For Plus-Sized Model Contest Winner, Prize Denied

When retailer American Apparel put out a call for plus-sized models, Nancy Upton entered the contest as a joke. She submitted photos of herself eating food in posed positions, and even lying in a tub full of ranch dressing. Upton won the contest. But American Apparel announced she would not be awarded the prize. Michel Martin talks with Nancy Upton about her decision to enter the contest, and the reaction from the media, the public and American Apparel.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, the Fall Festival of Indian Arts comes to Washington this week, but one unique dance group is known not just for the beauty of its classical Hindu dance, but the circuitous route its founder took to get there. We'll tell you more about it in a moment.

But first, we have a story about the often tricky relationship between a store and its customers. The retailer American Apparel, which is known both for its fun, form-fitting casualwear and its racy ad campaigns, decided to launch a contest to find a plus-sized model to showcase their new line of size XL clothing. The retailer said they wanted, quote, fresh faces and curvaceous bods to fill these babies out. They asked applicants to send photos of you and your junk to back it up.

The contest was to be decided by popular vote. One young woman, 24-year-old student and actor, Nancy Upton, found the language and, frankly, the concept demeaning. But rather than get mad, she decided to have some fun and enter the contest. She and a photographer friend cooked up some photos of herself stuffing herself with a roasted chicken, a pie and lying in a tub full of ranch dressing.

Well, lo and behold, she actually won, but the story doesn't end there. She's with us now, so we'll let her tell you about it.

Nancy Upton, thanks for joining us.

NANCY UPTON: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So walk me through it. When you first read this call-out, what is it that set you off, if I could use that term? Was it the wording? Was it the whole idea? What was it?

UPTON: I guess really what set me off about it was the wording and when you read the ad copy, you know, it had a lot of like cutesie, colorful adjectives that were made up - like booty-ful, booty-licious. And then it also threw in a lot of words that have kind of been co-opted to be euphemisms, like curvy, curvaceous. And that's how they would describe plus-size women.

MARTIN: And so, in your view, it was kind of the corporate equivalent of a frenemy. You know, people pretending to be...

UPTON: Right.

MARTIN: ...celebrating you, but in fact, putting you down.

UPTON: Oh, absolutely. And I feel like it's like that TV or movie trope of, like, the sassy, mean friend. Where it's like, girl, we got to get you some new clothes, kind of a thing. And - yeah. Just that idea of - it was kind of reaching out, I thought, to plus-size women in a way that said, like, hey, guess what? We're going to let you come play with the cool kids now.

MARTIN: Well, let's not keep people in suspense. The public actually voted for you overwhelmingly, but then American Apparel refused to actually give you the modeling contract prize.

The is what American Apparel's creative director, Iris Alonzo, wrote to you in a very lengthy missive. It said, it's a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of lighthearted language and that booty-licious was too much for you to handle. And then she goes on to say - and I said, this is a very lengthy letter - regarding winning the contest, while you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company. Ouch!

UPTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: How did you respond to that?

UPTON: You know, I sort of have taken a policy of not talking about my emotions regarding the letter. I feel like it speaks a lot for itself and, you know, this was a situation that, while it did come out of certain emotions or feelings I had, I felt like the bigger issue at play was not like whether or not I was being offended or treated right, but kind of the issue of beauty and size in America.

You know, that being said...

MARTIN: Okay. So tell me what you would like to say about it. Apart from your personal feelings, what do you think this says?

UPTON: You know, I think that in one way, I think it shows how much the people at American Apparel really - they are really invested in their company. They do take things very personally there. They take a lot of pride in their work and it's something that's very close to their hearts. And I think that maybe that's something that we, as consumers, forget, is that there are creative, independent women over there who sat down and wrote this copy, not intending for it to be insulting or demeaning. And I feel like this letter really speaks to the personal involvement of those people.

MARTIN: What happened to you? What happened to you? Did they fly you out and give you a VIP tour?

UPTON: They did.

MARTIN: Ah, I see.

UPTON: They flew Shannon and I out to LA.

MARTIN: Shannon's the photographer?

UPTON: Yes. Shannon Skloss. They put us up at a very nice hotel downtown and treated us to a night of fun, going out, as well as the full corporate tour. We saw three different factories and the headquarters, the offices, if you will.

MARTIN: Well, we should also mention that we reached out to Iris Alonzo for comment on the letter and she said, I've apologized directly to Nancy for the tone and wording that I used in my email to her. I have a lot of pride in the company I work for and my defensiveness got the better of me. I regret that. And apparently, they did reach out to you, as we said, and gave a tour and presumably some swag. Did they give you some excellent apparel too?

UPTON: No swag. No swag.

MARTIN: No? But, you know, to that end and before we let you go, just this weekend, I don't know if you saw this...

UPTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: "Saturday Night Live" featured Melissa McCarthy.

UPTON: Yes.

MARTIN: You know, the very talented Emmy Award-winning plus-sized actress, if I can use that term, who was in "Bridesmaids."

UPTON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And again, the skits involved her being, you know, perpetually hungry, you know, pouring ranch dressing down her throat, being sexual voracious. And you have to ask would a thin actress have been put in similar situations. So I was wondering if your entry was in any way a comment on that, you know overall, and does it relate to kind of a larger discussion that isn't just about American Apparel.

UPTON: Oh absolutely. I mean especially in the media I think the joke is that the thing that we've all been led to see is like plus-sized women don't know when to say no, they can't get enough, be it of men or food or whatever, and that somehow their weight or the way they look is directly tied into how they manage their lives.

And the thing is I think when you see a plus-sized woman being like yeah, okay, I'll eat on camera or being, you know, kind of the way that Melissa McCarthy - is not just a talented performer, and I'm sure can get up there and do Shakespeare with the best of them, but also goes one step forward and usually like it's like, you know, I'm in on the joke. And like if you want to see this, if you think it's funny I'll show you what's really funny. I think that that's more liberating as a plus-sized woman to see someone mocking that standard than to be completely airbrushed, photoshopped in a fashion magazine trying to look thinner than they actually are.

MARTIN: That was Nancy Upton. She entered American Apparel's plus-sized model competition. She won but the story got more complicated. And she was kind enough to join us from Dallas.

Nancy, thanks so much for joining us. Good luck to you in your future career. I'm sure we'll see you again.

UPTON: Thanks so much for having me on.

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