9 Reasons Model Jillian Mercado Is Inspiring as Hell

Growing up in New York City, model Jillian Mercado loved fashion without knowing it was really "a thing." Her father worked at a shoe store and would bring home shoes for her mom (cute, right?), and her mother was a seamstress. "I used to spend a lot of time with her, because the noise of the sewing machine soothed me," Mercado told POPSUGAR in an interview following her appearance at the POPSUGAR Play/Ground festival.

Not only did this portend Mercado's career in fashion, but it had an added benefit too. "My mom really wanted us to grow up without technology," Mercado says. "She grew up in the Dominican Republic in a beautiful countryside house with zero technology. She would take us to libraries and parks and let us be kids. My favorite time was spending time with her watching her sew."

The 31-year-old model spoke on a Play/Ground panel called "Breaking the Model Mold," which is what Mercado deliberately set out to do when she began her career. She loves fashion and she also has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, and she had trouble reconciling the fact that she didn't see people like herself represented in the industry. Her conclusion? "I guess I'm going to have to do something about it!"

Since her big break in a Diesel campaign in 2014, Mercado has appeared in campaigns for Nordstrom and Target and has been featured in editorials in Glamour and Cosmopolitan. She was tapped by Beyoncé to be the face of her "Formation" clothing line.

"Everything I chose to do is because I really believe in it," she said. For instance, she'd love to become more involved in the adaptable clothing market. "All the things I will be doing in the future are things I love so much. The Jillian empire is coming soon."

Read on for the rest of Mercado's insightful interview.

On loving fashion and its flaws

Growing up in New York City, Mercado loved fashion "without knowing it was a thing." As she got older, her passion deepened and she enrolled New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

"I didn't see myself working anywhere else other than fashion," she said. "At first, all I thought about were the positives of fashion. I didn't see the negative parts, and there are a lot. I came to realize I didn't see myself out there, and that's so wrong. I would bring it up with friends and say, 'How could this be? How can you love something so much when it's so flawed in so many different ways?'"

On not seeing herself in magazines

She started out interning at magazines, including Allure, with the goal of eventually becoming an editor. "I felt very at home, like this was my destiny," Mercado said. "I thought in the future I'd become editor in chief somewhere and hire a diverse group of models. But as I was on my journey to become an awesome editor, I thought: where are all my peoples who have disabilities? It concerned me that such a large community of people were being ignored."

According to 2015 data from the Pew Research Center, nearly 40 million Americans have some type of disability. "It doesn't have to be someone like me who is in a wheelchair," Mercado said. "It could be someone blind or deaf or whatever. There are tons of invisible disabilities that people don't talk about. We are out there, everywhere."

On her big break

While she initially planned to stay in the background of the fashion industry as an editor, Mercado was offered an unexpected chance to be in front of the camera as part of a Diesel campaign in 2014. "I hadn't really thought about modeling until then, but I saw a gap in society that I felt like I needed to fill."

On how she views her mission

After the campaign debuted, "I got an outpouring of messages and emails from strangers all around the world, which shows the beauty of social media and how much power it has." Many of the messages contained sentiments like "if I'd only seen this when I was younger, I would have pursued this career choice in the fashion industry."

"I thought, 'Now I have a huge responsibility to make this a thing,'" Mercado said, "which is funny to say out loud, because it should have been a thing from the beginning. I'm here not just to do this for myself. I want to make a path for other guys and girls who don't see themselves out there."

On beauty standards

"I do not know who was the first person who said, 'Well, this is the model of what someone is supposed to look like.' I've always had trouble with that," Mercado said. "Maybe it's because of my Dominican stubbornness and being a New Yorker and that we just give no f*cks and because New York is diverse. I grew up walking two blocks and meeting all sorts of people from all over the world. And that itself is so beautiful."

On the full meaning of diversity

"When you look at entertainment and the fashion world, people get praise for diversity in skin and size, but no one ever talks about disability," Mercado told POPSUGAR. "So I always try to bring it up in conversation. Especially when people are talking about diversity and inclusion in their brands, I'm like, 'What else besides size and color are you changing up here?'"

On zooming out vs. zooming in

"Side note: I'm such a nerd," Mercado said. "I watch Cosmos with Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the reg. It's so crazy to realize how tiny we are compared to the universe. And you're here trying to figure out how to remove cellulite from your body. It's like, girl, what's wrong with you? That's beautiful, that's natural, that's who you are. Embrace it and worry about something else. Nobody is zooming in but you. You're just harming yourself."

In the past, Mercado said, "I would always zoom in on everything on my own body, because I felt that I was dealt a bad hand." But now, she realizes, "I'm that f*cking Uno card — the plus four or wild card or whatever — where you can pick whatever color you want. I'm a magical unicorn. And everyone can be this magical unicorn. If everyone just understood that, the possibilities are endless."

On women supporting women

Mercado's message to women is simple but crucial: let's focus more on our accomplishments and less on our looks. "You should embrace yourself, celebrate yourself," she said. "As women, we don't say 'good job on that dissertation you did in school.' We say 'you look good today.'" Mercado wants to "rebrainwash people" to shift away from that thinking.

On bullying

As a woman with a disability, Mercado has a unique perspective: "People are always trying to 'save' us, but really they should be trying to save themselves. People think we need to be saved, because we're different. But people who throw that negativity out, it's really because they are looking at their own reflection."

To Mercado, that attitude has parallels to bullying. "That's why bullies exist, because they are insecure with their own selves, and it's easier to make fun of someone else," she said. "It's not as easy to look at yourself in the mirror and ask, 'What am I doing to make this world a better place?' If bullying is all you got, stay in front of that mirror a little longer and figure it out. Therapy is a great place to start."