While browsing Tumblr, I came across shots of Jillian Mercado in Beyonce’s 2013 merch campaign. Anytime I see a fellow human with a disability, I get excited. Seeing Jill, who has spastic muscular dystrophy, opened a different world for me. I caught Jill in the middle of a very busy few weeks, and she made the time to talk to me via email about her being in the Diesel Campaign, inspiration porn, and those who doubt her.
Adolescent Content: I know you were hesitant when you joined the Diesel campaign because it was a worldwide call—were you afraid of being “the first” to break ground this way if you succeeded?
Jillian Mercado: I don’t think that ever came into my mind when I signed up. I truly underestimated what this would do to not only myself, but to the world. For me, this was just an opportunity to work with a huge brand, but also [then Diesel artistic director Nicola Formichetti, whose work] I admired. After [it happened] is when everything came into [the] forefront of my thoughts and I [realized I] was going to be the first.
Adolescent: The first time I saw you was during Beyoncé’s 2013 merch drop. What was that process like? How did you feel when you found out who that was for?
Jillian: I mean, it’s Beyoncé, so let’s just think about that for a second, LOL! The day of shooting that, it was so chill. I was surrounded with friends that [I’d] known prior, so everything went extremely easy. It was honestly such a great energy that I forgot who I was working for. I found out [about the opportunity] through a friend, who [was] actually the photographer. She wouldn’t give me many details until everything was confirmed and when it was, I think I almost passed out in disbelief!
Adolescent: A lot of the time in media, conversations about disability and disabled people are framed around inspiration porn—sort of showing that if a person with disability can do X, why can’t you? How do you feel about the narrative framed around your story? How do you desire to inspire people?
Jillian: The way I see inspiration porn is more like I’m not here to make you feel better, I’m here to [make you see yourself having] a bigger purpose in life, that we all can be the best versions of ourselves no matter what. Inspiration porn is all about making the viewer feel higher than. Let’s think about that one, if you are watching porn it’s supposed to make you feel good. I am 100% sure that the people in the porn aren’t feeling so good. [That’s] kind of how I explain it to people.
I am very strategic about my brand and how my narrative is seen publicly. I’m pretty much the engine [that] runs the whole thing. So sometimes it’s a bit overwhelming to pave the way on how disability should be shown not only in the fashion world but in media as a whole. I hope that I inspire people by making them think about how they see people who have disabilities and what we can achieve.
Adolescent: Do you think there are people who still doubt you?
Jillian: Absolutely! Every single day. There are even people from the [disabled] community that question my judgment [and] the fact that I’m very outspoken about difficulties that we face. It honestly makes me sad at times, because they should know that the world is not easy for us. Instead of judging me, how about we get together and figure out how to make the world a better place for us as a whole? I’m only one person—I can’t fix everything at once—but I definitely [do] the best with the platform that I have. I start conversations. Diversity isn't something that’s going to be an easy fix, which is why I will [never] apologize for speaking up. And for the people who may not be in the community, don’t start something you can’t finish. I love having conversations with people who need education [about disabilities].
Adolescent: I know you went to FIT for fashion merchandising, so you were technically always in fashion. Did you choose that path because it was what you wanted, or did you have greater aspirations?
Jillian: I went to that school because it’s where I felt most at home. I’ve always loved fashion ever since I was little. But then knowing how non-inclusive it was sparked something in me. If I didn’t see the change happening, why not make it happen? So I decided to infiltrate it behind the scenes to slowly make my way forward.
Adolescent: What would you say to the teenage version of yourself who was looking through magazines trying to find models with disabilities?
Jillian: I would tell her that it won’t be easy, that there will be a lot of tears and moments [when] she is going to want to quit, but if [she] really wants this and has the willpower, patience, and determination to do it, then go for it. I would tell her to study really hard—[she’s] going to have to be very strategic to get what [she wants]. That this is bigger than she would ever dream of, but that it is possible. And that’s magical.
Adolescent: Are there other parts of the industry you’d like to tackle? Was there ever a time when you were afraid the industry would tell you no?
Jillian: Actually, yes! I would love to get into a bit of acting... Everything I do is scary, plain and simple. It’s still not easy even though I have achieved so much, but that’s the magical part of it. See the thing is, I am a very stubborn person—if somebody tells me no, they don’t know that they’ve just opened up a chest of a whole lot of yes in my mind.
Annie Walton Doyle