Jillian Mercado Says Fashion Is a Long Way From Being Truly … – InStyle
Take one look at Jillian Mercado’s Instagram feed and it’s no surprise that the model-slash-actress-slash-queer-disabilities-activist has been surrounded by fashion since birth. In fact, it’s practically in her blood thanks to the influence of a seamstress mother and a shoe-carpenter father. But while she may have been immediately drawn to the fabrics and colors of her parents’ take-home projects (and the allure of “fashion TV” binge-sessions) throughout her youth — a passion she painstakingly nurtured to reach her current multi-hyphenate status — there was one major factor that originally hindered Mercado from taking her plunge into the fashion world: She didn’t think she’d be allowed in.
“I grew up in New York City, and just the workflow of every morning, I didn’t see anyone like myself going into offices or doing things that I would see my non-disabled community members doing,” Mercado, who uses a wheelchair due to muscular dystrophy, explains. “So, that obviously affects one’s mindset when trying to figure out their place in this world.”
Nevertheless, Mercado persisted, and after four years spent at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (with a few impressive internships, to boot), she eventually realized that her passions actually lie in front of the camera. This career pivot couldn’t have proved to be more successful, and soon enough, Mercado was gracing the pages of the magazines she had one day hoped to work for, landing campaigns with industry giants like Nordstrom and Target, and taking important strides toward diversity and inclusivity — all just by being herself.
Since that initial switch into modeling back in 2014, Mercado’s career and activism efforts have only continued to flourish. In addition to landing a recurring role as Maribel, a Latina immigration attorney, in Showtime’s The L Word: Generation Q, she also started a nonprofit called Black Disabled Creatives during the pandemic that works to connect an underrepresented pool of creatives with employers.
Even with more accomplishments in her 35 years than many achieve in a lifetime, Mercado maintains that the one she is most proud of is getting the chance to serve as the representation that was absent from her own life throughout her childhood. “I only do what I do now because I am talking to my younger self and showing her that there’s other people like her,” Mercado shares. “There are people out there who care and believe in her and tell her that she is worthy of being here because that helps with dreams and aspirations and the will to live.”
InStyle spoke to Mercado about work that still needs to be done in creating accessible clothing options, her biggest “pinch me” career moment (spoken like a true New Yorker), and what Everybody’s In means to her.
This is Everybody’s In, a celebration of people making the world a better place for everyone in 2023. You’re ‘in’ if you’re making an impact. Read on to see who’s with you.
As someone who’s been heavily involved in the fashion world for years, how have you seen the industry become more inclusive throughout your career?
I mean, I do have to hold space for that. It’s better, or at least it’s getting better, as far as I feel awareness goes from where I started in 2014. So, it’s nice to be in a space and time where I can see the progress actually happening and people are becoming more aware that it’s not OK to see the same faces and the same body types over and over again, because it never reflects what’s really out there in the world. And I’ve always had a hard time understanding the reasoning behind the repetition of that.
I do have to say that I still believe that there’s so much work to be done. And I feel like there should be more opportunities given to people who aren’t the same blonde hair, blue eyes, skinny type of model. But, again, I always have to acknowledge that I love seeing that people are becoming more aware of the diversity in fashion.
Would you say this same progress has been made for accessible clothing options?
As far as accessible clothing, that still needs a lot of work. I don’t think that there’s enough. I don’t think that people are understanding how big the disabled community is. And that we need to really consider that group in the beginning stages of every brand that deals with fashion and garments in general. I really hope that there is more of that conversation happening behind the scenes, and that brands give jobs to people who have disabilities so that this becomes more of a norm instead of clickbait or just something that creates headlines.
But that’s the important part. Hopefully, I live in a time in the future where I don’t have to talk about this, how important it is, because it should be part of everybody’s everyday mindset.
How much of a role do you think representation plays in these advancements?
It just helps. I can only obviously speak about personal experience, but growing up not seeing myself represented on-screen [or in fashion] really impacted my mental health because I didn’t think I was worthy enough. I didn’t think that anybody really cared because I didn’t see myself anywhere. My aspirations and dreams were kind of confusing to have, because I just didn’t think it would be possible.
What’s it been like to serve as the representation for others that you may have been missing throughout your own adolescence?
It’s very surreal. I kind of had a moment when I was a teenager where I was just really tired of all the negative thoughts and the negative mindset that I would bring upon myself when I didn’t see [others like] myself in the world. But I really, really, really wanted to be in the fashion industry, because that’s what makes me the happiest.
I had a moment where I was like, “I’m just going to do whatever I can to live life in my truth and be as authentic as I can,” even though at the time, I didn’t think that the world thought I was worthy enough. To be that person for other people, it’s honestly surreal. And so that’s how I live my life: Hoping that there’s younger people who do follow my work who feel like they’re being heard and listened to.
Tell me a bit about starting Black Disabled Creatives.
It was during early COVID stages, where I would just see a lot of people talking about Black-owned restaurants, Black-owned business, blah blah blah. Black disabled creatives weren’t in the conversation. And unfortunately, they are the least-hired demographic, in anything. I kind of took it upon myself and I talked to a few people where I was like, “Why is it so difficult?” Usually, it’s because of the ableist mindset and our society’s difficulty feeling comfortable hiring someone who has a disability, at least physical, for that matter.
It was frustrating for me, because I always acknowledge the privileges that I have currently like having a team and having people view my work and the audience that I have. And I would get moments where people would be like, “Oh, is there anyone else that you think that we should hire for the next campaign?” And there are so many people out there, you know? You just have to really sit down and search. But there’s millions of us out there. One in five people have a disability, invisible or physical. I put this database together so that people can, not only find other creatives within the community and know that they’re not alone and there’s somebody else that they can talk to about their work, but so new brands and companies could find them easily.
Between runway appearances, campaign modeling, and now three successful seasons of the L Word: Generation Q, which accomplishment have you been most proud of and why?
Oh my god. They’re all like my little baby. It’s difficult to say because it’s not quote-unquote “normal” for someone like myself to have all those successes happening simultaneously, because the opportunities were not really there. And it’s not because people haven’t tried.
It’s weird to say, but it really was kind of ‘right place and right time.’ But I did my best to acknowledge that I grew up in New York, that I had a really good family as far as pushing me to be my best. I have such great friends that humble me and who help me to be the best person that I can be. And everything kind of fell into place. I’m just proud of that. So, honestly, everything?
What has been one “pinch-me” moment that’s occurred during your career?
Well, for a New Yorker, the first thing that popped into my head was having a billboard in Times Square. It was beautiful. One of my earliest memories was having my family take me to Times Square where the Cup Noodles [sign] was and thinking, “This is the coolest place on earth.” Just a bunch of billboards and everyone walking around. It was so magical for me to then flash forward and see myself be a part of that magic. Having thousands of people, every single day, just looking at my face on the billboard, it was awesome.
What does Everybody’s In mean to you?
It means that you’re creating a space for people to be themselves, to be their authentic selves. That there are no rules. That you don’t have to fit in a box. You just have to be you, because we’re all this together.
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