RISING STAR

02.17.16 3:22 PM ET

Meet Ashley Graham, the ‘Sports Illustrated’ Swimsuit Issue’s First ‘Plus-Size’ Cover Girl

How a gal went from being discovered at a mall in her native Nebraska to becoming the very first ‘plus-size’ model to grace the cover of SI’s popular Swimsuit Issue.

The first time Ashley Graham made front-page news wasn’t so pretty. She’d starred in a commercial for Cacique, Lane Bryant’s new line of sexy lingerie for plus-size women. But the ad, depicting the then-size 16 stunner in a 38D bra and panties, was deemed too big and beautiful for TV, and got nixed by ABC. “We’ve never witnessed this level of content censorship,” a rep for the clothier fumed at the time.

What a difference six years makes. Today, Graham is the first plus-size model to grace the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, an annual release depicting bikini babes in exotic locales that both brings some much-needed heat to cold, dark February and anoints the next generation of model-stars. Since its inception in 1964, the Swimsuit Issue has introduced the world to future stars Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Heidi Klum, and Tyra Banks, and recently boosted the stature of Chrissy Teigen and Kate Upton. Heck, in 2007, Queen Beyoncé even graced its cover. It’s a pretty big deal.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this! This is so much fun,” beams Graham, nestled on a couch, sipping black coffee. “It’s great to see all the men come out here. I have a lot of female fans, and it’s really nice to see that men are desirous of girls my size as well.”

America, of course, is getting bigger. In 1960, the average American woman weighed 140 pounds. Today, she’s 166 pounds and a size 14—which just so happens to be Graham’s current size. Last year, SI made waves by casting its first “plus-size” model, Robyn Lawley, in its pages. But the fact that Lawley was even classified as a “plus-size” model was ludicrous. I mean, look at her. And because she’s a size 14, which again, is the size of the average American woman, Graham thought “they would never put a girl my size on the cover.” Well, she thought wrong.

We’re huddled in the corner of Swim City, a pop-up venue in New York City’s Flatiron District, where hordes of fans have gathered to meet the ladies of the 2016 Swimsuit Issue. And in person, by any reasonable standard, Graham isn’t “plus-size.” In fact, she’d rather we do away with the category altogether.

Sports Illustrated

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: 2016 Issue

“I hope in the next year people will stop saying ‘plus-size,’ and they’ll just say, ‘She’s a model.’ I think that the day is coming,” she says, before cracking a smile. “There are all kinds of descriptions for models. My favorite is curvasexalicious. And I taste good.”

Graham, who is 28, learned she’d be shooting a spread for SI’s Swimsuit Issue on Thanksgiving, right after taking down a hearty meal. “I learned about it after eating two giant plates of food,” she says, laughing. “I cried like a baby.”

She’d met with Swimsuit Issue editor MJ Day in 2014, and the two hit it off, but Graham didn’t make the cut for the ’15 issue. She did, however, appear in an ad in the issue for Swimsuits for All, a brand of plus-size women’s swimwear that really upped her exposure.

“I proved to them that, yes, people want to see a woman my size, and men and women are really excited about it,” she recalls. “I don’t know that that was the catalyst for MJ to put me in, but it definitely proved a big point.”

Despite her newfound notoriety, Graham isn’t an overnight success. She was discovered at a shopping mall in her native Nebraska at the age of 12, and moved to New York at the age of 17 to pursue her modeling dream full-time. “My mom and dad said, ‘If you don’t make it, you have to go to college.’ They gave me just the summer—three months—to make it.”

“I’m the ‘slow and steady wins the race’ kind of girl, and thank God for that,” adds Graham. “You see models come and go, and I’ve been doing this for 15 years and have had small milestones in the progression of my career. It’s been such a blessing because I’ve been able to cultivate what I want to do, what I want to say, and how I want to be represented, and now here I am on the cover of Sports Illustrated representing not just curvy women, but any type of woman who was told, ‘No, you can’t.’”

And Graham’s been told those three words quite a bit during her career due to her size. “I was told ‘no’ all the time,” she says. “I was told, ‘You’ll never be an editorial model and you’ll never be on the pages of any magazine.’ And the first year that I was signed with IMG I was on five different covers and had my own TED Talk. It’s really shaped the industry and I feel like the things that I’ve been saying, and watching the industry change, has been such a testament to my work.”

The name of Graham’s TED Talk was, “Plus-Size? More Like My Size,” and she’s preached body positivity ever since breaking into the industry.

“Nobody looked like me growing up,” says Graham, who was a size 12 by the age of 12 and comes from a big-boned family. “I was told to look up to J. Lo and Marilyn Monroe, because they were two of the more curvy women in society, but J. Lo’s ass is amazing, and Monroe was… maybe a size 6? She definitely wasn’t hitting the double-digits. I never really had anybody but my mother to look up to, and she always told me, ‘You are smart, you are beautiful,’ and she had confidence in her own body as well. It starts in the home. Mothers and fathers are the ones that fuel their children’s desire to be who they want to be.”

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She pauses. “People like Kim Kardashian have a shape that we haven’t seen represented so much before. The reality is that the average American woman is a size 14, and the fact that we haven’t been representing her or talking about her is a huge smack in the face. The plus-size industry has been around longer than I’ve been a model, so the fight has been going on for so long, but we’re finally not only talking about it, but making change. Sports Illustrated, on this day, has made history.”

Graham is one of three models gracing three separate covers of this year’s SI Swimsuit Issue, joined by UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson. Her cover photo was shot in Turks and Caicos, and she says it was not retouched—as so many fashion mags are wont to do.

Looking back on the ridiculous Lane Bryant ad furor, Graham can’t help but chuckle, before collecting herself. “There have been huge strides,” she says. “Soon, we won’t be talking about the fact that I’m considered ‘plus-size,’ we’ll just be talking about what I’m doing in the world to change people’s lives. Models are beautiful, of course, but we need to be talking more about how they’re shaping the industry, and public perception of beauty.”

And, since we’re in the throes of New York Fashion Week, Graham says she’d like to see curvier models gracing the catwalks. That, she says, is her next big goal.   

“I want to walk in the Givenchy show,” she says, smiling from ear to ear. “It’s time to see curvy girls in high fashion. Riccardo Tisci, call me!”