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How Model and Activist Tess Holliday Keeps on Fighting Fashion Industry Standards

"I wouldn't want to walk for a designer that was just using me to get attention... I wouldn't walk in a show unless they were actually making my size."
Tess Holliday. Photo: Warwick Saint

Tess Holliday. Photo: Warwick Saint

In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.

She was born Ryann Maegen Hoven — and at one point was known as "Tess Munster" — but you probably know her as Tess Holliday: barrier-breaking size 22, 5'5" model, entrepreneur, social media star, tattoo enthusiast and body-positivity activist. She beat the odds to realize her dream in the fashion industry: childhood trauma — after her parents' divorce, her mother was disabled after being shot in head twice by a boyfriend when Holliday was just 9 years old — verbal abuse, sexual assault and financial hardship. 

But despite all of these obstacles, and the fashion industry's not-always-so positive (as an understatement) attitudes on body image, she broke into modeling on her own terms — via social media, mainly through MySpace. Holliday's unfiltered honesty and willingness to voice her own opinions on cultural and political issues have gained her 1.5 million followers on Instagram (and 1.7 million on Facebook). To spread support for body positivity messages, Holliday started a viral trend with the empowering #effyourbeautystandards hashtag that's still going strong. 

Holliday is officially sharing the story of her nontraditional — and pretty damn tough — road success in her honest, inspirational and both heartwrenching and laugh-out-loud funny book, "The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl: Loving the Skin That You're In," which hit the shelves, in-store and virtual, on September 26. 

She's had an especially hectic September — juggling an international book tour and Fashion Month, during which she walked in the SimplyBe 'Curve Catwalk' in London. She also managed to squeeze in some phone time with Fashionista on a car ride to LAX for a last minute international modeling gig overseas. But we'll let Holliday explain — here are the highlights.

Photo: Courtesy

Photo: Courtesy

Congratulations on the book! What motivated you to write and share your story?

I had talked about my journey in bits and pieces on social media, so people knew as much of my life as you can put in an Instagram caption. But I don't think many people realize my success wasn't overnight and how hard I worked and how many people helped me get to where I am. And I try and stress to people: I don't view it as a memoir because it was only bits and parts of my story that pertained to how I became Tess Holliday. I just wanted to put it all in one place, so that it would hopefully help people and maybe people would realize that if they wanted to chase their dreams, they could do it.

You started modeling via social media, specifically MySpace, which was very pioneering. How does social media continue to help with your career?

Social media is very important nowadays for giving a platform to people, like myself, that normally wouldn't have been given a chance. People like me were typically ignored. I would have never been able to walk into an agency and get anyone's attention because of my height and size and the fact that I'm heavily tattooed. But because of social media — and me being able to grow a following organically —  it showed brands and other people that people wanted to see others that looked like me and that looked like them and that representation is important. If it wasn't for social media, I literally wouldn't have my life. I never would have met my husband [Nick on Tumblr], so it's a big reason why I'm able to do what I do.

Holliday on the SimplyBe 'Curve Catwalk' during London Fashion Week. Photo: Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images)

Holliday on the SimplyBe 'Curve Catwalk' during London Fashion Week. Photo: Neil P. Mockford/Getty Images)

You're a body-positivity activist and we're in the midst of Fashion Month, which isn't always that body-positive. How do you think the industry is doing right now?

They're doing okay, but they could definitely do much better. I'm actually going to Germany to walk in five different shows [at Plus Size Fashion Days in Hamburg] — that's why I'm in the car right now — which is incredible because I've never been part of a German fashion week. I've walked in New York and London, but to go to Germany is quite cool because that's showing you that European designers are paying more attention to what people want to see. 

I feel like American designers are as well, but I just think that there needs to be a bit more diversity. You see it on straight size runways — people of different genders and races — but but you're not seeing that really in the plus-size industry. There were more plus-size models on the runway this year than ever, but it's still not diverse enough and most of the designers that have plus-size models walking in their shows don't go past size US 14, when the average plus-size woman in America is a US 16. So they're still not even catering to the average woman's size in America, which is frustrating.

How do you think the industry can make an effort to create more plus-size diversity on the runway?

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I don't know if it's necessarily a plus-size [issue] or just a problem in the fashion industry as a whole. You have some high-end designers that are making clothes for plus-size women, but it's only up to a US 12 or 14. It takes people and the companies to actually care or to understand how to dress a plus-size woman. I think a lot of it comes down to them not really wanting to. They have [an idea of what] they want for their customer and that doesn't really fit the plus-size market, so I think the attitudes and perceptions have to shift a bit before much can be done. I wouldn't want to walk for a designer that was just using me to get attention. I wouldn't walk in a show unless they were actually making my size. That's the hard part as well.

