"I have not met somebody who put their body through what I did to get what they want," model Crystal Renn said the other day, speaking from London. "A lot of these girls are young girls—they're already a size 6, so of course they go on a diet and get down to a size 2. To go from a size 14—I was fighting nature."
Renn, who is 23, is one of the most successful plus-size models working in the industry today. She's appeared in American Vogue and on the covers of Italian Vogue and Russian Harper's Bazaar, and in ads for Dolce & Gabbana. She's walked the runway in a Jean-Paul Gaultier show; he made a dress just for her. And now she's published a memoir, Hungry, which chronicles her years trying to lose enough weight to be a "straight" model. She had the epiphany three years later that she was done fighting nature, and her redemption came in the form of a plus-size modeling contract with Ford Models.
“We women are all different types—body, hair color, skin color. It’s wrong to have one type as the ideal. It doesn’t make sense.”
Renn was first approached at the age of 14 by a modeling scout who'd been invited to her charm-school class in Clinton, Mississippi. As she recounts in Hungry: "He took Polaroids of me and studied them. 'There's just one thing,' he said diffidently. 'You'd have to lose a bit of weight.' He told me I'd need a 34-inch hip. If I could get mine down to that, I'd be a superstar."
Her hips were 43 inches at the time. She had nine inches to go. So she embarked on an intense workout and diet regimen; for months, she subsisted on little more than lettuce, sugar-free Jell-O, Diet Coke, and sugar-free chewing gum.
Today, Renn doesn't resent the scout for what would seem to be an enormously irresponsible directive (giving a 14-year-old girl the advice that she should shed 60 pounds to become a model) ."He gave me the opportunity," she said. "I made the choice to do it. He was doing his job—not like, Let me give this girl an eating disorder."
She lost enough weight by 2001 that she was able to go to New York and start booking modeling gigs—but she also got depressed and obsessive about keeping the weight off. She had trouble sleeping and had heart palpitations; her skin was dry; she had headaches constantly. Finally, in 2003, she'd had enough; after an incident in which a photographer booked her, then refused to work with her because she was "too fat," Renn talked to her agent and asked to be placed with a plus-size agency.
Her salvation was Gary Dakin, now a vice president at Ford Models, who signed Renn and became like a father figure to her. "The owner of the other agency called me and said, 'I have this girl, she just can't keep the weight off and she's somebody I think you need to see. It would definitely get me out of a situation,'" Dakin recalled.
When he met Renn, who was then 17, Dakin said he felt an instant connection with her: "She had something I hadn't seen walk through the door before." Even though she had already decided to start doing plus-size modeling, her body was still relatively thin, and Dakin put her on a rehabilitation course. "I was like, just take care of yourself. Just settle down and stop worrying about it. Relax." She got up to a size 16 before settling into her current 12.
The irony of Renn's whole story is that she has been much more successful as a plus-size model than as a "straight" model. One of her major breakthroughs was in 2004, when she appeared in a fashion spread in Teen Vogue. Kara Jesella, a former Teen Vogue editor, booked Renn for the feature. "One of the hardest things about being an editor at a teen magazine was we would run these great, really helpful stories about body image and eating disorders, but then we'd end up undermining our body-positive message by showing photos of skinny celebrities," said Jesella. "So one of the reasons I wanted to put Crystal in the magazine was so that girls would actually be able to see a heavier girl. I thought there was a lot of power in that image."
“He gave me the opportunity,” Renn said of a modeling scout. “I made the choice to do it. He was doing his job—not, like, Let me give this girl an eating disorder.”
After Renn appeared in Teen Vogue (a shoot that got what Jesella called a "great response" from readers), she was booked for a shoot in American Vogue—an achievement that eludes most models, plus size or no. " Vogue was a huge stepping stone for us," said Dakin. Soon after, Steven Meisel shot Renn for Italian Vogue, and then she got the Dolce & Gabbana ad. "The first time I knew she made it was when she didn't have to get a part-time job and I didn't have to give her an allowance. The next step will be the cover of an American magazine and a cosmetics contract."
Of course, despite all of Renn's success, the fashion industry—designers, editors, stylists, photographers, consumers--still has trouble accepting plus-size models. Jesella recalled that Teen Vogue's editor, Amy Astley, immediately thought that putting Renn in the magazine was a good idea—but others were a tougher sell. "I was more concerned with getting the photographer and stylist on board—a lot of them don't want to work with plus-size models," said Jesella. "A lot of times, the photographers and stylists don't want to work with heavier girls, because they don't think the pictures will be as good or will help them get the high-paying advertising jobs that are their real bread and butter. Plus, editors want to keep their readers happy, and there are always readers who write in and say that using heavier models spoils the fashion magazine fantasy or that the magazine is promoting obesity or something like that. And designers often don't have plus-size clothes to lend—and they aren't going to start having them any time soon, because high-fashion designers don't want to be associated with bigger sizes."
Plus-size models are often used as tokens in an editorial spread, or, as is the case in the upcoming November issue of Glamour, as a statement about using plus-size models in the fashion industry. We haven't yet reached the point where using a plus-size model is considered normal. "I don't think there should be one type of body on the runway or in ads or editorials," said Renn. "I don't believe it should be only [size] 14s or only 2s. We should have 2s, but also 8s and 10s."
Renn's solution is to make the sample size a 10. "That means a 14 could fit into a 10, and the size 2 could have the 10 pinned to her. Then you have different types of models being able to fit into one sample size," she said. "I think that would be a healthy start. If that was the only sample size, then what's the excuse then? Then we work on the editors. Then we have people writing into the magazines, writing into the companies, saying we demand more variety in the models you choose. Then they'd be forced to do it. We women are all different types—body, hair color, skin color. It's wrong to have one type as the ideal. It doesn't make sense."