Jillian Mercado Belongs Everywhere
The fashion model and “L Word” actress talks to V about making space for herself and others in the disability community.
The fashion model and “L Word” actress talks to V about making space for herself and others in the disability community.
Photography: Damon Baker
Styling: Nicola Formichetti
Text: Siena Ballotta Garman
Jillian Mercado knows the value of representation firsthand because, as a young person interested in fashion and magazines, she never saw a model that looked like her. Mercado was born into a Dominican family in New York City, and she lives with muscular dystrophy. That disability requires her to use a wheelchair, but while she flipped through the fashion magazines she so adored, she found no girls in wheelchairs in their pages. This was discouraging, but she wasn’t deterred for long – no setbacks seem insurmountable for Mercado. She always takes them as invitations to create a more inclusive world for herself and those who see themselves in her. A campaign with Diesel launched her modeling career in 2014, and she pivoted her focus from the world of magazines to the world of modeling, remaining in the fashion industry that had long been home to her.
As a highly visible model with a disability, Mercado saw it as her responsibility to make the industry a fairer place for other members of the disability community – which, she points out, includes over one billion people worldwide. This desire to pay her success forward informs her activism, which includes connecting disabled people with opportunities in industries that are not always welcoming to them. It also includes boldly taking on projects in new arenas, as she has in the case of The L Word: Generation Q. Playing the role of Maribel in the sequel to the iconic TV show The L Word, Mercado hopes to benefit viewers who share her intersectionalities as a Latinx, disabled, queer woman of color, and provide that representation she found lacking as a child. Throughout her career, Mercado functions with a radical insistence that she belongs – on runways, in magazines, on TV – and that others who share her identities belong in these places, too. As she joked in our conversation, if she’s not given a seat at the table, she comes with a wheelchair, so she’s got her own.
VMAGAZINE: How do fashion and activism intersect for you, particularly as a model with a visible disability? What changes would you like to see in the fashion industry?
Jillian Mercado: As I was growing up, I was faced with the situation of: I love the fashion industry so much and felt a part of it, like it was a family and home to me where I was able to express my creativity as “out-there” as I wanted to. Then I got faced with the reality that there wasn’t anyone that I was able to follow steps or kind of guide myself by. I wasn’t sure that… It might not be the home that I always thought that it would be because I didn’t see myself, and I was confused because I knew how big my disability community is, yet we were not acknowledged. I got really sad about it until I woke up one morning and I was like “I’m so tired of being tired.” You know that feeling where you’re just like “I’ve had it?”
V: Absolutely, yes.
JM: And I was like “Well I guess I’m gonna have to change it because I can’t see myself doing anything else.” I’ve invested so much time and energy and love into this industry that I know I can do it. I know that I could like be the one to, like, fuck up the rules. And I did everything that I could as far as strategically learning about the industry behind the scenes and seeing how I can put myself inside of an industry that wasn’t really giving me a place. I’m like, “Well, if you’re not giving me a seat at the table, I come with my own ‘cause I have a wheelchair so…”
V: How did your time as a student at FIT and as an intern in the fashion world inform your career?
JM: It was amazing because I got to really study and learn about the history of fashion, not even as a woman of color, not even as a disabled person, just a general history of fashion and how it started, and how detail-oriented it is, and how we all partake in the industry even if we’re not students or designers or anything. I mean, every single person wears clothes, so… Being an intern as well gave me kind of a sneak peak of what it would be like, because at the time I wanted to work in the world of magazines, and I wanted to be an editor.
V: And I heard you say somewhere that you were writing a book. Is that something that’s still in progress?
JM: It’s still in the works in my mind, and something that I really want to hopefully publish one day so that people can read more in-depth of how my life has been thus far and how many crazy adventures I’ve taken. Just for being loud and standing up for myself and standing up for my community. You know, I think that’s where my activism comes into play. Where I was already as a child – I was a very shy child – I know a lot of people might not believe that, but I was super shy. I was like a fly on the wall in a lot of situations, but that was like me gathering as much tea as I could. Even before I felt comfortable and ready, confident enough to speak for not only myself but speak to thousands of people that feel invisible and underrepresented. And it’s adrenaline – you know, when you protest and when you are fighting the system there’s this high that you get. That you’re doing not only right for yourself but right for everyone else who feels that same way and that same passion.
V: Yeah. So do you feel, then, a sense of responsibility to make yourself visible for your community? And is that ever a feeling of pressure or is it just joy to be able to do that?
