Mercado is officially a triple threat: fashion icon, model, and advocate. "I never signed up to be an activist, but it kind of came with the territory," she reflected. "And I'm not complaining because I wholeheartedly believe in everything I speak out on." The activist has even collaborated with the United Nations.
"I'm here not just to do this for myself. I want to make a path for other guys and girls who don't see themselves out there," Jillian said. "I want to keep working until the idea that putting someone like me... on a billboard will be so normal in our society that it won't even make headlines."
A Full-Circle Moment
The little girl who surfed the internet looking for a "wheelchair model" and couldn't find one is that person now. "A few years ago, when I did go back and Google 'wheelchair model,' just to see if there is anybody else out there, I was the first photo that showed up," Mercado said.
"Which was such a moment for me because it was a flashback of when I was younger," she added. Jillian wants to show the world and her peers that people with disabilities can do anything they want if given a chance. And since those opportunities are lacking, she's creating them.