Before she was a face of Marc Jacobs and a global ambassador for Puma, Winnie Harlow was a Toronto teenager with a seemingly attainable goal. “When I was like 16, I wanted to work at Sephora,” she tells me. “I handed my resume in, [but] I never got the job.” Like a lot of people her age, she was obsessed with all things beauty and skin care. Unlike virtually anyone else her age, Harlow spent the years following that rejection becoming one of the world’s most recognizable and in-demand models. Today, Harlow, now 27, is launching a skin and sun care line, CAY SKIN, soon to be available at — where else? — Sephora.
It’s the kind of pinch-me moment that Harlow says is best experienced through the eyes of her friends and family. “Walking in with my family and being like, ‘This is my brand in Sephora,’” she says, “... seeing how their eyes light up every time I accomplish something, it makes every hardship worth it.”
Harlow has just finished shooting at an English country-style home in West Los Angeles and, seated on a plush, cream sectional in the pool-adjacent California room, her look is the epitome of supermodel-off-duty (though she is very much on). Relaxed, charcoal-wash Good American jeans, a black Moncler hoodie unzipped halfway to reveal a white lace bralette, a gleaming silver and glass stone choker. Harlow’s feet are bare, her dark, wavy hair is down, and she’s looking through photos on a laptop while her assistant, Hannah, and other members of her team tend to some work at a large table by the couch. Like most of Harlow’s weeks, the past one was busy.
“Where was I?” she ponders, when I ask her to walk me through the previous seven days.
“It was New York,” Hannah reminds her. “You went to Tao.”
“Yeah, this time last week I was in New York,” Harlow says, the memory visibly coming back to her. “I was doing press for CAY, I went to Tao, and then I went to D.C. to see my boyfriend for an early Valentine’s Day.” Her date night in the nation’s capital with boyfriend Kyle Kuzma, a star forward for the Washington Wizards, was memorialized on Instagram to her 9.4 million followers — rose petals, shrimp cocktail, she in a red dress and he in a pink turtleneck. Afterward, it was back home to LA for the Super Bowl.
Coming out of two years of Zoom and sweatpants, there’s something irresistible about watching Harlow bask in the glamour of her career and the jet-set, party-hopping, professional-athlete-dating life that accompanies it. Harlow is aspiration meets inspiration; that’s what we love about her. As a Black woman with vitiligo, that unapologetic ownership of her beauty and charisma is even more remarkable.
Does Harlow feel glamorous? “I always saw the women in my life being glamorous, so it resonates with me a lot,” she says, noting that as a child she was especially enamored with her grandmother’s red nail polish. “But I didn’t feel glamorous when I was younger [and] I felt like other people didn’t see it for me. It’s like, ‘You’re quirky, you’re different, you’re special’; those are our compliments. It’s not ‘glamorous.’ It’s not ‘gorgeous.’ It’s not, ‘Ooh — flawless!’” Eventually, however, she started to tell herself that she was all of those things. “I guess in making it a point to myself, I also made it a point to other people.”
One person who did see the glamour in Harlow was journalist-turned-author and sexologist Shan Boodram. In 2012, Boodram was helming the comedic, hot topics-focused blog she founded with friend Andrea Lewis, Those Girls Are Wild, when she came across Harlow’s Facebook page. Struck by her singular beauty, she asked Harlow to model T-shirts for a blog campaign. “We put up those pictures and immediately people who knew me were like, ‘Who is this girl? I want to use her for X, Y, and Z … How do I get to know her?’” Boodram says.
Though Harlow wasn’t totally convinced of her modeling potential — she’d never seen a model with vitiligo and had been turned down by several Toronto agencies — Boodram continued to encourage her: “I said, ‘You’re so much bigger than anything this city can offer. You are Milan Fashion Week; you are Vogue covers; you’re beyond the imagination of what people here are capable of dreaming up. You’re high fashion.” Soon, people in Toronto were asking Harlow to model their brands, and when she joined Instagram (which she was hesitant to do until she learned that Nicki Minaj had an account), she rapidly grew a sizable following. “I probably had 70,000 followers before anyone even knew me — before I was ever on TV or anything like that — just based off of people loving me being me,” she says.
