Tess Holiday: Modeling Against All Odds
by Danielle Young
Plus model, Tess Holiday, has never believed in walls–you know, those things that box you in and keep your mind limited. They’ve never had a place in Tess’s life because she’s always refused to let her circumstances define who she is. Growing up in the deep south of Mississippi, all a little girl like Tess could do was dream. She always knew she would be something special. So once Tess heard about plus model auditions in Atlanta, GA, she knew she’d make her dream tangible. But it was that very audition where Tess was able to see that no one else looked like her and she was even told that she’d be doing print ads for the rest of her life because she was just too short. Standing at a petite 5’4″, Tess stayed positive and relocated to Seattle at the request of a friend and stayed for two years. She then moved back home to Mississippi to give birth to her son with her family near. Then tragedy stuck–Hurricane Katrina forced Tess to make yet another move and she found herself in Seattle again, then L.A–all within four years. It was that move to L.A. that pushed Tess’ career forward in such an unexpected way. Tess sat down with PLUS and detailed her journey, setbacks and triumphs and she left me with such an incredible since of conquering that after speaking with her, I felt I could take over the world. Let Tess’ story inspire you to achieve whatever it is you want no matter what stands in your way.
Danielle: How did being different affect your journey?
Tess: It affected me. It’s hard to say. My father was never supportive of me wanting to be a plus size model. When I went to the open call for Wilhemina and Elite, he laughed at me and told me that since I’m not good enough to be a regular model, I had to be a plus size model. I had that same comment from a lot of people and I remember thinking that there was something wrong with me. I remember seeing all these Glamazons and thinking to myself that I didn’t belong. For a while, it affected my confidence. I never thought I was going to be able to be where I wanted and lived my dream. That’s where the self esteem issues, me having a child and not being married, that was added in. If I had more confidence, I would have been a little bit more careful about putting myself in situations that I did. It ended up working out. After I had him, I decided I needed to pull it together.
Danielle: When you had your son, how do you feel your life changed?
Tess: I was selfish for sure. I realized I had to care for somebody else and I couldn’t be as impulsive as I was before. He really made me want to take modeling more seriously. When I was younger, I squandered opportunities and I really didn’t care as much. Once I had him, I was 20, which is still young, but by Mississippi standards, I was doing good. [laughs] Most of my friends had three children, so I thought I was doing pretty good. He made me have the drive that I needed to put myself out there. It was the first time that I started being ok with the size I was because before, I had always wished I looked like everyone I saw in the magazines. It wasn’t until I had him that I thought I looked good. I only gained 20 pounds because I was already plus sized to begin with.
Danielle: What was the big break?
Tess: It kind of all started at once. Right when I moved to L.A., one of my good girlfriends told me to model for Torrid. I remember thinking one of my dreams was to model for Torrid. I didn’t even think past that. When I moved to L.A., they did their house of dreams model search. I sent in a headshot and full body picture of my 25th birthday. They contacted me and told me I was one of the finalists. The same day I found out A&E chose me to be the face of Heavy.
Danielle: How did it balance out trying to be a model for Torrid at the same time you were coming into being the “Face of Heavy?”
Tess: I felt conflicted when I was doing Torrid and Heavy at the same time because I was doing photo shoot for Heavy, shooting the commercial and I was also trying to get the vote for Torrid. I was trying to have people support me for my size and I felt part of me was supposed to be ashamed for being overweight. With Heavy, in the shots, I was supposed to be somber but then they wanted me to say, “You can do this or you can be this.” With Torrid, it’s about embracing your size, loving how you look, the clothes you were and letting that show. I felt conflicted. I got a lot of really hurtful thing said to m by some Torrid fans because they didn’t think I was big enough to be a Torrid model. I remember thinking, “I’m an 18/20 and I don’t necessarily want to be!” [laughs] They would want to see their size of 26/28 and I told them that Torrid does pick real women. We’re really plus sized and curvy. I always had a smaller face. Torrid had our headshots up there and I feel like it’s funny that you would think that community was loving, but instead there was a lot of anger towards Torrid for not picking plus size models. They do! You want clothes to look a certain way, so you pick certain models with a look that will accentuate the clothes.
Danielle: So you’re the “Face of Heavy” without actually being on the show?
Tess: Right. It’s a show about morbidly obese people. I didn’t know what the show was about. I didn’t know what angle they were going in. I’m obviously proud to represent everyone on the show. I know some of them personally now by being the face of the show that changed their lives. I feel like a cheerleader. At the same time, it’s hard for me because I’m not morbidly obese–although I am overweight, but I’m not at the point that they are. I don’t have a health condition and I’m not going to die if I don’t lose weight. I just happen to be curvy. I think that was messing with my head a bit. It’s a job. Who would turn down a job to be the face of a television show? They’re not doing it for money, they’re doing it because if they don’t, they’ll die. I feel like they don’t exploit them. The weight loss is ongoing.
Danielle: How do you feel about shows that concentrate on overweight people?
Tess: The casting director for Heavy works for the same production company that produces Biggest Loser. Before I knew that I had Heavy, she asked if I wanted to do Biggest Loser. I told her no. I thought about it and a lot of people still think I’m crazy. I don’t think that weightloss should be a competition. It’s almost embarrassing. Dance Your Ass Off and Huge bother me. I was really angry over what the Marie Claire columnist said about The Mike & Molly Show. I adore the actress that plays Molly. I’m a huge Gilmore Girls fan. She was the first real plus sized actress. When I saw her character, I thought it was fabulous that the whole time they were on, she stayed plus sized and didn’t lose the weight. To hear the columnist say the horrible things she did about watching fat people make out, I was just livid. Just because I’m “fat,” I can’t make out with my boyfriend and people think I’m gross? I wish there was show where they represented women in a light that we really are–that we have a lot to say. I don’t think we all need to lose weight. It’s not about being skinny, it’s about being healthy.
Danielle: What do you have coming up next?
Tess: There’s a couple more “fatshion” blogs that are featuring me, which is really cool. I meet a lot of people that way. Currently, I still do things I do before–I model hair accessories and things like that. I’m speaking with more plus size clothing lines. The biggest thing that I was contacted to do was audition for Vh1’s The Big Girls Club. We’ll see where that goes. It would be fantastic if I could represent us girls on there. I’m trying to see where it goes. It’s all so new. I’m putting myself out there, so I’m hoping to work more and encourage women. I’ve had a lot of women who I never knew, but saw my picture and they contacted me through Facebook and they tell me that I’m an inspiration. It’s crazy because I feel like just an average person and I’m getting emails from people telling me they look up to me because I’m not a size 2.
Follow Tess Tess Holiday on IG @tessholliday