Tess Holliday is one of MiLK Model Management’s newest stars and at size 22, she’s proof that the industry is beginning to realize beauty comes in all shape and sizes. Just this week, she gave her 675,000-plus Instagram followers a glimpse of her latest shoot with U.K.–based photographer Catherine Harbour and the outcome was stunning. Below, the model talks about her experience shooting with Harbour, her journey to build confidence, and the designers she hopes to work with.
Women in the World: Was becoming a model one of your goals from an early age?
Tess Holliday: At a young age I was inspired by a photograph of Emme, who is considered one of the first plus models, so it was always something I had dreamed of, but never thought was truly possible. My mom supported me in whatever I dreamed of being, so when I heard a recruitment ad on the radio that a group in Atlanta was auditioning for plus-size models, she paid for me to take some photos. The results were pretty terrible, so the dream was shelved for a while, but a part of me never stopped believing I could do it.
WITW: What were some of your earlier experiences like, attending casting calls, shoots, etc.?
TH: I was consistently told that I was too fat and too short, which is kind of funny in hindsight because I’m obviously still the same height and I’m actually bigger now. My mother has had a hard life and is a strong and stubborn woman, and I guess that tenacity rubbed off on me because I just refused to take no for an answer. When the doors didn’t open for me I had to make my own opportunities. My first break came randomly from being found through an online community called model mayhem, but from there I have been working steadily over the last five years to develop my skills and make the most of every experience I have been offered, big or small. It might seem like an overnight success story but I have sacrificed time, money and lots of sweat and tears to get to where I am.
WITW: Tell us a little a little bit about how you signed with your agency, MiLK Model Management. How has the experience been?
TH: By engaging with my online community and being honest and open with them, I had built a strong social media following as my career has progressed. Anna Shillinglaw of MiLK agency had been looking for someone larger than the models they had on their books and once my social media presence brought me to her attention, she knew that I was the woman to break the plus modeling mold. It’s been a whirlwind since then, with international media finally taking notice of larger models.
WITW: How have your parents reacted to your success and career choice?
TH: My mother has been my biggest champion. She told me I could do it even when my chances of a modeling career seemed hopeless. She is so proud of me now. I have shared two of my greatest moments with my mom; when we stood on Sunset Boulevard and looked at the giant billboard of me for my first big job, and when I received the email from MiLK Management offering me a modeling contract.
WITW: Tell us a little bit about your recent shoot with photographer, Catherine Harbour. How was this different for you?
TH: The whole team was great, it really felt like a family. Catherine is really warm and funny and she created a very comfortable environment. It was exactly what I needed having been on my feet for eight hours previously at a demanding clothing shoot. I arrived simply in leggings, shapewear, and a crop top, and the stylist said let’s lose the leggings and just go with what you have on. I was hesitant, but trusted Catherine’s team and her guiding hand and it turned out she was right. The photo she took of me in those clothes went viral. My fiancé, Nick, had to help to keep my energy up, feeding me fruit between shots and making me laugh—one of the best photos captures that moment beautifully. Despite being a grueling day it was a fantastic shoot and I would be eager to work with her again.
WITW: How do you feel about the “plus-size” label that is attached to many women within the modeling industry?
TH: There is no negative connotation or hate attached to the term plus-size, so I don’t see any reason to waste time on debating its use. It might be fine for smaller plus models to want to not feel pigeon holed in that way, but it’s just a description that is helpful in many ways for women to see someone like themselves or to find the right clothing section. What are girls who look like me going to find if they just google “model”? I think it’s more important to focus on talking about greater diversity in the fashion and beauty industry. We need better representation for models of all sizes, colors and races. We need to see gay and trans models represented, disabled bodies represented.
WITW: What was the catalyst for promoting the hashtag #effyourbeautystandards?
TH: I was fed up with many of the negative comments I was getting regarding my size, my photos, my clothing and my life. I was tired of women like me being told what not to wear. No horizontal stripes, no loud prints. So I started #effyourbeautystandards as a response. It just took off like wildfire. I realized it was much bigger than just supporting others like me, that it was a problem that women faced universally, no matter how they looked. And it became the foundation for my platform to promote body positivity. Those who stand with me know, like I do, that there is no one way to be a woman, or to be beautiful. We all deserve a place.
WITW: What types of a support do you get from your fans on Twitter and Instagram?
TH: Unbelievable support. They send me such honest and heartfelt messages—telling me very personal stories of how my message of loving yourself no matter your size or shape has changed their lives. They tell me how much I inspire them. But truth be told, they inspire me just as much. They give me courage and confidence.
WITW: What sets you apart from other models in the industry and your category?
TH: Apart from my obvious physical differences from other working models I think what sets me apart is that I am willing to go head on to challenge the industry, and society, about their perceptions of beauty, and their limitations on what different people should wear. Signing with MiLK Management has given me even more of a platform. I push myself so much harder now and am willing to step even further out of my comfort zone.
WITW: Have you always been confident?
TH: Confidence is a journey – not a destination, so I am still on the journey. But of course, I wasn’t confident when I was growing up. I was always a large and curvy girl for my age and my mom was in a wheelchair. I was bullied about both—to the point that my mom started home-schooling me. Building my confidence has been a long slow journey. I’ve learned you have to work the parts of you that you love, and work on loving the parts of you that you don’t.
The Internet and social media also have played a role. My social media reach is several million people and most of them are tremendously supportive and loving. But social media can be a curse as well as a blessing. The criticism that I sometimes receive is hard to stomach. I try to remember that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
WITW: Let’s talk about the future. Do you have a dream list of who you’d like to model for?
TH: I’d like to model for Alexander McQueen, Vivienne Westwood, Dolce & Gabbana … all of the fashion houses I idolized growing up. Of course, I would love to make the cover of Vogue or Cosmopolitan, or one of the many art fashion magazines like ID. I think the fashion world might not be ready for that, but we’re slowly getting our message across. Having said that I’ll never stop supporting small independent designers. I know that they have supported me starting out and that they are the true heart of plus-size fashion.
WITW: Looking forward to the success ahead, what’s one piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
TH: Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts.