Will 2018 Be the Year of Tess Holliday?

Photo: Nick Holliday

When Tess Holliday has something to say, she lets the world know. The Mississippi-bred model has made headlines for speaking up regularly about issues related to feminism, body acceptance, and motherhood. In doing so Holliday has become one of modeling’s most outspoken women. Whether she’s voicing solidarity with the #MeToo movement on Twitter or using her Instagram to decry fat-shaming, Holliday has been a vocal advocate for the issues she considers vital. Her latest crusade—about the lack of different body types on the runway—hits close to home. “One thing I think constantly is if brands like Gucci can make plus-size menswear, then why can’t we see it for women?” Holliday asked during a visit to the Vogue offices. “I want to break into high fashion because you have plus-size celebrities, you have the consumers, and yet we’re not seeing a reflection of [that] reality. Even broaching the subject can make people [get] up in arms.”

The role of trailblazer suits Holliday. At just 5-foot-3 and a size 22, she is an anomaly within the world of modeling. Petite and soft-spoken in person, she styles her hair in Rita Hayworth waves. Tattoos reveal her pop-culture idols: Dolly Parton is etched onto her forearm, Hello Kitty peeks out from her right calf. In person, Holliday comes across as sweet yet determined—a quality that has served her well over the years. Her evolution from unknown to star wouldn’t have happened if she had accepted the conventional advice. Inspired to give the business a try at the age of 15 after seeing images of plus-size supermodel Emme, Holliday was initially turned away by scouts at a casting call in Atlanta who informed her that a career would be all but impossible. “I got rejected because of my height and my weight,” she said. But that “just made me push harder.”

Giving modeling a second try at the age of 24 after a move to Los Angeles, Holliday found her footing once she tapped into the power of social media. Garnering national attention after creating the viral hashtag #effyourbeautystandards back in 2013, she encouraged women of all sizes to reject regressive ideals, a move that pushed her modeling career into the spotlight. After signing with Milk Model Management, home to crossover stars like Sabina Karlsson and Robyn Lawley, she started getting the kind of recognition few models of any kind receive. With 1.5 million followers on Instagram, covers of mainstream publications like People, and work for mall mainstays like H&M, Holliday’s image is possibly more familiar to some consumers than that of the average runway star.

2017 was a banner year for Holliday. She released a best-selling memoir, The Not So Subtle Art of Being A Fat Girl; launched a sold-out collection with retailer Eloquii; and landed a beauty contract. Not content to rest on her laurels, Holliday has high hopes for this year. “I feel like now is the time to shake things up. I’d like to be the person who changes things, or at least open doors for others.”

Photo: Nick Holliday

Though recent years have seen an uptick in the prominence of models that are larger than sample size, few jobs exist for those who do fit into a certain mold—even in categories where size should not be a concern. “It was interesting for me to step into beauty,” says Holliday who shot her first campaign with hair-care label Sebastian late last year. “For so long advertising hasn’t been inclusive when it comes to plus sizes which is crazy to me. Hair and makeup are things used by everyone—it doesn’t make any sense.” The lack of available bookings carries over into fashion week, where in spite of the strides made by women like Ashley Graham and Candice Huffine, opportunities are still rare. “It’s great to see size 14’s on the runway and it’s a big change, but the majority of women in the U.S. are a 16—where is the representation for them?” says Holliday, who for many years considered runway work a pipe dream. “For a long time I kind of said that it was not something I wanted to do. I understand that I’m short, big, and tattooed, but after doing a couple of runway shows [last] year, my outlook changed—it was exhilarating.”

One milestone was her debut during London Fashion Week at plus-size label Simply Be’s collection, which has whet her appetite for working with serious designers. “I want to do more high fashion [in general], to be in magazines wearing luxury designers,” says Holliday. “It’s time to see someone of my size represented and I’ve done everything else!”

With NYFW on the horizon, her presence could provide New York’s runways with some much-needed size diversity, but for Holliday the conversation only moves forward when designers who feature non-sample size models within their shows also expand their size range for consumers. “Why would I want to walk the runway for a brand to be their token plus-size girl when they’re not even making my size?” says Holliday. “When these big brands that have so much influence start making plus sizes, then 100 percent call me because then it shows that they care and that they’re actually invested.”

Such confidence comes from Holliday’s fan base. She is routinely inundated by letters, tweets, and DMs. After the publication of her book, she received thousands of messages from women sharing their own frustrations with body image and fashion. “I had one woman write me and say that reading the book made her realize that her partner was abusive and she left because she wanted better for her life,” she said. “Messages like that meant a lot to me.” As she now prepares to take her story to television with an as-yet-untitled reality show set to debut later this year, Holliday hopes that she can continue to make an impact. “I went in wanting to show who I am in my life and not just the part that people think is glamorous,” she says. “I can’t talk much about it yet, but I’m hoping that it will influence people in a positive way.”

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