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An Open Letter for the Plus Model of The New Millennium

An Open Letter for the Plus Model of The New Millennium

As many of you may or may not know, I have been on a self-imposed hiatus since the beginning of spring.  I have been using the down time to try to refocus and regroup my energies after the death of my father earlier this year.  This has left me with quite a bit of free time over the summer and I have used the opportunity to check out and participate in a variety of fashion shows and events geared towards the plus sized woman.  I will be honest (lol…as always), this has been an eye opening experience for me as well as a heartbreaking one and I will tell you exactly why.

When I decided to toss my hat into the world of plus sized modeling back in the early eighties, it was still very much a novelty.  Seventh Avenue didn’t want our images in their stores or under their tents but even back then they knew they couldn’t continue to ignore the fact that the majority of the fashion buying public was being unrepresented and woefully underserved.  A woman named Mary Duffy saw the opportunity to fill a need in the market and Big Beauties/Little Women, New York City’s first modeling agency exclusively for plus and petite sizes and was born.

I can still recall these days vividly, at the time, I believe there were only two major agencies for plus sizes back then, Big Beauties & Pat Swift’s Plus Models.  It was a lot harder to get signed with an agency back then; the requirements were a whole lot stricter. You couldn’t be any larger than a 14 and even at that size you might be asked to lose some weight.  Clients preferred to hire a smaller model and “pad” her up rather than take a chance on a fuller bodied model.  Agents could be brutal with their critiques back then and they demanded that you maintain your weight or risk being dropped.  I have seen agents take one look at aspiring models and their pictures and tell them point blank to go home because they would never, ever work in this business.  There was no tact, compassion, kindness or sympathy – they gave it to you straight no chaser.  And they most certainly did not care about what you thought or your self-esteem.  They (the agents) were only interested in how much revenue you could generate for their business, and it’s pretty much the same deal now.

If you were unable to secure a contract with a major agency by going in the office to an open call, you either went to the “cattle calls” that a modeling school like a John Casablancas or John Robert Powers sponsored for the agencies.  Or you tried to get your “hustle” on via the underground or local network.

They (the schools) would place these ads in the local papers looking for plus sized women (no exp necessary) who dreamed of being models.  Believe me when I tell you that, women of all sizes, shapes and colors lined up around the block for these open calls.   Usually the head of the modeling agency or one of the higher ups would attend these castings and after the agent saw you, they’d give you a card with the letter A, B or C on it.  If you got an A, this meant the agent was VERY interested in your “look” and wanted you to come into the office for a chat.  If you got a B or C that meant the agency wasn’t interested in you but the school would try to persuade you to sign up for one of their various classes for “training”, which was often costly and the skills you obtained were pretty much useless on Seventh Avenue.  Plus modeling was very new back then and a whole lot of folks got ripped off.  You had to be smart and listen to your instincts or you could be taken for thousands of dollars and stuck with a portfolio of useless pictures and skills that you had to “unlearn” if you were going to work in the mainstream.

I attended a few of these open calls and after a few tries I was fortunate enough to leave with a contract to take home, read, sign and bring back the next day.  After some thought I decided not to sign the contract; I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make the changes that they asked of me.  I was also troubled when the agent who offered me the contract said “I can make a whole lot of money off of you” rather than “We can make a whole lot of money together”; that statement just didn’t sit well with me at all.  It made me feel as if I was going to be pimped.  My alternative was to hone my skills a few years later on the local level and that’s where The Runway Diva was born.

My formative years as an aspiring model were the ones that were most influential and memorable to me. At that time I was just happy to be able to have the opportunity to strut my stuff.  While showcasing plus sized models was a new thing on Seventh Avenue and in New York City; it was “old news” in the “underground”…plus sized fashion shows and beauty pageants had been quietly happening in other states for many years.  As a newbie, it was all fascinating and intoxicating to me.  I was a giant sponge, trying to sop up all of the knowledge that could be had in regards to plus sized modeling.  I was quiet most times, preferring to be “invisible” and just “lay in the cut”.  I watched, I listened and I learned what to do as well as what not to do.  In particular, I watched the “stars” on the local circuit closely back then, I watched what they did and tried to figure out and emulate what they did to make the crowd go crazy and try to incorporate some of their moves to develop my own personal style.  The years I spent in the underground is where I developed my confidence in my abilities and found my “swagger”.

In my early days, it was hard to get your foot in the door.  Makeup artists and hair people refused to touch the plus girls.  The hardest thing in the world was convincing a designer who didn’t make plus sizes to dress you.  I had to prove myself repeatedly.  I realized quickly that most of the women in the audience were predominately full figured and they were enthusiastic about seeing someone who looked like them on the runway.  It didn’t take a whole lot to get them to cheer and support a plus girl on the runway.  They were so happy to have a representative on the runway that their support was a given.  But if you could hit that runway and truly shine – folks got out of their seats and went crazy for you and both designers AND producers took note of it, word of mouth spread and that’s how you got booked for future shows.  If you could “bring it” to the runway, designers would seek you out and make garments specifically for you, the work became plentiful and more importantly you could escape the drudgery of selling tickets for shows.  For me the reaction from the crowd was intoxicating and addictive in some ways.  I fed off of it and If I didn’t get that sort of reaction every time I hit a runway, I made a mental note of my performance or went over videos repeatedly and “tweaked” whatever I had done until I felt it was right.  It was THAT serious for me and a whole lot of other folks back then.

