Jillian Mercado’s electric personality and zero-B.S. attitude make her immediately feel like a cool best friend—the one you go to when you need to cut the crap and hear it like it is, but not in an intimidating way. She has a way of striking the balance between empathy and hard truths, a combo that comes in handy as an advocate for her community.

Mercado has spastic muscular dystrophy, a condition that means she uses a wheelchair, and the fact that her disability is visible means she’s been treated differently from day one. “People didn’t understand that my disability is just a part of me—like someone having blue or brown eyes. Unfortunately, this world gives people who look different a rule book, and I never identified with it at all.” Instead, she harnessed her frustration into rebellion, and eventually empowerment.

From a young age, Mercado was drawn to the fashion industry and hoarded magazines, which she’d flip through in search of anyone who looked like her on the pages. Frustrated by the lack of representation, she decided it was her place to make a change. “I knew very early on that the industry had everything except one thing—and that was me. I was like, I’m going to be the one to fill this gap,” she says to host Noor Tagouri on this week’s episode of The Barneys Podcast. She went on to get a degree from FIT and model in campaigns for major brands like Calvin Klein and Diesel—she’s even appeared on a larger-than-life billboard in Times Square.

She attributes her ability to break barriers to the rebellious nature she cultivated early on. “It was my survival mode. I think if I wasn’t a rebel, I would not be where I am today at all.” Mercado wants to set the record straight that having a visible physical disability does not equate to weakness or being handicapped (a word she wishes she could “delete”); in fact, she wouldn’t change a thing about herself. “If I was given a wish to magically walk right now, would I take it? Without hesitation, no, never. Not now, not before, not in the future. What makes me me is literally me! I would never change it.”

Tune in this week as Mercado and Tagouri bond over their love of emo, breaking into the fashion industry against all odds, and how best to be an ally.

New episodes of The Barneys Podcast come out every Wednesday. It is produced by Noor Tagouri, Transmitter Media, and Barneys New York. You can find it on iTunesStitcherSpotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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