Arriving on set in checkered vintage pants and a T-shirt, skateboard in hand, Daniella Melendez is pleased to find an all-female crew for her R13 photo shoot. Within minutes, her warm, confident aura has everyone laughing and chatting like old friends, and it feels as though her dimples may possess some sort of magnetic force. She’s quick to apologize for having a lot of bug bites—she’s just returned from an impromptu camping trip. “I’m very spontaneous,” she explains. “I’m the one that decided we should go camping last minute, but I’m also the one to make a list of exactly what we needed and went and got the supplies.”
That calculated spontaneity is a recurring theme for Melendez, who has zero fear about diving into a new job, project, or hobby. She picked up a skateboard for the first time at age 17—not by chance, but because she decided to. “I had never even played sports before. I was a clumsy artist who preferred to read and create,” she recalls. “I was horrible when I first started and fell all the time, but since I knew I didn’t want to pursue it professionally, I was able to have fun with it.” As time passed, she fell in love with the escape skating provided, as well as the way it helps her channel her creativity and focus her fast-paced mind.
“Skating helped me discover who I am,” she reflects. Melendez was raised on New York City’s Lower East Side before moving to Brooklyn as an early teen. She went to a Catholic school, where she didn’t respond well to strict rules. Skating not only gave her a sense of freedom, but she also learned to stand her ground in a male-dominated community. “I used to be the only girl out of 100 people at the skate park. It was discouraging at times, but I found my true friends—the Knickerbocker Park Kids—and they gave me positive and productive lessons in skating and in life.”
Melendez credits her mother, whom she calls “the strongest person I’ve ever met,” for instilling her with fearless confidence, as well as street smarts learned from growing up in housing projects. These qualities have served her well in all of her pursuits, including modeling, which, after years of getting scouted, she finally decided to explore in recent years. “Entering the industry a little older meant I knew I could stand my ground. My mother raised a strong woman. She taught me to have confidence and never let anyone do anything to take that away,” she says, adding that she’s happy she began modeling at a time when the industry has started to evolve beyond traditional beauty ideals and embrace individuality.
Fashion has always been of interest to Melendez, who, as a self-declared tomboy, values clothes that allow her to move and skate with comfort and ease. “I actually like wearing a girly dress while I’m skating, but it’ll always be with sneakers.” She shops a lot of vintage and embraced R13’s lived-in, relaxed pieces that feel both modern and nostalgic. “I love how this collection is grungy and cute at the same time—that’s always what I’m looking for.”
When chatting with Melendez, it’s striking how declarative she is about what she wants and likes, but without being stuck in her ways. She doesn’t skip a beat when asked about juggling all of her interests. “I guess you could say modeling is my job, art is my passion, and skating is my hobby,” she pauses, knowing she forgot something. “And acting. I’m really enjoying getting into acting and maybe eventually becoming a voice actor.”
Indeed, next month she officially adds acting to her creative portfolio when the indie film Skate Kitchen, directed by Crystal Moselle, hits theaters. The art-imitates-life film is about a young female skater in New York who connects with a crew of girls. “The movie explores how men approach female skaters. My role is to help navigate the protagonist through a tough time. Now that I talk about it out loud, the character I play is a lot like me in my group of friends—the fearless one.”