I worked up and down the Eastern seaboard doing shows and making a name for myself for many years before I got signed.  I didn’t make a whole lot of money back in those days but the trade offs for me were that I got to travel to places I had never been and I had closets full of “designer originals” and the runway skills I acquired would serve me well in the near future.

Fast forward to 1995 – After years of traveling and doing local shows and making a name for myself, I reluctantly allowed a designer friend of mine to enter me in to a local modeling competition in New Jersey.  The competition had been in existence for 15 years and although many of the previous winners had gone on to successful careers in fashion; they had never had a plus sized model enter the contest, it was simply unheard of at the time.  My two appearances on the runway filled the atmosphere with both excitement and controversy.  While the crowd and the judges overwhelmingly supported me, there were a great many folks who resented my being there and voiced their disapproval loudly.  It didn’t matter, my presence signaled that change was in the air – and after 15 years of watching stick figures parade up and down the runway…this crowd was more than ready for something new and different that they could relate to.  After the judges deliberated for a ridiculously long time they came back and announced my name, as the first plus sized woman to win the competition in it’s 16-year history and the crowd went bananas! (I learned later on that although they had unanimously backed my performance, they were actually afraid of the repercussions that might come if they chose a plus sized winner).

After I won that title (and a trip to Paris!), I was on fire to make things happen for myself and so was the producer of the competition.  I believe he realized he was making history in his decision to select me and he wasn’t about to drop the ball on the significance of what he was doing and he wasn’t about to allow me to drop it either.  He made sure to forward every contact he had to me (sometimes as early as 7 in the morning) in order to garner as much press for myself as possible.  Within a few weeks of winning that title, I’d secured my first booking for the cover of a new magazine geared to plus sized women called BELLE; shortly after that I signed on the dotted line with Wilhelmina.  My first agent Willy came in the form of a little ball of fire named Susan Georget, who created the 10/20 division at Wilhelmina and told me very honestly and openly what I needed to do in order to succeed in the industry.  I took her words and advice to heart, I made the changes she asked of me and was completely driven, focused and hell bent on succeeding no matter what.  When she told me that she thought I would make more money if I closed the gap between my two front teeth, I bristled (I was very attached to my gap) but I went home, laid out the pros & cons and then made an appointment with my dentist a few days later.  When she removed most of my hard earned tear sheets from my portfolio and asked me to rebuild it…I did it – no questions asked. When she suggested that I come down in size (I was size 18 when I signed on) to gain more clients – I bristled inwardly…lol…but I did it.  When she ripped my photos from my very first test shoot to shreds from start to finish, I didn’t take it personally but I listened to her notes and made sure that it didn’t happen again. While I didn’t always agree with every piece of advice she gave me, I respected her expertise and her track record.  I was hungry to succeed in my quest as a plus sized model, I knew that she knew her stuff and I trusted her implicitly.  And in my case – she was absolutely correct in her observations.  I learned more from her than she will ever know and I went on to have a wonderful career as a plus sized model.

I have said all of this to say that what I have seen over the summer and the last few years have truly left me disheartened and disappointed in the knowledge that all of the hard work, time, effort that my peers and I have put in to clear a trail for others to blaze upon; appears to have been taken for granted.  Most of the models I come across these days, don’t have a clue as to what the term “being on fire” even means.  I have seen my plus models take the stage to light or lukewarm applause and not really give a damn if they were well received or not.  I have seen models (both signed and unsigned) show up late or not show up at all for bookings and castings.  I have seen models bring their funky attitudes and bad spirits on a set and ruin things for everyone.  I have seen models desperate to be signed with an agency – ANY agency, get signed and then turn around and curse out their bookers/agents and not only resent but also not follow the advice given to them.  I have seen models so rigid in who they think they are or what they think they’re “look” is shoot themselves in the foot with bad choices more times than I can remember.  I have seen models come to castings and act like fools because they aren’t getting the attention they THINK they deserve.  I have seen models NOT do the work necessary and then have the nerve to bristle at the outcome.  I have seen models show up for open calls and castings looking like a hot mess and have the audacity to be surprised when they are not seen.  I have seen models show up for fittings/castings/bookings totally unprepared.  I have seen models be so apathetic about their careers that going on vacations or nights out on the town are more important to them than reinvesting in their careers.  I have seen models stab other models in the back to get into shows that they are not even being paid for!  I have seen agency girls look down upon and/or be completely and totally rude to unsigned aspiring models, ignorantly unaware that these women are future fans who look up to them as heroes/role models, aspire to do what they are doing and only want to be acknowledged.  I have seen models disrespect designers, refuse to wear garments if they don’t like them personally and then sit around in amazement as one designer after another refuse to dress and/or work with them again.  I have seen models openly hate on other models whose time in the limelight comes before theirs.  I have had models come up in my face and tell me point blank that they see no reason why I have success and they do not (that one always cracks me up).  The list of the ridiculous things I have seen both the “pros” and the aspiring models do is pretty much endless.

