Supermodel Joan Smalls
Supermodel Joan Smalls on why "a girl should be able to land a good punch"

Smalls says she missed Muay Thai during the pandemic.

At the beginning of the pandemic, supermodel Joan Smalls thought one of the benefits of having to stay home was getting out of bed later in the morning. "I'm a late riser," she says. "I thought I was going to have these amazing, long mornings [to sleep in]." But it wasn't meant to be. She automatically wakes up at 7:30 or 8 a.m., some days as early as 5 a.m. The first thing she does is look at her phone, because before she goes to bed, she sets it to airplane and "do not disturb" mode and turns off the Wi-Fi. "I just check to see if there's an emergency, if my family doesn't need me for something," she says.

Smalls, 32, who started modeling in 2007, had her breakthrough three years later when she walked in Givenchy's couture show in Paris. Since then, she has walked in more than 500 shows and starred in campaigns for brands such as Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Tiffany. In 2011, she became the first Latina model to become a face of Estée Lauder. She was born and raised in Hatillo, Puerto Rico, where she spent part of the pandemic. Last June, Smalls announced that she would donate half of her 2020 salary to support the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, she launched, a platform where anyone can enter their salary amount to see what it means to donate an hour, a day, a week or a month's pay. Here, she talks to the WSJ about what she's learned from starting the platform.

What do you eat for breakfast to start the week off right?

I'm a sucker for sweets, so I eat oatmeal. Other times I make scrambled eggs, turkey bacon and a piece of toast, a slice of avocado. Other days it's fruit. Before I eat, I usually drink water.

How do you start Monday? With caffeine?

I'm not a caffeine drinker. I stopped drinking coffee when my grandmother passed away more than 15 years ago. It reminded me too much of her. Every afternoon when I came home from school, she would say, 'Get a cafecito!' She [served] it with crackers to dip in the coffee. I love the taste of coffee, and every now and then I drink coffee, but I don't necessarily crave it, to be honest.

Do you take any vitamins?

Right now I'm taking zinc, probiotics, vitamin D, a vitamin B complex. I take this powder called MSM [methylsulfonylmethane] - they say it helps hair growth, so we'll see about that. And then vitamin C and milk thistle.

What does your beauty routine look like?

I always apply lip balm. I'm currently using Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula. During quarantine, my hair was all open and natural and no one was messing with it, no heat. So I figured, okay, you're going to decondition. I went online and started researching and made this concoction in a jet bottle of jojoba oil, castor oil, avocado oil, coconut, a little bit of tea tree oil, argan oil and olive oil. I mixed it all together and put it on my scalp every morning and massaged it in and then distributed it through my hair, because my hair is curly and tends to be a little drier. I did that every morning, and at the end of the week I washed my hair and did a deep conditioning treatment.

What did you wear while you were at home?

Considering I was in Puerto Rico most of the time, it's really hot there, I would literally stay in my briefs and a shirt. Since I live in a gated community, there are no people looking in. That was very liberating. You don't have to think about what to wear.

How has the pandemic changed your work and modeling? Does it feel like things are slowly getting back to normal?

I don't think normal would be the right word to describe it. I don't think anything will ever go back to normal. Work has started again - it just requires more planning and more time to confirm things. Can you enter the country? It's less work; budgets have changed too. Things don't sell like they used to, there's no [normal] Fashion Week, editorials are reduced. Everything is a bit minimal.

Do you miss Fashion Week?

What I miss most is seeing my friends again. Knowing that everyone was in the same country was almost like a traveling band. Most of the time we don't see each other because we travel around and miss each other. So if you know who's going to be in town, you can have dinner with your crew, catch up, have a drink, get room service. I really miss that part, and also seeing the creatives. There is so much inspiration.

What have you learned from setting up

It's not as easy as it seems to convince brands to donate money. I often say: "I'm donating this - do you want to join in? Because there's no budget for it, they can't do it. But then they say: oh, we can donate a certain amount, and then they want a mention of it or they want the affiliation. And then I say: Yes, but you have to work harder.

Will you continue to donate in 2021?

I will continue to promote it and grow the website and create different ways to donate. Of course, yes, I will continue to donate, just not 50 percent. I'm sure there will be other causes I will donate to, other crises.

Do you feel that the attitude of the fashion industry has changed since June last year?

I've seen brands use more people of color in their campaigns and advertising editorials, which I think is good. But will this continue or is it just a trend? I think when it comes to fashion, there should be a responsibility of equality for everyone, not just the black community. I remember at one point Asia and China were the new thing. On all the runways, on all the covers of magazines, in all the editorials, you see a huge influx of Asian models and hardly any blacks or Latinas. It comes in waves. Now they're focusing on Black Lives Matter, you see more interest in it, and now they're reaching back to the Asian models. There should just be equality across the board, consistently, with every race.

Have you read or watched anything good at the moment?

My sister just got me excited about this show called Veneno on HBO Max. It's about this transgender [sex worker] in Spain; it basically shows her life and her transition. She became the most popular and famous transgender person in Spain. It's an incredible story. Then I finished "The Undoing" and I was so angry. I thought, "Really? I was expecting a different ending. I was expecting a different finale.

When you feel overwhelmed, is there anything you do to prevent it or to relax?

I listen to music. When I turn it up, I get into the groove and start dancing. That relaxes me. At the moment I'm listening to the new album [Made in Lagos] by Wizkid. It's a kind of Afrobeats, island chill vibe that you can just play and it puts you in a good mood. It reminds you of being somewhere in the sun, having a tropical drink and enjoying life outside.

What does your training program look like these days?

I do 45 minutes [a day] - it's mostly resistance training with my own body. I do planks, different types of sit-ups, anything that works my core because I have scoliosis. I do a lot of glute training: kickbacks, squats, hydrants. I do cardio maybe three times a week. When I was in Puerto Rico, I ran outside because it was a beautiful view, being outside and running among palm trees. I haven't done Muay Thai in over a year, and I'm starting to miss it. I believe a girl should always be able to land a good punch. It's good self-defense.

March 23, 2023