You've also spoken out against Lane Bryant's marketing for their 'I'm No Angel' campaign for not including models over size 14. How would you like to see brands evolve their marketing and ad campaigns?

I think it’s hard. I don't want to be the person speaking out against that because sometimes I feel like it makes me seem like I'm just an asshole. But I'm not. I have Lane Bryant underwear on right now. I want them to do better because they have their customers literally saying they want to see more. These brands just have to listen to the customer and the people who are buying their clothing. Like I know that it's my job as a model to put the clothing on and sell it to customers. And I know, that nine times out of 10, how they're putting clothing on me is not how it's going to look like on the average person that is going to buy it. They're pinning [the clothing]. They're draping it. You've got lighting. You have all of that. I understand how frustrating that is. 

I just wish that these companies were using move diverse models in their campaigns, because then I actually feel like — what, Nick? [her husband says something in the background] — yeah, the models exist. The models are there. I could name at least 10 models right now that are past a size 16 that are incredible models. But they're just not given the chance because they've had their industry standard for so long and they're not willing to change. I just wish that they would look at and cater to what the customer looked like because they're just really missing out on money [note: $20 billion, actually]. I don't understand why they wouldn't want to make more money and why they wouldn't want to make their customers happy.

I just think also, plus-size women have been given crumbs forever. And we just take the crumbs because we just are so excited see these plus-size models on billboards and I think it's wonderful. I've been one of the plus-size models who has been on billboards. My friends are up there as well. Of course I'm happy to see my friends succeeding. I just want it to be more diverse. 

So what's next on your to-do list? 

I had a clothing line [a capsule collaboration with Canadian plus-size line Pennington's] for a year and a half. We just ended it, but we're looking at starting it up in the fall. They did really well and it was a lot of fun and I learned so much, but unfortunately, the company is going through a restructuring process. Also, I wanted to have a little bit more fun with the clothing. I wasn't interested at all in the beginning and then, when we started designing the line, I started to learn so much about how hard it is to [create] the visions in my head and executing it to look great on everybody. It's made me want to do it even more. 

I also would like to do something in the lingerie world for actual plus-size bodies because, a lot of plus-size lingerie, they don't take into account  women that have smaller chest or that have bigger stomachs and different body shapes and sizes. It would be nice if if you're able to wear the lingerie and actually not have the underwear roll down and disappear underneath your stomach. That would be awesome. I would eventually like to write another book, if my husband doesn't divorce me in the process.

What advice would you give for someone wanting to enter the modeling industry, especially in a non-traditional way?

I have a lot of people that say they want to model, but I don't think they quite understand how much is involved in being a model and how hard of a job it is. I think that you see us taking pretty pictures and getting to travel and that part is quite glamorous. And look, like my life is so much fun, but there's so much work. I always tell people: If they want to model, or [go into] any career field, do your research and see what you're getting yourself into. Also make sure that you have a good support system [of] people who are going to understand that the industry — even though it's getting better — is very hard on your self-image, and sometimes on your mental health. You have to work long hours. You have to be able to — or know — how to take care of yourself and your body. Going to get my nails done is not fun anymore because it's just part of my job. Taking care of my skin and just constant grooming and that all can be quite expensive, as well, so just making sure that you're set up. Honestly, I wouldn't have been able to do it if it wasn't for having people understand that they needed to watch my son until 2 a.m., when I was first starting out and my hours were crazy. 

I know I'm kind of giving all the bad stuff, but I wasn't even aware when I said, I wanted to model, what all went into it. Sometimes it is not [a job that] has a lot of longevity. I think things are changing, but it's always nice to know you might not do it forever and it might just be something you do for a little bit. So preparing yourself, if you do become a model, what would you do after the fact if you're not able to do it forever.

As you're modeling and enjoying this exciting part of your career, how are you preparing?

Look, I still feel like I'm not worried about it, because I don't consider myself a model. I kind of started looking myself as a brand, really. I mean, I'm fortunate that as a mom that opens me up to a whole other world. I'm really interested in eventually doing stuff for children and for mothers who nurse. I'm also interested in continuing to model, but then also the body positivity world and feminism. I'm just gonna keep telling my story and doing what I do, and loving what I do, and I feel like that will translate to people. I don't feel like I'm gonna go anywhere.

The current political environment has opened our eyes to how social issues can be discussed and examined through fashion, which you've been doing all along. How do you want to continue using your voice and platform to make a cultural impact during these tumultuous times?

I feel like I'm already using my brand to change things. Especially with beauty standards, modeling in general and being the first person my size to do everything that I've done. I feel incredibly grateful, and that's why I use my social media platform to speak out for marginalized groups and people that normally wouldn't have a voice. Because I feel like if you're not using your platform to change things, then there's no point to having one.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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