Reached in Los Angeles on Tuesday, the Jamaican-Canadian model discussed the Puma alliance, supporting the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the need for greater open-mindedness and how racial terms differ in the U.S. and Canada. Revealing her Puma ambassadorship to her eight million Instagram followers last month, she wrote, “Situations over the past few weeks have highlighted the injustice, inequality and police brutality faced by Black people both in America and around the world so it was really important for me to partner with a brand that gives me the opportunity to champion people and organizations working to make meaningful change.”
Harlow’s inclination to “not be scared to go against the norm“ was a winning quality with Puma. Welcoming her to the team, Puma also noted how Harlow was a victim of bullying during her childhood and “now she is an inspiration for many of us.” Her first project with Puma supported the Trayvon Martin Foundation, the organization named for the Florida teenager who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012. The man charged in the shooting, George Zimmerman, was acquitted the following year.
Asked what she hopes people will gain from what she is doing with Puma beyond what is being sold, Harlow said, “I feel it is really important especially in today’s climate to have something more than just a campaign. With everything that was going on, I felt it was really important that with the launch that we include initiatives that were helpful and change making.”
Harlow said she chose to support the foundation since it is “a grassroots organization that really requires the help of the community.” She first met Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, a few years ago, while filming Beyoncé’s visual “Lemonade” video. Harlow said, “It was really powerful for me to meet her, as well as other mothers who had lost their children to police brutality or gun violence that Beyoncé had introduced us to [on location].”
Working with Puma, Harlow said there was a “very open discussion about things they can do to help move forward this movement [of diversity].” Her first initiative with the sneaker brand last month supported the Trayvon Martin Foundation’s STEM summer camp. Masks, backpacks, sneakers, T-shirts and gift vouchers were donated to children participating in the camp. Harlow said she is looking forward to working with the foundation along with other Black Lives Matter organizations “that really need support, especially during these times.”
The 25-year-old said she has always wanted a Puma campaign. Harlow “loved” Puma’s track record with collaborators like Rihanna’s Fenty, Nipsey Hussle, Meek Mill and Cara Delevingne, particularly due to their respective charitable components. “They have always allowed their partners to get behind causes that are important to them. That was always really exciting and important to me,” Harlow said.
Like many models and celebrities coping with COVID-19-induced business practices, Harlow knows how to adapt. Not so long ago, she photographed herself on the roof of her L.A. home for Puma. In February, Harlow hit the beach for a Puma shoot that is being used online and for social media. It wasn’t just another day at the beach, though. She said, “What stood out the most for me, funny enough, sand in every crease and crevice. That was a really difficult shoot. I’m really excited because it took so much from everyone. Everyone had sand everywhere — in their ears, in their eyes. But we created real magic on that day.”
While scores of companies are trying to improve diversity through modeling, on the runway and c-suite appointments, progress takes time from Harlow’s point of view. “There is a lot of work to be done in terms of representation and diversity within fashion from behind-the-scenes, to, of course, in front of the camera, from the ceo’s, to the designers, and all the way to entry-level whether it’s a new model or whoever is being hired. I also think that everyone in the fashion industry needs to take accountability so that real change can happen…”
She continued, “Diversity is an everyday thing. It’s not a one-off thing or a trend. I’m hopeful that these discussions are currently being held. We just need to keep the dialogue going.”
Asked whether activism is becoming a new form of athleticism, given its prevalence in different levels of sports, such as the National Football League or the National Basketball Association’s plans to allow players to wear social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys, Harlow said, “I think that stems from a lot of athletes taking a stand and wanting a change. I feel like it kind of starts with us. It’s not as though the two have always gone hand-in-hand. But everyone is looking for a change and everybody wants to see something different than what we’ve seen before. It’s starting to go hand-in-hand, but it hasn’t always been that way.”
Harlow and her boyfriend, Kyle Kuzma of the Los Angeles Lakers, often discuss the different ways that they each have a voice to help be part of that change. The NBA forward recently created T-shirts and sold them to raise money to support Black Lives Matter initiatives, Harlow said. “That was really inspiring to me as well, as I’m up here with him. It’s definitely a topic of discussion every day. As a Black woman and a Black man, it’s very important to us.”
Asked what people might be surprised to learn about her or her experiences, Harlow said, “Obviously, there’s racism everywhere — all over the world. In Canada, we don’t encounter it in the same way that Americans do. Even last night we were having a conversation about the terms that are used out here [in the U.S.] like African American. You don’t say African Canadian in Canada. When you say you are Canadian, you are also embracing where you are from. So it’s, ‘OK, cool, I’m Canadian.’ ‘What’s your background?’ ‘I’m Jamaican.’ Out here backgrounds are not known, which is very interesting and telling of the past that America has.’”
As for what Harlow hopes others might consider, she said, “It is important to keep an open mind. I’ve seen a lot of things in the media or in videos of people, who are still saying a lot of ignorant things. I feel like everyone is ignorant at one point in time about something. It’s just really important to stay open-minded, and to be able to listen and not just respond. That’s just the main thing right now — having empathy and thinking before you speak or act.”
Coronavirus-related restrictions have not inhibited Harlow from continuing to take acting classes — albeit via Zoom instead of in person with her acting coach as she is accustomed to doing. “Getting a lot of scripts” recently has been “really exciting,” she said. “The fact that people are interested in me acting is also really encouraging. But I also believe that anything you do should be taken seriously. If I’m going to do something — if I’m going to act — I want to take it seriously and not just because someone thought they should give me a script.”
The “America’s Next Model” Cycle 21 contestant continues to model. With September not so far away, fashion designers and brands are trying to figure out how to present their collections, with online and videos gaining interest due to the pandemic. “Every season everyone wants to do something new. With this new challenge put in front of us, everyone is still going to want to do something new,” Harlow said. “Not everyone is going to want to do the same thing. So we’ll just have to stay tuned until September.”