Growing up in uptown Manhattan, Jillian Mercado had no idea that she’d one day be modeling and starring in ads for Diesel. As a toddler, the fashion blogger developed spastic muscular dystrophy — a disease that causes progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass — which has made her dependent on a wheelchair for mobility since the age of 12. Even so, Mercado has never allowed her disability to stop her from following her dreams. In fact, it only fueled her with more determination.
Mercado was raised in a traditional Dominican home and is the oldest
of three girls. Early on, she knew that the only way she could get
anywhere in life was to be independent. She takes care of herself, gets
around on her own, and has held jobs just like any other girl in her twenties. "My parents never
raised me like a special or golden child," she says. "My mom actually
did the opposite and pushed me even more, in a way, so that I would be
prepared. She would always say, 'I'm not going to be around forever,' so
that I wouldn't always depend on her."
Mercado's passion for fashion began at a young age. Her mother sewed baby clothes at a factory and her father worked at a shoe store, so it was no surprise that she became intrigued by both. "I was always very fascinated with my mom's sewing, my dad's shoes, fashion, and makeup. But I didn't know that was a career you could do until high school," she says. "And then I was like, holy sh*t, I could actually have fun working."
She later attended the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in her hometown, majoring in fashion merchandising. As a determined student, Mercado interned at Allure for two semesters in the fashion department when things began to click. "It made me realize that I really wanted to be in the industry because it was a real experience," she says. “I'm pretty sure I was one of the first people in a wheelchair working at Condé Nast as an intern and they treated me like any other intern that was there," she says of the positive and eye-opening experience.
Mercado continued to intern throughout her four years at FIT and started her own fashion blog, Manufactured 1987. Then, in 2013 something amazing happened: Mercado met famed fashion director Nicola Formichetti at a launch party for We The Urban, a fashion magazine she was working for at the time.
"We did a feature on him and he was the cover star of that issue," she recalls. "He was at the party, we were talking, and kept in contact. I added him on Facebook that summer when he posted something about this casting call he was doing for this new project." Mercado immediately signed up and received an email from Diesel asking her to be a part of a campaign they were working on. Diesel's artistic director and Mercado’s new friend Formichetti had selected her to be one of the models in the ad for the brand. "It's been two years and I still can't believe it," she says.
"I feel like I have this huge obligation to change and stir things up — especially in an industry where everyone only looks at what's on the outside," she says. "You have to be like this perfect person, and here comes me, who is definitely not perfect and proud to say that I'm not."
In terms of diversity in the industry, Mercado feels like there's still work to be done. "We still have a problem with lack of diversity in runway shows, catalogs, and magazines. But I feel like compared to five years ago, it's been way better. I went to Men's Fashion Week and saw a few girls on the catwalk sporting men's clothes. That's huge," she says. Still, Mercado is waiting for the day when more models who look like her are not labeled "wheelchair models." "I get angry sometimes when girls write to me and ask how they can become a 'wheelchair model.' I hope that in the future it will just be 'models' because that's what we are — just models."
What makes Mercado stand out from any other model isn't her wheelchair but her radiant spirit and her confidence, which is contagious. Her advice to other girls on body image:
"We should embrace every inch of our bodies because that's what we got. It won't be easy, but the moment you start accepting yourself for who you are, life changes for the better and you'll never look back."
Mercado is proof that when you don't give up on your dreams, not even physical limitations can hold you back.