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Big is beautiful with the plus-size supermodel

The hip New York hotel bar where I am supposed to be meeting Crystal Renn is full. The skinny young host assures me there is not a table to be had for love nor money. When I mention I'm going to be interviewing the world's most successful plus-size model, he manages to squeeze us in.

Crystal Renn has been in Vogue; she has been in catwalk shows and ad campaigns; she has been photographed by Steven Meisel, Craig McDean and Patrick Demarchelier. She is the commercial face of chains Mango and Evans. She has written a book. In short, she has done everything that aspiring Naomis, Kates and Agynesses dream of, but she has done it (shock! horror!) as a size 16. In an industry where most mainstream models are no bigger than a size eight and anyone bigger than that is lucky to get catalogue work, this is unheard of.

Renn (23) isn't exactly a new face. She's been modelling for nearly 10 years, but she is the new face of something. Some call it a movement or a revolution, others a long-overdue adjustment, but she's having what fashion types like to call a "moment".

"I don't know if I'm the first," she replies modestly, when I suggest she has blazed a trail out of the plus-size commercial hinterland and into the most prestigious editorial pages of magazines. "I wasn't like 'I'll be the first', because I wasn't really thinking about anything except the fact that I would do editorial. My size was irrelevant. Throw size away. I am capable of the things that were promised to me when I was 14."


This was the age at which Renn was discovered at a Mississippi charm school by an agency talent scout from New York. He told her she could be the next Gisele Bundchen -- if she slimmed her hip measurement down to 34 inches. Renn made up her mind to do so -- "I've always been extremely driven" -- and lost the requisite 9in. It meant dropping nearly 5st, or 42pc of her entire body weight.

"I thought, 'I'll eat healthy and I'll just be a size zero like models," she remembers. "I dropped about 35lb in three months and I realised it was not going to be so easy. I had some weight to go. So that's when things took a more extreme turn. That's when the calories came down and the exercise went up and the absolute obsession took hold."

Renn's memoir, Hungry: A Young Model's Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves, which was published in September, is a powerful account of what she went through to become a model. "People need to hear this story because it's their story," she says. "Women deal with this all the time, and I think most of them can relate to this story in some way."

Crystal Renn looks like a normal person, albeit a very beautiful one. And she doesn't look like a size 16. She hears this a lot. In her book, she describes the constant trills from editors and stylists who tell her, by way of a compliment, that she doesn't "look fat". "It's simply bizarre," she writes, "that 'normal' is the new overweight."

With her abundant hair, flawless skin and fleshy curves, in her shoots Crystal Renn brings to mind a classical statue or a Rubens, perhaps even J-Lo. In person though, she is almost unobtrusive: tall and striking, yes, but when we first pass on the stairs I have to check twice that it's her.

Renn describes her school-aged self as "the goth girl, the weird freak", but she was in fact a bright and well read teenager, a cheerleader with an interest in Shakespeare and an extra-curricular line in martial arts.

Raised by her grandmother, a cosmetics saleswoman, whom she referred to as 'Mom', Renn lived in Florida until she was 12, when the pair moved to Mississippi -- at Renn's insistence -- to live with her biological mother. 'Lana', as she is referred to in the book, suffered from unspecified drug addictions and mental health problems during Renn's infancy, but later settled with a husband and had two other daughters. Renn is no longer in close contact with her.

But far from being a victim of a dysfunctional childhood, Crystal Renn is a poised, articulate and thoughtful young woman. She gives the impression of deep self-knowledge, which gives her the confidence and drive to focus on what she sees as the important issues. "My passion doesn't go away," she says. "It keeps gaining momentum. I'm fighting for a cause: women hate themselves. That is so sad. There are so many people out there who could change the world, but they're consumed with self-hatred."

Indeed, Renn herself has blossomed since the day she took the decision to become a plus-size model. Her "epiphany", as she calls it, came shortly after she was sent home from a catalogue shoot for being too large. She was a size eight. "I went down to 6st and then luckily -- although at the time I didn't think I was very lucky -- my body rebelled. I would be eating only vegetables and exercising up to eight hours a day, but my body went up to a size six [an Irish 10] and my agency was all over me about it."

Renn was called in to see her agent and spent the weekend before the meeting surviving on chewing gum and working out. She had joined two different gyms so she could spend as much time as possible exercising without raising suspicions, and in the book describes herself hobbling home, "like an elderly woman, holding on to brick walls, lampposts and fire hydrants". To this day, she has a recurring hip complaint, a "grinding noise" as she calls it, caused by spending too long on the treadmill.

At that fateful meeting, Renn was told she was too large and that she needed to lose more weight. "I was done," she writes in her book. "I was dying. I didn't want to die." So she opted for plus-size, a chance to earn a living at a weight that came more naturally; she transferred agencies and spent months recovering, going up to a size 20 before eventually settling at the current 16.

She is more successful now than she ever hoped or managed to be during her anorexic years. "I feel more accepted than ever before," she says. "I was never comfortable in my own skin until I recovered from anorexia and became the weight that I am now. It's about a healthy diet, it's about exercise, it's about moderation most of all."

fast food

In her book, Renn quotes an average day's consumption: breakfast is two eggs with toast, an avocado and orange juice; lunch is salmon and brown rice with vegetables; dinner some duck gnocchi with salad and a creme brulee. "Just because I'm a plus-size model doesn't mean that fast food is my daily diet," she says, countering many leftfield claims that she is an unhealthy role-model for women in an age of rising obesity levels.

Doesn't she ever get sick of talking about food and her body? "Sometimes I'm exhausted by everything," she admits. "I just want to lie down in a padded room. It's more exhausting because I'm so passionate [on the subject]."

You'd expect Crystal Renn to have become disillusioned with fashion. But her book also discusses her career since she recovered from anorexia. Her enthusiasm for modelling and for fashion is undampened.

"I model for women," she asserts. "The clothes, the fantasy, it's for them to feel inspired..I love what I do."

How then does she reconcile this dream job to the one that made her so ill? "The fashion industry didn't chain me to a treadmill," she reasons. "They didn't stuff vegetables down my throat, they weren't there when I was exercising for 16 hours. I do not blame the fashion industry for my eating disorder, it was my decision. The fashion industry actually offered me some of the greatest opportunities of my entire life."

"Women have come so far," she adds. "We've come oh-so-far, but not as far as we could yet go, because our vanity worries take up most of our time mentally and it's holding us back. If we throw away the idea of obsessing about calories, imagine how much your mind is freed up."