Harlow officially landed on high fashion’s radar as a contestant on Cycle 21 of America’s Next Top Model in 2014. Following the show’s conclusion, she booked campaigns with Desigual and Diesel and began appearing in editorials for a range of magazines, including i-D, Dazed, and Complex. In 2018, she walked in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The same year, an unfortunate experience on set inspired CAY.
“We were shooting in the Bahamas for two days, sunup to sundown,” Harlow says, adding that her skin condition, coupled with the fact that she spent much of her childhood and adolescence in her parents’ native Jamaica, meant she’d always been vigilant about wearing SPF. However, the only formula on hand left her skin with a blue cast. “No one wanted me to put sunscreen on for the shoot, which I understood because I didn’t want to be blue either.” Despite her misgivings, she agreed to forgo it. “As soon as I left the shoot that second day, I went back to the hotel and was in so much pain. I had to have doctors come to the hotel to give me injections for inflammation and pain. It was such a horrible experience for me.”
Disappointed that there was nothing on the market that would make her “feel sexy” while also protecting her from the sun, she vowed to develop a suitable product herself. “I was like, ‘You know what? This should never be the case for anyone.’ In 2022, we have … concealers, foundations, so many things for all skin tones. Why is something that’s not just cosmetic — something that is really for our protection — not for all skin tones? Why does it still leave a gray cast, a blue cast, a purple cast?” As she conceived her brand, she was reminded of the many times she’d been asked about sun protection.
“A lot of my followers have asked me, ‘What sun care do you wear? What SPF do you use? Do you use SPF 50? What [brand] exactly?’” she rattles off. “While I do share all my favorite moisturizers and things like that, I never really felt excited to share my sun care because I wasn’t happy with what was available.”
Of course, Harlow is not the first model to make a foray into beauty. This past December, the trend was both examined and criticized in a New York Times article titled “Dear Celebrities: Please Stop Churning Out Beauty Brands.” Did this give her pause, I ask?
“No,” she says, matter-of-factly. And rather than partner with an existing brand (as many celebrities do), she was adamant about starting from scratch. “Sun care and skin care is very true to me.” While there are benefits to having a famous name and face attached to a line, she points out, it’s still a lot of work. “It’s very hard to start a business, no matter who you are,” she says. “[And] I had no business experience. Everything that it took for me to create CAY SKIN was brand new to me. It was trial and tribulation.”
Harlow’s search for a CEO to help bring CAY to life led her to Cassandra Devor, former SVP of North American marketing for Charlotte Tilbury. “It was a quick ‘yes,’” says Devor of accepting the offer in early 2021. “I was really impressed by Winnie’s vision. This wasn’t something that she just thought about a week ago and decided she wanted to do. This has been something that’s been really important to her for some time.” Plus, Devor adds, “the category is right for disruption.” In general, she says, sunscreen is “heavy, it doesn’t feel good on your skin, it’s not easy to apply, [and] you usually feel like you have to compromise on white cast to get the right level of protection. There’s so much room for improvement.”
CAY SKIN is launching with four products: Isle Glow Face Lotion with SPF 45, Universal Mineral Face Lotion with SPF 55, Isle Lip Balm with SPF 30, and Isle Body Oil with SPF 30. For hero ingredients, Harlow turned to her Jamaican roots, sourcing aloe vera, which she remembers her parents applying to her skin straight from the plant, and sea moss. “It’s become a big hype now, but my family has been consuming sea moss since way back when,” she says. The botanicals complement high-performing skin care ingredients like squalane and hyaluronic acid. Vegan and reef-friendly, the brand is named for the small islands, or cays, throughout the Caribbean.
