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Ashley Graham Has Only Just Started Building Her Empire

With her memoir, "A New Model," she's getting real about her career as a plus-size model.
Ashley Graham in August Getty Atelier at her book launch at Indochine. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Ashley Graham in August Getty Atelier at her book launch at Indochine. Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

That Ashley Graham is putting out a memoir may seem premature for some who have been sleeping on her career. After all, for much of the world, her rise to supermodel status has seemed meteoric; to them, Graham went from toiling in "commercial" obscurity to covering Vogue and the Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition, attending the Met Gala and starring in "America's Next Top Model" in just a few short years. But for the plus-size community and Lane Bryant customers, where Graham has served as a face of the brand for 15 years, she's been a supermodel for so much longer.

"I mean, I've been doing this for 17 years, and I feel like I've had so many monumental, pivotal moments in my career that it's like, I have to talk about it!" Graham says at the lunch Lane Bryant hosted to celebrate A New Model, her newly released book. 

Indeed, having spent half of her life in the industry — Graham turns 30 later this year — she has plenty of fodder to fill a book. There are tales from her early days in New York City, filled with partying and spending all of her money; the hardships she faced as a plus-size model before being a plus-size model was a "trend;" and how she fought her way to supermodel status. But more than that, it's filled with valuable advice for young women who want to learn how to harness Graham's seemingly unshakable confidence. 

Graham's ability to "get real" is incredibly refreshing; by the end of the book, you wish that she was your best friend you could text for advice at three in the morning when you're stressed about relationships or work or life. She dished out more of that candor to Fashionista, telling us what other models could learn from her career, why social media sucks sometimes (but she still thanked Kevin Systrom of Instagram) and what's next for her career. 

Why is now the right time for you to write a book?

Now is the time more than ever for me! The number one question I get asked is: "How do you get confidence? Where did your confidence come from?" It's not an antidote, it's not a pill, it's not one night that changed everything – it's my whole story. I can't just sit down with everybody and tell my whole story, so I wrote a book.

You talked a lot in the book about the challenges that you faced when just starting out — I feel like they're not uncommon challenges for young models. What do you think could be done that would help young models navigate that space better? 

That's why I had to talk about it! I got real, girl. I wish I would have met my financial advisor when I was that young, right away. He's been really great. He has a space now just for models, where he's talking to them at a young age and talking to them how to finance their money and what to do.

I also think that there needs to be education within agencies even, because an agent's not going to be able to take care of you and your personal life, but maybe there should be something that's like, "Okay, you're under this certain age, let's have a conversation with your mom about you moving here." Because it's hard! My mom and dad were so naïve. I moved from Nebraska to New York at 17. They kind of expected my agent to take care of me, in a way. It's not his job. Yes, it's really about your guardians prepping you for the big move or the big leap into an industry. But it's also about creating a support system within the agency, too.

When your first agency shuttered its plus-size division, you and other plus girls banded together [to get new contracts]. I thought that that was so impressive because models have so little bargaining power.

Like, when you say so little, you mean none. Especially if you don't have a big name. If you're not Gisele or Kate, like, ba-bye.

Is that something that you think could be applied across a broader range of models to help them have that same bargaining power?

Yeah, 100 percent. I try to talk to younger models, like the ones who are in their early 20s, about getting into the industry, or the ones that are even signed with big agencies already. I'm talking to them about what their deal is. Did you read your contract? Did you get a lawyer outside of the agency? Did you negotiate? Because a lot of girls don't know to negotiate.

I named that chapter "When Models Talk" because it's true. If more models talked to each other, I think that they would be more educated on each of their experiences. They'd be able to have more ownership with who they are. Because really, truly, it's your name, your brand, your face, your likeness, your image.

The other thing is, this isn't just about models. This is about women in general. Even an entrepreneur, or even as a woman who has a salary and is on staff, you go into a new business and you're like, "Okay, well, what am I getting out of this?" And you don't know how to negotiate. So you need a group of women who are like, these are the guidelines. I think if more women did that, things would be a bit different.

