We’ve just wrapped an eight-hour shoot at Milk Studios in New York with Jourdan Dunn, and the model has nailed multiple cover options and so many inside shots that I’ve lost track. I’m told we have 30 minutes for the interview and then she has to run off to tape a video. What? I’m already thinking about a post-shoot burger and a glass of Merlot, and she’s off to do a video! “Oh, it won’t take long,” she says, when I ask her about her superhuman stamina. “And I want to do it.”
The video she mentions is being shot at another studio in the building. It’s the “I Am an Immigrant” segment that W magazine has created with 81 members of the fashion community—everyone from Doutzen Kroes, Adriana Lima and Grace Coddington to Diane von Furstenberg. The world is grappling with Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration, and the tensions it has generated strike a personal note with Dunn. Although she isn’t from one of the Muslim-majority countries named in the order, discrimination is something the London-born model of Jamaican descent has encountered in her professional and private lives.
The 26-year-old mother commutes between New York and London, where her seven-year-old son, Riley, lives with her mother, Dee. When she was home in England recently, he asked her why she wanted to live in America. “He said, ‘Mommy, you’re black; aren’t you scared that you’re going to be killed?’ That’s a very hard thing to hear that your son thinks that,” says Dunn. “I was taken aback, and I just had to reassure him that I’m going to be OK. But it’s sad that he even had to ask me.” Later, when we talk about the need for diversity in the modelling world—a subject for which Dunn has lobbied—she seems rather discouraged. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she says. “I feel like we’re going backwards. We take one step forward and then we go 10 steps back.”
“I don’t want to talk about [diversity] anymore. I feel like we’re going backwards. We take one step forward and then we go 10 steps back.”
The Maybelline New York spokesmodel is responsible for some of those notable steps forward. In 2008, two years after Dunn was discovered in a Primark store in the Hammersmith district of London, she was the first black model to walk a Prada runway in over a decade.In 2014, she was the first black British model to make it onto Forbes’s top-earning models list. The following year, she was the first solo black model in 12 years to land on the cover of British Vogue. And last year, she placed number one on the 100 Most Beautiful Faces list.
Yet when I ask her about the first time she felt proud of herself, the answer isn’t what I expected. “It’s nothing serious,” she says, laughing. “But I would say it was when I learned how to make good rice. Rice is actually kind of hard! It’s more complicated than you’d think. I was 18 at the time, and I was really pleased with myself.” Cooking has always been one of Dunn’s passions. For two years she had a show, called Well Dunn, on Jay Z’s YouTube channel, Life+Times, but she says it became a chore to produce. Lately, however, she has gotten back into the kitchen and is now working on a cookbook with her mom. “I don’t know the name yet, but I’m a spice fiend, so it will be based on spices,” she explains.
Dunn is also set to launch her first collaboration with Missguided, a British clothing line for women she describes as “fearless and cool go-getters who want to look amazing while they’re doing what they want to do.” It’s an outlook that Dunn champions in her own life, but she admits that she wasn’t always so confident. Because she was tall and skinny growing up, she was often bullied. “People pick up on your differences and want to tear you down,” she says. “It got to the point where I didn’t want to walk down the street because I was so paranoid that people were looking at me and judging me; I was definitely insecure about my body. Modelling kind of made that worse because your body is so highlighted and you tend to focus on your flaws.” Three years ago, she felt she needed to step away from the business. Dunn says the turning point came when her agent told her to read Louise Hay’s The Power Is Within You. She says the book taught her to love herself and accept that you can’t change others’ opinions. It’s a message she hopes to communicate to her two million social media followers and one she takes to heart when young women send her DMs saying that she has inspired them because they have the same body type and are being bullied or they’re single mothers trying to balance a career with motherhood.
“Fear can’t be an option; we just have to face up to the situation and go for it.”
The image Dunn crafts of herself online isn’t about perfection, and she admits that she’s had a few missteps. (Like the time she posted this tweet about a Victoria’s Secret show: “Feeling so much better about not doing BS…sorry I mean VS now that Rihanna isn’t doing it also.”) “It was only up for five seconds and I deleted it, but it doesn’t matter,” she explains. “Once it’s there, it’s there for life. I’m more careful now!”
It’s a misstep she hopes her followers learn from, adding that she’s young and still trying to figure things out. “I don’t think of myself as a role model, but I do want people to know that it’s OK to, like, fuck up. We’re humans. We’re not perfect. I’m not trying to portray anything but my true self.”
Today, she says she finds inspiration from within to be the best she can be, but she readily acknowledges the people who have influenced her life and her career. She is especially grateful for the support that Jean Paul Gaultier gave her when she was 19 and pregnant. The French designer created a special look for the then- seven-months-pregnant Dunn to wear in his Spring/Summer 2010 show. “For him to celebrate and embrace me at that moment was pretty cool,” she says. Another pivotal moment was when Steven Meisel cast her for Italian Vogue’s all-black issue in 2008. “It put me on my path,” says Dunn. “It was my first time working with Steven, and my agent put the fear in me: I couldn’t mess it up! It’s still one of my favourite shoots.”
Fear is something Dunn wrestled with for many years, including the moment she learned she was pregnant. “I asked myself, ‘Can I be responsible for another human being? Like, what the hell!’ I was lucky I had my mom to guide me, but at the same time she let me learn to trust my own instincts.” Like her mother, who raised Dunn and her two brothers on her own, she was taking on this role without the support of a partner. (A few weeks after Riley was born, his father went to prison for a year.) When she learned that her son had inherited sickle-cell anemia, it became all the more important that she earn a living to ensure he has the best possible care. She’s an ambassador for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America and hosts “Cell for Gratitude” events to raise money for research.
She credits Diane von Furstenberg with helping her learn to deal with her son’s illness and all the anxieties that young women face today. “A few years ago, she gave me her book The Woman I Wanted to Be,” recalls Dunn. “In it, she writes that her mother always told her that fear is not an option. And that really stuck with me. I even had it tattooed on my arm as a reminder that we can’t limit ourselves—whether it’s fear to be our true selves or fear of getting out of a relationship or a job. Fear can’t be an option; we just have to face up to the situation and go for it.”
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