Plus-model Tess Holliday navigates life, work in the mainstream
New York — – With accolades for her People magazine cover and the upcoming launch of her first clothing line, things are next level for Tess Holliday.
The plus-size model and social media phenom who regularly shakes off haters has been reveling in the mainstream since May, when she donned a designer friend’s black lace bodysuit to pose for People’s 2015 body issue.
“It’s been crazy,” the 30-year-old Holliday said after a recent panel chat on fat acceptance hosted by Refinery29.com. “My audience changed so much because it’s a universal magazine. Everyone of all ages and backgrounds reads it and all of a sudden I was in every grocery store.”
Behind the scenes, she found herself in flux, shedding unsupportive loved ones and making adjustments at home in Los Angeles. Holliday, whose real name is Ryann Maegen Hoven, moved in her disabled mother and her Australian fiance. Meantime, her 10-year-old son is adjusting to mom’s higher profile as well.
“When we’re out in public, people stop me. He rolls his eyes,” Holliday said. “He gets it, but it’s still really weird for him. When he tells his friends, ‘My mom’s a model,’ they kind of pick on him a little.”
Why? Because at 5-foot-5 and size 22, Holliday doesn’t fit the ultra-thin mold. Fat and proud, covered in colorful tattoos — each with its own story of love and empowerment — that’s just fine with her.
“I feel like I’m learning who I am again because of the new media attention,” Holliday said. “To people who had never heard the words ‘body positive,’ or who had never shopped at a plus-size clothing store and weren’t plus-size themselves, it’s been an adjustment for them, too.”
She’s learned she can’t educate all, including those who insist that her size compromises her health. And there are the usual trolls she’s been dealing with for years on Instagram and elsewhere online, including Tumblr, the place where she grew her own hashtag rallying cry that lives on today: EffYourBeautyStandards.
As the first model of her size and height to be signed by a prominent agency, Milk Management in London, Holliday was thrust further into the role of body positive activist, this after several years of modeling to her credit. The burgeoning body positive movement has the usual growing pains and disagreements from within and without, including whether use of the word ‘fat’ is OK.
As far as Holliday is concerned, people should use the word or not use the word. Acceptance means acceptance — at any size.
Among other adjustments for Holliday has come a new approach to handling haters.
“Before I would have just gone after somebody if they said something and attacked me,” she said. “I’m not going to change their minds by one comment so why even bother? Why waste my energy. It’s definitely been a learning curve. My fiance’s had to snatch the phone out of my hand multiple times. He’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ He knows. I get this look on my face and he’s, like, ‘Are you commenting back to people?’ ”
She fights back in other ways.
“When I’m having a bad day, that’s when I usually take naked photos and post them online, which hasn’t happened often because my mom moved in with us and she doesn’t really appreciate that, that much. I don’t know why,” Holliday laughed, eyes sparkling under a long main of auburn red hair.
But it HAS happened and Holliday is unapologetic. A no-clothes-at-all booty shot with a graphic bubble reading “oops” covering one exposed nipple had her showing off all her assets, including some of the many arm tattoos portraying women she admires. There’s Divine, Dolly Parton, Miss Piggy and Mae West, “all strong outspoken women like myself.”
Holliday said the nude pic was her most popular photo on Instagram, beating out her People cover, her H&M modeling campaign and news of her signing with Milk.
“Seems like the booty wins,” she joked in the comments, using her homegrown hashtag.
Life wasn’t always easy for Holliday. As a child, she moved nearly 50 times before fifth grade at the behest of her father. Her parents divorced and she hasn’t spoken to her dad in three years. She was bullied relentlessly as a kid because of her size and other issues, finally dropping out on the first day of 11th grade after receiving death threats.
Holliday earned her GED and continued to pursue her dreams of modeling while working as a bank teller in Laurel, Mississippi, where she moved with her mom after her mom was shot twice in the head by a boyfriend and was left partially paralyzed.
“I was bullied from fifth grade on,” she said. “They started making fun of me because my mom was in a wheelchair, then they started making fun of me because I was poor and then it evolved to my size.”
The Internet beckoned and she started posting pictures of herself, building a social media following over the last six or so years that led to modeling work and, ultimately, her breakthrough.
One thing she hadn’t anticipated was the intense scrutiny of her health.
“It was so frustrating because I felt like I had worked so hard to get to this point and then people were taking away what I did and making it about my health and my size. And they still do,” she said. “I feel like it’s important to talk about my health, which is fine, and my size because there are young girls who see someone like me and can validate their own existence.”
What’s in store for Holliday? There’s her clothing line that launches in March, though she was tightlipped ahead of the formal announcement about where it will sell. Her goal, she offered, was to provide plus-size women clothes they could live in at a reasonable price without being beholden to shapewear.
“Everything is under $100 and it starts at $30,” Holliday said. “It’s mostly casual. I just know it’s what I wanted to wear and saw lacking in the industry. All I want is to feel good and really own my body and that’s what I tried to create.”
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