Originally published in the July/August 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Models and body activists Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser are changing perceptions of size with their boundless drive, intelligence, and self-love. Finally, the fashion industry may just serve every woman.
The first time I caught sight of American model Ashley Graham was three years ago inside a palatial salon in Place Vendôme, Paris. The City of Light was one of the pit stops on the European tour for the charity fundraiser Cash & Rocket. By day, Graham was one of the 80 women behind the wheel of a red Maserati and that night, she was in high gear. It was impossible not to notice her. Like the other models in the room, at more than 1.8m in stiletto heels, she was statuesque. Unlike the other models in the room, she was a US size 14. Juxtaposed with such razor-straight bodies, hers had an almost hallucinogenic effect. But if her hourglass figure made her stand out, it was her aura that seemed to pull with riptide force everyone towards her. Observing her cross the room was akin to watching Egyptian dancer Tahiya Karioka transfix a crowd of men with the sway of her hips. Only with Graham, it was women who fluttered around her excitedly, like bees at the hive of their queen. In return, she offered earnest conversation and her warm, staccato laugh.
In the three years that followed, Graham has reached enormous success. A Sports Illustrated cover – the first featuring a curvy model. A contract with Revlon alongside fellow Vogue Arabia cover stars Imaan Hammam and Adwoa Aboah. She published her autobiography, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty, and Power Really Look Like; produced swimsuit and lingerie lines; and gave a TEDx talk, where she shared her mantra “I am bold. I am brilliant. I am beautiful. Beauty beyond size.” Search those last words, which have since become a social media hashtag, and more than 300 000 images fill the screen with unretouched pictures of women – for the most part in bikinis – appearing like Peter Paul Rubens and Jenny Saville muses, indulging both the viewer and themselves with voluptuous flesh; dimpled thighs and all. Captions read, “Confidence will make you happier than any diet will,” and, “Summer’s going to get whatever body I give it.” All this pioneered by Ashley Graham, tenth highest paid model in the world, aka love-your-cellulite-and-more, revolutionary shapeshifter from Nebraska, USA.
“My mother told me that when I walked into a room, I would greet every single person – even at three years old,” recalls the now 30-year-old Graham, running a hand through her russet locks with a nonchalance that is borderline seductive. “It was more of an emotion that I would give people, and it would leave them feeling good about who they are,” she says. “I think that’s what I’m doing today; letting women know that they are worthy, that they are beautiful, and that they can be happy with who they are in their skin. I guess it’s my destiny, ever since I was a child.”
Remarkably, Graham started her modeling career at the age of 12. She was in a mall with her father when a man approached her to ask if she wanted to be a model. If Graham was already spot-me-across-the-mall pretty, she was by no means a sample size. Her parents forked over US$2000 and she enrolled in modeling school. “They did it because they wanted me to find passion in something, and sure enough, modeling became a lifestyle that turned into a career,” she says. “100% I would do it all over again from 12. I had a really normal childhood. I got bullied. I went to prom.” At 17, Graham left the Midwest for New York City, and set off to do “whatever it took” to succeed in the fashion industry. “I was a party girl, out every night, but I would still make it to a 7am call time and work the room. I was the first one on set and the last to leave. I made everyone know that I wanted to be there and that I wanted to work hard. I strove for perfection – even though I don’t think it exists.”
The promise of a sizzling hot spring day is rising just outside New York where Graham is making yet another early call time. Today she will shoot the Vogue Arabia July/August cover with fellow model Paloma Elsesser, photographed by Miguel Reveriego. Having already arrived, Elsesser is being poured into a figure-hugging metallic Norma Kamali dress. At 26, Elsesser has been in the industry for five years and is starting to shoot covers and walk the runway at New York fashion week. Her career kicked off when she was scouted for Pat McGrath’s makeup campaign for her debut line, Gold 001. “I didn’t know a lot about fashion, but I knew enough that if Pat calls, you go,” she says, her brown eyes widening from the memory. “I was unprepared for that shoot, but she just wanted to catch who I was. Imagine, this legend asking me how I do my liquid eyeliner.” With a heart-shaped face that bears a striking resemblance to Sade, this daughter of an African-American mother and Chilean-Swiss father describes her upbringing as “neo-bohemian” where intellectual value was manifest. She would frequent music studios with her musician father, attend festivals, and dive into the worlds of Björk, Kate Bush, and Christina Aguilera. “Authentic female artists who weren’t trying to subscribe to any archetype put in front of them,” she says of her influences. Long before that, however, Elsesser remembers that she became aware of her changing body as a blossoming primary school student.
“The feelings that I have about my body today aren’t very different from the way I felt about it in the first grade,” states Elsesser. “What has changed, is the way I navigate those feelings.” While attending affluent, primarily white schools, she quickly learned that she was unique – on many levels. “My hair, my skin color, my home life… But my body isn’t just my shape, it’s my essence,” she declares. As questions of identity began to pile up, her parents nurtured conversations about pride and diversity. “I was still combating a lot of early, negative self-talk,” she recalls. “On the inside, I felt astray.” She grappled for alternatives. “I don’t feel good, so I’m going to be the funny one, or the smart one. If I can’t fit into any of the clothes, well, I’m going to be the most resourceful one.” While she felt “immense disdain for who I was,” her family never faltered to compliment and uplift her. “They told me that I was beautiful, but also that I was intelligent and kind, and special in ways that were separate of how I looked. Now, when I see little girls, I don’t say, ‘Wow, what a pretty little girl,’ but, ‘You look like you’re really nice to your brother,’ or, ‘You look like you’re super smart,’ because I’ve realized how much those words influenced me in a positive way.”
