Ashley Graham accepts that it is her lot in life to have to talk about her body. On the one hand, she’s a model so, sure. But on the other, she is held up a portrait of womanhood which is other, which needs to be explained, which comes with a caveat... Even though, really, her body is more representative of the majority of women than most of her catwalk colleagues. We are likely all more Graham than Hadid, for example. But I’m not sure a Hadid sister has ever had to explain their presence on a runway or in a brand campaign to a slack-jawed audience in awe that such a thing, such a body, was allowed to happen.
Admirably, this isn’t an issue for her. ‘I think that being in my position, I’m going to always talk about it. I don’t feel any negativity towards it. And I’ll [talk about it] until we don’t have to have this conversation.’
The 32-year-old has been having this conversation since she was a teenager, spotted in a mall in Omaha, Nebraska. She moved to New York at 18, signed to Ford Models, and later IMG. Her formative modelling years were messy and full of self-loathing. She was instructed to lose weight, put on weight...
Graham credits her mother with supporting her evolution into the powerhouse she has become. ‘My mother told me that my body is going to change, that’s life. She kept me in the modelling industry [when] I wanted to leave. I had to take ownership over me.’ She attributes her Christian faith and the power of affirmations in getting her on track. This journey – via ‘groundbreaking’ Sports Illustrated covers, ‘controversial’ (showing a woman with actual breasts in lingerie) adverts for US department store Lane Bryant – culminated in a 2015 TED talk. Graham began by repeating her affirmations into a mirror on stage: ‘You are bold, you are brilliant, and you are beautiful.’
Her confidence and character as a speaker has led, logically, to the next phase of brand Ashley: her podcast Pretty Big Deal, YouTube fitness series Thank Bod and the Fearless series on Ellen DeGeneres’s online portal, Ellentube. These all showcase a woman thriving; she is a sharp, compelling, exuberant interviewer. Her guests have ranged from Kim Kardashian West to TV news anchor Gail King and Amy Schumer. In Fearless her easy charm is used to facilitate other people finding their moment of confidence. It’s not merely American schmaltz. Watch the episode where she introduced Ricky, a young transgender man, to Laverne Cox. She cried, Laverne cried, Ricky was beside himself, I sobbed. As far as I can see she’s on a fast track to becoming an Oprah-like figure.
She is also, with her husband of nine years, film- maker Justin Ervin, about to become a mother (to a son, due this month) for the first time, something she has characteristically been documenting in every fleshy detail to her 9.5 million Instagram followers: ‘Every day is different. You really don’t [get to] pick and choose how you feel. And every woman is so different. But I’ve never had so much support around me. I have women reaching out and saying, “This is my baby list...” “This is what I went through...” I feel like I’m part of this incredible club that I never knew existed.’
The shifting floor of pregnancy is something she has been typically honest and bold about – as the pictures here, unveiling her seventh Marina Rinaldi campaign with a very visible baby bump, show: ‘I feel like we all have complicated relationships with our body. Mine has been changing in some new and interesting ways. It hasn’t been easy to embrace my pregnant body, but it’s definitely a reminder of how awesome our bodies truly are.’
This is the point she wanted to make through the campaign images. It is the first time Marina Rinaldi, part of the Italian Max Mara Group and one of the only luxury brands to run from a size 8 to 28, has featured a pregnant woman in its imagery. On the shoot she explains, ‘We thought, this is going to come from a place of beauty, acceptance. We’re not [just] talking about curvy women. We’re now including pregnant women. It just goes to show that the new type of woman is the Marina Rinaldi woman.’ The visual portrayal of pregnancy outside of maternity wear is rare. I’ve known influencer friends be cancelled from brand campaigns the minute they revealed they were expecting. Graham’s inclusion here is an important mark in the movement for representation for all woman, at all points. It’s also, as Graham points out, helpful to show that non-maternity brands can work perfectly well for pregnancy.
‘When you’re looking for clothes that are cool, edgy and fashionable... and don’t have all the stretchy-ruched bits on the stomach – you know those ugly ruched bits I’m talking about?’ I do, but I also tell her that I personally gave in to the ruching – once you get over eight months, ‘normal’ tops start popping up off your belly. I’m not sure I’ve convinced her. ‘This morning I had a mini meltdown,’ she laughs. ‘Because nothing fits me. I texted my stylist and I said, I need a fitting. I just need five key pieces.’
There is a conversation between Graham and fellow curvy model Paloma Elsesser on her Pretty Big Deal podcast which is potent in its honesty and a stick in the ground to understanding the attitude of the fashion industry to inclusivity. They discuss attitudes towards them on shoots, stylists having failed to produce enough items that fit, being asked to bring their own clothes... Graham raises an incident that happened to her, not at an early point in her career, but around a year back, where a stylist, frustrated that a pair of trousers wouldn’t go on her, grabbed her hips and exclaimed that if she just lost ‘that bit’ they’d fit. ‘That bit’ being the reason that Graham was booked, ‘that bit’ being her USP as a model. But still, designers and stylists are hard-wired to fit with sample sizes.
It’s a case in point on tokenism, which extends farther than Graham in an industry which largely sells a fudged version of inclusivity. The odd ‘different’ looking woman might be on a runway, billboard or magazine cover, but until all women are included and understood behind the scenes as well, it is small, pigeon steps. Does she find this tokenism difficult? ‘I don’t think it’s a hard situation. I think it’s just a conversation. Right? We don’t want to say “No” because we’re getting a seat at the table. If you say no, then that young girl who’s looking at this campaign may not see representation for herself. So I think that what you do in a position like mine is to just talk about it, and have those conversations with the clients and the photographers, editors, designers... From there you make as much change as you can.’
This, really, is her super power. Not her figure. But her voice. ‘Up until a certain point you’re just a clothes hanger and you need to keep your mouth shut. But in the social media era women have more [of a] voice than ever before. We can stand up and people will listen.’
SEE: Ashley Graham's Best Looks From NYFW
Ashley Graham At New York Fashion Week - Grazia
Ashley Graham arrives for the Savage X Fenty Show at New York Fashion Week
Ashley Graham is seen with husband Justin Ervin during New York Fashion Week
Ashley Graham poses with Derek Blasberg and Coco Rocha at the launch of YouTube.com/Fashion during New York Fashion Week
Ashley Graham walks the runway during the TOMMYNOW New York Fall 2019 fashion show at The Apollo Theater
Ashley Graham at the Christian Siriano Spring/Summer 2020 runway show of New York Fashion Week at the Gotham Hall
Just before fashion week, Ashley Graham is spotted attending The Daily Front Row's 7th annual Fashion Media Awards in New York