Plus-Size Models An Increasing Presence In Ads

The term "model" typically evokes the image of a woman who is tall and svelte. But Ashley Graham is not that kind of model. She has curves, dimples and abundant skin. She's a plus-sized model, and she's becoming increasingly visible in the mainstream. She and Gary Dakin, who runs the plus-size division of Ford Models, discuss her career — and her recent lingerie ad, which stirred controversy when it was rejected by both ABC and FOX.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

And now we continue our conversation with a different side of the fashion world: the plus-sized modeling industry. This sounds like a regular lingerie ad.

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ASHLEY GRAHAM (Fashion Model): Mom always said beauty is skin deep, a smile is the best makeup and it's what's underneath that counts. Somehow, I don't think this is what Mom had in mind.

KEYES: But the woman featured in it, model Ashley Graham, doesn't look like most models you see in magazines. Instead of being, well, the size and shape of a lollipop, she's curvaceous and voluptuous. Ashley is a plus-sized model. She's featured in advertisements for a new lingerie line for retailer Lane Bryant, which caters to full-figured women.

But you may not have seen her TV commercials, unless you are one of the three million who logged on to YouTube to watch them. Both ABC and Fox refuse to air the ads in their original form. The TV networks say the ad was treated no differently than equally suggestive ads for Victoria's Secret. Lane Bryant insists their ad was unfairly targeted.

Joining us now is Ashley Graham, as well as her agent, Gary Dakin. Gary runs the plus-size division of Ford Models and is responsible for placing some of the most visible plus-size models on magazine covers and runways worldwide. Welcome both to the program.

Ms. GRAHAM: Thank you.

Mr. GARY DAKIN (Agent, Ford Models): Thank you.

KEYES: So Ashley, how'd you get into this in the first place?

Ms. GRAHAM: Oh, man. It was...

KEYES: Meaning modeling, of course.

Ms. GRAHAM: Yeah, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRAHAM: I was 12, and I was in a mall in Nebraska and a guy came up to me. There was a casting call going on at this mall, and he was, like, hey, would you like to be a model? I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was 12 years old, and I was 5'9" and a size 12. So he automatically categorized me as plus-size, and, you know, and it all just kind of started from there. I had no idea what any of that meant.

KEYES: But what a cool thing to happen. That's never happened to me at the mall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Gary, what does plus-sized mean?

Mr. DAKIN: It means anything over a size six, basically, anything that is not on the main board. That is...

KEYES: Wait, wait, wait, let me back up. Over a size six is plus-sized?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAKIN: In the modeling industry, yes.

KEYES: Wow.

Ms. GRAHAM: Yeah.

Mr. DAKIN: You know, it's an aspirational market. So, you know, girls that are eights and 10s look up to the fours and sixes. And so we start ours - it used to start at size 12, and then we realized that there was a need for that middle ground, that healthy woman that wasn't being portrayed as well. So we went down to a size eight.

KEYES: What made you get into the plus-sized industry, Gary? You represent several other models - I mean, Crystal Renn. How'd you say: This is the side of modeling that I want to be on?

Mr. DAKIN: You know, when I started in the industry about 15 years ago in New York, it wasn't a big industry. And it was something that had a calling to me, you know? Women in my life have always been - my grandmother was a bigger woman, like, my best friend in high school. So I always got that aesthetic of the beauty part of it.

But I wanted to make a difference. And I wanted to reach out and kind of help people, as well as do my job and make people feel more comfortable. And I felt that there were no boundaries here. You know, the other side, everything had already been done. No one had ever seen a girl on a cover. No one had ever seen a plus girl on a runway for Chanel. No one had ever seen that. So I knew that there was a lot of way to make ground and really do something special, and that's kind of why I focused on it.

KEYES: Ashley, what kind of reaction did you get when you strutted your way in your stilettos into your first agency?

Ms. GRAHAM: I think they were like, wow, she's really young, but we've got to have her. We've just got to have her. I know that the first time Gary and I met, we ended up having a meeting the next day - with my mother, because I was 15 - and he signed me the day after that.

