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A Commitment to Unretouched Images Landed Model Iskra Lawrence the Career of Her Dreams

"Every reason why you struggle is actually a reason you can use to create something positive."
Iskra Lawrence in an Aerie campaign. Photo: Ali Mitton for Aerie

Iskra Lawrence in an Aerie campaign. Photo: Ali Mitton for Aerie

Even a blind person would be able to tell that Iskra Lawrence is gorgeous. Obviously, there's the looks — the beachy blonde mermaid hair, the megawatt smile, the sparkling eyes — but there's also a lovely energy radiating off of her. Between an infectious giggle and an endlessly positive attitude, she's like the walking embodiment of the expression "beautiful inside and out." And of course, there's that body.

She got her start in modeling after entering Elle Girl's search for the next supermodel in her native U.K. She came in the top five and was scouted by an agency. But after a modest start doing test shoots and an accessories campaign, puberty changed everything. Despite her efforts, which included dangerous dieting, her curvy body refused to yield to the demands of the straight-size modeling industry. "It was really, really difficult for me because I was comparing myself to [other models'] bodies and wondering why I couldn't have a thigh gap," she says. "I tried everything, and it just wasn't happening, so I got dropped from that agency."

Her agency gave her a list of other agencies, none of whom would take her on, citing her "too womanly" body. When she heard about plus-size modeling, she approached those agencies — and they wouldn't take her on either because she was too small. Undeterred, Lawrence created her own opportunities, cold-calling companies asking if they needed models, doing test shoots with photographers from the internet ("which sounds dodgy, but it's not"), and putting together a calendar of unretouched lingerie models with all body types she had met on sets.

Lawrence quickly figured out that her body was perfectly suited for lingerie modeling, which requires different body shapes more often than most other categories. By creating a niche for herself, she soon had those agencies knocking at her door — and ultimately, it landed her a campaign for American Eagle's intimates brand Aerie, a longtime dream. "Every reason why you struggle is actually a reason you can use to create something positive," she says.

It's rare that models get the chance to build their own career paths from the start, but that's just what Lawrence did. She tells Fashionista how she opened doors for herself, why unretouched images are so important to her and how her fans on social media have changed everything.

Iskra Lawrence in an Aerie campaign. Photo: Ali Mitton for Aerie

Iskra Lawrence in an Aerie campaign. Photo: Ali Mitton for Aerie

Pretty early on in your career, you started to face the issue of being "too big" to be a straight sized model. What was that experience like for you?

I was turning up to sets and shoots and fashion shows when I was 13, 14, 15 and not being able to fit into the samples. The stylists are shouting at me, 'Why is this fat model here, she can't fit into anything' — and this is in front of models that I look up to and that I want to be like. In my head, I was like, wow, there's something wrong with my body. I went into extreme dieting and exercise. I was the slimmest I've ever been, and I never will be that slim again because it's not the way my body's built, but it was also the most unhealthy I've ever been. 

I found a very small plus-size agency in the front of someone's living room, and I said, 'Please take me on, if I'm the only girl at this size in the fashion industry then surely there's clients who might use me because I'm different and unique, and I think I can do lingerie.' I worked for very tiny day rates, but I was working consistently. Then I went back after three years to the first plus-size agency that said I was too small. I laid out all the clients and I said, 'I can bring these clients to your agency, you haven't got any girls my size, but I've been working,' and they took me on. About eight months after, JAG came over to London and they signed me.

Those are really savvy business moves for a teenage girl  — how did you figure that out?

I'm a very logical thinker. In my head, I felt like I had an opportunity to monopolize an industry where there was no one my size.

When did Aerie come into the picture?

I'd seen the initial launch of the Aerie Real campaign, and a girl I worked with when I was 15 in the straight sized industry was in it, this girl called Catherine Hudson. And I was like, oh my goodness, she's unretouched, this is a dream and I need to be a part of this! I just worked my goals out to get to that point: I need to get signed in New York because they cast in New York, I need to move to New York, I need to be in great shape, I need to research the company and see what they're about. 

When the casting came along, they do a video interview, which is great. They put you in a studio, they ask you some questions, they ask you what your favorite body part is, they really get to know you so you get a chance to show your personality, which is the best part of it.

Why are unretouched images so important to you?

