Ashley Graham: ‘I Was Told Skinny Equals Success’

But now, as the most famous plus-size model in the world, Ashley begs to differ.

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by Grazia |

Ashley Graham was the first plus-size model to appear on Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue, and is now a judge on America's Next Top Model. Grazia found out how she's challenging the fashion industry.

'You are bold, you are brilliant, you beautiful.' This is Ashley Graham's number one life motto. (She has a few.)

She declares it – to herself – at any given opportunity with gusto, conviction and preferably naked. (She is starkers when Grazia arrives at the shoot.) "You have to really talk to your body parts," Ashley implores. "The ones you really hate, get in front of the mirror and say; 'cellulite, you are so sexy; thick thighs YOU are so sexy that you can't stop groping each other.'"

Ashley is not just a big girl - at 5ft 9 she is US size 18, which is a UK size 22 - she has a mahoosive presence too. A booming, dirty laugh, oodles of energy, and a habit of clicking her fingers in approval of things.

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I hadn't quite appreciated just what a superstar Ashley was until I arrive in New York and see her naked body plastered on a billboard in the Meat Packing district. This latest campaign for America's most popular plus-sized clothing store, Lane Bryant, is all about redefining conventional notions of sexy. Apt, given that is exactly the theme of our Big Fashion Issue.

"Sexy is a state of mind and it can come in all shapes and sizes," says Ashley. "It is different for every person. It could be full hair and make-up; no hair and make-up. Just out of the shower or going to a red carpet event. All those things to me embody sexy.

"I just don't live my life in a world where I am not feeling my best and feeling my best is feeling sexy."

Ashley's resolute self-belief can, after a while, sound a bit like a revolving record of affirmations learnt by rote on a therapist's couch. It would also be easy to be cynical about the 28-year-old's ultra-body confidence given that her facial features resemble an exquisite hybrid of Cindy Crawford and Eva Longoria.

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Emotionally Abused

But all this comes with unapologetic, no-holds-barred honesty which makes it palatable and human - and pretty inspirational. Early on in our chat she reveals that the unfailing self-belief was borne out of an abusive relationship at a toxic time in her life.

"I had just moved to New York, my career was on the rise but I wasn't taking care of my body. I didn't want to go to the gym, I started really hating who I was, sleeping with the wrong guys, but there was one boyfriend who was physically, mentally and emotionally abusive.

"None of my friends could understand why I was with him, and I realised I just couldn't do this anymore. I remember thinking if I don't love the woman that I look at in the mirror I am never going to be successful. That was the moment I had to start convincing myself to look in the mirror and start saying 'I love you'."

A few years later she met her husband, cinematographer Justin Erwin, at church and they famously didn't have sex until their wedding night in 2009.

Sexy is a state of mind - and it can come in all shapes and sizes.

She also credits her mother, Linda, for keeping her grounded after she was discovered at the age of 12 in a shopping mall in Nebraska.

"I remember being told by my very first photographer, that if I lost weight and I was a skinny model it would do wonders for my career," she reveals.

"My mum got really defensive - 'I don't think we will be doing that, thank you so much, goodbye.'"

Not An Easy Ride

It's still pretty tough being the poster girl for plus size.

We meet just days after Ashley penned a Lenny Letter for Lena Dunham in response to a maelstrom of online abuse she received for posting a selfie to her 2.3million followers wearing a Balmain leather jacket that trolls claimed made her look skinny.

"Never in my life did I get so much hate for being skinny," she laughs incredulously. "I mean, I've definitely heard: 'you're not plus-sized enough' but this was insane.

"So I wanted to talk about what it feels like on both spectrums. Body shaming and calling women out for something that is none of your business shouldn't be right."

What about criticism that her size is promoting obesity? "I work out three to four times a week and try and eat a healthy diet. I do not promote obesity."

She still struggles with food though. "Food is sometimes still my reward and I don't want it to be. Like, I worked out five times this week so I think I'm gonna reward myself with mac and cheese. I love mac and cheese. But maybe the reward should be a bag or some shoes instead."

Other Female Advocates

We talk about other high-profile women challenging body image perceptions: Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Schumer, Adele, The Kardashians ("I'm obsessed with the Kardashians, I love how they love themselves.") And Ashley believes there really is a genuine change taking place – even in the fashion industry, so notorious for seeing 'fat as a fad'.

"I've been doing this for sixteen years and never before have you seen so many girls [of different shapes] being praised, being put in campaigns or on the cover of magazines." Indeed, Ashley reveals that last season she was short-listed to walk in two 'really big' designer's shows, but she won't reveal who.

"They said they couldn't make the clothes fast enough to fit. I actually didn't care anymore," she says.

"I have been through every situation. A girl who was just getting into the industry, she would feel terrible [after that], she would feel fat. But no, I felt empowered that they actually put my name on the chart. It's a good thing; they know we are out there. The bad thing is they are still not moving fast enough."

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Sports Illustrated

Ashley credits her appearance on this February's influential Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue as a game changer.

"I think SI making that statement that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes was a true moment. I think it's made designers realise that we are not just a one woman [shape] in fashion and they've started looking beyond the coat hanger.

"Women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, we all want to be clothed, we all want luxury, we want the right fit and I don't think that is a bad or hard request."

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Anna Wintour And Vogue

Anna Wintour is a friend. "Oh she and I get along famously. She really is a fabulous woman," enthuses Ashley. So maybe she'll be the first plus size model to appear on the cover of Vogue? "You never know."

Until that day Ashley's keeping herself pretty busy. She's a judge on America's Next Top Model; mentoring young kids through her Elda foundation on body confidence, she also recently gave a Ted xTalk which has had nearly a million views. Then there's her successful fashion and lingerie lines. She sees having her own kids in the not too distant future and would like to write a book. And then of course there's the daily business of being bold, brilliant and beautiful, which I'd say is going pretty damn well.

What is Ashley Graham's Instagram?

Ashley's Instagram is @theashleygraham, where she shares a lot of modelling shots and selfies.

What is Ashley Graham's Twitter?

Ashley's Twitter handle is @theashleygraham. She already has 2.5 million Twitter followers.

Ashley Graham's Ted Talk

In May 2015, Ashley Graham gave a Ted Talk about her experiences being a plus size model in the fashion industry.

Ashley Graham's headline grabbing Oscar appearance

Days after being called 'unhealthy' by model Cheryl Tiegs, Ashley attended the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in a revealing red gown, flaunting her curves and proving that she is very much comfortable in her own skin.

Ashley Graham
©Getty

Read more on Ashley Graham:

Ashley Graham Pens Powerful Letter To Her Instagram Body-Shamers

This Photo Will Make You Love Your Cellulite

#IAmSizeSexy: Ashley Graham Champions Models Of All Shapes

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