Ashley Graham, empowering American "It" model and bikini babe extraordinaire, is a truly wonderful interview subject. When I call her from New York City ahead of Glamour's annual Women of the Year Awards, for which she's an honoree, she launches into a warm, conversational banter I both recognize and appreciate as being deeply Midwestern. (She is from Nebraska, after all.) She certainly has cause to be enthusiastic: Barbie has honored Graham with a doll crafted in her likeness as a part of the Women of the Year festivities.
Graham, for one, is ecstatic. In January, the brand expanded its product line to include three new body types (tall, curvy and petite), as well as a diversified range of skin tones and hair textures, all to much acclaim. Graham tells me that when Mattel initially reached out to her for the project, they were incredibly open to her feedback, and vice versa. "My only prerequisite was that my thighs touched," she adds. The significance of having what Graham refers to as a "curvalicious babe" incorporated into the Barbie family is not lost on her, telling me: "It's really exciting that Barbie, who is an iconic figure in America, is now evolving into what we're actually talking about today."
The fashion, modeling and retail industries have changed for the better, and we have women like Graham — proudly and loudly stationed at the forefront of the body positivity movement — to thank for that. "If I had a Barbie that looked like this growing up, who knows what I would've thought about my thighs," she says, when asked about how the impact her doll may have on young women. "I may not have hated them as much."
Read on for highlights from our conversation.
Growing up in Nebraska, what was your relationship with Barbie like?
I was a Barbie girl, for sure. I played with her a lot at my grandma's house because she didn't know what else to buy but Barbie, and it was actually perfect. She bought all of them — like California Barbie, Vacation Barbie, City Barbie. And then, at my mom's house, [we] lined [them] up in the bathroom and played with them in the bathtub. I don't know why it was always me and Barbie in the bathtub, but I think I'm not the only one.
How did your current partnership with Barbie come about?
Mattel partnered up with Glamour and they chose one of the Women of the Year to do a Barbie, and they chose me. I was completely shocked and wowed. I didn't process what that actually meant until they [told me], "We're going to need photos of every angle of your body. We're going to need to know what she wants to wear…" and I was like, "This is haaaaaaaappening!" It was crazy! First of all, you're told you're one of the Glamour Women of the Year and then you're told, "Oh, by the way, we're making a Barbie of you." It's a lot to take in.
And what was the actual design process like? Did you work heavily with the behind-the-scenes teams?
I haven't seen the Barbie yet. I only did a walk-through at the headquarters in California [where] they showed me the process of how they built the body, how they got the hair the texture that I wanted it and those small details, like the features on my face. I thought I was going to have to walk into this huge body-scan and — poof! — a big plastic body was going to pop out. It's not like that at all. I actually had my assistants take 360-degree photos of me and that's all they needed to make my body. My only prerequisite was that my thighs touched.
Do you have a favorite element of your doll?
I think the best part about my Barbie is her body. Not only because it's my body, but because it's a body that, until the beginning of this year, wasn't represented. It's really exciting that Barbie, who is an iconic figure in America, is now evolving into what we're actually talking about today. It's body positivity; it's inclusion; it's diversity. And I'm so ecstatic that they actually were totally up for making such a curvalicious babe.
How do you hope that your Barbie impacts younger girls?
If I had a Barbie that looked like this growing up, who knows what I would've thought about my thighs. I may not have hated them as much; I may not have thought they were so ugly. This is so important for younger generations of girls that are coming up — when they're playing in the bathtub with their Barbie and she happens to have a rounder stomach, she's going to feel like she's just as beautiful because Barbie is the epitome of perfect.
Eva Chen, Emmy Rossum and Ava DuVernay are some of the women who received their own Barbies in April of last year. How do you feel about joining this A-team of women, all empowering in their own ways?
I'm honored. I still feel like, guys, you know I'm just a big model who happens to be like, "Just love yourself!" The thing is, all along, I've been doing what's natural; I've been doing what I feel is right. And along with that comes people from Mattel or Glamour who say, "We really like what you're saying. You speak to us." To be among that lineup, with those women, it's encouraging just to remember to be yourself. That's what I want young girls to remember. It's not about conforming; it's not about letting people tell you what you can and can't do. It's just about being who you are.
You've been quite vocal about calling yourself a "model," rather than a "plus-size model." How do you see these labels evolving?
Just in the past two years, there's been so much conversation about this, almost to the point of exhaustion, at least on my end. I think that the day we don't have to talk about a label on a woman is the day that we've actually had our successes in getting rid of labels. And hopefully that day is sooner rather than later.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.