Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant – From Plus Models to Authors
Who Are They: When I ventured into plus sized modeling for a second time in the late 90’s, a beautiful plus sized model named Donna Grant was one of my early inspirations. I passed her on Seventh Avenue as I was coming from a casting one afternoon. I was pretty new on the scene and I didn’t know her personally but I knew her name and just blurted it out to get her to stop and I began gushing with excitement at the thought of meeting her in the flesh. She looked at me like I was crazy for a brief second (lol) but she stopped and chatted with me for a few moments and I never forgot how kind and gracious she was to me that day.
As New York City makes history with the first ever Full Figured Fashion Week, I thought it important that we pay homage to those who help lay the foundation years ago for such an event to take place now. I had the pleasure of running into Donna Grant & Virginia DeBerry at an industry function a few years back and I knew immediately that as pioneers of Plus modeling; I needed to interview these women and give my readers a glimpse into how the plus modeling industry began.
Allow me to give you a little background history on Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant: With five novels to their credit, Virginia DeBerry and Donna Grant, best friends for 25 years, have turned a friendship into the most successful and enduring writing collaboration in African American fiction.
Donna and Virginia first met as plus size models vying for the same assignments. They were both featured in catalogs, ads, magazines and made national television appearances. Their modeling careers led to the opportunity to launch Maxima, a fashion and lifestyle magazine for plus-size women, where Virginia was editor-in-chief and Donna the managing editor. When publication of Maxima ceased, Virginia and Donna decided to try writing a book together. The result, Tryin’ to Sleep in the Bed You Made, was a critical success, an Essence Bestseller, as are all three of their books, and won the Merit Award for Fiction from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, as well as the 1998 Book of the Year Award from the Blackboard Bestseller List/African American Booksellers Conference-Book Expo America.
What does it mean to you to be a pioneer in the plus sized fashion industry?
VDB: I am extremely proud to have been a part of the industry in its infancy. There are always those “who go before” and it feels great to have been one of those who paved the way.
Who were your inspirations as plus sized models?
VDB: I was so early; there weren’t many women to look to for inspiration. But I remember seeing an early fashion show in my hometown (Buffalo) with two plus size models—Ann Harper and Jolie and thinking—WOW. Look at that!! I still didn’t think of it as a profession I would ever be involved in though.
How were you introduced to plus modeling?
VDB: I have a childhood friend, Lawrine Childers, who was working for Wilhelmina at the time as a booker. She was about to leave to help start an agency called Legends. I was visiting her in NYC and the day I was leaving, she said to me “There’s the new thing called plus size modeling. I think you should look into it.” I told her I was too old. She said no one would know if I didn’t tell. After I left NY she called me regularly, encouraging me to give it a chance. She even arranged for me to go to a local agency in Buffalo, June II Models, just to try it out. I went on an open call, and had a booking the next week. I started working regularly in Buffalo and my friend said it was time to try NYC. When she offered to let me stay with her and her new husband in their studio apartment, I knew she was serious. So I took her up on it.
When I began making the rounds in the mid 80’s as an aspiring plus sized model on the local circuit; I was often the only plus model in the show and I regularly encountered designers/makeup artists & hairstylists who wouldn’t touch me. What was the industry’s view of plus models back then?
VDB: I think they thought we were a passing fad, an anomaly that would disappear. But we were/are here to stay. The statistics about the percentage of women who wear size 14+ have not changed in more than 40 years.
Did either of you experience any discriminatory practices? Any negative or positive experiences you’d care to share?
VDB: I can’t remember being discriminated against—but then I tend to not see those things. I have a hard time believing (or assuming) that I’m being treated differently because of my size, or my race for that matter. I’m kind of a Pollyanna like that.
What advice would you give to aspiring plus sized models today?
VDB: To be realistic about yourself. Look in magazines. Then look in the mirror. Plus size models have the same requirements as smaller models. You have to be tall, your body and your facial features have to be proportioned, balanced. You have to be totally and brutally objective about your “look.” Because the people deciding whether you’re right for the industry or not, will be.
Do you keep abreast of the changes and accomplishments in plus fashion today? Any thoughts?
VDB: Not as much as when it was my job. I’m “just” a consumer now. I see what’s in the stores and online, but haven’t really kept up with industry trends. I know that I don’t feel that it has progressed in the way it should have. I mean we had a Playboy feature in the 80’s. Givenchy premiered the first designer plus size collection in a show at the Pierre Hotel. In 1983-84 I was in 10 issues of Essence. I don’t see that kind of presence any more.
Do you see any change in the diversity of todays plus sized model in comparison to the plus sized models of your heyday?
VDB: To me the mix in advertising and catalogs looks pretty much like it did 20 years ago. A few blondes, brunettes, maybe a red head, a black model and/or some other “exotic.” And there aren’t (that I know of) print magazines dedicated to plus sizes like there used to be.
When and how did the publication Maxima begin and was it the first publication of its kind? If not, the first what other publications were available for plus sized women back then?
