Joan Smalls is living every aspiring model’s dream. She was named the #1 Model in the world by Models.com, is the first Latina woman to land an Estee Lauder campaign and the first woman of color to be featured in a Chanel advertisement. But all her success didn’t come without challenges.

In a candid interview with Harper’s Bazaar‘s Derek Blasberg, Smalls opens up about the difficulties she faced climbing the proverbial ladder to success in the model industry as a woman of color:

On being told “there’s room for only one” model of color:

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.

On getting encouragement from Naomi Campbell:

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.

It’s sad that in 2012, agents can get past the theory that only one model of color can make it in modeling at a time. But it’s also inspiring to see how models of color like Naomi Campbell and Joan Smalls ban together to be a system of support for each other in a racist industry.

Read the full interview here.

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