In the world of professional modeling, Jillian Mercado is certain to stand out — the native New Yorker is one of the rare models in the U.S. with a physical disability.
In her early teens, Mercado, now 31, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. She gets around using a motorized wheelchair and wakes at least an hour before most people. Broken subway elevators ( or sometimes no elevators at all), cabs that sometimes choose not to pick her up and cavernous, hidden hallways deep inside buildings are just a few of her daily challenges.
Her infectious laughter and boundless patience could make it easy to overlook the struggles Mercado faces — though that would be a mistake. But she's developed a reputation for getting where she wants to go (literally and otherwise), whatever it takes. "I come up with things if I can't do them," she tells CNBC Make It. "I put on my Bob the Builder hat."
Raised in New York by a seamstress mom and a shoe salesman dad, Mercado developed an early affinity for fashion. She'd sport her mom's collections as early as age six, paying close attention to fabrics and shoes. But she never imagined she'd become a model. None of the magazines she read growing up featured anyone with a disability.
"It's not like I never wanted to be a model," she says. "But when you don't know something, how are you supposed to want to be that person?"
Mercado studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, planning on a career as a fashion editor. In 2009, she landed a coveted internship as an editorial beauty intern at Allure. She says she hoped to create greater inclusivity for people with disabilities in fashion. She started blogging. But change came infuriatingly slow.
In 2013, Diesel posted a worldwide open casting call on Tumblr in search of social media influencers of all ages and sizes to model for the brand's spring 2014 campaign. Encouraged by friends — but with no intention of becoming a professional model — Mercado answered a few questions online and submitted photos. She recalls answering a question about why she wanted to participate in the campaign by writing, "'Cause I wanna change the world."
She was one of 23 people from around the world chosen. "I just saw a whole different world and a whole different opportunity to voice the opinions that I've been suppressing for a really long time," she says.
After Diesel, various modeling gigs came her way, and by the summer of 2015, she caught the attention of IMG Models. "I remember the first day I met Ivan Bart, president of IMG, I had bright pink hair," Mercado says. IMG signed her, and Mercado joined an agency that represents Gisele Bundchen, Heidi Klum, Bella Hadid, Kate Moss and Elon Musk's mother, Maye Musk.
Today, Mercado gets up to 10 modeling gigs per month and travels frequently between New York and Los Angeles. She has appeared in catalogs and on billboards for Nordstrom, represented Beyonce's "Formation" merchandise line and modeled Target's "adaptive wear" (clothing designed for people with disabilities).
She also uses her public platform to speak candidly about the challenges those living with a disability face, speaking at the UN's Conference on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Global Citizens Global Disability Summits, and regularly sharing her life on social media.
Mercado also spends her free time like any other 30-something might. This summer, she rented an apartment in L.A., a choice she made in part to escape New York's bitter cold months. She works out (boxing, lifting or walking on the treadmill) goes to the beach and attends events like Panorama and Burning Man.
But unlike any other 30-something, Mercado also gets to attend Oscar parties. Earlier this year, she says, she attended a party alongside Rihanna, Drake, Leonardo DiCaprio and Vince Vaughn. "It was a moment where I was like, 'Wow we're all equal here, but I'm equal to Rihanna?'" she recalls. "It meant that not only was I moving forward as far as inclusivity goes, but that there is a world out there [that] is accepting."
Still, many events she's invited to are physically inaccessible. In June she was invited to a party following a major film screening in New York, at The Water Club. The event was on the third floor of a walk-up building with no elevators. Instead of leaving, Mercado braved it, abandoning her wheelchair on the ground floor and having "people lift me three flights of steps, like a bar mitzvah!"
She says she feels it's important to put herself in situations that prompt wider conversation, "not only for myself," she says, "but for people in the future."
And Mercado remains upbeat. She has two big goals at the moment: appearing in a runway show, ideally as part of Fashion Week, and landing a film or TV role.
It frustrates her that in award-winning films, people with disabilities "are played by people who don't have disabilities," she says. "They won't hire someone who actually has a disability. We're so much more than here to inspire other people. I'm just here to be human and to live on this earth as much as any other person."
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