Tia Jonsson lives in an unremarkable building on a quiet street on the Lower East Side. So unassuming, in fact, I would have walked right past if I hadn’t been looking for it. She buzzes me in, and I hear her soft voice greeting me from a few floors above. When I finally make it to her door, the 22-year-old model invites me in with a bashful smile. She tells me that she’s planning on changing out of the sweatpants and T-shirt she wore to her classes into something more appropriate for the portraits I’m going to take of her.
“But I wanted your opinion first,” she says.
“Just wear whatever you feel most comfortable in,” I say.
Tia selects a simple black cardigan and a pair of mid-wash straight-leg jeans. She tells me to make myself at home while she changes, and I take the chance to look around her spacious, open floor apartment. It’s lit by two lamps and is sparsely decorated, and my eye catches on the red ‘50s-style diner bar stools that reside in the kitchen.
In person, Tia, an LS sophomore, looks exactly as she does in the pictures she shares with her 191K followers on Instagram — her rosy complexion glows, her cool blue eyes sparkle and her startling streak of white hair catches the lamplight just so. Post rapid-fire photoshoot, we finally settle down to talk on her large beige sofa.
Her signature silvery streak and the patch of pigment loss on the top right of her forehead result from vitiligo, an autoimmune disorder she was born with. Tia says that growing up, she never gave much thought to what is — at least to most of the digital world — her most recognizable feature.
“My parents never mentioned my vitiligo at all,” Tia says. “Never. I’d forget about it for years. When I go to a new place or start a new school or something, I remember I have it because people will comment on it […] I was never really insecure about it.
She does admit that despite the lack of impact it’s had on her daily life, her vitiligo may have had an effect on her modeling career.
“I hear that it’s good to have something that makes you different, so I’m sure it’s helped in that way,” she says. “People can remember me by it.”
Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Tia first moved out to the East Coast as she transferred from a public high school to a boarding school in Massachusetts, repeating her freshman year in the process. When presented with the choice between attending UC Santa Barbara or staying near the Atlantic and going to NYU, Tia realized that she wasn’t ready to “retreat back to California” just yet.
At age 18, she relocated to New York. Early in her sophomore year, Tia received an Instagram message from her current agent at Anti-Agency, and her modeling career began to unfold.
In the early stages of her career, Tia found herself missing classes as she snagged more and more modeling gigs. She spoke with her advisor, who let her know that at NYU, students are able to take up to three semesters off at a time. She still wanted to graduate — she just wanted time to focus on modeling first.
“I actually made the decision [to take a break] on my own. I didn’t tell my parents for two months, because I was scared of what they would say,” Tia says.
Her parents had initially told her to prioritize school. It wasn’t until a couple of months later that she confessed her judgment call to her parents.
“I think it was once I got my first couple of paychecks. I was like, ‘By the way, mom, I’m not in school,’” Tia giggles. “Once I actually work to show for it, I told them. But I had to prove it before, you know?”
For the past year and a half, Tia has participated in shoots for brands and publications both big and small. She’s long been a Glossier muse and was featured in both the Spanish clothing brand Desigual’s S/S 2019 campaign and Sephora’s recent Color Up Close campaign, as well as the debut Savage x Fenty campaign. You might have seen her on a poster adorning the walls of NYC subway stations. Tia and her 19-year-old sister, Kari — who currently attends Borough Manhattan Community College and is studying to be a midwife — posed for the cover of the thirteenth issue of Italian fashion magazine Alla Carta, and Tia stood alone last year for the cover of INDIE Magazine.
I found all of the jobs online and through her Instagram, as Tia was less eager to share her accomplishments than she was to talk about the opportunities that modeling and putting a pause on school have afforded her.
“It’s allowed me to travel,” she says. “And allowed me to see my family.”
She recalls spending time with her family in Europe and being able to visit her grandparents during the month before they moved from Hawaii, her dad’s home state. She tells me that she’s also met many of her closest friends on the job. Most of all, Tia makes sure to emphasize the impact that her break had on her relationship with her education.
“I think school and work actually have sort of a symbiotic relationship as far as paying for it and taking breaks to evaluate what I want to study,” she says.
And now that she’s back, she says, she’s proud of being able to attend school and work at the same time.
Most of the jobs she’s done this semester have been abroad, resulting in a few missed classes here and there. Just a few weeks ago, she was in Paris.
“I know that I’m probably going to miss classes down the line, [so] I’m really diligent about getting to class and being proactive,” Tia says.
As our conversation grows longer, Tia shifts her position on the couch ever so slightly every few minutes. Still, she exudes a quiet confidence and handles her slight figure in such a way that I can’t help but picture a ballerina. She confirms my suspicions a few moments later when we begin discussing her aspirations.
“I grew up doing ballet,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it professionally, but I like dancing.”
Writing is where her true passions lie. She’s been interested in words for as long as she can remember. Even though she hasn’t yet figured out what her concentration will be — she plans on transferring to Gallatin this spring — she knows that she wants to study “immersive storytelling.”
Her love for words is not limited to English. Tia studied Mandarin from a young age and hopes to work as a translator in the future, adapting Chinese books, films and scripts for an English-speaking audience.
Beyond literary translation, she — like most other college students — isn’t exactly sure what she wants to do post-graduation. In the meantime, she plans to model for as long as she can.
“I don’t have any plans to stop,” she says with a smile. “I think it’s the kind of job where it stops before you decide to stop.”
Email Carol at [email protected]