KEYES: What kind of looks did you get from the, shall we say, less statuesque models that may have been in the room at the time?

Ms. GRAHAM: You know, I never had any negative - anything negative from the skinnier models. I've always been very outgoing and very personal. So people just kind of know me for that and not for my size. It's never been an issue for me. And I've never been looked down upon in a job or from a client or even from my agency to drop weight, gain weight or anything like that.

Mr. DAKIN: It's really interesting too because we're seeing such support from the straight size community in the modeling industry.

Ms. GRAHAM: Yeah.

Mr. DAKIN: Like, incredible, incredible, incredible support from the other agents, the models. The clients - it's really, that's new, but it's definitely -there's been a shift in the past couple of years.

KEYES: I was going to say, it's really interesting that you say that, 'cause if you read the media, it sounds like, well, the skinny side isn't all that happy about it. I mean, but Gary, you think the fashion industry is really becoming more open to this? Or is this just the flavor of the moment?

Mr. DAKIN: No, I don't think it's the flavor. I've been doing this for so long and I've seen a couple of starts and stops in the past. You know, Emme was a moment and then when Kate Dillon was coming up, she was definitely a moment. This isn't a moment. This is definitely a movement. We're definitely seeing people being much more supportive, much, much more supportive on every side.

And it's interesting because we're seeing Carine Roitfeld from Paris Vogue that, you know, uses Crystal basically every month for the past three or four months. We're seeing covers, we're seeing runway, we're seeing Ashley's commercial. We're seeing all of these different things at the same time. So before there were one and two, now it's constant. It's once a month.

Cindi Leive from Glamour made that huge statement that she's going to be using women of all groups, of all sizes, of all colors in the magazine every month. And she lived up her promise. And it's - everybody has.

KEYES: But one of the magazines, I think it was British Vogue, said they didn't have any interest in using plus-size women. They said, the editor said something like she didn't think people wanted to see a negative two, but she didn't think women wanted to see a size 16 either. Ashley, what do you think about that attitude?

Ms. GRAHAM: I mean, it's sad. But I mean, I know that there's plenty of women in London who are a size 16 that would love to see what they look like in the magazines. So maybe they'll figure that out next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the plus-sized modeling industry with Gary Dakin from the modeling agency Ford Plus, and famous Lane Bryant lingerie model Ashley Graham. Well, speaking of Lane Byrant, now we've got to talk about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: There was a whole controversy over that lovely lingerie ad we heard at the beginning. According to Lane Bryant, the ad featuring Ashley was banned from prime time on ABC and Fox because it was considered too sexy. Lane Bryant went on to accuse both networks of airing sexually suggestive images and content on prime time, only in those cases it involved, shall we say, more slender people.

We reached out to Fox and they said that Lane Bryant was asked to edit their ad just like Victoria's Secret does. When Lane Bryant refused to do so, that's when the pushback came. Ashley, when this happened, was it a good thing for you? Or was it a little disconcerting?

Ms. GRAHAM: I mean, it was, nothing was ever bad. It was sad that we had - that this whole controversy happened, but it's amazing that it happened also, because we're talking about, you know, full-figured women and another form of beauty, not just this one box of size two, size four. We could talk about a size 16 being just as beautiful.

KEYES: I wonder, and I'm going to ask this of both of you, I read a couple of places where people suggested that seeing plus-sized models on the pages of magazines would send a bad message to young girls, the same kind of bad message that seeing the negative twos would send. Do you think that's true? First Ashley and then Gary.

Ms. GRAHAM: No, I actually think that's ridiculous. I, growing up, never had a role model in the media that was full-figured. I had my mother and of course I had J.Lo, but she just had a big booty.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GRAHAM: So I never had anybody who was full-figured and proud of it and confident and feminine. So now I feel like young girls and women all over the world have role models and they're coming out and they're coming in the media and they're being - they're proud of what they look like and they're proud of their shape and they wouldn't change their curves for anything in the world.