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Now you're on the cover of Vogue, you're in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, you're at the Met Gala: What challenges do you still face?

Oh, well, haven't you ever heard the term, "It's lonely on the top?" I don't have a social life anymore. My social life, if any, my husband comes into it; he and I work together a lot so we'll spend a lot of that time together. I'm sacrificing family time and this and that. But my family and my friends know this is the time to go, and everybody understands that, which is so fantastic.

The other thing is, now that I've built this business, now I've got to create more. I'm really excited about it! I'm developing a TV show. I'm excited about creating a clothing line that's active apparel and everything in between, because I feel like there still is such a gap where you and I just can't literally go into any store and get what we want. So why not go to one and get everything we want?

You talk a lot about positivity and how important it is to be positive. I'm really curious how you manage to keep that up, especially now with social media.

Social media sucks sometimes, man, oh my God. It's not always been easy, but I think one of the last times it kind of hit me hard and like gutted me was this photo last summer from "America's Next Top Model," when I was in the white outfit with the black Balmain jacket and everyone goes, "You lost so much weight!" and I read those comments. It pissed me off to the point where I had to write that Lenny Letter. I was like, "Screw you guys for dictating my body! Whether it's too big or too small for you, screw you." 

I really let some people just hear my voice, because I just think it's ugly when you tell a woman that's she's too big or she's too small, or that she's too sexy or that she's not pretty enough, or that she's not going to get a job because she doesn't have enough whatever. That was the last straw for me, and ever since then I've just kind of been like, "I don't give a crap about those negative comments." I've only been able to encourage people around me. Just like, "Who cares? They're lowlife people who write those comments anyway." The only comments I write to Beyoncé are emojis!

The thing that I always find really interesting is the pressure on you to represent the plus-size community.

100 percent.

How do you feel about that?

Look, there are issues within the plus-size community about the word plus-size. Right? It's like, do we call ourselves plus-size? Do we not call ourselves plus-size? I think that it's really honestly split down the middle. There's gonna be women here today that want to be called plus-size. There's some who think it's a disgusting, disturbing word. But I think that if we're going to let a word be completely divisive to our community, then we're not really standing up for the things that we really believe that can change within the fashion industry.

I think a lot of us have brushed it off our shoulders. If they want to be called plus-size, be called plus-size. If you don't, that's great too. But I really think that there's something super divisive in labeling women based off of a number and size of their pants, based off of a hip measurement. Because we don't do it to men. We're not labeling them, like my big 'ol husky frame. 

But I will say this about the whole plus-size thing: I understand, going into a store, I don't want to go to the straight, the skinny section, and have to sift through all the six and eights to find a fourteen. That makes me feel terrible. I want to go straight to my section. So, okay, all right, maybe I'll take the plus-size section when I go to the store — but don't put it by the food court!

As the social media supermodels platform has grown, models do get voices now, but they also get to promote things that are really important to them. What, for you, has been the best part of having this platform?

Seeing the lives I have changed. At my New York signing just two nights ago, I had a huge makeup stain on my shoulder because of the women that were crying in my arm. I didn't get it. I never had a role model growing up that looked like me in the public eye. I had my mom. But you know, J. Lo, she doesn't have no cellulite, Marilyn Monroe wasn't around to talk about anything. So it's like, who am I gonna look up to?

Knowing that, because I post photos of my cellulite or because I have said, "Who cares about stretch marks?" that there's little girls that have that stuff and they can finally say that its okay to have it and looking at themselves in the mirror and not say, "I want to be like her," but, "I want to be the best me" — that is the most rewarding thing. I thank social media for that. I even thanked Kevin, the creator of Instagram. I was like, "You changed my career. Thank you." Because if it weren't for that, I wouldn't be able to have my voice.

A New Model is available now.

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