By Rosamund Dean
International model, skincare entrepreneur, and now up-and-coming actor, Winnie Harlow, knows what she wants from a home. Born and raised in Canada, the 28-year-old lists where she's lived: 'My first apartment was in Toronto, then I lived in London for two years, then New York for two years.' Settling in Los Angeles during the pandemic, she bought her first house in early 2021. 'There's more sun out here,' she smiles. 'I'm Jamaican, so those Canadian and New York winters were just not my forte.'
Sensibly, she lived in the house for over a year to get a feel for the space before diving in to an interior design odyssey, which is her current obsession. So where better to photograph her than the new Soho.Home.Studio on Hollywood's iconic Melrose Avenue? Filled with handcrafted furniture, textiles, lighting and tableware, it's designed to mirror the look and feel of Soho Houses around the world, for those who want to bring the feel of the Houses home.
Harlow describes her interiors style as 'modern glam, but in a grown up and sexy way'. And she's hired Martyn Lawrence Bullard, who has designed homes for everyone from Cher to the Kardashians, to help her create 'a space that I'm obsessed with'. They've been looking at pieces from Soho Home for a while - 'Going into the showroom was so fun, because I've seen lots of the pieces in pictures, but I hadn't seen them in person. If it's going to be in my house, I want to be able to actually sit in the chairs.'
We catch up over Zoom the next day, when I can't help noticing online tabloids are sharing paparazzi shots of Harlow in lingerie and a white fake fur coat, taken outside Soho.Home.Studio during the shoot. But such is the life of a high-profile model, and she's in good spirits, enthusing about how being in the studio has inspired her. She identified the black and white Raya rug that's exactly what she's been searching for. 'We've been looking at different rugs in my house, but as soon as I saw that one, I was saying to Martyn, "Do you think this would be nice in the living room?" He loved it as well.'
Working on her house with Bullard has been a dream. 'He has own style, but also understands mine,' she says. 'I've worked with interior designers before that weren't really adaptable to what my style was, and that's always going to cause a clash. But Martyn understands me, while showing me things that I would have never thought of. His input is like the chef's kiss to the design process.'
Harlow admits she is 'very hands-on' as a client, 'but I also acknowledge that they have the experience and knowledge that I don't.' One of her challenges initially was when she realised that everything she had in her previous apartments felt too small for a large house. In July, we had a glimpse of her home on Bullard's Instagram, when he shared a video hack for visualising a piece of furniture in your space: paper cut-outs that are the actual size of, for example, a potential coffee table. As Harlow exclaims in the video, 'absolute genius'.
When it comes to art, she wants to spend time in her newly designed house before deciding on artworks to invest in. 'But there was one piece that I was obsessed with, and I was so blessed because my boyfriend bought it for me last year, for my birthday,' she grins. So, the weather isn't the only reason to settle in LA. It's also the home of Harlow's NBA champion boyfriend, Kyle Kuzma, whose house she is in while chatting to me. 'It's a painting by Andrew Martin of Jean Shrimpton, dressed as an astronaut for a Harper's Bazaar shoot in the 1960s, with LED lights. It's not up yet because I haven't found where to place it.' Will some of her own magazine covers make it onto the wall, too? 'Not in an excessive way,' she begins. 'But maybe my first Vogue, and my first Harper's Bazaar.'
She has every reason to feel proud of her covers, having smashed boundaries by being the first model with vitiligo to be on the front of fashion magazines, and appear in campaigns for Fendi and Marc Jacobs. Harlow was diagnosed with the condition, where the skin loses its pigment cells, at the age of four, and spent her childhood being bullied for her unique appearance. It's testament to her loving and supportive family that she came through that experience stronger, and now her difference is her superpower. She is smart and decisive, and you only have to glance at her Instagram (10 million followers and counting) to see that she's supremely body confident. Having self-awareness, without insecurity, is often something that comes with time. Perhaps it was being forced to accept herself at an early age that helped her be the self-assured young woman she is today. I ask if she does anything for her mental health: yoga or meditation? 'No,' she says, making her something of an anomaly in LA. 'I probably should.'