I think that, you know, promoting obesity, I think that has nothing to do with it, you know, if we were - and we're all promoting health. We all work out. We eat healthy. We don't make bad choices in our lifestyle. So it has nothing to do with being obese.

KEYES: Gary?

Mr. DAKIN: Yeah, it's interesting when I hear people say that 'cause Ashley hit the nail on the head, it's not obesity. It's, like, if you look at the BMIs of most of these girls, they're well within the parameters of a healthy lifestyle. Their bodies are just built differently. You know, I would challenge and say they're probably healthier than most people that you see in magazines, including celebrities.

And they do, they eat well, they work out well. Like, a big part of their job is lingerie. So, and Ashley, it's what made Ashley famous. So their bodies have to be toned. Like, you can bounce a quarter off her butt. Like, she's very, very firm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAKIN: And the girls are all very, very, very healthy and active.

KEYES: Ashley, I have to ask, I mean, you are, frankly, gorgeous. But did it take a little work to learn how to flaunt yourself, to turn that hip in a certain way, or...

Ms. GRAHAM: No.

Mr. DAKIN: You know, I'm going to actually have to field this for her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DAKIN: Because when I met Ashley at 15, she knew exactly who she was, exactly what she was doing and how to turn every head walking down the street. It is instinctive and definitely part of who Ashley is.

Ms. GRAHAM: Thank you.

KEYES: I am somehow not surprised by that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: But, Gary, I wonder, do you have trouble, A, recruiting women for the plus-size business and teaching them how to do what Ashley apparently walked in the room having?

Mr. DAKIN: No. It's - you know what? I always say this, everybody can be a pretty person, only God can make a model. Like, you can't make just any beautiful girl a model. There has to be something that's there. And having trouble recruiting? Not at all. I mean, I turn tens of thousands of people away a year.

And the support from the straight-size community has been so much that, when a girl is over there and she's having trouble maintaining her weight or struggling trying to keep it off, they bring her over to me now. So I'm - we're recruiting basically from the straight-size girls of girls that can't keep it off.

KEYES: Wait, in other words they can eat now and then come work for you.

Mr. DAKIN: Yeah, yeah.

Ms. GRAHAM: Exactly.

Mr. DAKIN: You know, it's great because you have two sides of the community. Like, it's Ashley who's always been comfortable in her skin and always been, you know, a size 12 as an adult, 12 or higher. And then you have the girls like Crystal who did struggle to try to keep it off. And now we have those girls coming over, and Inga, Eric's(ph) daughter and all these stars of the industry. So we're having incredible finds from both sides of the aisle.

KEYES: Gary, briefly, do the plus-size models make as much money?

Mr. DAKIN: They're definitely starting to. We're seeing a huge increase. It used to...

KEYES: What kind of money are we talking here?

Mr. DAKIN: Up to 20,000 a day for advertising.

KEYES: Wow.

Mr. DAKIN: Yeah, it's a nice world.

KEYES: Sounds like I need a new job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Really briefly, Ashley, what advice would you have for other women who would like to get into this field?

Ms. GRAHAM: Just keep pushing through, don't let anybody tell you that you can't do whatever you want to do, but also take criticism with a grain of salt as well because you're going to hear it for the rest of your life if you're in this industry. But also just stay positive because you're in this for a reason and you're going to change somebody's life just by being you.

KEYES: And, Gary, really briefly, if a woman is coming to see you, to work for you, what should she do, what should she wear?

Mr. DAKIN: Jeans and a T-shirt, hair pulled back, no makeup and come in owning it. You have to convince me before I can convince somebody else about you. So it's - if you can't sell yourself to me, it's just not going to happen.

KEYES: Gary Dakin runs the plus size division of Ford Models. And Ashley Graham is one of his most successful models and they were both kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York City. Thanks for speaking with us.

Ms. GRAHAM: Thank you.

Mr. DAKIN: Thank you.

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