Joan Smalls says she’ll “always and forever” be a proud Puerto Rican.
The supermodel, 31, opened up to PEOPLE about her mixed-race heritage at the launch of Dewar’s Caribbean Smooth, an 8-year-old double-aged Scotch finished in Caribbean rum casks, at Gitano Garden of Love in N.Y.C’s Soho neighborhood on Wednesday night.
Being of West Indian and Puerto Rican descent, Smalls says the “two is better than one” campaign tied to Dewar’s newest launch resonated with her.
“I grew up in a household where my father was black and my mother was Puerto Rican so it was always my norm…being black, being Hispanic and being able to speak both languages,” she tells PEOPLE. “Those are my roots.”
Despite on-going criticism of the fashion industry for its lack of diversity, the Victoria’s Secret model says her bi-racial ethnicity has partially “helped my career because it makes you different than everybody else.”
Still, over the course of her near decade-long reign as one of the world’s top models, Smalls has learned that “people love to put people in boxes,” she says. “Sometimes they can’t wrap their head around a person being two different cultures.”
As for the future of the modeling world, the Afro-Latina covergirl hopes diversity becomes less of a hot-button issue — and more of the norm.
“The fact that the fashion industry is embracing more individuals who don’t particularly fit the stereotype is beautiful,” Smalls says. “I hope it continues…and it’s not just fashion people riding a wave because they might get called out on social media.”
“For me beauty has always been beyond size,” she said at the time. “This is about using women who look different because we all look different and we need to praise that difference about us. That is what is beautiful, it’s that we’re all not created the same. So I am just so happy that I actually make lingerie for women who want to feel sexy and who want to feel accepted.”
The activist and Revlon brand ambassador continues to use her platform to push for a shift in the way modeling is portrayed in media as she breaks down the unrealistic ideals women are forced to face.
The night the 2018 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show aired, Graham posted a series of photos on her Instagram feed from her own Ashley Graham for Addition Elle lingerie runway show, which featured models of all shapes, sizes and nationalities, along with the caption, “#BeautyBeyondSize,” which appeared to be a reference to the controversy surrounding Victoria’s Secret as it faces backlash for lack of inclusion on the runway.
“I can’t speak to what anybody else wants to do except for myself and the fact that I will always have an inclusive runway show,” Graham said.
Dewar’s Caribbean Smooth launches Oct. 1.