The size 26, tattooed model and mother who is telling the fashion industry to 'eff your beauty standards'
"When I tell people I’m a model, they look at me like I’ve said I’ve murdered someone."
Tess Holliday is sitting in a studio in midtown Manhattan, eating a lunch of beef and lettuce leaves, sipping a Diet Coke, talking about the reaction she gets when she reveals to strangers what she does for a living – the few remaining strangers who don’t recognise her on the street, that is.
Holliday has cheekbones you could cut cheese on, alabaster skin so creamy you almost want to butter it on toast, and a face that recalls Rita Hayworth.
She is, in the words of the photographer who has just shot her stark naked, "completely beautiful". Beautiful, and big.
Holliday is a fulsome size 26, a modern-day Rubens painting come to life and tattooed for full 21st-century effect (look carefully and you will spot, amid the ink that covers much of her body, a picture of Miss Piggy, who Holliday calls her idol).
"Their jaw will drop and they will stare blankly at me,’ she says, trying not to smile. "I can see the wheels turning, that they’re trying to work out if they’ve heard me correctly."
They have. Because right now, Tess Holliday is one of the biggest models on the planet – both literally and metaphorically.
Eff your beauty standards
Last year Holliday became the first woman over a size 20 to be signed to a major modelling agency. Soon after, she graced the cover of People magazine.
"The world’s first [US] size 22 supermodel!’ screamed the front page, her image dwarfing those of Charlize Theron and Salma Hayek, who had been relegated in importance to tiny puffs.
Her Instagram followers tipped the one million mark, more devotees to add to the legions of people who had responded to her #effyourbeautystandards campaign, which first launched her into the spotlight when she created the hashtag in 2012 as a way to show the middle finger to everyone who says you can’t be beautiful if you happen to be over a size 10.
"I don’t know about you, but frankly I am tired of getting told what curvy/fat/plus size girls are “allowed” to wear’ she wrote in that first post.
"For everyone that says we can’t wear a bikini, show our tummies, wear a pencil/form fitting skirt, wear sleeveless tops… YOU can!
I want YOU to join me and wear daring fashions & stop hiding your body because society tells you to. Break out those horizontal stripes & hashtag #effyourbeautystandards.
"We will take back our right to be a total babe regardless of our size… big OR small we all deserve to feel beautiful.’
Within days, the hashtag had been used in hundreds of posts; to date it has appeared in well over a million Instagram pictures. Holliday is not just at the forefront of the plus-size movement – with her brave posts on social media, she has in many ways created it.
Her photographs, which feature her in a selection of curve-clinging outfits that could have come straight from the 1950s, paint her as a sort of Vargas Girl for the ‘body positive’ movement, which aims to make people feel good at any weight.
She has since appeared in an H&M campaign alongside Iggy Pop, a shoot for Benefit Cosmetics, and created a clothing line with the Canadian brand Penningtons.
And this year she was named as one of the ‘30 most influential people on the internet’ by Time magazine, alongside Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian and JK Rowling.
Not bad for a girl from Mississippi who had moved 40 times before the age of 10, whose mother had been shot in the head and paralysed by her stepfather, and who at one point owned only three suitcases, $700 and a travel cot for her 18-month-old son.
Plus-size models in the industry
Holliday is not a gimmick. She is not just a fad, or a token offering by the fashion world to the sanctimonious gods of social media to make sure they escape criticism for only ever using size-zero models on the catwalk.
Nebraska-born Ashley Graham, a UK size 18, appeared in February on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 2015 Candice Huffine became the first plus-size model to feature in the Pirelli calendar.
Whitney Thompson, a UK size 16, won America’s Next Top Model in 2008 and has gone on to work for Saks Fifth Avenue, Converse and Forever 21.
Then there is Robyn Lawley, who was the first plus-size model to be shot for Vogue in her native Australia. In the States, where the plus-size market is worth $19.9 billion, designers including DKNY, Calvin Klein and Michael Kors all have plus-size ranges.
Here in the UK, where the market makes up 12.4 per cent of all clothing sales, it is worth an estimated £5.4 billion. Like it or not, people are getting bigger and bigger, and fashion is having to move with them.
‘Almost every week you hear of a new plus-size brand,’ says Rivkie Baum, the editor of Slink magazine, a style publication for curvy women.
"When I first founded the magazine five years ago, there was no awareness that plus-size people could wear fashion.
"The lines that existed were always several seasons behind. “Straight” fashion would do gold and two seasons later it would turn up in plus size.
"So, often what would happen was that labels would make a separate collection for bigger women that didn’t feel like it was part of the same brand, but that’s changing too. This year River Island has extended its sizes to a 24.’
Bigger sizes on the high street
Baum, who has worked in ‘straight’ fashion, finds plus-size far more interesting. ‘I always say it is fashion that thinks. People like Tess, they defy expectations.
"You do not expect a fat woman to be so successful, but there she is on Instagram, with her career and her boyfriend.’ Baum thinks that the growth of the plus-size market is largely down to social media.
