After receiving an invite from Beyonce‘s team and a phone call from her personal assistant, Canadian model Winnie Harlow — who has used her rare skin condition, vitiligo, to change runway standards of beauty — hopped on a New Orleans-bound plane to shoot for Bey’s visual album Lemonade.
With only two days’ notice, the America’s Next Top Model Cycle 21 alum born Chantelle Brown-Young filmed on a plantation in NOLA (rumors swirled last December that Beyonce was shooting a secret video in Louisiana) alongside Mrs. Carter and an empowering squad of black women that included singer Zendaya, actress Amandla Stenberg, French-Cuban musical duo Ibeyi, Sybrina Fulton (slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin’s mom) and Lezley McSpadden (mother to Mike Brown, who was fatally shot in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014).
Twenty-four hours after Lemonade was released on Tidal (April 24), Harlow jetted back from a business trip in London to her native Toronto and called Billboard to discuss the project that made her a certified BeyHive member.
How did you get involved with the project?
[Beyonce’s team] reached out to me two weeks before filming in New Orleans and we didn’t get back to them because they wouldn’t give us much information on what the project was. They were just pretty much saying, “Hey, we would like to have Winnie for a project in New Orleans. Can’t really talk about it but maybe we can all jump on a call.” A day or two before the actual filming, I was in L.A. for Germany’s Next Topmodel, hosting with Heidi Klum and my friend called me and was like, “Hey, my friend is Beyonce’s personal assistant and she wants your number. I didn’t give it to her because I just don’t hand out people’s numbers, no matter who it’s for. I just wanted to call and ask if it was okay.” I was like, “Girl. Come on. Of course, you can give her my number.” So she did. Within a couple of hours, she called me and they booked my flight and I was headed to New Orleans.
At what point on the plane did you realize ‘I’m going to be working with Beyonce’?
Well, I was super excited but I had no idea what it was for so I was kind of aimlessly headed to the airport. My driver had come to pick me up, took me to set and the drive was like an hour long from the airport. I had never been to New Orleans before. No idea where I’m going but hey, Beyonce called!
Recall the moment you arrived on set. What were you told and what was the vision pitched to you?
I kind of saw the vision once I got there and saw everyone on set. We pulled up to a plantation and walked through the wardrobe area. Wardrobe was crazy. So many beautiful things that were old or vintage. Zendaya was there, Jay Z was there, Blue [Ivy], there was so many people there and I kind of got the gist based off where we were and the outfits and makeup everyone was wearing. It wasn’t really explained. You just kind of felt what we were doing. We could tell it was gonna be big.
You’re seen holding a portrait in Lemonade. Who was in the photograph?
That was actually my great grandfather. There was actually a picture of someone in that frame that I was holding up but they transferred a picture I scanned over of my grandfather and used that instead because they wanted it to be more meaningful rather than me holding a picture of someone I didn’t know. As she said in the trailer, it’s about bringing the past with the future together in the present.
Did you get to watch Lemonade?
No, I haven’t seen the whole thing.
Did you know Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown’s mothers were going to be involved in the production?
Yes, I met them. I actually met Trayvon’s mom one time in New York. When I got on-set, she came over, re-introduced herself and gave me a hug so it was nice to talk to her again and for longer as well. When they were filming “Freedom,” Beyonce was singing to us a cappella, which is like crazy amazing.
Describe the ambience on set as that was happening.
A lot of the people [Beyonce] had on-set were entertainers from models to actresses and then the matriarchs so it was kind of like a talent show almost because every time she would kill a note, we’d all start cheering. We couldn’t help ourselves. We knew it was being filmed but it was just so amazing. People pay a shit load of money [to see Beyonce perform] and I get to watch this from afar. This is what I call my job. It was pretty epic.
When you first heard “Freedom,” how did you feel?
There was so much passion in her performance. I got to watch the “Freedom” performance and when you watch it in the video, there is music and everything behind it but she’s singing it to us without music. It was crazy. It was surreal. She would forget a word here or there and she was pretty much learning the lyrics with us. We were holding up little papers with her lyrics so she didn’t forget them. It was a very supportive [atmosphere]. I walked into the dressing room, seeing pictures of us on the wall with the title “Influential Women.”
What did you tell Beyonce when you met her?
I actually thanked her after we wrapped and she’s like, “No, thank you so much for taking the time to come out.” I was like, “I know everyone has thanked you for having ‘em here but that’s not really what I’m thanking you for. I’m also thanking you for acknowledging me and my work and putting me in this category of a strong black woman because you are a strong black woman and represent that for us so much.” She’s so strong and so passionate in what she does and it was very inspirational.
What does the term “lemonade” mean to you?
I think it [means] making lemonade out of the lemons that are handed to you. You know like making good out of the bad.
How long have you been a BeyHive member?
Since I met her to be completely honest. [Laughs] I’ve never been a die-hard Beyonce fan. I always thought she was inspirational and beautiful. If you look on my Instagram, I actually made a post about two years ago about how inspirational she was to me. I have a close friend who’s like, “Oh you went to New Orleans? Was it for Beyonce?” And I was like, “Huh? What are you talking about?” And she was like, “I know Beyonce is in New Orleans and you were there and I know it’s because of Beyonce.” [I was like], “Girl you’ve lost your mind.” I wouldn’t know that Beyonce was in New Orleans if she didn’t tell me. I wasn’t part of the BeyHive before I met her but after my experience, working with her, meeting her, I’m a die-hard fan.