For the complete photo shoot, see the October issue of ELLE Canada on newsstands September 12.
Muscle Beach in Los Angeles is no stranger to bravura displays of physical confidence—after all, this slightly scruffy outdoor gym on the Venice Beach boardwalk is basically the home of modern body-building. But today—despite there being no shortage of men with six-packs, vein-webbed biceps and sweaty torsos—there’s only one person working out in the sandpit that anyone is looking at, and that’s Ashley Graham. The 28-year-old model is precariously balanced on parallel beams wearing a black bustier, an oversized coat…and not much else.
As the photographer snaps away, a group of young men stop their exploits on the uneven bars to do what can only be described as textbook ogling. Groups of people walking up from the beach nearby stop to look too, some pulling out their phones to document their Hollywood celeb sighting for the folks back home. On nearby bleachers, there is a paparazzo taking photos that will appear a few days later in the Daily Mail under the headline “Ashley Graham flaunts her curvaceous figure.”
Cotton-blend shirt and wool bustier (H&M Studio Collection), nylon and elastane bra (Ashley Graham Collection for Addition Elle), embossed leather and elastic belt (Lovesick), crystal-encrusted choker (Alexis Bittar), gold-plated-sterling-silver and white-rhodium-plated-sterling-silver spiral ring and gold-plated-sterling-silver and white-rhodium-plated-sterling-silver earring (Maria Black), sterling-silver ring (Petite Grand) and sterling-silver and Swarovski-crystal ring and sterling-silver ring (Vita Fede).
And unlike some of the stories that appear in the Daily Mail’s celebrity feed, this one is actually true: Graham was flaunting her body, in the proudest, most confident, most loving-all-the-attention definition of the word. In fact, a few days later, Graham posted those same unretouched pap shots for her two million Instagram followers to see, part of the caption reading: “Someone once told me my thighs were ‘cellulite city.’ But now I realize these thighs tell a story of victory and courage. #effyourbeautystandards.”
“She’s so inspirational,” says one ELLE Canada staffer to another, watching nearby in the shade of the stand-up tent that Graham is using for her outfit changes. The other nods, a little taken aback by how incredibly moving it is to see someone like Graham—beautiful, yes, but certainly not in the way many
women have been taught they should aspire to be—revelling in the spectacle she is causing.
Of course, causing a stir is sort of this Nebraska native’s MO. Although she has been modelling since she was scouted as a preteen at her local mall, Graham first came to international attention as the star of plus-size retailer Lane Bryant’s “banned” commercial in 2010. (Some say it was because, in the ad, Graham leaves the house in nothing but a trench coat and lingerie; others, including the model, say it was size discrimination.) Major networks allegedly refused to air the spot, but it went on to receive almost five million views on YouTube.
In 2015, Graham, who is a frequent user of the hashtag #beautybeyondsize, gave a TEDx Talk in which she shared her distaste for the term “plus-size.” In her speech, which has been watched nearly one million times, she argued for the term “my size,” which, to her, means a woman loving her “rolls, curves and cellulite.”
This past February, Graham was the first plus-size woman to front Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. She called this a “game changer” for her, but amid the largely positive reaction, there were dissenting voices, most notably former S.I. cover girl Cheryl Tiegs, who said celebrating a full-figured woman on the cover wasn’t “healthy in the long run.” (Tiegs later apologized for her comment.)
Her next notable “first” happened last fall when she walked the runway for Addition Elle. It was the Canadian lingerie label’s debut at New York Fashion Week, and it made headlines. Most recently, she starred in a steamy music video for “Toothbrush,” a single from Joe Jonas’ new band, DNCE. It instantly went viral and sits at nearly 30 million views and counting. “I didn’t think the video would have the impact it did. I just thought it was going to be cute,” says Graham, while packing her suitcase at the end of our shoot. “But the comments have been so positive. These girls are like, ‘OMG, thanks for putting “real women” in a music video.’ I don’t believe in that term, but, you know, bravo to DNCE for stepping out of the box and really taking it there by having a girl who typically isn’t represented.”