JM: It’s a bunch of different emotions at the same time. I felt for a very long time that because of the opportunity and the privileges that I’ve gotten thus far that I do have a responsibility, that I do have to speak up and make myself, my communities, and my intersectionalities known. Because very rarely do we get opportunities like this. You know a lot of people in higher, more powerful places kind of hoard that spotlight and really don’t give chances to other people to express themselves or be a part of it, and it’s unfortunately a reality of it until we come in and fuck shit up and change it and force them to change it because the world doesn’t revolve around one person. It revolves around billions and billions of people. So yeah, I do always feel the responsibility to do it right by them and do it right by myself, most importantly. But just keep that side thought in my mind of – when I do accept jobs or when I do have opportunities – to make sure that I give space for somebody else to also be there as well. So it’s not about – I always say this – but it’s not about opening doors for me it’s about removing them. Because doors are able to be closed, and we don’t want that. And to answer your question, it is very overwhelming at times. And I do have times where I have to literally disconnect from the world and just take time for myself and that comes with a lot of self-care and going to the mountains somewhere to just stay there for a second to reflect and do my best to take care of me first. I think that’s important for everyone, and a life lesson is to always take care of yourself and your mental health before jumping or doing anything.
V: Yeah, that’s only healthy. And you’ve also joined the cast of The L Word: Generation Q.
V: What was that experience like, and also, why is now the moment to continue with that really groundbreaking show?
JM: Oh my god. It’s so funny because I posted a little cast photo last week on my socials but there’s no words to explain how amazing – how transcendent, magical [of an] opportunity I have gotten on this show. Not only as far as how to best represent myself or even my character, but also, they’re very aware about accessibility, so it’s not about checking a box for them. It’s about making sure that I feel safe, making sure that I feel heard. And those are things that you think, “obviously,” like, “Oh, obviously if you’re in a place of work, your boss is gonna make sure you feel safe and heard and think they’re accessible.” It’s unfortunate that that does not happen a lot, at all. So there are a lot of moments where I’m even surprised. I’m like, “Oh wow, that’s really sweet that you thought of this,” and it shouldn’t be sweet, it should just be like “Yeah, it should be like this.” But like I said, there’s a lot of that in work situations where those very little details help so much, and specifically with this show. It was so revolutionary when the first generation of it came out, I think 2004 or 2006. Where it was the first LGBTQ+ show and that was already monumental and I know that a lot of people really felt heard and really felt like there was – like their stories, it was normalizing that. And I think now even more we’re bringing so many new stories and so many characters and situations that it’s like, we’re still fighting for these basic humanitarian situations, but it’s really beautiful to see it on television, to see yourself represented. And at least for me, there’s barely... I would say five and even less for people who are related to my intersectionality – which is a woman of color, which is being Latinx, which is being queer, which is being disabled – there’s zero. So to have that opportunity to be that representation for somebody out there who also relates to the same things that I do, it’s such a beautiful full circle of myself when I was younger not seeing myself being reflected back to now, being that reflection for others. It warms your heart just even talking about it. I get so emotional about it because it’s something that I’ve been personally fighting for a very long time to all of a sudden have this opportunity to be this character who’s so strong and so sassy and so adventurous.
V: Do you feel like you see yourself in her?
JM: Yeah, the funny thing is that our show-runner, she always goes like – my character Maribel – “That’s you. Just play you.” So there’s a lot of cross-references, like when the second season comes out, where I tell real stories that I was able to tell the writers or talk to the writers about it, so they sprinkle my real life in there, which it’s kind of amazing to say that.
You know, that’s kind of awesome. It’s such an honor. But that’s how family-oriented we are is that we hear each other and we make space for stories to come to life. And sometimes I honestly lack the words to say it. And I’m like, “How did I get so lucky? I don’t understand. What did I do to deserve this awesome opportunity?” But it’s really beautiful to be a part; it’s really beautiful that they trusted me to – because I don’t come from an acting background, I come from a fashion background, so the fact that they’re trusting me with this character, which – side note – is my mom’s name.
V: Aw, that’s so sweet!
JM: Yeah, they had no idea that my mom’s name is Maribel.
V: And your mom was also a seamstress, is that right? Who really inspired a lot of your career interests?
JM: Yeah, so before I even knew what the fashion industry was or that it was actually a world, I used to spend so much time with my mom. She would bring her work home and it’s one of my first memories that I have of just being next to her and bothering her and “Why is she using these different yarns?” or “Why is color important?” and trying it on and modeling for her and whatnot. And enjoying it so much so that I would pick that rather than cartoons. So of her three daughters, I was the only one who would ditch the cartoons to sit with her and watch her sew. I want to believe that was the seed that was implanted of why I love the industry so much.
