Model and activist Ashley Graham and model Paloma Elsiser are revolutionizing fashion’s beauty standards with their timeless vitality, brilliant wit, and self-acceptance. Finally, the fashion sector offers options that take into account different sizes and body shapes.
I first laid eyes on American model Ashley Graham three years ago inside a luxury salon on Place Vendome in Paris, where the City of Light was one of the stops for the charity Cash and Rocket during its European tour, and during the day Graham was one of eighty women behind the wheel. A red Maserati, and on that evening she dazzled in her best appearance, and it was difficult not to draw attention. Like all the other models who were present in that hall, she was of a slender figure that reached more than one hundred and eighty centimeters with high-heeled stiletto shoes, like a tall statue. And, unlike the rest of the models out there, she was a US size 14. Compared to the straight-bodied models, her stature had an almost dizzying effect, but if she was credited with her hourglass figure, the aura around her seemed to draw everyone to her in a sweeping way. Watching her across the room was like watching the well-known Egyptian dancer Tahia Carioca charm a crowd of men with a single jolt of her delicate waist, but in Graham’s case it was the women who swarmed around her like bees around their queen in the hive, and Graham in return entertained them with her sober talk and warm, choppy laughter.
In the three years that followed, Graham had a huge hit, becoming the first chunky model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, signing a contract with Revlon along with former Vogue Arabia cover stars Iman Hammam and performing his fathers, as well as publishing her autobiography. Under the title: “New Model: What Confidence, Beauty and Strength Really Look Like,” she also produced a line of swimwear and lingerie, and gave an inspiring speech on the TEDx platform in which she revealed her motto in life, which is: “I’m Bold, I’m Brilliant. I’m pretty. Beauty transcends dimensions. When you search for her last words, which have since become a popular hashtag on social media, you’ll find over 300,000 unedited photos of women—in most of them bikinis—and they look like Peter’s muses. Paul Robbins and British artist Jenny Savile, with chubby bodies they gleefully flaunt, come with the caption: “Confidence will make you happier than any diet can give you,” and “Summer will accept whatever body I give it.” It’s all thanks to Ashley Graham, the 10th highest-paid model in the world, known for her cellulite emblems and more, who is revolutionizing beauty standards in the fashion world and is the daughter of the US state of Nebraska.
“My mother told me that when I walked into a room, I greeted everyone in it—even when I was three,” recalls Graham, now thirty, playing with her luscious burgundy locks in an almost careless, seductive manner. “I wanted to give people more than just a fleeting feeling, and it made them feel good about themselves. And I think that’s what I’m doing today; To make women feel that they are worthy, that they are beautiful, that they can feel happy with who they are, and that they are satisfied with themselves. I think it was meant for me, since I was a little girl.”
It is worth noting that Graham began her modeling career at the age of twelve, when she was in a mall with her father when a man approached her and asked her if she wanted to become a model, and she was not at that time in a typical size, and her parents paid Two thousand dollars to enroll her in a school that specializes in teaching modeling. “They did it because they wanted me to find a passion for something, and for sure, modeling became a lifestyle that turned into a profession,” she says, adding, “I would do it again without a doubt if I went back to the age of 12. My childhood was a normal childhood, during which I was bullied, and I went to prom.” At the age of 17, Graham left the American Midwest for New York City, determined to do “whatever it took” to succeed in the fashion industry. “I was a party girl, going out every night, but I could still reach Work at seven in the morning and deal with enthusiasm and vitality with the crew. I was the first to arrive on the set and the last to leave. It made everyone realize that I wanted to be there and that I wanted to work hard. I strove with all my might for perfection—even though I don’t think it exists.”
On a seemingly sweltering spring morning outside New York City, Graham has another early work appointment. Today, she’s posing for the July-August Vogue Arabia cover shoot with fellow model Paloma Elsiser, photographed by Miguel Rivergo. Arriving in advance, Elsiser wears a metallic Dima Ayyad sheath dress. At 26, Elliser has been in the industry for five years and has started taking part in magazine covers and catwalks during New York Fashion Week. Her career began when she was chosen to participate in makeup artist Pat McGrath’s first-line campaign, Gold 001. You have to go.” Her brown eyes widen as she remembers this, adding, “I wasn’t ready to take part in that shoot, but all she wanted was to capture what I was like. Imagine, this legend asks me how to apply my liquid eyeliner.” With a heart-shaped face that closely resembles that of singer Shadi Addo, who was born to an African-American mother and a Swiss-Chilean father, the model describes her “modern bohemian” upbringing in which intellectual values were so evident as she visited studios. The musician frequently works with her father the musician, attends festivals, and immerses herself in the worlds of the artist Bjork, Kate Bush, and Christina Aguilera, and about the artists who influenced them, she says: “Original artists did not try to identify with the ancient style that was placed before them.” Long before that, Elsiser recalls that she began to become aware of the change in her body when she was a young student in elementary school.
“The feelings I feel about my body today are not that different from what I felt in first grade,” Elsisser explains. “All that has changed is the way I control these feelings.” Having attended affluent elementary schools for whites, she quickly realized that she was unique—on so many levels. “My hair, the color of my skin, my home life… but my body is not just my outward appearance, it is my substance,” she says. As questions about her identity piled up, her parents had conversations with her about pride and diversity. “Inside, I felt lost,” she recalls. She struggled to find alternatives. “I don’t feel well, so I’ll be the funny, or smart, student. If none of the clothes fit me, well I’ll be the resourceful pupil.” While she felt “a great disdain for what she was,” her parents showered her with praise and tried to cheer her up. “They told me I was beautiful, but also smart and kind, and special in ways separate from what I looked like. And now, when I see little girls, I don’t say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful little girl’, but, ‘You look so nice to your brother’, or: ‘You look so smart,’ because I realize how positive those words have affected me.”
Graham agrees that words can change someone’s life: “Confidence comes from within, it is a journey in itself. It’s something you have to want and you have to fight for”… She recalls the day she collapsed in front of her mother, adding: “I didn’t take care of myself, and I had gained a lot of weight, and the agents were telling me I wasn’t going to succeed because I was getting too big, by then. My mom said, ‘You’re not going back to Nebraska, because your body is going to change someone’s life.’ She asked me to turn the way I talk to the mirrored woman in front of me into words of motivation, and I made up my own: ‘I’m bold, I’m witty. I’m pretty. I am worthy of everything. I love you”. You do not immediately believe those words, but as they are repeated, the woman in the mirror becomes a radiant light that can empower others.”
Today, Graham encourages her seven million followers on social media, and as an active person, besides posting behind the scenes photos of her daily fashion activities, she also posts videos of her grueling workouts such as hiking, boxing, and weightlifting. Under the hashtag #curvyfitclub [ie: hoarder fitness club]. And if the two girls who know that she is a role model for them in particular are her younger sisters, she says, “Now I look at all my admirers as if they were my sisters, and I think: Is this something I would say to my sister that I would like to say? Being kind to people helped me because the fashion industry wasn’t always that nice. I have literally heard it and been in all kinds of situations, but when I arrive with enthusiasm and vitality in me, people react to me in the same way.”
Ellisser agrees that the sector has long been devoid of empathy. “The old saying, ‘This is the fashion, my dear,’ doesn’t hold anymore. It doesn’t have to hurt you, or make you, the reader, or the model feel bad,” she says. “At school I was always an eccentric student, but this is a whole industry of eccentrics,” she says. A huge mix of so-called mutants.” However, she sees that things are changing, and she acknowledges that girls around the world can find opportunities through the world of fashion and style. “And you don’t have to be someone’s daughter,” she says, with an expressionless look.