Polyester and spandex dress (JLUXLABEL), nylon and elastane bra and panties (Ashley Graham Collection for Addition Elle), wool hat (H&M Studio Collection), rhodium-plated-brass earrings (Laruicci), gold-plated-sterling-silver and white-rhodium-plated-sterling-silver spiral ring and gold-plated-silver helix ring (Maria Black), sterling-silver ring (Petite Grand), 14-karat-yellow-gold ring (Sarah & Sebastian) and sterling-silver and Swarovski-crystal ring and sterling-silver ring (Vita Fede)
After a day spent in corsets, fishnets and several iterations of the bra, all from her upcoming holiday collection with Addition Elle, Graham has changed into a black maxidress and is padding around the hotel room barefoot. Her energy is different now that she’s not in “model” mode. There’s still the overwhelming charisma, but she’s friendlier and chattier and she frequently bursts out laughing—often at her own jokes.
And then, in between breaking into song (a little Destiny’s Child “Survivor,” anyone?) and sharing her secret to good breath and anti-bloating (peppermint oil!), and before catching her flight out of L.A., Graham sat down and told us whether she minded that her body made us unexpectedly emotional….
“You know what’s so funny? I think women think I’m inspirational because I’m unapologetic. I have cellulite. I have back fat. I’ve got a thick stomach. But I work my body like I don’t because I don’t know any other body. I don’t know how to feel thin. I just know how to feel like Ashley.”
Wool coat (Calvin Klein Collection), nylon and elastane bodysuit (Ashley Graham Collection for Addition Elle), silk-georgette slip (Rosamosario), velvet hat (Stephen Jones), sterling-silver choker, nine-karat-yellow-gold rings and sterling-silver rings (Sarah & Sebastian) and suede and napa-leather sandals (Jimmy Choo)
You also seem to really love the attention. “I definitely don’t mind it!”
Have you always been that confident? “When I was growing up, my mom always told me that I was smart even though I was called dumb in school because I have dyslexia. I was also a big girl who played sports and ate well, and she would tell me ‘You’re fit and healthy.’ I was super-insecure at the time, but it helped to hear her words. Then I moved to New York [to model] and gained a ton of weight because I wasn’t working out or eating right. I hated the woman I had become because I didn’t feel right in my own skin. I was a size 18 and I was looking for affirmation and attention in all the wrong areas. I had agents telling me I had to lose weight, and I was like, ‘Why am I allowing people to dictate my future?’”
So how did you change that? “I started telling myself all the things my mother had told me—‘You’re bold, you’re brilliant, you’re beautiful’—and I gained my confidence back. I got rid of the negative people in my life, I started going to the gym and I met my husband, who I’ve now been married to for six years.”
Your husband, Justin Ervin, was actually hanging out on-set with us today. You guys got married when you were 22, right? “I was a baby! But in Nebraska, everybody is married by 22. By the time we met, I’d been travelling the world by myself [for modelling] since I was 12. I had also dated half of New York City. In other words, I had seen and done, like, a lot. And then all of a sudden I met this hot guy at church.”
What attracted you to him? “He was different. He was consistent. He was kind. He challenged me. Also, his six-pack. We actually got married right after my Lane Bryant commercial was banned. He knows the ins and the outs of how I’ve gone from that to this. He’s just like, ‘Go, baby, go!’ I know I’m with a man who loves and respects me, not ‘The Ashley Graham.’”
Are those two different people? What happens when we leave and you’re alone in this room? Who are you then? “I’m not that different, but I do like my quiet time. After a day of having people talk to you, touch you and give you direction, you reach a point when you say ‘Okay, time to recharge.’ I try to have 15 minutes of prayer before I go out into the world.”
Speaking of prayer, what do you believe in? “I believe that what goes around comes around. That kindness gets you further than anything else. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When I was growing up, my parents always told me ‘Don’t have sex until you’re married,’ so I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go out and have a ton of sex.’ But then an ex-boyfriend made me realize that I need to respect my body and I need to have a man respect my body. It’s not for everybody, but, in order for that to happen for me, I needed to not have sex [again] until I was married. My husband and I waited; call me crazy, but it worked. Our sex is amazing! [Signature Ashley Graham laugh] It made me feel like I had the power back in my dating life. He respected me more because I wasn’t willing to just give it up. I tell my friends to wait three months. Just see if he can wait. If he can, he’s a good guy. And, again, it’s not for everybody, but for me it was great. It’s something I’m actually really proud of.”