V: And when it comes to supporting other creatives, I’m curious about the Black Disabled Creatives platform and your involvement with that, what makes that important to you, and any plans for it moving forward.
JM: I mean, this year has been quite interesting on all levels, but over the summer when we had the reintroduction of Black Lives Matter again, unfortunately, and by that I mean that the fact that we have to reintroduce is kind of, sigh, tiring. But you know what? Whatever needs to be done to implant and ingrain these actual events that do happen day to day, like, sure. I’m here for it. Until there’s actually real change that happens. But when that was happening, at least the very beginning, I started seeing on social media that a lot of people were doing lists of “Here’s how to support the Black community with the top five bookstores or here are the best restaurants that are Black-owned or designers” or whatnot. I started seeing a lot of those but I wasn’t seeing any conversation involving the disability community. And a lot of people that had died in the hands of police actually had disabilities and no one was talking about that. And it really frustrated me because here’s another opportunity where we can talk about disability and how we avoid it at all times, and now here we’re avoiding it again. And I know, especially on Twitter, I have this amazing community of people who I always see posting about their work or talking about how they’re doing a start-up or they’re graphic designers or anything in the creative field. And I’m like, “I wish I could do something to showcase or put a spotlight on these people.” And then, after thinking about it for a few days with a friend and my sister as well, I want to bridge the gap between disability and work. Or people who are Black and creative that want to work. Especially because, “Oh my god! Now we’re all at home working, how crazy is that?” That all of a sudden happened when I remember even being told way back when that I wasn’t able to have this job just because I wanted to stay home and do it. And they were like, “Oh I’m sorry, you’re gonna have to be in the office,” and that really frustrated me when last year it was such a quick switch from being in an office to being at home.
And I’m like, “Oh, so it is possible. Cool. Great.” Having been rejected from so many jobs and knowing a lot of people who have also been rejected from work opportunities that this happened that quick? It’s really infuriating. So I decided to do this database where people who either have worked with me in the past – I started small, obviously – there’s a lot of people who are always asking me, “Do I know anybody else?” who has a disability and would like to partake in this job or work and I always do my best to connect people together. That’s my favorite thing to do and it costs no money to connect somebody with an opportunity. And more people should do that, side-note. That’s a free side-note there! I wanted it as a place where these creatives can sign up for that and feel that they have a community out there that will support and love them no matter what – no matter what disability they have because that doesn’t really matter. What matters most is that their work is being out there and people are hiring them. And we all want jobs, at the end of the day. And it’s infuriating that people underestimate our work just because of the disabilities that we may have. So I wanted to do my best to connect that together. And let’s say hypothetically a company like Gap or H&M can go on this website and they’ll find somebody. Because it also annoys me when people are like “We want to diversify and we want to be inclusive!” but then completely leave out the disability community. Because then you’re not. You can’t say that you’re all for it and then leave such a big community – which, by the way, statistically one out of four or one out of five people have a disability.
V: That’s a huge population to be ignoring.
JM: Yeah! It’s a really big population of people but it’s been so many years when people have ignored that population that it’s as if we don’t exist which is really sad, and that’s where problems start.
V: It’s obviously been a really challenging year on a lot of fronts, but in your career and in your activism, what is giving you the most hope right now?
JM: I’m a kind of person that my hope comes from – this is gonna sound weird and depressing – but the sun every morning. Truly, what gives me the most hope is just seeing the communities come together. I think that’s something that always surprised me in the most beautiful way where something happens – the pandemic or the unfortunate story about the eight people that passed away in a shooting a few days ago – how we all eventually come together and kind of make progress and legislation or rules and laws and open our eyes to “this needs to stop” and we need to really come together and make sure that this doesn’t happen again. I think that always gives me hope. And I don’t know if that’s a thing because I grew up in New York City and I feel like every single time something like this happened we would always come together as a city and go “enough is enough” kind of a situation and that always gave me such hope that generations to come will have a better future because we are out here in the streets. We in these streets! So if anything that always gives me hope and even more on social media now the generation that’s growing up right now has that access to social media where they can see these communities come together and protests happening around the world and knowing that there’s people who are fighting. Who are literally fighting for a better future for us all. And such a beautiful moment to be a part of and know that besides all the craziness and all the fogginess there is always a clear path. That’s beautiful.