VDB: I was a spokeswoman for Hanes Fitting Pretty and came up with the idea to do a fashion/lifestyle newsletter as a giveaway in department stores to help launch new hosiery styles and trends each season. It was called Great Dimensions—I was newsletter’s Editor-in-Chief and asked Donna to work with me. She was our Celebrity Features Editor. Some folks with money spotted GD and they asked if we’d be interested in doing something similar on a larger scale—a magazine. And Maxima was born. We conceptualized the entire magazine—name, typeface, logo, content, staff, look, and vision—every column inch of editorial content. But it was not the first. The very first was BBW Magazine, for which Donna and I both modeled.
How many issues of Maxima were published before it folded? And why did publication of Maxima cease?
VDB: Maxima took 18 months to bring to life and was initially set up to be a quarterly publication. We shot three issues but only the first two were published. The third was our first bridal—but it never saw the light of day. We fell victim to the last big economic downturn. In 1987 there was a big stock market crash in October—in December—New Year’s Eve to be exact, we got our “Thank you very much, it’s been nice working with you.” call. We were totally devastated because we really thought we were going to be the next Conde’ Nast!
Statistics show that a growing number of the population is getting their news and information online. In today’s shaky economic climate and with the gloomy outlook on the print publishing industry – do you believe that a successful plus sized focused PRINT publication can still be produced in today’s climate and what ingredients do you believe are necessary to make it successful?
VDB: I don’t know. It’s such a hard time for print media in general today it’s a difficult to project how successful a print mag would be. Plus size is a niche market and an underserved market and therefore might have a better chance than a magazine that is redundant. But the publishers would need a hot, spot on marketing team involved, who were willing and capable of throwing out the old ideas and trying something new.
Many of the aspiring models that I meet today are blissfully unaware of the plus models/designers/movers & shakers etc. who came before them, those who kicked down doors and paved the road that they now walk upon comfortably. Can you both reach back into your memories and tell me who were some of the “big” names in plus modeling that you worked with (or booked) when you were both active in the biz?
VDB: Big names back then were: Tobi Pilavin, Madaline Sparks, Ann Harper. By the time I was VP/Director of New Faces at BB/LW the average size for plus models had gone down again 14 was big—most of the successful girls were 10-12’s. And at that time I brought into the industry: Christine Alt, Carol’s younger sister who was pretty “big” in her time, Colleen Flynn Lawson who is now an actor (Colleen Flynn) and Jodi Applegate who went on to become a national broadcast news anchor. Armed with the knowledge that you have of the plus industry today, If you could do anything over again in terms of your journey as a plus sized model, what, if anything would you do differently?
VDB: Maybe I would have stayed in it a little longer…I liked being a role model for women who didn’t think they were worth the time and effort to take care of themselves because they weren’t a size 4.
Of all of the character attributes/traits that you have that have contributed to your accomplishments in the plus fashion industry, which trait do you think was the most important to your success – and how has that one trait affected other areas of your success post plus sized fashion?
VDB: Confidence and not being concerned about what people think or have decided I am supposed to be.
What do you think of the idea of a Full Figured Fashion Week? Do you think it can succeed?
VDB: I think it’s a terrific idea and I hope it succeeds—BIG time. But it can only succeed if it’s treated in the same way, with the same dignity and respect as Fashion Week.
My path actually crossed with yours Virginia, during my first foray into plus modeling in the early 80’s. Big Beauties/Little Women (to my knowledge) was the first agency of it’s kind to see and showcase the beauty of plus sized AND petite women. I had just attended one of those “Model Searches/Cattle Calls” that Barbizon used to sponsor, I’d met Mary Duffy at the open call and she suggested I come in and see her. I came to the office and you were standing the doorway looking at someone’s book and I’m guessing from what you saw…you didn’t like it at all. Your mere presence in that doorway was so huge that you nearly scared me to death…lol. Fortunately, you let me down gently. Our paths crossed again in 1996 after I’d signed with Wilhelmina and I recognized you in the audience as I strutted down the runway for my first professional show for Macy’s in Herald Square.
To make the transition from plus model to Vice President of the agency (Big Beauties/Little Women) is a HUGE accomplishment, how did you do it?
VDB: I had to do it. I didn’t have the patience to sustain a modeling career long term. But I used the skills I had developed as a high school teacher to help me in managing life in a model agency. My teaching background really gave me a unique insight into the girls whose careers we were managing. After BB/LW, I went on to do the same thing as assistant to the Director of IMG Models for a few years.
As Vice President of what is now one of the most successful divisions of plus modeling in the world (BB/LW is now Ford’s 12+ Division) is there person or persons that you represented whose career you are most proud of? (lol besides Donna)…
VDB: Really they are the names I mentioned earlier like Christine Alt and I can only hope that like those young women who paved the way for the models of today, it keeps getting paid forward.
For so many plus models today, their knowledge of the “when, where’s, why’s and how’s of how plus modeling came to be is non-existent. And that is unfortunate, considering that the plus modeling/retail apparel industry is a huge business and growing exponentially every day. Very little is written about many of the early achievements in plus fashion, I am hoping that this interview will open up a dialogue or spark some curiosity amongst you all about how this all came to be. You cannot “change the game” without learning it first…Know/Learn Your History aspiring plus models & fashionistas!
Let this column be your guide.
Virginia & Donna, thanks for sharing your journey with us all and continued success in all that you do!
To learn more about “Plus Pioneers” Virginia DeBerry & Donna Grant, check out their official website: www.deberryandgrant.com