Tess Holliday became the world’s first US size 22/ UK size 26 to be signed to a mainstream modelling agency and to lead brand clothing campaigns. She is one of a number of plus-size models — including Crystal Renn and Jennie Runk — who have made headlines by defying the super-skinny look, since Emme first made plus-size modelling a “thing” back in the 1990s.
But an industry insider tells us that she is just a “spectacle” that will fall out of fashion as quickly as most seasonal trends.
Holliday, 29, broke all conventional model parameters when she was signed by MiLK Management in London. She is only 5’5″, wears a size that is considerably larger than the industry sample size of US size 0 / UK size 4, and is covered in tattoos. After racking up 903,000 Facebook fans and more than 724,000 Instagram followers, she has since fronted campaigns for retailers Torrid and Yours.
Meanwhile, other retailers, like online fashion store Boohoo, are hailing plus-size models for boosting revenue. Boohoo said in a trading update in May that plus-size fashion blogger Nadia Aboulhosn, 26, helped grow its larger size range’s revenue by 27% in 2014.
However, Claire* who has worked as a scout and booking agent for the plus-size modelling world in one of the world’s most famous agencies for five years, told Business Insider what the shelf-life is truly like for larger models, how much they earn, and what the greatest misconceptions are about plus-size modelling.
BI: How often does the mainstream fashion world actually use plus-size models? Do they only book larger models as one-offs, or are bookings generally on the increase?
C: The industry fluctuates. When I started in the industry
Some treated it as a freak show. When Jean Paul Gaultier used Sophie Dahl, when she was bigger, in a catwalk show, this was a prime example of that attitude. Was he saying he loved bigger women? Probably not — as to my knowledge he hasn’t used one during his shows since. So she was a spectacle – a shocker to draw the crowds and get him some column inches.
Also look at the designer Mark Fast using model Hayley Morley for his London Fashion Week show in 2009. It got him tonnes of media and helped make himself a name in the fashion world. It helped her too, of course, but that isn’t the case so much any more, as the media has taken on board that fashion should represent every woman and every size.
Bookings did increase, but again fluctuated depending on which girls you had on your books. Some girls defied everything because they were just so amazing, and perfect body-wise. Some clients would change what they wanted in the campaign so they could book them.
BI: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions around plus-size modelling?
C: The biggest misconception about the industry is that its just “fat modelling,” which every t*** in the pub would say when I told them what I did for a living.
Also, the other misconception is that it is about encouraging women to be “fat,” and that it has nothing to do with a positive body image or being healthy.
Many girls would come in who were clearly unhealthy and think they could model. We have to be seen as promoting health. Some girls who are 5’10” and a UK size 16 / US size 12 could never be a UK size 10 / US size 6, unless they starved themselves. That is not what we wanted to encourage.
BI: Is there ever a size that is just considered “too” plus-size for the industry and for advertisers?
C: For us, anyone above a UK size 18 / US size 22 wasn’t easy to promote. But at the time, there weren’t the clients that wanted that size. If a girl wanted to work, sometimes she would have to lose a bit of weight to get to a more commercial size. which was ideally a UK size 16 / US size 20.
BI: Were the plus-size models generally happier than regular models and did they fluctuate in size?
C: We did have a number of girls on our books who had eating disorders, and as a result were prone to dropping or gaining weight very quickly without notice. “Poster Girl” Crystal Renn is a prime example of this. She has publicly written about how she starved herself for years to be a standard size for the modelling industry, and then one day said “f*** it” and she went to a UK size 16 / US size 12.
She got loads of work, including for Chanel, although that was a bit of a joke because they only showed her from the shoulders up, but her weight yo-yoed all over the place. [She has since lost weight and is around a UK size 6 / US size 2].
BI: So did the industry prefer to use thinner models and make them look bigger? What were the tricks of the trade for making people look bigger?
C: In America, the girls had “fat suits,” or just extra padding they could strap on to make themselves look curvier. This was usually applied around the hips. A few wore all over fat suits as it was too obvious sometimes. And, of course, some use a nice padded bra.
Also, we always had to ask if a girl had surgery in the past, as many lingerie clients wouldn’t use a girl who’d had breast enhancements, as it may have damaged their product if that detail was found out in the media.
BI: Overall, do you find plus-size models are more confident than regular models?
C: They did tend to be a little happier purely because they were allowed to eat! But most models are insecure, purely because they are in an industry that judges on outward appearance, and a vast percentage just didn’t have a thick enough skin.
For the plus-size girls, they have to learn early on to love themselves for who they are, love the curves, the cellulite and the jiggle, and even though it’s not easy to hear a client muttering about it as a negative aspect on a casting, you have to take it on the chin and just move on. But there are lots of fragile egos still out there.
C: I doubt Tess Holliday will get much more work than the Yours campaign she has just shot. Her agent has been very savvy from day one about using social media to drum up interest in her girls, and to win clients. But again, I think the much bigger sizes don’t have staying power. It is a freak show. The buzz will die down again.
Holliday is as much about the attention she brings from her Twitter / Instagram account for the client than just her.
To me, as much as I’m not about body shaming and am about acceptance, Holliday is not a healthy size and I think it does encourage those who battle with weight to just say “f*** it” and not take care of themselves. It’s not a popular attitude, but it’s my humble opinion.
I’ve seen how the seasoned and popular girls work out and take care of themselves and it’s inspiring stuff. They will never been a [UK] size 10, but they are a glorious and healthy and toned [UK] size 16. Prime examples are Laura Wells and Robyn Lawley. Granted there are a lot of bloggers out there like Holliday who are [UK] size 20+ and write about fashion and acceptance, and good luck to them, but I’m doubtful it they will ever stick in the mainstream long term.
*Claire is not her real name. She wanted to remain anonymous to protect her contacts and clients.