CAY’s orange packaging is an ode to the sun, Harlow says, with product dispensers reflecting various skin tones. “What I wanted to do was not just represent my skin, but represent that sun care is for everyone, from light to dark,” she says, neatly arranging samples on the couch. “I also wanted it to be genderless, so that it could be on my boyfriend’s countertop and blend in, and be on my countertop and blend in.”
The emphasis on inclusion speaks both to Harlow’s innate sensibilities as a barrier-breaking Black woman in fashion, as well as the ongoing conversation about representation throughout the industry. Like many models of color, Harlow has often arrived to fashion shows and photo shoots only to discover that nobody booked for hair and makeup knows how to work with her complexion or texture. She recently spoke out about this, but she was frustrated by some of the response. “I lightheartedly said I was looking at the white girls on the runway like, ‘I wish I was a white girl so I could have my hair looking bomb like that,’ and it was taken out of context,” she explains. “No, I don’t want to be a white girl. It was my joking way of saying, ‘Why do the white girls always have their hair styled so beautifully and we don’t get to have that same treatment?’”
While the fashion industry still leaves much to be desired in terms of diversity and inclusion, Harlow thinks it’s important to recognize the progress that has been made. “When I was little, I thought I was the only girl in the world with vitiligo,” she says. “I was that underrepresented. And now I see girls with vitiligo modeling for Savage X Fenty, doing all the things that I wish I had seen as a little girl. I could harp on how there was no one like me before, but what I choose to focus on is the fact that there are now. I’m proud of what I and we as an industry have accomplished thus far. That doesn’t mean that we’re finished, but we still have to acknowledge the growth.”
As thrilling as it’s been, Harlow’s ascent to the upper echelons of modeling has come with expectations that she deems impossible to meet. “People always try to put this role model title on what I do, but I’ve never accepted or owned that,” she says. “I don’t put people on pedestals, and I don’t like people to put me on a pedestal. I love when people take inspiration from me, but I don’t hold myself up to a point where I can’t make mistakes.” The pressure to be a role model initially made her “clam up,” she says, but “then I realized I wasn’t being myself.”
Campaigns for Fendi and MAC, runway appearances for Schiaparelli and Prabal Gurung, and the covers of Elle Canada and Vogue India comprise a small fraction of Harlow’s portfolio. What she considers one of her crowning achievements, however, didn’t happen at a runway show or in front of a camera. “One thing that I was really proud of was buying my first house at like 25 and having my mom and my sister come over,” she says. The home wasn’t furnished at the time, but that didn’t matter. “Coming from a hood in Toronto, I never thought that I would own a house at 25.”
Regardless of how demanding her schedule is, Harlow insists on spending time with her loved ones. “I like to hang out with my girls, I like to hang out with my family, I like to go see my man,” she says of her days off. Her familial circle consists of her parents, two sisters, four brothers, and two nieces, as well as three godchildren. “When people get lost in life, it’s because they’re not keeping the people who really know them and love them around,” she notes. “Those are the people who are going to tell you right from wrong, when you’re doing great, when you’re not doing so great. Those people are going to keep you levelheaded.”
As if to prove the point, Harlow tells me on my way out that she’s about to spend the days between this interview and the launch of her line on vacation with her boyfriend. In a few days, the posts will start dropping — Harlow in a CAY orange swimsuit, straddling Kuzma on a boat, sweating cocktails nearby. She’s her own best advertisement. But for now, she’s looking forward to quality time, relaxation, and a little multitasking. “I’m very excited to take all these bottles with me on my trip,” she says, eyeing the samples on the couch, “and just do goop shots on the beach.”
Top Image Credits: Harris Reed clothing, Alexis Bittar bracelet, Patricia Von Musulin cuff, Calzedonia tights
Photographer: Jason Kibbler
Stylist: Jan-Michael Quammie
Hair: Larry Sims
Makeup: Michael Anthony
Manicure: Loi Lien
Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Alex Van Brande
Video Director: Devin O’Neill