Ashley Graham: I want women to feel comfortable in their own skin

She uses her body as a weapon, for good: we speak to the woman reshaping the world of fashion

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01:  Model Ashley Graham is seen at the 'Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between' Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images/ Getty Images)
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Ashley Graham has long treated her body as a weapon – something to be used to break down boundaries, challenge narrow ideals of female beauty and show other women that it's OK to be different.

I watched the world’s most famous plus-size model walk the runway in Lake Como last summer, as part of Dolce & Gabbana’s Alta Moda show – and there was something undeniably powerful about seeing a woman that so strikingly diverges from “the norm” on so illustrious a stage. Graham stands at the vanguard of the body positivity movement, in all her curvy, US size 14-to-16 glory.  

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 10: Ashley Graham walks the runway at the Prabal Gurung Ready to Wear Fall/Winter 2019-2020 fashion show during New York Fashion Week on February 10, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Ashley Graham walks the runway at the Prabal Gurung fall/winter 2019/2020 fashion show. Getty

In person, she is formidable. Her appeal has always stemmed from the fact that she is relatable, engaging and laughs like she means it – a hearty guffaw that has become something of a signature. The first thing she asks when we sit down is where I got my dress. "Mango," I answer in a half whisper, expecting this modelling superpower to be a fashion snob. "Oh, I did a campaign for them," she exclaims excitedly. "Is it this season? I want one."

"I am allowing women to see things that the fashion world has never shown – like cellulite or back fat."

We are sitting in the Marina Rinaldi boutique in The Dubai Mall, where Graham has come to unveil a new capsule collection designed in collaboration with the luxury fashion brand. She is wearing flared white jeans and a space-age silver jacket, both from the new collection, which has a strong focus on denim. “When we started talking about this collaboration, I immediately said: ‘We have to make it young and we have to make it cool.’ So I came in and was able to do my own young, fun twist on it,” she says.

As Graham well knows, finding jeans that fit just right is tricky whatever your size, but nigh on impossible when you have a fuller figure. “Yeah, it sucks,” she says.

The Ashley Graham x Marina Rinaldi spring/summer 2019 collection. Courtesy Marina Rinaldi
The Ashley Graham x Marina Rinaldi spring/summer 2019 collection. Courtesy Marina Rinaldi

Graham was discovered at the Oak View Mall in her home town of Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was 12 years old. Her parents were just happy that, having dabbled in basketball, volleyball, football and art, she had finally found something that she genuinely enjoyed. “And then it turned into a thing and I was making lots of money and I was travelling the world,” Graham recalls.

Those were the initial draws of a modelling career, but the impetus has changed over the years. "Now, it's about making a difference," she says. "It's not about getting my picture taken; it's not about how many followers I have. It's about the conversation I'm having, about the young girls that come up to me crying, or the emails I get where I've changed the mind of a young girl who was anorexic, or an older woman who gained weight and was too embarrassed to wear lingerie in front of her husband."

"Now, it's about making a difference. It's not about getting my picture taken; it's not about how many followers I have. It's about the conversation I'm having."

The watershed moment in Graham's career – the point when she knew she was really on to something – came when she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit issue, long the stronghold of lean, lithe, traditional model types. Graham became the first plus-size woman in the magazine's 52-year-history to grace the cover. Because she often references her Christian upbringing and values (she famously met her husband in a New York church, where she was volunteering), I ask whether she struggles to reconcile those sensual, semi-clad photos of her frolicking in the surf with her faith.

"I think there's a strength in owning who you are," she says. "I'm not going to come to the UAE and tell women to take their clothes off. However, I will say that, for me, being a model and also being a Christian woman, there has always been a balance. Why am I taking off my clothes? Am I doing this just to look sexy? Or am I taking my clothes off with a mission?

“The mission behind it has always been that I want women who look like me to feel comfortable in their own skin. I’m not telling those women to take their clothes off, but I am allowing them to see things that the fashion world has never shown – like cellulite or back fat. Or cellulite on your arms. Yeah, it’s not just on the back of your thighs, you know, it’s on your stomach, too.”

And that, right there, is why the world loves Ashley Graham. That's why she has 8.1 million followers on Instagram. Because she talks about stomach cellulite with mirth and candour; she isn't ashamed of the wobbly bits we all try so hard to hide; and she wears what she wants, when she wants. "Being a curvy girl, you've always been told what you can and can't wear, but I think, now, there are no rules and no limitations," she says. "As long as you are comfortable, that's all that matters. Own it."