I remember one of the first editorials I did when I was about 15, I got the images back and they were stunning, they were absolutely gorgeous, but... my forearm was literally half the size. I never even knew that I had a problem or that there was anything wrong with my forearms! Even a couple of years ago, doing shoots with photographers and loving what I see in the back of the camera — and these will be test shoots that I set up and the photographer wants to shoot me! — I'll get them back and they'll be so heavily retouched.

More than size, more than anything, it's for women to be able to look at images and feel good about themselves, and that's how I relate to the people that follow me.

How did you get involved with the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)?

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I had this idea that we should create a symbol for unretouched images, and [JAG co-founder Gary Dakin] loved it. [JAG] have a connection with NEDA, so I went in there and pitched this idea. We created this NEDA Inspires Seal of Approval that's awarded to brands and companies and campaigns that promote healthy body image. 

I'm kind of the image and the visibility, Aerie is the campaign and the marketing, and NEDA is the help line that you call, and I feel that union, that circle, is just trying to protect girls and show them that they have somewhere to go where they can get help, and they can get better.

How has the Aerie campaign impacted your career?

Now I have a following, brands realize that it's not about my size, it's more about my message and who I am, and that being involved with new campaigns can be beneficial to them as well in a really positive way. I have a contract with [Aerie]. I'm engrained with what they do, I go into marketing meetings, and design meetings, and I have a real influence on how they're marketing.

How did you get involved with Runway Riot?

It was summer of last year and Danny [Abrams, CEO and founder of Runway Riot] wanted to change Styleite into something that he felt was more needed. He wanted to make it about empowering women from an underserved community.

When he heard how passionate I was, he wanted to take me on board as managing editor, and that role is more of me being the voice, and giving them a bit of direction because of my expertise, and speaking to these women and coming from my experiences. It's been tough, because with my time I haven't been able to put as much into it as I would like. 

Where do you see the conversation surrounding the plus-size industry going?

I just want the labels gotten rid of. I've never called myself a plus-size model... I think labels hold us back, especially the plus size label - women that are plus-size haven't historically been able to shop in the same places, they haven't had the same quality of designs, they can't wear a runway designer, and for that reason I think it has a negative connotation. I want those women to be able to shop just the way everyone else can and not feel any lesser, or feel excluded from fashion.

How have you used social media in your career?

I just saw this social media opportunity as a way to kind of become an entrepreneur. I planned it and I was doing notes and drawing boards and figuring out how I could keep [my social media voice] authentic, because for me that was the number-one thing. I have a love-hate relationship with it. I have to look through my comments and sometimes I'm just really shocked by some people, but then I realize they're probably the ones that need the help the most and that it's a reflection of their insecurities when they try and say something negative about you. 

You recently made headlines for calling out a negative commenter. How did you decide to do that?

It was actually one of the nastier comments I've received. But it was because there's a very sweet French girl who runs a fan page who I talk to; she's vulnerable, she's also struggled with an eating disorder, and she messaged me saying she'd been crying because someone wrote something nasty about me. When I read it, it wasn't just a personal attack at me. It said "everyone like you," so it was basically labeling everyone my size and above. It's so extreme it's almost laughable, but it's hurt some people, so let me make an example for all these girls who do get bullied and do get body shamed and who aren't at that place yet where they laugh it off.

I was on set, I was in my underwear anyway, and I saw the crisps so I was like, guys, can you throw these crisps on me? The video was straight after, it was one take and I posted it, and I never thought it would go viral the way it did. My agent nearly made me take it down!

Is high fashion ever something you would want to do?

I would love to! There's definitely more editorial things opening up because the conversation is opening up, and it is inconvenient for some publications because they don't have those sample sizes, so they do have to go out of their way. It's letting them know that, come on, we can do this! I think it's only going to be beneficial.

What is your ultimate goal for your career?

It's my dream that I can prevent future generations from going through what I did. Personally, I think it's down to education — I don't want to change the fashion industry, I think there should always be fantasy, there should always be those size 0 girls because some of them are healthy and they've always been that skinny. It's still body shaming! We're just not taught how to look after ourselves, especially teenagers — their bodies are changing and they're going through all these things. I've spoken at Harvard, I've spoken at NYU, I'm going into some high schools, and it only takes a few minutes to talk to these girls and guys, and they just haven't ever been taught how to cope. It would free and liberate so many people.

For modeling dreams, I would love to do a fragrance or cosmetics or beauty campaign — ideally unretouched! [laughs] That would be amazing. I've had problems with my skin but now I really look after myself and I learned what works.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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