How do you know you’re on the brink of supermodel supremacy? When your perfect face is pretty much everywhere. Exhibit A: model Joan Smalls, the Puerto Rican beauty who can be seen in Estée Lauder ads, on designer runways across every major fashion city, and in magazine editorial pages too numerous to count. Even Beyoncé took notice, enlisting Smalls’ shiny red lips to introduce the provocative video “Yoncé” from her latest album in December. And let’s not forget Smalls’ eighth-place ranking on Forbes’ World’s Highest-Paid Models of 2013 list, and her online MTV House of Style hosting gig with beauty bestie Karlie Kloss. Indeed, Smalls, 25, is having a moment—and she’s thankful. “A lot of people think that I was an overnight success,” she says, “but there was a lot of sacrifice and constant self-motivation.”
Few know that early in her career Smalls was advised by a brutally honest agent to fix her crooked teeth if she wanted to be a contender. Smalls’ mom was outraged, the model tells GBL with a laugh—one of many throughout our sit-down at a photo studio in NYC—but Smalls understood the reasoning. “I am different,” she says. “I didn’t want my teeth to be an excuse as to why I didn’t get a booking.” So in true Smalls fashion, she returned to Puerto Rico and, in between dentist visits, enrolled in college, graduating with honors.
“I wasn’t going to do it—excuse the expression—half-assed just because I had time to kill,” she says of her college experience. “I was going to get good grades and show that I’m intelligent and not just a pretty face.” By the time she returned to NYC, she was deemed model material. Boy, was she ever.
GLAM BELLEZA LATINA: It’s so great to meet you! Was modeling something you dreamed about when you were little?
JOAN SMALLS: Oh no. I grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico and wanted to be a veterinarian. I was always playing with animals! But because I physically resembled some of the models on TV—tall and skinny—people would tell my parents that I should model.
GBL: So you knew it was a possibility, but it wasn’t a burning passion.
JS: Exactly. I wasn’t what the boys considered “pretty,” but in my house they always told us that we were beautiful. I never worried about my self-esteem. And I wanted to try out modeling. I wanted to see the world.
GBL: We follow you on Instagram—who doesn’t?—and you often post pictures of your mom and two sisters. Were they always supportive?
JS: Yes, they’re my biggest cheerleaders.
GBL: Love that. You seem really proud of your culture.
JS: Yes, “pride” in coming from such a beautiful, diverse culture is something that I think of in connection to Latin beauty. Regardless of what shade you are or where you come from, you still are beautiful.
GBL: In 2010 you were signed by Estée Lauder. How did you react upon getting such a major contract?
JS: Well, it’s funny, because I kept a journal of things that I wanted to accomplish in my modeling career. I always said I wanted a contract with Estée Lauder. I figured I’d dream big—that’s not going to hurt anybody! I got goosebumps reading those notebooks a few months ago. I couldn’t believe I had actually attained it.
GBL: Wow. And here you are!
JS: Yes, and it was an affirmation that Latinas were beautiful and worthy of being represented. I’m their first Latina model, and it felt like a sisterhood with [Estée Lauder models] Constance [Jablonski] and Liu Wen. I felt like the contract represented my beliefs.
GBL: When did you walk into an editorial photo shoot and realize, OK, this is really happening?
JS: That happened quite a lot actually. I look up to so many of the legends in this industry. I remember working with [photographer] Steven Meisel and being like, Oh my God, I’m gonna meet him. Or [Givenchy creative director] Riccardo Tisci, who is now like family.
GBL: What do you do on your days off?
JS: I like to do everyday stuff, like turning off my alarm and waking up whenever I feel like it. Cook, watch a lot of Netflix, and go to the gym.
GBL: What kind of beauty tips did your mom share with you?
JS: Well, to this day she still says, “Tu no te vas a poner lipstick?” She always wears it, so even if I’m wearing lip gloss, she’ll ask if I plan to wear color.
GBL: Sounds like a Latina mom! What kind of feedback have you received from being featured in Beyoncé’s video, especially from those who know models and Latina models specifically? ¿Que te han dicho?
JS: Some were like, “I didn’t know Joan could move like that!” I think people forget that I’m Latin!
GBL: We saw a lot of commentary on Instagram right when the record hit, with comments like, “That’s Joan Smalls! She’s Latina! She’s Puerto Rican!” They whittled it down!
JS: Aha. People want to claim you. And people don’t realize that when you’re Latin, you’re so diverse. I am black. I am Latin. I am Spanish. You know? It’s a little bit of everything, and that’s beautiful. So, everybody, claim me. I’m fine with that