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 11:  Ashley Graham walks the runway during the Prabal Gurung fashion show during New York Fashion Week at Gallery I at Spring Studios on February 11, 2018 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage/Getty Images)
Graham has body confidence "pretty much down pat" she says. Getty

Graham has body confidence “pretty much down pat” at this moment in time, but even she has off days. And that’s all part and parcel of being a woman, she maintains. “I try to celebrate my body every day – it’s kind of hard not to when I’m talking about it every day. But sometimes you roll out of bed and you don’t want to wear a body-con dress, because you don’t feel your best. That’s the beauty of being a woman. We all have these celebrations of our bodies and we also all share the same bad days, as well. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like my body or I wish I had a different body; it means that today is just not the best day.”

Over the course of her career, Graham has appeared on the covers of American Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle and Glamour; starred in advertising campaigns for H&M, Bloomingdale's, Calvin Klein and Marina Rinaldi; designed lingerie for Addition Elle and bikinis for Swimsuits For All; authored two books; and is the host of reality TV show American Beauty Star. Tellingly, she references model-turned-mogul Kathy Ireland, and women like Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, who are the epitome of longevity. "These women have really paved the way so that you don't just have to just be a pretty face and take a pretty picture. You can really turn what you have into a business. I'm excited to do that."

epa07394234 Ashley Graham arrives for the 91st annual Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California, USA, 24 February 2019. The Oscars are presented for outstanding individual or collective efforts in 24 categories in filmmaking.  EPA/ETIENNE LAURENT
Ashley Graham at the 91st annual Academy Awards ceremony. EPA

But where are all the other Ashley Grahams? Does it ever feel tokenistic – like the fashion world has embraced her, given itself a big pat on the back and then left it at that? “I think we have to look at tokenism as a good thing in the beginning,” Graham says. “I think there’s a responsibility with tokenism in that, after a couple of seasons or a couple of years of seeing one type of person, you have the responsibility to open the door for other people that look like that.

“And for other body shapes, or religions, or different skin tones or hair textures. I have always said yes to everything because I feel like if I said no, there’s not going to be that seat at the table for the girl who looks like me,” she adds.

Having spent 20 years modelling, Graham has an expansive view of the inner workings of the industry and insists that, while it will take time for it to become truly sustainable, change is definitely afoot. "I think there are a lot of people that wish that things would happen just like that. But I think a smart person, or even a business person, knows that not everything happens overnight," she says. "If you escalate too fast into something, then you are going to fall quickly. And I think what's been so great about the body confidence movement in fashion is that it's been slow and steady. Every year, it's been a new success and a new 'wow' moment. I think that's an indication of what's to come. And what's to come is that we are not going to have this conversation any more."

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 17: Ashley Graham attends Cocktails and a Conversation with the Stars of Lifetime's "American Beauty Star" featuring host and executive producer Ashley Graham, mentor Sir John and judges Christie Brinkley and Leah Wyar on January 17, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images for Lifetime)
Ashley Graham is working on the second season of her podcast. Getty

In the meantime, Graham has launched her own podcast, Pretty Big Deal, to have just those kinds of conversations. She uses it as a platform to discuss a range of issues with high-profile guests, from Met Gala dresses with Kim Kardashian and the Muslim faith with Noor Tagouri, to race relations with actress Gabrielle Union and motherhood with Serena Williams. In one poignant conversation, Graham chats to hijabi model Halima Aden about her experiences growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya.

The line-up for the second season hasn't been confirmed yet, but Graham does have a wish list in mind. "I would love to talk to Michelle Obama." Did she read the former first lady's autobiography, I begin to ask … "Duh, of course. OK, I'll be honest, I didn't read it, I listened to it on audio because I'm a girl on the go." She'd like to get Jennifer Lopez on the show, as well as, curiously, The Rock, because "he's really created this empire and a lot of people don't give him the credit he deserves".

"In season two, we are going to be talking about everything, and more," she says. "I like to think of myself as unapologetic. I don't know if I'm the smartest  person – I've never been book smart – but I know people and I like relationships and I like conversations and I like to learn. And I think, if more people were just willing to learn and have an open conversation and not be so close minded about what they think is right and the right way of living, we could all be growing and learning from each other." And that's just one more reason to love Ashley Graham.