“I’m running late,” I text Ashley Graham. “I ripped my jeans in the car and had to run upstairs to find something to tie around my waist.” If I’m being honest, the “rip” was more of a full-on, cheek-baring split. And in that moment, bare-assed in the back of an Uber, I could not have been more relieved to be on my way to this interview. Graham is a friend from my former life as a model—and I’ll neither confirm nor deny that she’s seen my goods before. “No wayyyyyyy,” she texts back. “I’m cool, come whenever.” Eleven minutes later I arrive at Ludlow House in Manhattan and bend over to prove my embarrassing claim, and she says, “Girl, that’s nothing!” I assure you it was not nothing. But that’s part of the Ashley Graham charm: making you feel like your self-consciousness is straight-up loco. And that’s not the first time I’ve experienced it.
When I met Graham in 2012, I had just joined the plus-size division of Ford Models and was reluctant to be categorized as “bigger than normal.” But listening to her, the agency’s soon-to-be supermodel, speak with conviction about herself and her achievements made our plus-size label feel irrelevant. Now, 17 years into her career, the 29-year-old from Lincoln, Nebraska, has hit peak fashion stardom—no qualifier necessary. She has landed the cover of Vogue, walked in Michael Kors’ runway show, and shot advertising campaigns for H&M. Each time she has succeeded, she’s made the 67 percent of American women who are above a size 14, myself included, more visible. And she’s used her personal platform to help us feel confident in our bodies, both by talking to us (via her TED Talk, Lenny Letter essay, and book, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty & Power Really Look Like) and by dressing us (with her lingerie, swim, and dress collections). In fact, for working to make women of all sizes feel valued, Glamour named her a 2016 Woman of the Year—a look-alike Barbie, with no thigh gap per her instructions, included with the trophy.
But one thing that we don’t talk about enough is how Graham is expanding the definition of what we, as a culture, consider sexy. How? By stepping out in sheer, short, skintight outfits. By posting cellulite-baring bikini pictures on Instagram. By starring as the object of Joe Jonas’ lust in DNCE’s “Toothbrush” music video. By landing the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. By being the face of this very Sex Issue. With each move she’s helping the world see that non-sample-size bodies aren’t just tolerable; they’re desirable. And the best part about Graham’s sex-symbol status: It was women who put her there. “When I met with Eva Chen from Instagram, she told me that 75 percent of my followers are women,” she says. “So if anyone wants to call me a sex symbol, it’s women. We are redefining sexy.”
Back at Ludlow House we talk about all of this—her life as a model, body activist, and sexual revolutionary. Oh, and I surprise her with bedroom questions from you, Glamour readers, which she answers with her signature candor. Listen in!
GLAMOUR: A record 27 plus-size models walked runways at New York Fashion Week this season. Who—besides us—do you think is positively affected by fashion’s growing size inclusion?
AG: Well, Michael [Kors] pulled me aside at his show and told me, “We invite customers, and there was a mother who said to me, ‘Thank you for including size diversity.’ ” Her daughter is curvy, and she got tears in her eyes when she saw herself represented. That meant a lot to him because it’s really about the customers.
GLAMOUR: You’ve been on quite a journey with Michael. He first put you in an off-the-rack dress for the 2016 CFDA Awards, and then you walked his fall 2017 runway in a custom look. Behind the scenes, are you educating the brands you work with?
AG: Of course. At the fitting for the show, there was a long fur coat that he wanted to dress me in. But I was like, “Why don’t we do the short fur? You’re going to want to show my body. You’re going to want that press.” And he goes, “You’re right.” People listen because they know that I’ve been doing this for 17 years. They want to know, “Would you wear this [in real life]?”
GLAMOUR: What’s it really like to get to a job like that and be the only non-size-2 model? Does it ever feel like tokenism?
AG: I felt like a token in the beginning [of my career]. But now there are so many curve models—and more opportunities. I feel like a queen [on those jobs] because I’m the only one like me. I’m like, “Yes, I’m the curve ruler!” [Laughs.] At the Kors show I was the only one standing around naked in front of everyone.
GLAMOUR: That sounds like a bad dream to me…tell me about it.
AG: I ripped off my clothes, put on my Spanx, and was just hanging out. Kendall [Jenner] was right behind me obsessing over the fur I was wearing in the show. Joan [Smalls] was saying, “I want your look.” Then I put on my jersey knit dress and walked.