I have heard stories of models who are supposed to be on set working but busily posting rude and disrespectful comments on social networking sites about the gig they’re on or the producer(s) they are working with and then have the nerve to be surprised when they get fired from a job and blacklisted.

And while I am on the subject of social networking sites, let me issue a few words of caution here.  I am a big fan of social networking sites like My Space, Facebook, Twitter and others.  I appreciate the way it has enabled me to reconnect with folks I haven’t seen or heard from in many, many years.  I personally am in love with Facebook at the moment. I enjoy updating my status regularly so that my fans feel like they can talk to me and keep track of what I am up to.  I even “tweet” occasionally, but as much as I enjoy it, I am fully aware that you have to use some common sense to keep it from becoming a double-edged sword and backfiring on you.  It is not smart to trash talk about folks if you don’t want it to get back to them or you are not prepared to say it to their face.  The World Wide Web is just that – WORLD WIDE people!  It is impossible to know who knows whom or who is connected to whom.  Just because someone you don’t like isn’t on your friend list and can’t see your status updates, doesn’t mean that they can’t or won’t find out about a distasteful remark that you made about them.  Take the young lady who very foolishly texted updates from her phone about a photo shoot she was on.  She complained on Facebook about the how bad the shoot was, how much she hated the director/producer, how unprofessional the whole event was…. etc.  Needless to say, someone on her buddy list knew a friend of a friend of the producer and cut and pasted her comments and forwarded them.  The young lady was quickly fired and word spread about her behavior like wildfire.  Now home girl is having a hard time getting booked.  I see models and production staff texting from location all the time.  You don’t know if they are texting about you or someone else on the set.  Bad news spreads VERY quickly in the fashion industry.  If you want to continue or further you business relationships, it would behoove you to practice some discretion on social networking sites.

The same goes for posting your photos from your portfolio on online forums/sites, particularly if you are already signed to an agent and are on their website.  I don’t know too many models who have gotten big jobs from posting their pictures on My Space, what I have seen is unscrupulous people try and take advantage of aspiring models via the internet.  If you are on your agency’s website and your agent asks you NOT to post the photos from your book on social networking sites, why would you not listen to him or her?  Newsflash!  Major clients/advertisers are NOT booking models from their My Space/Black Planet pages.  If someone is looking to book you legitimately, you can always send him or her a link to your agency website or forward him or her your agent’s info to make sure that they are on the up and up. If you are paying a fee to be on your agency’s website, so that clients can find you and see your work online (with out having to wade through pictures of you drunk with a lampshade on your head or you with very little clothing on), why would you defeat the whole idea of the “exclusivity” that comes with being signed to an agency by posting those same pictures on every website you come across? If they are avoiding the website because they can’t afford your rate or they want to cut out the middle man (i.e. your agent) – perhaps that’s not the client you want to be associated with.  Know your worth. Be smart about your business, don’t mix your business dealings with your personal stuff and for goodness sake – respect your agent/booker. Your agent generally has your best interests at heart because they don’t make money unless you do.

To watch these things happen right before my eyes breaks my heart because as someone who was there in the very beginning, I witnessed and personally experienced the hell & humiliation that many of us had to go through in order to pave this very road that so many aspiring models are taking for granted now.  And it sickens me.  Don’t get me wrong I know quite a few models who get it right on the regular and I always take the time to personally tell them how proud I am of them.  But I have absolutely no respect and no sympathy for the model that doesn’t handle her business like a professional and I mean the plus model on ANY level.  If you naively think that things can’t return to the way it was before, you are fooling yourselves.  September marks the beginning of fashion week and I challenge you all to step up your games and be the absolute best plus model that you can be.  Learn how to reinvent yourself when necessary.  Take care of your bodies and yourselves, use some common sense in your business dealings and carry yourselves accordingly.  If someone on the set pisses you off and you want to get it off your chest – go buy a journal or a diary and WRITE IT THERE!  The world is changing, attitudes are shifting and the whole business of plus modeling is about to go in whole different direction.  Be smart, take it seriously and get prepared for it now!

Please know that my words come from heart and I can tell you that I write them out of love and concern for my sisters in plus modeling.  Trust me when I tell you the world is watching our behavior and us closely, they really are.

Continued success to you all!

Love Sharon

“Check yourself Loretta, before you wreck yourself.” – Noxzema Jackson