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Joan Smalls’ meteoric rise

Joan Smalls on the cover of Vogue Australia.

By Bee Shapiro

When Tom Ford calls you muse and Beyoncé features you in a music video for her self-titled iTunes hit album, it’s safe to say you’ve made it. Such is Joan Smalls’ current rising star status. In a few short years, the 25-year-old Puerto Rican stunner has shot up the rankings to top the charts with bookings from Estée Lauder, Prabal Gurung and Versace.

Banking on her feline eyes and sharply angled cheekbones, Smalls heralds the return of the glamorous, verifiably beautiful model, says Betty Sze, managing editor of, a world dominated in recent years by odd features like alien eyes and Klingon-size foreheads. But beauty is just one asset in her toolbox. “Her personality, intelligence and professionalism are part of the whole package when you book a woman like Joan,” Sze says.

Yet Smalls wasn’t always a clear shoo-in. Far from the bright lights of Parisian catwalks, she grew up in a middle-class family in Hatillo, Puerto Rico, a tiny town known more for dairy cows than fashion. She has credited her good manners to her parents, who raised her and her two older sisters (she was the tomboy) to also stick up for themselves. It’s helped steel her through situations that have been less than charmed, such as fashion’s diversity problem: she was often told there was only room on bookings for one black model.

After moving to New York when she was 19, she dabbled for years in commercial modeling. “Then she signed with IMG and her agent called everyone to say, ‘I’m really going to make her into something,’” casting director James Scully recalls. “We were like, ‘Good luck with that.’” Things turned the corner, however, when she met Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s designer, who quickly put her on an exclusive contract.

Groundbreaking campaigns soon poured in, such as a plum Chanel campaign (she’s the first black model to be featured) and an Estée Lauder contract (she’s the first Latina face for the beauty behemoth). “She’s certainly been opening doors for diversity since,” says Scully, who has cast Smalls in Tom Ford and Stella McCartney shows. “She’s the only black girl in the last 10 years who has gotten the major covers,” he adds. “In fashion, you can say ‘Joan’ and that’s all you have to say. That’s the same thing Cindy and Naomi had.”

Sze agrees. There will always be the “new girl,” she says, but when it comes to important bookings, “The industry values a model like Joan who understands her role in the big picture.” That’s what Joan and all the “supers” get, Sze adds.

Or perhaps, in Smalls’ case, it’s also a story of patience and perseverance. “She had a good number of years in the business before she reached this level; she had the time to have a sense of herself,” Scully says. “A lot of models, you can’t even take out to dinner.” Smalls, on the other hand, “is engaging and intriguing,” he says. “If you’re going to dinner with Tom Ford, you better be able to hold your own.”



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