With it being Black History Month, what a perfect time to celebrate the career of Chenese Lewis, one of the plus size industry’s pioneers.
Our #MyPlusJourney series will share the many stories of those within the plus size community who have persevered and thrived throughout their lives despite immense challenges. These individuals continue to inspire and empower others in the process.
The definition of being a visionary is a person who is ahead of his/her time and has a powerful plan for change in the future. Lewis embodies that and more.
Before Instagram and other social media outlets as well as before the term “body positivity” became a trendy catchphrase, she was making major moves within the plus size industry by creating/producing events for the community and using the media and marketing campaigns as a way to amplify her voice, pushing for more body acceptance and diversity.
To say that Chenese Lewis is one of the top plus size trailblazers of the 21st Century is an understatement.
Lewis is celebrating her 20th anniversary within the plus size industry this year, where she continues to remain front and center, as a relevant voice for our community and for marginalized people everywhere.
Her vast career over the last twenty years has included a successful podcast, prominent hosting gigs and nationwide modeling campaigns. With all of her achievements and accomplishments, some are surprised to learn that her career began in pageantry and not in media.
She was the first woman to be crowned Miss Plus America in 2003 and little did she know, this would catapult her career into something greater and life-changing.
She shared with us:
“Initially, I competed in the pageant because I was trying to break into the industry and was looking for ways to gain exposure. Being from a small town, there were little to no opportunities where I lived. Upon entering, I had to choose a pageant platform to promote during my reign and decided to choose ‘Positive Body Image’. At the time, body positivity wasn’t as popular as it is now, so I had to constantly explain to people what my platform meant.”
It was that platform choice that led her to begin her journey of empowering women to love and accept themselves as they are, at all sizes, shapes and colors. It helped her hone her passion to push for change within the plus size industry:
“The biggest way pageantry helped me was by defining my passion early on, so my vision was always clear about what I wanted to accomplish. A monthly pageant obligation served as the catalyst for my brand. Years later, my devotion to ‘Positive Body Image’ has remained strong.”
One of the ways Lewis brought plus size women together was by focusing on community via events and marketing campaigns that celebrated body positivity.
She served as President of the Hollywood chapter of National Organization of Women (NOW) from 2006-2011, where she created and produced an event to celebrate Love Your Body Day, a day declared by NOW as a way to fight against the negative body images and stereotypes in Hollywood and instead promote a healthy body image for women and young girls.
That event included an inclusive fashion show that showcased plus size designers and brands.
Lewis saw the importance of showing every day women of all sizes on the runway while supporting the plus size fashion industry.
The fashion show segment of Love Your Body Day also showed Lewis that a lot of work needed to be done when it came to body acceptance. She admits that it was a lesson that taught her to never make concessions when it came to her vision:
“When I produced Love Your Body Day, I received complaints from someone in the organization that the models I used were too fat and unhealthy. I found it ironic since the title of the event was ‘Love Your Body’! Since I produced the event under the organization, I compromised my vision. I still used all plus size models but changed the line up the following year to all size-14 models, which at the time was the average size woman in America.
I still got a complaint, saying that all the models were 100 pounds overweight. I learned the hard way that everyone’s version of ‘loving your body’ is not the same and I should have continued with my original vision. When you do things with people that are not a part of the plus community, you will get negative feedback for using plus size models, because unfortunately everyone does not believe in celebrating women of all shapes and sizes.”
With the recent inclusion of plus size models on mainstream runways, Lewis feels it’s more about profit than it is about truly celebrating larger bodies:
“If it’s profitable for brands to include plus size models then it will continue. If it isn’t, they won’t. I think it’s a misconception that brands are focused on being body positive and wanting to build women’s self-esteem, when in reality they are just trying to keep their business lucrative and not go bankrupt.
If something positive is a byproduct, it’s a bonus, but it’s not the top objective for most. Just as I received negative feedback for using plus size models, I’m sure mainstream shows do as well and ten times worse. That’s why it’s so important for us as a community to publicly celebrate and support brands and individuals that do groundbreaking things so they can continue to thrive.”
Love Your Body Day was a tremendous move in our industry as Lewis worked with celebrities such as actress Kim Coles and plus model Mia Tyler as event hosts, partnered with Skorch Magazine to have a “real women” model search and launched the Flawless Calendar, featuring women sizes 8 to 22 in high fashion imagery.