One thing she does do for her mind is step away from her phone when she can. 'I mean, I try to,' she admits. 'But my life revolves around being in contact with people. When I'm not around my phone, everybody starts freaking out: "Where's Winnie? She hasn't responded. Is she OK?" Sometimes you want to just unplug. And I need to, because I find it so hard to focus on one thing. If I'm in glam, I'm playing games on my phone. When I'm watching a movie, I'm scrolling through Instagram. So, I try to train myself not to, and just be present in what I'm doing.'
Right now, she sounds relaxed and happy. She apologises about the dogs, Snoh and Duke, who I can hear tussling in the background. 'They're always fighting,' she says affectionately. 'It's like The Lion King in here.'
Kuzma is Harlow's partner in canine parenthood and, on Instagram, it's hard to tell who's cuter. The couple have been together for two years and recently celebrated their birthdays, which are three days apart, with a group trip to Jamaica.
'It was so much fun because I went with my girlfriends and my boyfriend,' she says of the break, where she hung out with family including her grandparents, but also made time to have a proper party. 'In Jamaica, there's this amazing festival called Dream Weekend,' she grins. 'My girls and I, we're Caribbean, so we've done it multiple times. But I got to introduce my boyfriend to what we like to do in the summertime.'
Of course, 'home' is about much more than the house in which you live. LA is her base, and Canada is where she's from, but where is home? 'Jamaica feels most like home to me, because that's where my ancestors are,' she says. 'That's where the spirit of my family is.'
Harlow's Jamaican heritage is also at the root of her latest business venture, a sun protection-focused skincare line called Cay Skin. 'My dad lives in Jamaica, so I was there quite a lot growing up,' she explains. 'I would always be in the sun, of course, and was introduced to so many amazing ingredients through my parents and grandparents.' Specifically, these include coconut, sea moss and aloe vera, which she remembers her grandmother putting on her skin as a child, squeezed straight out of the plants in the front yard. 'My parents always made sure that my skin was protected but, as I got older, I lost the importance of that. I didn't want to wear sunscreen because it made my skin blue toned or left a grey cast - especially in photo shoots,' she says.
A turning point came with a particular shoot where she was outside all day, and the team didn't want her to wear sunscreen because of how her skin would look in the shots. 'I ended up getting really bad sunburn, and so that made me think back to when I was a kid, and sunscreen not looking good, being sticky and not feeling nice,' she explains. 'I wanted to make something that protects your skin, but also feels good, because SPF is something that you should wear every single day. I want to blend those worlds of sunscreen and skincare, and make suncare.'
Harlow credits this entrepreneurial spirit to her parents. 'My mom told me that her dad would say: "do what you love because then it will never feel like work". Being a model, sometimes it's still going to feel like work, but at least it's enjoyable.' And, with Cay Skin, she feels she's 'working towards a greater goal'. Harlow's mum was a hairdresser with her own salon. 'And I'd work there on weekends, doing her clients' nails for an extra tip,' she remembers. 'My dad took over my grandfather's mechanic business in Jamaica - he has his own shop. So that work ethic of making something for yourself is very present in my life.'
And, thanks to Cay Skin, Harlow rounded off her birthday celebrations with a product launch event in Las Vegas, taking her friends from the Jamaica trip along for the ride. 'It was the whole crew,' she laughs. 'And so fun to end Leo season on that note.'
On top of her modelling career and suncare brand, Harlow's plans for the next year and beyond include branching into acting; another reason to be in LA. She has a role in Jimmy Giannopoulos's forthcoming horror 18 & Over, and a couple of other projects in the pipeline. 'They're all smaller parts, because I want to be able to practice and learn before I get that big role,' she says. 'I fell into modelling, and that was a great blessing, but it wasn't something that I aspired to do. I've always admired actors for how they can evoke so much passion and emotion from the viewer. So, I wanted to make sure that I was respecting the craft and doing my due diligence by having an acting coach to make sure that I'm on the right track, and I'm not just getting roles because I'm Winnie Harlow.'
It seems like being Winnie Harlow is pretty fun right now. Yes, she knows what she wants, and that has always been the case. When I ask her to think back 10 years and tell me what advice she might offer her 18-year-old self, she pauses. 'I'm pretty proud of my 18-year-old self,' she says eventually. 'She's the one who got me here. Rather than advice, I would probably just say thank you.'