Do you believe in destiny? “I believe that we’re all here for a purpose and that one of my biggest ones is to help people understand that they’re beautiful. I get emails every day from women who say ‘I would never have gotten into a bikini without you’ and from husbands who say ‘I bought my wife your lingerie, and she’s never felt sexier and we had the best sex of our lives.’”
What are your other purposes? “I really want girls to know that they are worth more than they think they are. I think it’s a huge thing for them to understand that you don’t have to have sex with [just] anybody. I had to learn that the hard way; I was looking for affirmation from men because I didn’t like who I was. And hopefully they can learn from my mistakes.”
It seems like taking agency and gaining control is a bit of a theme for you. “For so long, I wasn’t in the driver’s seat. In my career, I felt like I wasn’t in control. And now, ever since Addition Elle saw something in me and asked me what I wanted to do, I’ve been running with it and it’s been working. I think for so long women have been told ‘You can’t be in control,’ but now we’re in a woman-empowered era. I really want women to start encouraging one another. There’s still so much cattiness. But if women really came together, we could take over.”
Do you think we’re at a turning point? “Yeah! There’s such a diversity thing happening now between age, body type, race and gender—it’s huge. I’m so excited to be part of this story. We had the Cindy Era, the Kate Era and now this is the Body Era.”
What more would you still like to do? “I’m excited about how things are literally changing right in front of me, but there’s still a really long way to go. I want to see women my size on the runway. I want to see multiple women my size in movies and on TV. I mean, maybe I’ll become a cinematic, dramatic, gorgeous lead!”
Being sexy is kind of your “thing.” Do you ever want to get away from that? “I feel like I ooze sex, so no. But if everybody was with me in my off time, they’d be like, ‘Oh, she isn’t really that sexy all the time.’”
How did you feel during the shoot today when all those dudes were staring at you? “Those were muscle guys, and those are the types of guys you don’t think like curvy women, but they love them. Girls my size are like, ‘Oh, I could never get a guy like that.’ Actually, you could, girlfriend! I’m living proof that you can have whatever you want in spite of what people say is a ‘flaw.’ Whether it’s a race thing or not being smart enough or pretty enough—there are so many things that are hanging over women’s heads, but you have to fight through it.”
How big a role did your learning disability play in making you the woman you are? “Being told in the fourth grade that you’re dyslexic and you’re not going to be able to read properly takes a toll on you, and it really makes you believe you’re dumb. I would always hear people say ‘Oh, thank God she’s pretty.’ I’ll say it as a joke now because I haven’t let dyslexia take over who I am.”
What are you most proud of? “I’m really proud of a lot of things in my career, but, in my life, I’m most proud of my marriage. We have a solid foundation, we’re best friends and we have incredible chemistry. I’m so happy to know I can build something with somebody.”
What are you still working on? “My relationship with food. I’m a food rewarder, and I don’t want to be one. I think a lot of women have these conversations with themselves where they say ‘I’m going to reward myself with a cupcake or a doughnut.’ I can’t just have a little; I have to have a lot. I want to get to a place where I’m not thinking about food and I’m not like ‘Why did I overeat? How is this going to make me feel?’ So before I eat, I ask myself ‘Do you want it? Do you need it?’ It’s a conversation. But it’s not something I want to control my life either.”
You’re well known for promoting the idea of “healthy at any size.” Why do you think women wait to live their lives to the fullest until they have the “perfect body”? “I’ve been a size 12, and I thought I was so hot. But now I’m a 14 to 16, and I honestly couldn’t be happier—I’m just content. Of course, I look at my body and think ‘Oh, I want to tighten up my arms a bit, or I wish my ass was lifted higher.’ But nobody has the perfect body. There’s no such thing.”
Watch the behind the scenes video from the shoot:
Photographs by Max Abadian; Fashion direction, Juliana Schiavinatto; art direction, Brittany Eccles; Hair, Dennis Gots (The Wall Group); makeup, Rachel Goodwin (Starworks Artists); manicure, Michelle Saunders (Forward Artists/Essie); styling assistant, Cherry Wang; digital technician, Alexandre Jaras; photographer’s assistant, Don Loga. We would like to thank Visit California (visitcalifornia.com) and Hotel Erwin (hotelerwin.com).