Marcus Kirby
by on June 7, 2019
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Inspiring, uplifting and empowering, Ashley Graham is changing the shape of fashion

Inspiring, uplifting and empowering, Ashley Graham is changing the shape of fashion, and in doing so, transforming the way women feel about themselves. The supermodel, activist and entrepreneur talks to Avril Mair about the family ties that formed her; the motivations that drive her; the faith that sustains her; and the optimism that can lead us all to greater heights and lasting happiness.

Ashley Graham is what happens when we abandon all our beauty ideals. In case there was any doubt, that's a positive and powerful thing. A trailblazer, ground-breaker, disruptor, provocateur, and, of course, a supermodel: she's a woman who wants to be heard as well as seen, a poster girl for inclusivity who hopes to raise others up even as her own star ascends to the highest.

But this woman changing the shape of fashion has to be seen to be believed. While she is extraordinarily beautiful in photographs, to understand why she is Ashley Graham, you need to get to grips with her compelling physicality and charismatic presence. So here she is on a Friday morning, fresh from an early workout, with wet hair and a bare face, shifting the air in the room as she enters a health-food café in New York’s West Village. Heads turn. Eyes widen. Jaws drop.

 

"We still lack diversity on the runway, but I appreciate the designers who are pioneers for change"

 

A young woman sitting next to me – who will say to Ashley, as we eventually get up to leave, "I just wanted to tell you that I love you" – emits an audible gasp of excitement. This is the power of someone who unapologetically, unashamedly, owns her own fabulousness. To meet her is to fall in love with her, hopelessly and completely. To meet her is also to question why the hell we bought into those old-fashioned ideals in the first place: the catwalk parade of sad, starving teenagers; the airbrushed editorial facsimile of perfection; the unrealistic, unachievable standards that no one could hope to meet. "It’s beautiful to show your real true self," she says. "I want to be an example to allow women to be who they are."

And so she is, unquestionably. She is now a speaker, a TV presenter, a writer, a designer and a podcast host, as well as an activist, but her focus has never wavered. Ashley Graham is someone who knows what she needs to do in order to make the change – she has to be the change. Here, in her own inspirational words, is how she’s achieving it.

My family are so important to me

Growing up, there was never a lack of appreciation for our appearance because my mum, two sisters and I all looked similar: we were very big-boned, had very loud voices and were very outspoken. I was always told to be proud of who I was; to never try and be less than that.

I was not the class beauty as a child

My gosh, no. I had a bowl haircut, big round glasses and played every sport. I was a US size 12 from the age of 12 but I never felt unattractive.

My mum said my body would change someone’s life one day

It was during a terrible time in my life when I’d just moved to New York and was over everybody telling me I was too fat. She said: "You have to fight through this." Thank God I listened to her. I thought: "OK, screw it, I’m not going to lose weight for anybody. I’m going to be healthy, I’m going to go to the gym and I’m going to live my life right."

I’ve always been very honest in sharing the insecurities I have

Cellulite, back fat... It opened a door for other women to share their insecurities. If we all feel the same way, why are we stressing about it? I’ve never gone to therapy but having these conversations really does help.

It’s important to have allies

It’s important to have positive people in your life. It’s also very important not to have ‘yes’ people in your life. My husband constantly challenges me. That’s one of the reasons why I respect him so much – he’s never going to let me settle. He’s always helping me to strive for something that’s bigger than I am.

Why am I here?

Growing up in a Christian household, I was constantly questioning what my purpose in life was. I believe it’s changing the fashion industry.

The 16-year-old Ashley would not have believed all this was possible

What I’m most proud of is that today’s teenagers are witnessing the progress towards more inclusion in the industry. We still lack diversity on the runway, but I appreciate designers like Prabal Gurung, Christian Siriano and Michael Kors, who have been pioneers for these changes. I feel hopeful that things will continue to change.

I have had to work harder than everybody else because of my size

I’ve always had to suck it up. If you’re the kind of person who’s never been glamorised in fashion then you have to justify why you’re meant to be there through your efforts. You have to prove yourself. I also know that my mother would appear out of nowhere and slap me round the head if she heard me complain.

When women see me in a magazine, I want them to feel worthy

I want them to feel seen, heard, appreciated and valued. I also want them to feel so empowered that they can accomplish anything.

Has it been hard?

I’d prefer to say that it’s been rewarding.

Can I congratulate myself?

Yes. I have had to learn to take a step back and acknowledge that things that were never possible are now possible. I’m so proud that young girls are finally looking in the mirror and saying: ‘I love you’.

Labels can be divisive

How you identify is up to you to decide, not anyone else, which is important to remember. If you identify as plus-size, that’s fine. I started using the term curvy, not because I am no longer a part of the plus-size community, but because body positivity is a broader community than we can imagine. There are girls who are size eight who sometimes say they can’t find clothes, and there are girls who are size 24 who are saying the exact same thing. We have to cater to all types – not only women, but men too.

