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'I don't do modelling to go to parties or to have fun, I do it so I can make money'

She's one of the world's top supermodels but Joan Smalls had to fight to get her start in the industry. She talks to Tilly Macalister-Smith.

When Joan Smalls was 13, she entered a modelling competition at her junior high school in Hatillo, Puerto Rico. Somewhat incredibly, given that she's now one of the world's most in-demand supermodels - one of just three women of colour to make it onto Forbes' list of the 20 highest-earners last year, with an estimated salary of £3.5m - she lost. But instead of moping around or giving up, she took it upon herself to fly, accompanied by her sister Erika, to New York, where she tracked down an agent she'd met at the competition to enquire about signing her.

"When I arrived, the first thing he told me was that I needed to straighten my teeth," she recalls. "I said: 'But I've seen other models with crooked teeth, why do I have to?' He said: 'Well, Joan, because you're black, and that is already going to be a difficulty in this industry.'"

I'm shocked, by the comment but also by her calmness; Smalls took his remark in her stride. "You know, he was just being so straightforward … I respected that he was being honest with me - that's my type of personality."

Smalls, it's quite apparent, is made of sterner stuff than most. We meet inordinately early on a cold January morning; perched on the black leather sofa of a New York studio in skinny black jeans, black puffa jacket, baseball cap and trainers, coffee in hand, she displays no signs of bleariness. She can't afford to: more than seven years after she burst onto the scene, a breath of fresh Puerto Rican air, her schedule is unrelenting.

Already in 2017 she has been unveiled as campaign star for Bottega Veneta and Michael Kors. "I was always driven in knowing that it's a career," she says of the modelling world. "I'm not doing it because it's 'fun' and want to go to the parties. I always viewed it as an experience and an opportunity to one, make money and, two, use what God gave me and enjoy what I have around me and make the most out of it."

Which brings us back to that moment in the New York agent's office. "I took (what he said) as constructive criticism. I'm like, 'You know what, that's true.'" And so she returned home, bit down on the Invisalign and raced through a psychology degree at the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, completing the course a year early and graduating magna cum laude. "I just studied while I got my teeth straightened. My dad would always say to me: 'You've got to get your education because those looks will fade,'" she says, laughing.

That doesn't look likely to happen soon. Despite coming relatively late to the industry - Smalls was 21 when she got her big break, after being signed as a Givenchy exclusive for Riccardo Tisci's Spring/Summer Haute Couture show in January 2010 - she's worked for labels from Chanel to Burberry, Versace, and Dior. I wonder if her steely self-belief ever wavers? "My mom always tells me: 'Joan, you're the brightest star, embrace your strength and your power when you walk into a room.' So I always have that in me to have that confidence."

Born in lush, beach-lined Hatillo on Puerto Rico's north coast, Smalls is the daughter of Eric, a West Indian accountant of African ancestry and Betzaida, a Puerto Rican social worker of mixed heritage. After a growth spurt one summer, people began to suggest she try modelling. Initially, she wasn't convinced. "I would think, 'I'm so skinny and so awkward looking'. The vision of modelling in Puerto Rico was like Miss Universe, real curves, and I knew I didn't fit in to that." Then came the modelling competition, the conversation with the agent, and the Invisalign.

After graduating, she returned to New York where, in 2009, she was signed by Elite Model Management. "I was doing extremely well as a commercial model, saving money and travelling, but it got to a point where I was starting to get content. I was like, no Joan, you need to aim higher. I switched agencies (to IMG, her current agency) and that was when I got the Givenchy Haute Couture exclusive. I remember coming out of the fitting after I met with Riccardo (Tisci) and I got it. It was the 'a-ha' moment of euphoria. I was like, 'Joan, this is it', and I got goosebumps. I remember telling myself, 'Make the best out of it, go hard'.

"I had to do the looks at 3am, 12 hours straight, and being super tired and jet lagged, but I kept telling myself, 'This is what you wanted, Joan', and I never complained. I did it with a smile and gratitude because when you want something so badly, when you're so hungry, you think, I'm going to take it. And that changed everything. After that everyone saw me in a different light and for that I'm always grateful to him because he was the one who was able to reshape my image."