"I think there was a genuine fear from fashion brands that plus-size clothing would never work, because there’s this notion that plus-size people don’t want to accept that they are plus size, and that they are just waiting for that light-bulb moment where they fit into straight sizes.
"But women are now realising that life doesn’t begin at size 10. They want to wear nice clothes. Social media has helped that. Women know they don’t have to hide in their home wearing a tunic. They see women on Instagram and their confidence shows.’
Vanessa Spence, the design director at Asos, says its Curve range has expanded in part thanks to women like Holliday. "We have seen a demand for trend-led product off the back of the great ambassadors for curvy girls that are now out there on Instagram showing our customer they can be confident and try new things."
Asos now stocks 20 plus-size brands, including its own. Anna Shillinglaw is a former plus-size model who set up Milk Management, the first major agency in the UK to have a ‘curve’ division (both IMG and Models One now have plus-size girls on their books, while IMG has just created a ‘brawn’ section for larger men, with Zach Miko, the proud owner of a 42in waist, recently announced as its first signing).
Finding body confidence
Shillinglaw is the woman who signed Holliday to Milk, recognising that the 30-year-old had something special. ‘She’s proud of who she is. She doesn’t give a shit. Even people who aren’t plus size can respect that.
"She’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are a bunch of people out there who are very large and feel they can’t leave the house.
"They want to hide away. Tess gives them the confidence to get out there, and that is a very good thing. She shows that we are all different and that’s OK.’
Issue of feminism
There are now plus-size fashion weeks in London, Paris, New York, Hamburg and Montreal. Can Shillinglaw ever foresee a time when plus-size and straight-size models walk runways together regularly? ‘Someone’s going to do the catwalk thing soon,’ she says. ‘And before long, it will be completely normal.’
Fat is a feminist issue. It’s hardly surprising, then, that the body-positive movement has been met in some quarters with a negative reaction.
Holliday has been accused of promoting obesity and being an advocate for unhealthy living. Steve Miller, a high-profile ‘life coach’, called for a campaign featuring Holliday by the British plus-size clothing brand Simply Be to be banned because it was ‘irresponsible’.
Katie Hopkins wrote that women like Holliday were "not beach body ready, but body bag ready". Holliday allows this criticism to roll off her like water off a duck’s back. She’s been through worse, after all.
Becoming Tess Holliday
Born in 1985 as Ryann Hoven (she changed her name to Tess Typhoon when she started modelling, then Tess Munster because she liked the television show The Munsters; she now uses the surname of her fiancé, an Australian artist called Nick with whom she lives in LA), her parents divorced when she was young.
When she was 10, her mother was left paralysed after being shot by her then boyfriend (Holliday now supports her mother financially). The young Ryann Hoven turned to food and was bullied mercilessly at school – it is hardly shocking that she went on to try and reinvent herself.
At 19 she got pregnant by a man she no longer speaks to. She moved to Seattle with her son and, with barely a bean to her name, started working as a make-up artist and stylist, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of modelling – one scoffed at by most, but encouraged by her mother and friends who recognised that Holliday was both beautiful and photogenic.
She entered a model search, and was chosen as the face of a documentary series called Heavy. Her canny use of social media made her properly famous, and now she is trying to get used to life in the spotlight – the way people pick her images apart; the fact that she has become the spokeswoman for an entire section of society.
Health, weight and pregnancy
Holliday is heavily pregnant when we meet, and though she has taken most of the negativity about her appearance with good faith up to now, criticism about having a baby at her size clearly hurts. ‘It’s kind of frustrating,’ she says in a tone that suggests it is more than kind of.
‘I’ve been asked a lot lately if I had a hard time getting pregnant. I’ve been asked how I conceived. In the same way everyone else does!’
She works out with a trainer but doesn’t think she should have to justify her weight to anybody – that, she says, completely goes against the body-positive movement.
‘Just because we’re plus size, doesn’t mean we have to prove that we’re healthy, just as someone who is smaller than us or average size doesn’t have to prove they are healthy.
'We should be able to exist in our bodies. I am technically healthy but my body is no more valid than someone’s who isn’t.
I feel like we are held to a different standard because we’re living in bigger bodies. People say we drain the economy, but I pay for my own health care, and even if I didn’t I pay taxes just like everybody else.’
She says that people still look at her ‘like the bearded woman in the circus’. But Tess Holliday’s world – and the plus-size market – only looks like it is going to get bigger.
She has just done a shoot with David LaChapelle, and there are even rumours that Victoria’s Secret is going to be using plus-size models in its next show (though Holliday says she would never work for a brand that doesn’t properly cater for women of her size).
‘What I want to say to you is that when people told me I couldn’t model, I would always think, I’ve literally had some of the shittiest things happen to me and survived them, so me being a model is not the most ridiculous thing that I have had happen to me. I’ve never taken no for an answer.’
What advice will she give to her children, to make sure they have the self-esteem she lacked as a kid? ‘I will tell them that we’re all different. We can love who we want and be who we want, look how we want, dress how we want. And it’s all OK.
'Nobody can judge you or make you feel bad for your choices. We should all be celebrated.’