Graham agrees that words can transform someone’s life. “Becoming confident comes from within. It’s a journey. It’s something you have to want and you have to fight for to get.” She remembers breaking down in front of her mother. “I wasn’t taking care of myself, I had gained a lot of weight, and I had agents telling me that I wasn’t going to make it because I was getting too big. My mom said, ‘You are not moving back to Nebraska, because your body is going to change someone’s life.’ She told me to transform the way I speak to the woman in the mirror with words of affirmation. I created my own. ‘I am bold. I am brilliant. I am beautiful. I am worthy of all. I love you.’ You don’t believe it right away. But as you say it over and over and over, the woman in the mirror becomes an energetic light who can empower others.”
Today, Graham encourages a social media following of 7 million fans. As an active person, along with behind-the-scenes images of her daily fashion exploits, she also posts videos of her grueling workouts like endurance hikes, boxing, and weightlifting, with the hashtag #curvyfitclub. If the girls she is conscious of being a role model to first and foremost are her two younger sisters, “Now, I look at my fans as my sisters,” she says. “I think, Is this something I would say and want my sister to repeat? Being kind to people has helped me because the fashion industry hasn’t always been so kind. I have literally heard it all and had everything thrown at me. But when I arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, people react in the same way.”
Elsesser concurs that the industry has long been devoid of empathy. “The adage, ‘This is fashion, darling,’ doesn’t hold anymore. It doesn’t have to hurt. It doesn’t have to make you, or the reader, or the model, feel bad,” she states. “At school, I was always the weird one. But this is a whole industry of weird ones; a big mashup of the so-called freaks.” She does see change, however, and acknowledges that girls around the world can have opportunities through fashion. “And you don’t have to be somebody’s daughter,” she deadpans with a knowing look.
Coincidentally, days before this interview, Graham had again just put the fire-engine red Maserati in park, having driven from San Francisco to Las Vegas to benefit women and children-focused charities. In her recent Cash & Rocket tour, she paired up with Libyan-American journalist Noor Tagouri. “We drove for three and a half days straight and we just talked – about everything,” she says. Graham and Tagouri discovered that while they come from different backgrounds, they share much in common. “Especially when it comes to our faiths and how dedicated we are, to our marriages, and to building our businesses,” says Graham. “I asked every question about her hijab and what it meant to her, and she wanted to talk about it. This is what we tell people in America – just because you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. But while we got to be very open, Noor never asked me, ‘Why do you have your breasts out?’ and I also never asked her, ‘Why don’t you have your breasts out?’ There was mutual respect.” Graham considers that most women have been down the same road. “Just in a different body or circumstance. Share your story. There might be someone sitting right next to you who is going through the same thing.”
Where Graham stands alone, however, is at the head of several burgeoning apparel businesses, which all tap into the US$18 billion market for women who wear sizes US 8 and up. Her lingerie line with Addition Elle features bras that range from sizes B to H. “Supportive and sexy lingerie,” she insists. Her high-end jeans collaboration (“What’s harder than buying lingerie? Denim.”), offers separates for every body type. A partnership with Swimsuits for All presents suits that range from sizes 4 to 26. “I have absolutely thought about a hijab swimsuit – but that’s all I can say right now,” she reveals, eyes twinkling. For Graham, this is all just the tip of the iceberg. Her one regret is not starting her empire sooner. “I was waiting on my agent to make decisions for me. If I would have made them for myself and had more authority over my career at an earlier age, who knows what would be different today.”
And yet, her timing is opportune. It is only now that brands are signing curvy models for campaigns; editors are putting them on the covers of magazines; and designers like Michael Kors, Dolce & Gabbana, Prabal Gurung, and Christian Siriano are casting them for catwalk shows and dressing them on the red carpet. “Ashley is beautiful, of course, but she also has this amazing, spirited personality, which I love,” writes Michael Kors, from his New York headquarters. “She brings my clothes to life on and off the runway. She’s a star.” Last year, the e-commerce site 11Honore.com began presenting a growing list of luxury designer brands like Brandon Maxwell, Reem Acra, and Zac Posen to women in a size-inclusive range. “And why not?” exclaims Graham. “I have been doing this for 18 years and I have never seen the industry take off this quickly. Through social media and just across the board, women are finally saying to stores and designers: ‘This is what I want and if you don’t make it, I’m not going to buy anything.’”
While offering women of all sizes quality fashion may finally be reaching the common sense of the industry in the broadest terms, under the skin’s surface, are women putting too much emphasis on looks? “Absolutely,” says Elsesser, wringing her wet hair as she exits the pool, having wrapped the cover shot. “This constant hamster wheel of analyzing the way we eat, how we shop and look – it’s exhausting. If, on the outside, we are showing the world it’s never enough, how are our bodies ever going to be enough? What I rely on, is knowing that my friends are kind and wise; it doesn’t matter what they look like. We women need to treat ourselves the way we treat our peers.”
Photography : Miguel Reveriego
Style: Anya Ziourova
Hair: Rolando Beauchamp
Makeup: Morgane Martini
Nails: Casey Hermanv