With a red lip, sleek waves, camo pants and leather jacket, Jillian Mercado is ready for Rihanna the first time I meet her. "I'm like, how much Rihanna can I wear?" she says, laughing. Later that night, she'll attend the Savage X Fenty launch in Brooklyn with a crowd of other uber-cool models, influencers, fashion bloggers and Rih herself. And she says it's all thanks to her wheelchair.
"I'm so thankful to whoever invented the electric chair and gave me goddamn wings to fly," she told me. "Without this chair I would pretty much be miserable. Not like, 'Ugh, I can't walk, miserable, but miserable that I can't go to an event. Without this chair I wouldn't be able to see Rihanna tonight."
31-year-old Mercado was diagnosed with spastic muscular dystrophy as a child. Despite her own confidence and charisma — and notability as one of the few working fashion models with a visible disability — the chair presents a stumbling block for people who can't get past their own projections of what it means.
"It's either they don't see you, or they only see the chair, which equals negativity."
There was a time, Mercado says, when she played along with her society's expectations. "At the beginning, when I was younger, I went along with what felt more safe, which was going along with everyone's thought process," she said. "Until I was like, 'Fuck this shit, I feel miserable thinking about this all the time.' My disability cannot be this depressing."
A native New Yorker, she described "crummy" middle school experiences with classmates who bullied her, including a group of girls who threatened to throw her down the steps. "I was like, that's interesting because I take the elevator, but okay," she says, laughing hard. "It sucks that we live in a world where people who are miserable feel safer to throw somebody under the bus rather than to hold their hand and be here for them."
While difficult middle school experiences are nearly universal, by the last year of junior high, Mercado decided to make a change. "I remember just being like, 'I can't keep living like this.' 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 said, adding that her mother's main message to her was to seek happiness in anything she did. "The mind is such a beautiful thing. As soon as you ignore all the negativity that comes at you, you realize that it's silly to even be there."
"As soon as you ignore all the negativity that comes at you, you realize that it's silly to even be there."
Once she shifted her mindset, the petals of Mercado's creative world began to unfurl. The daughter of a seamstress and a sometime shoe salesman, Mercado was immersed in the world of fashion without even realizing it. Once she understood it was an industry one could actually make a living in, she jumped in head first, attending the Fashion Institute of Technology in her hometown to study marketing. It was there that she first modeled, like so many young students, for her friends' projects. She followed that with a year-long internship at Allure, which she remembers as "the first location where I felt like I was scared." It was the first fashion job she held, but just being in the same building as Condé Nast legends like Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington — her "fairy Godmother," who always had time to chat — kept her inspiration wells full.
Working with photographer Patrick McMullan on the nightlife circuit introduced her to artists and socialites like Amanda Lepore and Daphne Guinness, and after a gig with Tumblr, she booked her first modeling job, which just so happened to be a major Diesel campaign with Nicola Formichetti in 2014. She entered the campaign's open casting call "for fun," and was initially surprised to be cast in the campaign that would launch her career as a model. "It means so much to me because it's the fact that someone who is different is representing Diesel," she told The Guardian at the time. "[It shows] anyone can rock the clothes and look beautiful. For me it represents way more than just a campaign. A lot of people will see it and will have a change of mind of how they see people who have a disability."
Following the success of her Diesel campaign, Mercado landed a modeling contract with IMG in 2015 and went on to star in campaigns for Nordstrom, Target, Beyoncé Formation world tour merchandise, and in editorials in Glamour, Cosmopolitan and CR Fashion Book. In 2016, she appeared on her first cover for Posture.
"We're in such a beautiful time where anything goes and you can literally do anything," Mercado said. "It's just a matter of how much you want it. Putting the work into it. I've always worked my ass off to get everything I have. I honestly feel better doing that than having it given to me. It builds your character." Mercado believes we're in a "very interesting time right now," which could be said for a myriad of industries with a spectrum of connotations, but in this case she is referring to a positive shift toward inclusivity in fashion. And the catalyst for disruption within a highly exclusive industry known for its strict European beauty ideals and at times perplexing barriers to entry? Social media.
"You get opinions now from all sides of the world. We're starting to make space for people to be more vocal and talk about the problems they see in their community." Technology has connected people once left stranded in their own private darkness by physical distance and social omertà. It's also transmitted the images of Mercado and people like her — brave pioneers of self-love and pride — to millions around the world.
