Joan Smalls is opening up about the hardships she's faced throughout her modeling career, specifically, her experiences when it comes to being a woman of color in the fashion industry.
The 31-year-old supermodel was born and raised in Puerto Rico and moved to New York to be a model after graduating from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Smalls has been vocal about her support for the Black Lives Matter movement, including recently calling out the fashion industry to do more when it comes to diversity and inclusivity instead of only speaking out when it's trendy in a powerful Instagram video.
ET's Melicia Johnson spoke with Smalls about her decision to speak out and what the support from her colleagues has meant to her. Smalls said fellow A-list models Ashley Graham, Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner all messaged her to say they loved and supported her message.
"You know, it was nerve-wracking and I had a lot of sleepless nights because I think sometimes people see the outside perspective of you know, the glitz, the glamour, and not everything that shines is gold," she says. "You know, my success came from a lot of failures. It came with a lot of rejection and that's the part that I kept to myself and I use that kind of like a flame for my fire to keep pushing. It's like, OK, I can't give up now, I came from a small town in Puerto Rico where it's like, I need to show the world that you can make it regardless, so the support has been incredible. I've been so overwhelmed with friends that I made in this industry -- from people that work at brands, designers hitting me up saying, you know, 'I commend you for your braveness for speaking out' because a lot of them have known me throughout my career, so they've seen my struggles, they hear my cries and they've supported me throughout my career. So, I was overjoyed and relieved at the same time because it's like I'm sticking my neck out."
"In every industry ... it's hard to break through and then once you're there, you kind of have to walk on eggshells because you're at the mercy of someone else, so I think I've earned my right to speak in this industry, to speak my truth," she continues. "I am a professional. My resume speaks for itself so at this point, it's like, how can I speak my truth and encourage others to do the same? .... If I come from a place of, you know, my personal experiences you can't take that away from me. I'm not bashing anyone. I'm not attacking, I'm just saying what I lived through and what the industry has shown."
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The recent and long standing acts against the black community have been saddening, frustrating and unacceptable. I feel these same emotions when I think about how my industry, the fashion world, is responding. It is time for this industry to do more than post a black square and say they’ll “Do Better!” It’s time for us to see the change starting from the ground up. Give us a seat at the table, include us, give us a chance, because we are worthy, talented and unique. There have been so many times where I’ve had to face issues against my race within this industry because I was their token black girl. The campaigns and editorials I had to share while my counterparts got to achieve that on their own. Or that my hair was an issue or that I made a show or campaign too ethnic, the list goes on and on. This industry that I love has profited from us but has never considered us equal. This. Stops. Now. It’s time for the fashion industry to stand up and show their solidarity. Time for you all to give back to these communities and cultures which you draw so much inspiration from. I do want to thank those that did see me for me and gave me a chance. Those that helped me fight my way to where I am today. Thank you, thank you for doing what you knew to be right versus what others said should be done. You will help us be the leaders of change. In saying all of this, I also pledge to donate 50% of my salary for the remainder of 2020 to Black Lives Matter organizations. I know I can’t just talk about change, I have to be a force for it. I encourage and will continue to encourage brands within this industry to do the same and give back. Let’s all be the change we want and need to see. These battles are long from over but together we’re stronger and together we can accomplish what is needed. #WeAreNotATrend #blacklivesmatter
Smalls said based on her own experience, opportunities were definitely limited for women of color in the fashion industry.
"I think at the beginning, there were not many opportunities because as I expressed in my video, there was a lot of stereotyping, right?" she notes. "So, there was only one quota to fill which was a Black girl, so if I fill that quota, I didn't see another girl in the room that looked like me. ... I came from humble beginnings, I grew up in a household where I saw different ethnicities, different colors, different backgrounds, so I always wanted my work to reflect that and, you know, I take so much pride seeing other people that look like myself in places of a position of power or being able to showcase their greatness."
On top of fighting for her seat at the table, Smalls felt the added pressure of having to represent all Black and Latina women.
"That's another thing that people never understood, like, she's Black and Latin, but like, is she either/or? ... and I'm proud of all of it, it's just who I am," she says of her ethnicity. "And yeah, it's like, you know, when you walk into a room, I'm not walking in as Joan Smalls. I'm walking in, there's a community behind me because everything is going to be reflected on them. You know, if you speak out your mind, 'Oh, is she the angry Black girl? ... Oh, is she giving attitude?'"
"That's not it. I'm an adult, I'm a woman, I'm educated, I feel like if I need to speak up, I will do so without disrespecting anybody and we should take the color away from that," she continues. "But growing up, you always know that. My father told me before I came into the industry, he said, 'Joan, the day you were born, you were born with two strikes on your back. You're a woman, and you're Black.' And I was like, oh, you're hearing that from your own father and he's kind of breaking it down to you how the world actually works. So, going into the industry, I kind of knew that and it's like, 'OK, I'm going to prove you wrong. I'm going to prove that I can do it.' So, it definitely was a lot of pressure. I always wanted to outdo myself."
Smalls shares what she thinks needs to be done for the fashion industry to truly make changes.
"Going back to me being in the room and me being the only one, I think it's important and I think it's essential that [fashion companies'] creative teams should be equally reflective of diversity," she says. "So, not just the optics of what you see on billboards or images, but the team and the core itself where you're being the most creative should have people of all backgrounds. You know, higher up diverse staff, have the internal cultural team so you don't have mishaps within your company when you're marketing something and you're like, 'Oops, we didn't mean to offend you.' I feel like it has to come from the inside."
"And also, people in power or people who are leaders should definitely mentor others and uplift them at the same time," she adds. "I think, you know, having this conversation and making people feel more comfortable is gonna create growth and make everyone evolve towards the right direction, so therefore they can make it their mission to move towards the right direction."
The supermodel is definitely doing her part to further the movement, pledging to donate half of her salary for the remainder of 2020 to organizations supporting Black Lives Matter. She also launched donatemywage.org, which asks people for a one-time donation of a portion of their wages to go to Black Lives Matter organizations, and makes it easier to calculate a potential amount depending on one's salary. Smalls chose the 11 organizations the donations will go to, which includes Black Women's Blueprint, The Marshall Project, Know Your Rights Camp and more.
"I came up with the idea out of frustration, you know, being on lockdown like everyone else because of COVID and seeing how much the world was imploding with so much social injustice and so many things happening," she says about her important new project. "As an individual who is a concerned citizen it's like, what can I do to make the situation better? And at certain points I did feel helpless, so basically I was thinking, how can I integrate what I do with a movement? And the way I thought about it was to create donatemywage.org and it all came from an idea that ... I was going to donate half of my wage to organizations for the Black Lives Matter movement."
"While you're [on the website] at the same time it goes directly to [the charities'] website, so you can further educate yourself, and you can participate and learn, so check it out!" she adds.