Ashley Graham isn’t your average model. From giving TED talks to launching her own clothing line, the Nebraskan nymph has brains as well as beauty. What makes her such a rarity in the modeling world, though, is that she’s a size 16. Since she gloriously graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition – the first plus-size model to do so – is her industry starting to change its famously narrow definition of “beautiful?”
Graham actually appeared in the 2015 swimsuit edition, though only in an advert for Swimsuits For All. She clearly got noticed, though, for in the 2016 version readers will be able to vote for her as Sports Illustrated’s “Rookie of the Year.”
The title isn’t all that’s at stake. Should Graham win the prize she’ll be guaranteed a shoot in the 2017 edition, which could see her propelled to superstardom. She has the potential, it seems, to change the modelling world forever.
Graham, who hails from Lincoln, Nebraska, began her modeling career aged 13. She was discovered a year earlier when representatives from I & I Agency spotted her shopping in Omaha.
Early appearances for Graham came in YM, a now-defunct teen magazine, and a 2009 Glamour piece titled “These Bodies are Beautiful at Every Size.” Two years earlier the model was featured in Vogue.
In 2010 she starred in a Lane Bryant commercial that, owing to its perceived raciness, ABC refused to broadcast. Graham later told the New York Post that the network “can’t handle bigger on TV.” She also said that Victoria’s Secret ads are “just as racy, if not more racy.”
The 38D model, whose portfolio has the tagline, “Stand up for curves, confidence is sexy,” has since appeared in many more Lane Bryant commercials. She’s also posed for the likes of Levi’s, Liz Claiborne and Bloomingdale’s.
Graham’s talents are by no means limited to modeling, however. In 2013 the business-minded beauty teamed up with Canadian plus-size designer Addition Elle to launch a new lingerie range.
When Graham is modeling she isn’t limited to shoots. The stunner starred in New York Fashion Week’s inaugural plus-size show in 2015, when she took to the catwalk dressed in black lingerie. Her appearance, which saw her draft in other plus-size models, was considered a triumph.
In 2015 Graham gave a TED Talk that touched on role models, breaking into the fashion industry and body positivity. “There is no one perfect body,” she told her audience. “I, like you, possess a wonderfully unique and diverse physique.”
Things haven’t all been plain sailing for Graham, however. During her TED Talk she openly revealed how much pressure she faced as a young model. “I hated answering the question, ‘What do you do for a living?’” she explained. “I would see that person’s eyebrows raise as I would reply, ‘I’m a model.’”
Graham also discussed the self-esteem problems she faced during her formative years. “My confidence was tugged at and pulled in all different directions,” she said. “I would go home and look in front of the mirror and only hate what I saw.”
The model went on to raise the issue that, while plus size at the mall generally starts from size 14 upwards, it’s a different story in the fashion industry. It considers anything from eight upwards to be plus size.
By its parameters, then, the first plus-size model to appear in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition was actually the size-12 Robyn Lawley in 2015. Like Graham, she’s been a vocal opponent of the term “plus size.”
While Graham did appear in the same issue, it was part of Swimsuits For All’s #CurvesInBikinis campaign. It proved the perfect platform, however, for her to get noticed – if she could model lingerie so well, then surely she’d make an excellent swimsuit model, too.
The Nebraskan broke the news of her Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition appearance on her Instagram page. “This is a dream come true,” she said. “Thank you to everyone who stood up for curves – our voices were heard and together you can help me win Rookie of the Year.”
Whether or not Graham does win, she’s already made history. The model isn’t, after all, simply featured in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition – she’s on the cover.
She’s understandably pretty happy about it. “I thought Sports Illustrated was taking a risk by putting a girl my size in the pages,” Graham told People magazine. “But putting me on the cover? They aren’t just breaking barriers. They are the standard now. This is beyond epic.”
The swimsuit issue will actually feature three covers, with Graham adorning one of them. The model has already dedicated her appearance to girls who have “never felt that they were beautiful enough.”
Ashley Graham’s story isn’t only remarkable, it’s an inspiration to millions of women around the world. When you hear her speak you get the impression that her journey is only just beginning. By the time it ends the fashion industry may never look the same again.