The rest, as they say, is history: "Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, Mert & Marcus. The campaigns just kept coming," she says. "There was this consistency that I continued and I think that set me apart. I was doing Chanel, Stella McCartney, David Yurman, like every single campaign, Roberto Cavalli, and it was like, bam bam bam. And I wouldn't think about it."

She was appointed the beauty ambassador for Estée Lauder in 2011 and was the first Latina face to front a global campaign for the brand.

"Getting that meant something. Being black and being Latina meant I had, like, two-for-one, and people previously had not totally comprehended that it's okay to be two. Sometimes coming into the industry they sell you as just one thing, and meanwhile I feel like I'm multiple, and Estée Lauder really embraced that and I was so happy to be the first Latina Puerto Rican. Being there was monumental and people in Puerto Rico feel proud of you. Even until this day they are like: 'Joan, thank you for putting our island's name up there and thank you for making us proud.'"

These days, Smalls lives in Brooklyn with her boyfriend, Bernard Smith, founder of the members club Modellounge (for, you guessed it, models only, to relax and recharge between jobs) who she has dated for seven years. She retains a close connection to her home country: she spent Christmas at her parents' house, the very same place she grew up.

"My boyfriend's whole family came down, his parents came from South Carolina, his brother from Pennsylvania with his kids."

Smalls was hosting with her two sisters and parents. "I did most of the cooking. We did roasted pork, which is typical Puerto Rican food, red rice and beans, my sister did mac and cheese, my boyfriend and my sister did apple crisp for dessert, so everybody had something to do."

Despite a smattering of pap shots of her and Smith on Leonardo DiCaprio's boat and numerous awards ceremonies, she insists they live a calm life.

"I really don't go out. I love watching movies and on a day off I'll work out, do groceries, do laundry, see a friend.' She occasionally helps out for children's charity Project Sunshine. Does she talk about children with Smith? 'Oh yeah, we talk about it all the time. When the time is right.'

She works out almost daily - but not just for her waistline. "I have scoliosis (curvature of the spine) so I have to try and maintain a strong core because of my back. It's pretty severe and hurts when I sit or stand for long periods of time. I got it when I grew really fast when I was 12."

She sees her trainer of seven years, Mark Gordon, and a Thai kick-boxing trainer, who is, she says, "a proper MMA fighter".

She adds: "I always feel like every couple of years I want to learn a new destreza - a new skill. I wanted to learn how to box, but proper boxing. I wasn't doing it for cardio, I was doing it because I wanted to learn how to throw a punch and feel empowered. My dad was a black belt in the Marines but he never taught us properly how to fight."

Empowerment is important to Smalls. It's one reason she was so delighted to appear in Beyonce's music video Yonce in 2013. "She just told me, 'Do you. I want you to be yourself'. She's not restricting of anybody. And that was empowering, to hear another woman say that to you. And I think that's beautiful that you celebrate other women." And it's the reason she maintains a social-media profile, posting shots for her two million followers of her working out, getting ready for shoots or cooking at home despite having made it long before such things were required.

"People get to see me for who I am or at least what I want them to see. It's basically your own magazine, your own editorial, and you get to showcase your work."

It's also the reason she voted for Hillary Clinton in the US election: "You come from this leader that everybody saw as hope and had such a beautiful message throughout all these years and encouraged people and gave them this uplift, you know."

Trump's win, she says, was a "shock": "It feels regressive and he's not inclusive of everyone, and it's not the message I believe in… That's not the way I was raised. And I'm not into politics but it's just the character. It's a representative of your country, and when you travel people are going to have that association."

Our time together is drawing to a close. Smalls has recently wrapped her first cameo role as an assassin in John Wick: Chapter 2, starring Keanu Reeves, out this week and I've little doubt that, should she want it, a screen career could beckon.

What, I ask, is her ultimate goal? "I always believe if you want something you should always give 100%. I went into (modelling) knowing I wanted to be the best, the best for Joan. I wanted to know what it felt like to be successful."

If that's her goal, then I suspect she's already achieved it.

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