Joan Smalls is big time now. I first met the Puerto Rican beauty after her first trip down the runway on a Givenchy couture exclusive, which, even though we didn’t know it at the time, was about to change her life. Riccardo Tisci’s casting transformed the lovely, funny little lady from a catalog girl to a supermodel powerhouse. Now she’s on the cover of magazines (like this issue of Harper’s Bazaar UK, which I interviewed her for), on the world’s best runways and even locked in a cosmetics contract with Estee Lauder. So, it was nice to catch up with this fabulous lady. Read our chat below. 

At heart, Joan Smalls, the 24-year-old Puerto Rican supermodel on course for world domination (she is currently ranked the second most successful model in the world) is just a fun-loving island girl. In fact, when we meet for cranberry juice (she doesn’t drink alcohol) in New York’s Chelsea, the only piece of jewellery she wears is a gold necklace with ‘Joanji’ written in a graffiti script and diamonds. ‘It’s been my nickname since I was a little girl,’ says Smalls, whose skin is cinnamon-coloured and who smiles with bright, dancing eyes. ‘It’s what they still call me when I go home.’ Hers is a tale of triumph through determination.

Smalls grew up with her parents and two sisters on a small farm in the town of Hatillo. She entered local modelling competitions in Puerto Rico, but never won because, she says, ‘I was told I was too tall, too thin and too dark.’ Finally, she made it to New York where, armed with a list of the best agencies, she pounded the pavements. But Smalls found herself a frustrated catalogue model until Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci (now a close friend and diehard fan) booked her exclusively for his haute couture show in 2010. Campaigns for Gucci, Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Lacoste and Chanel followed. Looking back to that Givenchy catwalk, Smalls says she knew that her life was about to change. ‘I was like, “This is my time. This is my moment to shine.”’ She’s still shining.

Derek Blasberg I want to start with something I don’t think you get enough recognition for: this girl can dance!

Joan Smalls Oh, yes she can! Being Puerto Rican, you come out
of the womb dancing! It’s a mix of so many cultures: African
tribal rhythm, the salsa, the reggaeton.

DB Did you go out dancing a lot when you were younger?

JS I went out all the time. My sister is older than me, but we look alike so she would give me her ID. This is back in Puerto Rico, so all the bouncers were my sister’s friends, and they would take care of me.

DB What was growing up in Puerto Rico like?

JS I grew up on a farm. We had our own banana-trees, mango-trees, orange-trees, avocado-trees, and so many different animals. Peacocks, chickens, ducks, pigs, dogs… There was this turkey
that would attack me when I was a kid. My father told me I had to stick up for myself,
so one day I picked up a rock and hit him with it.

DB That’s a good life lesson.

JS It was. That turkey got mean again, so eventually he went to the neighbours’ house –
and they ate him. That’s what happens when you mess with me!

DB What were you like as a little girl?

JS I was the tomboy. I was always getting messy, falling down and scratching my
knees. We sisters were always close-knit and protective of each other. It’s still like that
now, and I think that’s what keeps me strong in this business. It’s easy to get lost
in New York, but having my family is what kept me out of trouble. I always knew
I could call home.

DB That’s another thing that comes to mind when I think of you: determination.

JS This industry isn’t like others. If you go to school and study, you know you’ll get good grades and graduate. But with modelling you don’t entirely control your own destiny.
It’s up for grabs. You have no sense of security, and that can scare many people.

DB Have you had tough moments?

JS I have dealt with adversity from people I thought were on my side. Past agents, when
I would come to them for advice, would just tell me: ‘There’s only room for one.’

DB One what?

JS One girl of colour.

DB No!

JS Yes. I had come for encouragement and I was given an excuse. It was disappointing. Little by little, my hopes were going down. I remember calling my dad after a tough time in Paris when I was going to casting after casting where they wouldn’t even look at my book. I was sitting on a bench on the Champs-Elysées, and starting to cry. I’m a strong person; I don’t like to show my emotions, especially to strangers on the street. My father told me to keep my head up high and do my best. And he was right.

DB What is it like to be the first Latina face at Estée Lauder?

JS Amazing. When I was starting, Estée Lauder was the pinnacle. It was far-fetched, but
it was my goal. And I got it.

DB What did you do when you got the call?

JS I was in Milan and I had just finished the Versace show and went back to my room.
Then my manager Kyle called me. He said: ‘Joan, I think it’s a go.’ I still get goosebumps when I think about it. I had 10 minutes to myself, and I broke
down. I prayed. I gave thanks to God. Then maybe I jumped on
the bed for a little bit.

DB I was with Naomi Campbell when it was announced that
you would be the first black girl in a Chanel campaign, and she
said she was going to email you.

JS She did! It was such a short, sweet message: ‘We are all proud
of you. We are all rooting for you.’ To have someone you look
up to and who has been a fashion icon since you were a child respond to what you do – it was a flattering moment.

DB Your career changed when you met Riccardo Tisci. How did that happen?

JS My agency sent Givenchy some pictures for a couture show,
and they said they’d like to see me. Before I went, my agent sat
me down and said: ‘This is a gamble. You’re going to put up your own money
[for the travel expenses] and think of it as an investment. It could work out, or it could
not.’ I had been waiting for that moment long enough, so I decided to do it. I went to
the casting, I walked for him, and as I left my Paris agent called me and said: ‘Joan,
don’t go to any more castings, because you’re on the Givenchy exclusive.’ It was one
of those moments when you just know your life is about to change.

DB He [Tisci] told me he went home to Puerto Rico with you.

JS Yes, he did. I remember my dad was talking to him so much; I had to move him away! He was just so happy to meet this man who had done so much for his daughter.

DB What’s the craziest job you’ve had?

JS Probably Chanel’s spring campaign. It was shot in Cap d’Antibes, and I had to pose
on this diving platform hung over the sea – at least I can swim. So Karl is taking the
pictures from a boat and I decide to go for it. I shove my leg through this armhole, and
I’m doing the splits in this Chanel dress, 20 metres over the water. But you know what?
I wanted this for so long – fear goes out the door.

DB What was the first thing you did when you started making some money?

JS Saving it.

DB You didn’t have one extravagance?

JS I wanted to give back to my parents because they had made so many sacrifices for my sisters and me. So I bought my father
a pick-up truck. My mum’s biggest dream was to remodel her
kitchen. When we were kids, she would save up money and then
an emergency would come up. Mothers always put themselves last. So last year, I got my mum the kitchen she always wanted.

DB What challenges are left for you?

JS I want a fragrance contract.

DB You want your own fragrance?

JS No, I meant a fragrance campaign. But now that you say it, you never know.

DB Do it. Here’s your tagline: Smell Small, Feel Big!

JS Can we copyright that right now? I want to be on Forbes’ list, too. I want to become a businesswoman. Look at Heidi Klum, Gisele Bündchen, Cindy Crawford, Tyra Banks. These women have made their own paths, starting from modelling.

DB Is that all?

JS I want to take over the world. I want people to look at me
and say: ‘Oh wow, that girl is doing something.’