NOW Chapter President Lindsey Horvath said in 2007 about Lewis:
“Hollywood NOW works to identify and address the concerns relevant to women today. Chenese’s leadership for Love Your Body Day is just one way we show how feminist activism brings women together to create the world we all envision for ourselves, the world we know is possible for women.”
Lewis also booked a modeling gig with Torrid in 2004, at a size 22. This was during a time where most brands were using sizes 8 to 14 models so this was considered a major deal for Torrid to use a size-22 model.
In 2010, she starred in the Love Your Body Campaign, alongside America’s Next Top Model cycle 10 winner Whitney Thompson, which went viral internationally, being seen on media outlets such as E! News, Extra, and People.com.
Lewis also knew the importance of reaching the community via media. She launched her own podcast in 2008, well before the popularity of podcasts we see now.
She credits the community and industry support she received to be the key to her success for staying relevant and successful with her podcast in the last 12 years.
It was also a way for her to gain experience in interviewing and ended up positioning her to become one of the leaders in our industry within the podcast space.
“When I launched my podcast, I lived in Los Angeles and was pursuing a career as an actress, plus size model and television host. I enrolled in classes to hone my skills on-camera, such as working with a teleprompter and conducting red-carpet interviews for award shows.
I created the podcast to sharpen my interviewing skills as suggested by my teacher, Idalis De Leon, who was an MTV VJ from the 90’s turned TV host coach and media strategist. My podcast was the first that catered to the plus size fashion and modeling industry. When choosing the direction of my podcast, I decided to focus on the plus size industry because I was already industry-recognized, and it wasn’t hard for me to get the show off the ground with partnerships such as PLUS Model Magazine, influential guests and listeners.
She also recognizes the importance of creating unmatched quality content that is comparable to a mainstream outlet:
“In 2019, my show was featured in the Podcast Business Journal as a successful podcast in a niche market and my interview with plus model Jessica Milagros of Big Brother Season 21 was quoted in the Chicago Tribune. I pride myself as being a reputable platform for the plus size industry.”
Her career has not gone without hardships. In 2014 and 2016, she suffered major life tragedies. In 2014, Lewis fell ill and was put on life support. In 2016, she was one of the many individuals affected by the Louisiana floods, where she lost everything.
Lewis remained resilient and pushed through, always maintaining a positive attitude and not letting those factors limit her career. She shares:
“What kept me positive during my traumatic times in life was believing my situations were not permanent, the support of my family, and never losing hope. While I was on life support, the ventilator kept me breathing. My arms were tied to the bed; I had 3 IVs attached to me, a catheter in me, and compression stockings on my legs. I never thought I was going to die; I didn’t even have anxiety. I believed and prayed that I would walk out of the hospital fully recovered and I did.
Then only two years later, losing everything in a natural disaster was devastating. I spent two years displaced with a lack of material things, but all material things can be replaced. I believed that my home would be restored and better than it was before, and it was. I thrived amongst tragedy because I never lost hope that things would get better, so I never remained stagnant and kept moving forward. No matter what you are going through in life, keep faith in God and never give up! If God brings you to it, He will bring you through it!”
Lewis’ story is so incredible and one that many should draw inspiration from. She is a leader, she is a motivator, she is a visionary and most of all, she is our sister in the plus size industry.
Her belief that community should be the focus on bringing plus size men and women together to celebrate body diversity and positivity helps keep this industry flourishing and moving forward.
Lewis continues to host events, get booked for lectures and workshops nationwide, and serves as the Chief Creative Officer for Chenese Lewis Productions, LLC, a media company she established in 2007. Her podcast continues to feature in-depth interviews with those in the plus size industry making their own impact in their respective fields.
Special thanks to Chenese Lewis for talking to us and for her contributions to the plus size industry. Here’s to 20 more years of pushing change and continuing to empower women to have a positive body image!
You can stay updated with the latest news on Chenese Lewis and her appearances here.
You can learn more about her podcast The Chenese Lewis Show and listen to weekly episodes here.
Do you have an inspiring story to share? Use the hashtag #MyPlusJourney on social media and make sure to follow us too! @plusmodelmag: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
(Images courtesy of Chenese Lewis)