In a world full of beautiful Latina women, Jaslene Gonzalez just may be the face of determination.
The 24-year-old Chicago native almost lost her place in the modeling world when she was cut from Tyra Banks's "America's Next Top Model," during the cycle 7 semifinals. The Puerto Rican beauty vowed to return, was cast again, and won cycle 8.
This week Gonzalez honors her roots as the face of Chicago's third-annual Latino Fashion Week. She'll strut her stuff in swimwear, sit for a panel discussion with Grammy-winning singer Colby O'Donis, and lead her signature "Runway Retreat" self-esteem workshops.
StyleList: You've been involved in Latino Fashion Week since its inception.
Jaslene Gonzalez: I grew up in Humboldt Park and I'm always promoting Chicago and being a Latina in my own way, but with this, I can support others as well. We have a lot of established designers but what's exciting this year is there are a lot of fresh faces, people from design and arts schools, that are going to get their chance to have a different kind of exposure.
StyleList: What do Latin designers have that distinguishes them in the fashion world?
JG: We have an advantage in that the Latino market is vast, so there are so many voices. We've got edginess, spiciness, and colors. When I've walked the runway here, the dresses and gowns have always been so cool.
StyleList: Is there an up-and-coming Latin designer we should keep our eye on?
JG: I'm a fan of Michelle Gomez. She's been on the scene for Chicago (as owner of clothing store/salon/spa MGO) for a long time and I've worked with her many times. She's so devoted to creating couture clothes and keeps pushing to be great. I'm going to be modeling swimwear for her this year.
StyleList: If you could walk for any of the established Latin American fashion houses, which would you chose?
JG: Carolina Herrera or Narcisco [Rodriguez] or Oscar de la Renta. I would be beyond excited to represent any of them.
StyleList: Were there Latina women who inspired your modeling dreams?
JG: Growing up, Jennifer Lopez was a role model. I had her picture in collages all over my bedroom. As I got older, I got inspired by Rita Moreno from "West Side Story." I saw her as such a strong and powerful yet beautiful woman who didn't care what other people thought about her. Today, I find myself captivated by Eva Mendes. I admire the way she's been embraced by the media.
StyleList: Have you worked a lot in Latin America?
JG: (Laughs) No, I haven't been there at all. But I'm taking a little tour, so I'll get there eventually. I just spent four months in Asia. Last year I was in Malaysia, and I was an honored guest at the Islamic Fashion Festival. I was covered from head-to-toe, and I mean covered! Nothing showed. It was just my face.
StyleList: Now you're modeling bathing suits. How do you get bikini ready?
JG: I hate to disappoint you and tell you I don't have to do much. I'm blessed with a natural, model-toned midriff. I don't have to work out or worry much about what I eat.
StyleList: Not fair! What's next on your agenda?
JG: Primarily modeling, which is what I love. I'm also opening a juice bar next month and I'm doing my "Runway Retreats." I'm trying to take the lessons I learned, like when I was in Malaysia, and break the mold of what beauty means. It's open to all girls, not just Latina girls. I don't want to limit it because I'm promoting a broader idea of beauty that shines from within.
Speaking of "America's Next Top Model," check out what Banks and Vogue's Andre Leon Talley had to say about the new Vogue Italia-themed season.
And click here to find out the top 10 most successful "ANTM" alums.