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Joan Smalls spent her Christmas vacation kayaking in the bioluminescent waters of her native Puerto Rico, where the plankton literally make the water glow when you run your hands through it.
It was a fitting coda to an extraordinary 12 months for Smalls, the model whose star burned brighter than that of any other in 2011.
To wit: The year kicked off with Smalls being named a face of the venerable Estée Lauder brand and finished with the 22-year-old beau- ty starring in a Chanel ad campaign photographed by Karl Lagerfeld and styled by Carine Roitfeld. In between were ad campaigns for Gu- cci, David Yurman and CK Jeans, covers of V, iD and Australian Vogue, and shoots with the likes of Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Josh Olins and Sølve Sundsbø for the fashion trifecta of U.S., French and Italian Vogue.
Influential Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci gave Smalls her first big break when he tapped her to walk as an exclusive in his Spring couture show in January of 2010. Smalls was the second girl out on the runway that day, and she hasn’t looked back since. Pairing a fierce determination with extraordinary skin and a smile that manages to be both genuine and dazzling, Smalls has entered the rarefied ranks of the supermodel in an astonishingly short amount of time— a true coup for a woman of color. “Joan Smalls has what any great model must possess to transcend the zones of high fashion and beauty: an ability to convey sophistication, as well as the genuine good quality of the girl who is accessible to the next-door neighbor,” says André Leon Talley, a contributing editor of Vogue. “When you see her at Givenchy, she becomes a template of high-Parisian elegance associated with couture standards; when you see her on a giant billboard in an advertising campaign, she looks fresh, natural and authentic, which must come across for a broad mainstream audience.”
As a face of the venerable Lauder brand, Smalls has a very broad audience indeed—one who is not only looking but listening. “Not only are you a face, but you’re also a voice,” says Smalls of her new role as beauty spokesmodel. “You represent diversity and a different way of beauty. I represent two different de- mographics, because I’m not only a Latina, I’m black,” she continues. “It’s nice to show the world that we don’t only have to be one thing or categorized in one box. It’s important to show the world—and fashion—that diversity is beautiful.”
In fact, it’s that voice that helped Smalls land the Lauder gig, in which she, along with French beauty Constance Jablonski and Chinese superstar Liu Wen, visually personifies the rejuvenation of the brand. “We were drawn to Joan’s beauty, but what’s interesting is that she’s very much a personality and voice of the brand,” says Aerin Lauder, style and image director for Estée Lauder. “She has such a sense of warmth, a sense of confidence and elegance, and her smile is truly amazing.” Lauder adds that she was also impressed by Smalls’ bearing in front of the television cameras during the filming of an ad for Idealist Even Skintone Illuminator. “It’s not easy with TV, because so much of it is make be- lieve, but Joan felt so at ease, so comfortable,” says Lauder.
That level of engagement extends to everything Smalls does. Be it achieving her professional bucket list—landing a fragrance campaign, gracing the cover of American Vogue and appearing in a Prada ad—or preparing herself for the upcoming Fall 2012 runway season, Smalls is fully involved. “I love working with creative people and people who are visionaries,” she says. “It’s a different type of intelligence and growth. It’s not just walking down a runway or taking a picture—it’s learning about patterns and different cuts, about texture and silhouette,” she says. “I see my career as an evolution. With every job, you learn something new.”