We chat to Tess Holliday about trolls, thigh gaps and Cosmo controversy

As Tess Holliday’s Cosmopolitan cover is up for Cover of the Year at the Professional Publishers’ Association Awards, navabi’s social editor Bethany talks to her about how she went from uploading photos on Model Mayhem to being the covergirl of a glossy magazine.

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Tess’ Cosmo cover, courtesy of Cosmopolitan magazine

Bethany: One of the most-searched questions on the plus size internet is ‘how to become a plus size model’ so I’m going to begin by asking you how you became a plus size model!

Tess: Everybody thinks success happens overnight but it really doesn’t! I’ve wanted to be a model since I was 15, I was always told that I couldn’t because of my size and height, and then as I started to get tattooed I felt like maybe the only space I would be able to be a model in would be the tattoo world, so I started to do tattoo magazines. That was one of the reasons I originally chose to go by the name Tess Munster – it was a cute, kitschy name that kind of fit with that world. That’s the space that I thought I would live in. 

Bethany: And how did you move into the more mainstream plus modelling world?

Tess: In early 2010, about two months after I moved to LA, I had photos taken of myself by my boyfriend at the time and I posted on Model Mayhem, which I wouldn’t recommend because it can be quite seedy on there. There were just various headshots, maybe one of my body, and I got a message one day through the site about a casting, saying to email them on a Gmail address. I thought it was a scam because of the Gmail thing! I emailed back and went to a casting in Hollywood that turned out to be a legit casting. They asked me how I felt about being fat, they wanted me to talk about being sad about it, and even though I didn’t know about the term ‘body positivity’, I knew that I wasn’t able to be sad about that stuff. I found it hard to give them what they were looking for in that casting, so I left thinking, well there’s my chance gone. Someone called me about a week later and said, ‘Hey, I was at the casting, I work for Biggest Loser and are you interested in being on the show?’ I said no, because i don’t really want to pull aeroplanes by myself or exploit fat people, which makes me feel pretty proud of myself because at that point, I didn’t know that it was ok to be fat. So up until then I knew that I was pretty but I was existing in a space where I knew that in order for me to be loved and wanted I would have to change my appearance.

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Tess enjoying our lunch date (her suggested caption was ‘Tess Holliday with normal-sized strawberry’)

Bethany: What did your first job turn out to be?

Tess: So about another week after that I got another call from the same casting agent saying ‘Hey, you’ve got the job’ and I asked what it was – this was the first casting I’d gone to and I still didn’t know what it was for – and it was to be the face of a docu-series called Heavy, which was a weight loss series that followed people over the course of six months, so it was on for one season and they used me for the promotional material even though I wasn’t on the show. I got paid pennies which was non-negotiable but at the time it was quite a lot of money as it was it was a big production. My billboard was on Sunset Boulevard, and my claim to fame at that time was that Jennifer Lopez tweeted a photo of herself from the Chateau Marmont and my billboard was behind her! So I was like ‘I’ve made it!’ and I thought that all of my jobs would be like that from then on, that I would have billboards and I would be shooting in these beautiful studios.

Bethany: And that wasn’t the case?

Tess: I worked at a dental office for three and a half years after that, trying to make it as a model. So that was my first job but things didn’t really take off until I created a fan page on Facebook as a dare from one of my friends and 300 people from my family and friends liked it. And then it grew.

Bethany: So a lot of it was down to social media?

Tess: That was a time when social media wasn’t monetised, where it was all organic. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a little slow at gaining followers but my followers have always been really supportive and there’s a lot of longevity with the people who have supported me through the years. I’m essentially successful through hard work and social media.

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Bethany: Is there one piece of advice you’d give someone who wants to make it as a plus size model?

Tess: I’ve definitely had moments in my career where I didn’t have the support I wanted, especially in the first few, formative years. What I learned through all of that was to trust your gut, to ask questions, to have your own lawyers outside of your agency because it’s never bad to have more non-biased eyes to look over things, and to not be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t feel right or it goes against who you are. Making sure you have the right people on your side that believe in you and what you’re doing, outside of the monetary gain that they can get, is so important.

Bethany: What’s the most fun job you’ve ever done?

Tess: I know this is the answer most people would expect me to say but the most fun I’ve had was shooting my Cosmo cover! Ben Watts shot it, who’s Naomi Watts’ brother, and he had such fun energy. The stylist and tailor that they had on set, Vivian, was plus size, and she really understood my body. I wanted to be sexier and I kept forgetting it’s Cosmo so I could just really… I mean, I could have been naked if I wanted to! The garment that they made for me, the green bodysuit I’m wearing on the cover, I wanted there to be more cleavage and they were like, ‘oh yeah, sure, no problem’. I knew that what we were doing that day was really special. I cried all day, but happy tears. It meant a lot to me. Actually, today is a year ago that I shot the cover!

Bethany: It felt really significant because, well, we’re both fat and you and I both know that seeing your body on a magazine cover is really different to seeing even, say, Ashley Graham’s body on a magazine cover. It felt like such a win for actually fat women, rather than plus size models.

Tess: No, it really was. There was controversy around one image in particular in Cosmo, that I’ve never really talked about. I’m going to post it again because I know people will get mad! But there’s a picture of me in Cosmo where I’m sitting on my throne and my legs are apart and I’m kind of leaned over with the crown on my head. It’s a beautiful image, I hope one day it’s iconic! The people that just hate me for no reason, that say that I always Photoshop my body, they were like ‘oh look, they Photoshopped a thigh gap, how disappointing’ and I’m like… no. I have fat thighs! That was my fat hanging down! And they didn’t Photoshop me at all. I remember I posted that image right after and that was my favourite photo from the shoot and I’ve never shared it on my social properly, I actually deleted it when I did post it, because people were saying I Photoshopped it. I think people weren’t used to seeing what actual fat bodies looked like. If you pay attention you can see, on the front, you can see my bra strap, like under my bustier. So if they’re going to Photoshop a thigh gap, wouldn’t they Photoshop out my bra strap?!

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The photo with the ‘thigh gap’, courtesy of Cosmopolitan

Bethany: I don’t think you were wrong to delete it but it feels sad that you need to police your social media like that, deleting photos that you felt so happy with because of people’s misunderstandings.

Tess: I pay attention to my comments maybe more than I should do. I like to know what people are saying. But it feels like when things do happen, there’s no space for people to grow and change. I understand that some things warrant that, but others obviously don’t. I guess that’s how I justify going through the comments, but it is kind of a personal hell that I need to manage a little bit better.

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