The triumphant plus-size

NEW YORK — When he met Crystal Renn for the first time last September
over lunch at the Royalton in Manhattan, Stephen Gan, the influential creative
director of fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Visionaire, had the same
reaction as virtually everyone who comes face to face with the industry’s
reigning plus-size model.

          “You’re not big,” Gan said.

          Renn — 23 years old, 175 centimetres tall,
hair and eyes brown and, in U.S. measurements, bra 38C, waist 30, hips 42 — is
an American size 12. Gan half expected Mae West. Photographs in the international
editions of Bazaar and Vogue had so emphasized Renn’s natural curves, and in
some cases exaggerated them with lighting and digital manipulation, that he imagined
her to be much larger, with the personality of a vixen, rather than the
breathtaking but normal young woman who had come to tell him her story.

          Renn has heard this before. So-called
plus-size models are constantly being told by editors and designers that they
don’t look fat, which is meant to be a compliment, Renn said in her recently
published memoir, “Hungry.” Still, it does become tiresome for a
model who aspires to wrest fragrance and beauty contracts from women who are
small sizes, she said. “It’s simply bizarre that ‘normal’ is the new overweight,”
she wrote. “We’ve seen that super-skinny women can be as unhappy as the
fattest fat girl. We know how awful it is to obsess about every calorie. We’ve
just opted not to make ourselves crazy.”


          Renn is, from a high-fashion standpoint,
“far and away” the most successful model in the plus-size division of
Ford Models, said her agent, Gary Dakin. In the February issue of Glamour, she
appears in an eight-page fashion feature on sheer clothes. For the March issue
of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, she was photographed, by Ruven Afanador,
in a blond wig as Anna Nicole Smith. And she was described by Gan as the
inspiration for making the new spring preview issue of V Magazine, an offshoot
of Visionaire that he also edits — a “size issue,” including several
portfolios starring plus-size models.

          “It’s going to be a bit hard on the eyes
for a lot of fashion people,” Gan said during a recent interview in
Visionaire’s offices. “It was about dealing with a subject that in my
world is such a taboo. In fashion, putting on 2 pounds is a taboo.”

          The issue, whose images were circulated
online ahead of its newsstand appearance, has sparked countless discussions
about broadening the cast of models in magazine editorial features, runway
shows and ad campaigns. One of the V portfolios shows side-by-side images of
Renn and Jacquelyn Jablonski, 10 sizes smaller, wearing the same-size runway
samples from Versace, Proenza Schouler and Dolce&Gabbana.

          Some who commented on the Web said that they
were pleased to see models with bodies that more women could relate to. But
others complained that the images were exploitative, that they glorified
obesity or were a publicity stunt. It struck many readers as patronizing to
hold up Renn as an example of a plus-size body, given that the average American
woman is two sizes larger.

          It was
not until Renn acknowledged an eating disorder six years ago and began to eat
normally that her career took off as a plus-size model. While she embraces that
label, she also sees it as a means of changing expectations among designers and
magazines — and even the public — that models have to look a certain way.


          When a modelling scout told her she had
potential provided she lose weight and shrink her hip size from 109 centimetres
to 86, Renn saw a means of escape from small-town life in Clinton. On a regimen
of Diet Coke and sugar-free Jell-O, she began by losing nearly 13 kilos in three
months. By 2002, when she moved to New York at age 15, she weighed 43 kilos and
had lost more than 42 percent of her body weight. On her first day in the city,
she landed a shoot for Seventeen.

          When her book was published last fall,
Crystal Renn said, she felt that she was able to close the door on a period of
her life defined by hatred of her body.             “I’ve always felt, in some ways, like an
outsider,” said Renn, who now weighs about 75 kilos. “But that is the
fashion industry. You know how that is. The creative one at the school, the
outsider, the goth or the gay guy — whatever it is, they always get made fun
of. I feel like they all got together and moved to New York City and made the
fashion industry.

          “And here I am,” she said. “I
feel right at home, very much accepted and very happy.”

          It is a perverse footnote to the scandal over
skinny models that the smallest of changes in a magazine or runway show — the
arrival of Lara Stone, a model with recognizable breasts, for example — can be
viewed as emblematic of a new moral standard worthy of applause. When Glamour
ran a single-page photograph of a voluptuous, unclothed model, Lizzie Miller,
in its September issue, positive responses from readers flooded in.

          “It was a reminder how much our eyes
have become inured to a particular standard,” Cindi Leive, the editor,
said in an interview at the time. “There were many readers who said they
didn’t know what a quote-unquote normal body looked like anymore.”

          The rub is that many plus-size models complain
that their images are often retouched as routinely as celebrity covers — only
to make them look bigger.                        

          “Because I am a plus-size model, they
like to make an example,” she said. “They see a roll, and they say,
‘Ooh, a roll!’ And they focus on it.”

          In her book, she describes this as the fetishization
of fat. “When designers and editors choose one fat girl to salivate over,
and revel in her avoirdupois, I’m not sure how much it advances the cause of
using girls of all sizes in a magazine,” she wrote. What she would like to
see, in the interest of fairness, is those photographers and magazines making a
point of not showing an image of a model whose ribs are showing.

          “I’m fighting for something,” Renn
said. “I believe fashion can be a place of diversity. It’s not going to
happen overnight, but do you want it to?”