“I was naked pretty much; I was only in my underwear. As models, we weren’t just mannequins, they really celebrated our unique bodies and what we had to say,” former Redwood student and model Tia Jonsson said about her experience modeling for Rihanna’s debut Savage x Fenty lingerie line.
“It felt empowering. Something that is honestly synonymous with Rihanna: she’s a strong woman that doesn’t give a f**k. All in all, it was a very intrinsically positive campaign,” Tia said.
Tia, a 21-year-old model from Marin County, originally entered into the modeling industry with Anti-Agency, a modeling agency that demonstrated interest in her through Instagram. According to their website, Anti-Agency aims to sign models exhibiting “personality, individual style and talent.”
Featured in the New York Times, Tia models for a Glossier advertisement. Photo courtesy of Glossier.
After moving to New York, Tia’s career took off, leading her to photo shoots with distinguished magazines and modeling for internationally-acclaimed photographers.
The experience of modeling in the fashion industry has been overwhelmingly positive for Tia, partially as a result of her individuality.
“I’m not built like a supermodel. I’m not six feet tall or super skinny. The work that I’m hired for is because of my unique look. They’re not trying to get me to be skinny or [have] clothes fit perfectly. I’m not a classic build, and so I don’t have the body issues that come from it,” Tia said.
Tia was born with an autoimmune skin disorder, Vitiligo, which resulted in a small patch of pigmentation loss on her forehead, sprouting into a silvery-blonde streak in her hair. According to Tia, her Vitiligo contributes to her success, as it sets her apart from the traditional definition of a model, something highly sought after in the modern fashion industry.
“It’s a memorable thing when you have a skin difference. [Vitiligo] has been something people can identify me for,” Tia said. “People will see my Vitiligo or the stripe in my hair and are able to recognize me, even if they weren’t sure before. My Vitiligo has been a defining feature I have, and that’s a positive thing for me.”
Tia's models her silvery-blonde streak parted down the middle. Photo courtesy of Tia Jonsson.
This past September, Vogue wrote an introductory article about the “Rihanna-Approved model.” The magazine illustrated Tia as a real-life angel, stating that she is “porcelain-complected and blue-eyed, with pillowy lips that could be described as divinely inspired.”
According to Tia’s mom, Lee Jonsson, Tia’s Vitiligo was not as prevalent in her childhood identity, but blossomed as her modeling career gained traction.
“I don’t think she would ever define herself by her Vitiligo, nor do I think other people have in the past,” Lee said. “When she was younger, she was very into fashion and art. She had an affinity for foreign languages. She had an interest in museums. People knew her by other things than Vitiligo.”
Modeling Polo Ralph Lauren, Tia is featured on the cover of INDIE. Photo courtesy of Indie Magazine.
Tia has been featured in a number of photo shoots, ranging from INDIE magazine to the style section of The New York Times. In one of her more memorable shoots, Tia and her sister, Kari Jonsson, posed for the cover of Alla Carta, a high-end Italian fashion magazine.
Tia and her sister Kari pose for a sibling series in Alla Carta. Photo courtesy of Alla Carta.
“It’s such an honor that our photo was chosen for the cover because all the photography in Alla Carta is truly amazing. My sister flew all the way out to New York to be in it,” Tia said. “I think [Kari] is beautiful, and I am so happy to have those pictures with her because we’re going to have them for the rest of our lives.”
The Alla Carta sibling shoot was Kari’s first experience modeling professionally.
“It was obviously something I’ve never experienced before, because I’m not a model whatsoever,” Kari said.
Seeing Tia in her work environment provided Kari with a new perspective of her sister.
“It was an interesting experience to see her in a professional setting. There’s a lot more to modeling than just standing in front of a camera,” Kari said.
Lee was apprehensive to see her daughter’s career develop publically, yet she’s proud that Tia stays true to herself as both a fashion and role model.
“On one hand, [Tia’s career] is something that is awe-inspiring to me, but it also makes me feel uncomfortable. Yet, it’s her life and I feel like she has to live it the way she wants to,” Lee said.
Tia refrains from skin-altering foundation products. Photo courtesy of Tia Jonsson.
After attending high school at Redwood her freshman year, then transferring to Deerfield boarding school in Massachusetts, as a repeat freshman, Tia chose to continue to her academics in college.
Despite the commitment of modeling, which often takes her on international shoots, Tia balances her job with an academic career at New York University (NYU). To devote her attention towards her growing success as a model, Tia is taking semestral leaves of absence to focus on her work.
“It’s super generous of [the school] to let me do this. It’s great because making money is helping me pay for school, and NYU is so expensive. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Tia said.
Through her unconventional journey, Lee is reassured by Tia’s remaining humility and sincerity.
“I’m most proud of the fact that she has the same heart and sense of herself. I’m proud that she’s so brave. She does things I would never do. She is quite unconventional,” Lee said.