I still call myself a model

I’m also a designer, a host, an entrepreneur and a body activist, but modelling gave me purpose. I constantly ask myself: "What are you doing to contribute change? What are you doing to make other people’s voices heard?"

You have to stand for something

You really, truly have to hold your-self accountable. I want to advocate for equal representation for all curvy women – all sizes, races and ages. In talking about my size,I have to remember that my body type has been around for a long time and that women of colour have always embraced and celebrated their curves. Now, there are white faces connected to curves and I feel a big sense of responsibility there – those women have been highly disregarded by the fashion industry. 
 

Do I care what people say about me?

Yes and no. I listen to my fans and I value their feedback. I disregard the haters. Their words don’t hurt me. The conversations we’re having are meant to educate; essentially, it’s seeing the entire perspective of beauty and asking society to think about everything more inclusively. As an example, I just posted some photos from Gigi Hadid’s birthday party on Instagram – I had worn this oversized denim dress with thigh-high boots and my chunkiness was hanging over the top of the boot. Someone commented: "Your thighs are bursting out of them." I decided to write back and say: "Yes, my thighs were bursting out and I felt sexy AF." Those are what I like to call teachable moments; a way to let women know that they should be standing up for themselves too.

The way that people look at women’s bodies and decide if they like them or not is so ugly to me

The audacity of someone saying: "This is what’s wrong with you." Even Helena Christensen! I was with her on the night she wore that bustier and I want to tell you, she looked so hot! I’m super-healthy but I’m still judged.

Social media has created a community

It’s also allowed me to connect with many more people than I could have before, opening up a global dialogue. I take pride in being authentic and relatable; I’m always going to be myself. I honestly wish that I had someone to look up to when I was growing up who was like me, because it would have made me even more comfortable in my skin at an earlier age.

When I look in the mirror now, I see a fearless woman

I see a leader. I see a bold, hard-working woman who has turned ‘no’ into ‘yes’. I also see an intelligent woman who doesn't let insecurities or challenges hold her back. I recognise my round arms, my cellulite, my belly, my beautiful curves and I also recognise that I’m celebrating them and embracing them.

I have a Google alert on my name

I don’t know any person in my position who doesn’t.

Kids are just not on my radar

Not now. Eventually, yes. I’ve been married for nine years in August but I feel like I’m still too young to have them. I’ve got too many businesses still to build.

Every year I set a goal that seems impossible and then I just go and achieve it

For me right now, it’s a priority to own a company for my different clothing and lifestyle collections. I’m also figuring out ways to spread the message of inclusion and acceptance. I want to create more seats at the table for women and for underrepresented groups. Can I take this ‘beauty beyond size’ movement that is about confidence and expand it to all areas of women’s lives? How can I do that? We have to raise young women to believe in themselves, to know that they have a voice, that their bodies shouldn’t hold them back, that insecurities aren’t a bad thing.

I am personally inspired by many bold women who empower each other

One of them is Cindy Eckert, who created the female version of Viagra and then sold her company for a billion dollars. Now, through her company, the Pink Ceiling, she’s investing in other women and helping them grow their businesses. Also Gayle King, the journalist and editor, has been a great mentor. I text her questions about how to get the best stories from someone when I’m interviewing them for my podcast.

People keep talking about me as the next Oprah

I am not mad at that. She’s the best at what she does and there will never be another Oprah. She’s inspired me to say: "I’m Ashley and I’m doing this my way."

The best thing someone could say about me is to recognise my kindness

I think kindness should come before anything. It’s a very underrated virtue.

I’m proud that I know I’m going to leave a legacy behind

I’ve met so many women who’ve cried in my arms and told me that by sharing my story and my struggle, I’ve allowed them to share theirs. You know, I’ve been the girl alone on the bathroom floor, crying my eyes out because I didn’t think I was good enough. When you meet someone who has given you the authority to say "I’m better than I thought," that’s a big deal. It just takes a couple of people stamping their feet and saying: "This isn’t the way that we’re going to be treated any more."

My faith has given me the strength to say no

If I’m not comfortable, or if something doesn’t align with my mission, then I’m not participating. My faith is my balance. My husband and I like to pray together, because in the Bible it talks about when two or more are gathered, God is in the midst. Whatever your higher power or beliefs, I think it’s important to have that quiet moment of reflection. And if anyone can get me into Kanye West’s Sunday Service, I’ll be on the plane to LA. I need to go have some worship.

It’s never just been about the money

It’s about the mission. Every day I say an affirmation to myself: I am bold, I am brilliant, I am beautiful, I am worthy of all. It’s like a quick shot in the arm. I got it, I got it, I got it. I tell myself, "You are worthy of this" and I remind myself that this mantra started when I was 18 years old and here I am at 31. This is what has helped guide me. This is what reminds me that all of us can achieve much more than we ever thought we were capable of.

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