If there were a supermodel of the moment, Joan Smalls would certainly be it. She’s the face of Estée Lauder, ranked no. 1 on Models.com and currently holds the no. 8 spot on Forbes’ list of top-earning catwalkers. On top of this, she is also the star of countless editorials and campaigns (currently iCB and Fendi). Not to mention she just snagged Elle‘s January cover, which was considered something of a feat because, well, it’s not often a model — as opposed to a Hollywood starlet du jour — is on the cover of an American magazine.
Lucky for Fashionista, the stunning Smalls sat down for a pre-fashion week chat at the Modellounge x Microsoft space (which, not coincidentally, is the brainchild of her boyfriend, Bernard Smith). Afterward, she was set to hop on a plane to Canada for a quick two-day shoot before returning to New York for runway duty. (Just thinking about her schedule makes us lose our breath!) Read on for her thoughts on models vs. celebs, a little gossip about her good friend Cara Delevingne and, duh, what it was like to work with Beyoncé.
You’ve been hitting all kinds of milestones lately. Did you ever imagine you’d land the no. 1 spot on Models.com and come in as no. 8 on Forbes’ list of top-earning models? What qualities helped you make it there?
I’ve always aimed to be the best and be very competitive within myself. Being named the no. 1 model was basically a sign saying that you’ve worked hard, and people who have worked with you are acclaiming your good work. I secretly wanted it, for sure. I even told Lara [Stone] one time — we were in London shooting — and I said, “I’m coming for your no. 1 spot.” She laughed and I said, “Oh you’re an icon already, so you can give it up.”
Many saw your landing the cover of Elle as a major moment since you’re not a “celebrity.” How do you feel that models don’t get more magazine covers?
I think when we stand together we’re stronger. So when [I] see [other] models on covers, it feels empowering to know that it might turn around and come back to us. In my perfect world, it would be six months actresses and six months models — a good divide. It’s unfortunate, because we put in all the hard work during fashion week and the photo shoots, so I think we should be celebrated more often.
A lot of the photographers are hoping that the trend goes back to models.
It’s up to them! It’s up to the public wanting to see us and having that acclaim and giving us our rightful position on the covers.
How did you feel when you learned you were going to be on the cover of Elle? Were you surprised?
I was. I think I was more surprised to tell my mother and for her to see it grocery shopping or at the mall. It’s a huge thing. I didn’t expect it in my career, so it was a pleasant surprise.
There’s been some debate in the media about what race you identify yourself as. Can you clear the air?
People always try to claim you, and I think that’s amazing — claim me all you want. I don’t like specifically being in one category because I come from a family that’s diverse and multi-racial. My mother is Puerto Rican, she’s light skinned, but if you know what a Puerto Rican is, it has African, it has Taíno Indian and it has Spaniard, so I’m all of that. My father is West Indian from Saint Thomas. I’m just an island girl. I’m West Indian, I’m Puerto Rican, I’m African, I’m Taíno, I have some Irish in me, I have some Indian, so I’m just a proud mutt.
What was it like to work with Beyoncé on the “Yoncé” video?
Wow! Incredible. That woman is someone you can look up to. She’s so professional — so well-rounded and grounded. It just goes to show you that being nice in an industry pays off. She’s so involved when she talks to somebody — and encouraging — so I admire that quality in her. She’s really, really talented, so it’s nice that I have that off my checklist. It’s like Beyoncé video — check!
You’re friends with Cara Delevingne. Can you share something about her that we don’t know?
I think she’s very comfortable in who she is as a person, so she really puts out whatever she wants people to know. She’s very free-spirited, and that’s one thing I love about her. Something that people don’t know? She gets nervous sometimes doing shows.
Really? Do you all?
We all have a little butterfly. I’m like [to Cara], “Really? After so many shows?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I still get kinda nervous.” I think that’s cute. It shows a little vulnerability, regardless if the world sees you in a certain way — we’re still human and we still have different emotions, as well.
Can you tell me about the Modellounge X Microsoft and why models needed a place like it?
It’s basically a safe haven. A lot of times we don’t have a place to go in between appointments or castings, or just to see your friends and have a chill moment without having somebody bother you or being somewhere public and people looking at you. You feel safe. You feel this is a place where you’re amongst your peers and you understand each other and you basically congregate. It becomes more like a family spot.
What shows are you walking during fashion month?
I’m surprised people still ask that question.
Because you don’t know until the last minute?
No, not because it’s so last minute, it’s just — you never know if you fit a collection, have the look that [a designer] is going for this season, if you’re available to do the show — so many factors play into it that, a lot of times, it’s kind of like a lottery ticket.
Are you going to be in New York during the whole of fashion week?
No I’m going to be in and out, but you’ll see me.
Which show are you most looking forward to?
I haven’t thought about it. I’m just looking forward to seeing my friends backstage and actually spending time with them. I really enjoy people’s company and making people laugh. That’s what I most look forward to — and walking the runway. That’s exhilarating.
What’s your advice to those who dream of going into modeling?
To stay focused and know what you’re getting yourself into. And what specifically you want out of it, along with being realistic at the same time. Don’t let what other people say deter your goal. I think a lot of people say that, but it plays such a huge role in being determined and driven. Stay true to yourself, and don’t try to be somebody else because you think that’s what’s “in.” I think your personality should always shine through and people will fall in love with that, with who you are.
What’s your secret talent?
I can do a little three-leaf clover with my tongue. Is that a talent?