Jess Miller is used to not quite fitting in other people's boxes. As the first plus-size model signed to New York-based agency The Lions, as a queer person who spent the last three years working for a Christian church and as an outspokenly religious person in the often secular world of fashion, Miller has gotten comfortable eschewing binaries that other people take for granted.
"In some ways I enjoy it, because I love breaking stereotypes," Miller says. "I'm on a mission to help expand people's minds about what they think is possible for themselves or for the world, for healing and inclusivity."
Miller had been working at a large church in Seattle and casually modeling for friends and local businesses on the side when she heard that Universal Standard was conducting a model search. After attending an open call for the label, she was flown to New York for a photoshoot. She ended up winning the competition and getting signed by The Lions.
"I flew home to Seattle with the contract in my backpack," Miller says. "It feels so strange that it actually was exactly like how it seems to happen in the movies."
Since then, Miller's moved to New York, started regularly going to castings, and begun plugging into an "interdenominational, open and affirming, multigenerational, multi-ethnic" church in Brooklyn. We caught up with the newly minted Lions model about faith, queerness, size inclusivity and how it all ties together for her. Read on for the highlights from our conversation.
Did it feel like a big deal to you to be the first plus-size model that The Lions has ever signed?
It was a big deal just to be represented by The Lions, and they've done a great job of not trying to pigeonhole me as just the plus-size girl. They're putting me out there for clients who are probably not yet ready to book me, but I want to get my face in front of them to show them that I exist.
There are people on [The Lions'] boards who are a little bit outside the size standards. Because they have a general board that's not so segmented, it feels very honoring of all of our differences and talents and abilities and passions.
Is the plus-size conversation one that you would have sought out anyway, or does it kind of feel like something that's been thrust upon you?
I don't mind commenting on it, because I feel like it is inherently part of my identity in the fashion world.
It's interesting, because I see a lot of public movement and words that are saying, "Yes, we want inclusivity." But in practice I'm still seeing a resistance that's disappointing. It's like, "Yes, we're doing plus-size, but we only have space for one [model], and it's Ashley Graham."
I want to see it in general advertising and on the catwalk and in really high fashion. I'm not satisfied with where it's at right now, and I'm not satisfied with the rate that it's going. I do recognize that it's going to take time to unpack what things were and rebuild what we want to move towards. So much of the public outside of media, outside of fashion, is craving this.
Do you have any dream clients?
I feel really aligned to Chromat. Gypsy Sport is definitely a departure from very commercialized standard beauty, which I love. There's a part of me that has some lofty dreams of doing the like, Valentinos and Diors of the world, but I would definitely want it to be in a way that is not tokenizing and not just to say that they've done it.
You could theoretically have stayed in Seattle even after getting signed by The Lions. What prompted you to take the leap and move to New York?
My dream grad school where I will be going to in the fall, Union Theological Seminary, is here. So I had a general openness to moving. At the time of the model search, I was working at a church in Seattle. A lot of the time it looked like one-on-one counseling with 18-to-35-year-olds who are going through emotionally draining times. I'd been at the job for three years and I was feeling ready for something new.
How did your church respond when you told them about your career change?
Everyone was so excited. People were like, "Oh, this means you'll be on all the billboards now!" I had to reassure them that the world is very large. [laughs]
As a lot of press was coming out, it was the first time that some people realized that I was queer. People had opinions about that more than they did about me leaving. For the most part, they were sad to see me go and I felt very supported in the transition.
Being queer in faith communities that aren't openly LGBTQ-affirming can be thorny. What was the process of coming out like for you?
There was awhile where I just had to sit with it myself. I did a lot of reading and writing and crying and self-care. Eventually I got more comfortable and when it was no longer taking energy to acknowledge in myself, that's when I started to come out to a few more people — my supervisors at work, my parents.
I felt so at peace. I was like, "God has no problem with me, God has no issue with me." I didn't feel like any shame or guilt was coming from my faith, it was all coming from people who had expectations of me that I would no longer be able to fulfill.
People in my life were already unpacking very complex ideas and theological concepts, so it wasn't too extreme for some of us to be coming out or grappling with gender expression.
Going to seminary while pursuing modeling isn't exactly the most well-tread path. What are you going to study at Union?
I'm getting my master's in divinity. I'm looking to emphasize queer and womanist theology, and this program has professors who are experts in this field. I hope it will help me better understand people who have trauma related to spirituality or a faith experience.
There are two different vantage-points to what I could do with the degree. There's the interpersonal side, which could look more like building one-on-one connections and helping individuals process trauma. Or it could look more systemic, working with churches and organizations that are trying to go through the process to become open and affirming [of LGBTQ people] and making sure they have resources so they're not forgetting a population or unintentionally causing harm.
What has it been like to talk to about faith with fashion people?
I get a lot of people being like, "I had a really negative experience with my church at home or my family who's religious," but it's never aimed at me.
I never have an agenda to convince other people to think like I do, because I think it's a really small-minded way to see the world if your only reason for interacting with people is to change their minds. I want to live out my spirituality, my faith, my purpose through my actions.
Are there other issues in the fashion industry that your faith has helped shape your views on?
When faith and spirituality are integrated in my life there's a very great awareness for the environment and what we're doing to it. All life is dependent on each other. We are taking a big part in destroying Earth. That directly affects humans' interactions and mental and physical health. Learning we are stewards of the earth, that we are given this one earth to work with, I feel like that's a personal responsibility.
How do you balance that environmental sensitivity with being a model, where so much of your job is selling product — potentially for brands that don't share your values?
I've definitely been thinking about this. I don't feel like I'm ready to make a statement about it, but I do feel like it's something as conscious consumers that we need to be aware of. I do all my shopping at secondhand stores or do clothing swaps with friends or try to buy from environmentally conscious companies. But as it comes to the present day where I'm working in this way, there's still things I need to figure out.
What do you dream that you'll be doing in 10 years?
My goal with modeling is to build a platform to be able to elevate topics I care about. There's a lot of ways that I feel like fashion has been putting things into small categories — but people, we are so much bigger than any combination of categories. That's a message I want to be heard.
There's a lot of voices telling me that I have to be or do [things] in a certain way to be valid. I'm just over that. In my freedom, I can make space for others to experience that too. I just want to be one representation; I don't want to be the representation. There's not a cookie-cutter way of moving through the world.