"Hopefully in my time I've moved it forward a little," she said, "but it's not like I'm going to move it all the way. I think it takes an army to do so, and it takes a lot of communication and a lot of conversations about it so that people can actually understand not only what they can do, but why they've been programmed this way all along. Hopefully I'm helping with that at least."
As the only person with a visible disability in her middle school to college classrooms, Mercado says for a long time she didn't understand her place in the disabled community. Now, as a visible figure in the fashion industry, she views her platform as an opportunity to give voice to people like her. The transition from model to activist wasn't without its obstacles, though.
"I was scared to talk about it or even vocalize it," she admits. "It was like, okay, I'm entering this zone of fire which is fashion already. I'm Latina and a woman, so that's two notches. I have a disability which is not invisible — it's very fucking visible — so that's three right there." She had a change of heart though, realizing, "The reason why I'm here is to give a voice to a community that hasn't had one in mass media. I had to correct myself. There's so much to talk about, so I try to pick the most important things. Hopefully I'm doing justice for the community."
"Your adventure doesn't have to be crummy just because other people say it is. You should be able to choose your own adventure."
Aside from visibility, Mercado likes to focus on accessibility. Only 20 percent of the 472 subway stations are wheelchair accessible, for reference — a fact currently being addressed in a lawsuit against the MTA by the US Attorney's Office.
"I always say I need my own travel show because there's no information online [about accessibility], Mercado said. "No cool information, I should say. Nothing that doesn't look like a written medical report, if that makes sense." When she's invited to events like Coachella, for instance, she has to just "guess and dip my toes in to see what happens," an experience familiar to most people with disabilities. And while Mercado might be more visible than an average person with a disability, she makes a point not to ask for specific accommodations ahead of time, saying, "They should be prepared regardless."
Fashion Week, with its feverishly rotating calendar of runways, backstages, parties, soirees and events, always proves particularly challenging. "I had a lot of arguments with people that were like, 'You should've called three weeks prior so we could've had a spot.' But I'm like, 'You guys should've been prepared. You're assuming that I wouldn't be here, and I don't know how I feel about that.' I'm always an advocate, and I talk about it as much as I can if they're not prepared."
She emphasizes that the 1990 American Disability Act (ADA) was not the panacea against discrimination most people assume it to be. "The ADA happened, but a lot of people choose not to follow it and make all the excuses in the world. They say the building is too old or they don't have it in the budget. But that's bonkers because let's say the toilet cracked in half—they would find the budget to fix it." When she challenges building owners, offering a number of solutions including portable ramps, they always look "dumbfounded."
Despite encountering inaccessible buildings and daily questions from strangers, Mercado has a generous amount of patience for lack of understanding. "You have to," she said. "In this world there's no other way to be than to be patient. Getting aggravated, you're not going to go anywhere." As her platform has grown, so has the number of people reaching out with questions about life with disability. "At first I would get a little frustrated about it because in my mind I'm like, how do you not know this? This is kind of obvious for me. But I soon realized that not everyone has my mind, and that there are so many people from different parts of the world who literally have not seen someone in a wheelchair before. Someone has to be the bigger person. I'm pretty good at being the bigger person."
Mercado knows exactly what someone is going to ask when they say, "I don't want to offend you but I want to ask you a question." Still, the conversation is one worth having. "I'm like, 'Go for it, just ask me, it's fine.' Usually the conversation is great because they learn something and I learn something about the world that looks at me." She'd rather people risk feeling awkward then continue living in the silence that has kept us separated for so long.
"My response to people who want to ask their friend about their disability is just do it, because you never know. They may not want to talk about it, but you don't know until you ask. I think you would be surprised how much people do want to talk about it, but because it's so unacceptable they feel like, well nobody has asked, so why should they talk about it? If they don't want to talk that's their preference, but don't be discouraged by that one person."
She added, "Remember, that person is a person like you. If you were in an accident tomorrow, would you want to be treated differently? You already have a misfortunate thing happen to you. You don't want to feel worse than you already feel. If someone treats you less than human, how would you feel?"
Mercado sees herself expanding her career beyond fashion. "So many plans," she said, smiling. "Empire plans." She'd love to write books and appear in movies, shouting out Guillermo del Toro as "the Alexander McQueen" of film. "There are so many opportunities now to have the conversation of inclusivity — not only in fashion, but anywhere," she said. "We're all given different adventures in our lives. Your adventure doesn't have to be crummy just because other people say it is. You should be able to choose your adventure."