FQ’s features editor Jessica-Belle Greer had an audience with the supermodel championing body diversity in the fashion industry – and took a lot of notes.
First thing’s first, Ashley Graham is a star. From her megawatt smile to her stirring sound bites on the power of believing in yourself, she’s blessed with a halo of light and confidence that could win over even the sourest Miranda Priestly impersonator.
The model and body image activist doesn’t get this from a 5-star facial (although she may have given it a go) – she gets this glow from years of working on her personal self-esteem and learning the importance of speaking out.
At the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival’s industry conference, the Australian Fashion Summit – held in Melbourne on International Women’s Day, no less – she took to the stage to discuss the need for diversity in fashion with editor and journalist Glynis Traill-Nash.
Here are the 5 most important things I learnt from her keynote conversation:
1. Diversity is the future
Ashley started modelling at the age of 12 after being scouted at a mall in Nebraska, her home state. When she was old enough to move out of her family home, she settled into New York City to pursue her career further – but the dream quickly became a harsh reality when she started to gain weight and had to listen to the sharp tongues of many in the industry. Calling home in tears one night, she was given a piece of advice from her mother that has changed her career forever: “Your body is going to change someone’s life.”
“I stuck in there and thank God I did because my career started to take another turn when she talked to me about how I saw myself,” retells Ashely at the Australian Fashion Forum. Countless international covers later, including Sports Illustrated, and she’s working with some of fashion’s top brands to change the face of modelling today.
While it took time, Ashley says: “The body diversity movement is not a trend, the body diversity movement is something that’s here to stay. Things that are really great and stick don’t happen overnight. We need people to take action.”
2. Take a chance on yourself
During her discussion, Ashley spoke of the frustration she felt when trying to convince her previous manager to help her build a brand and business. Seeking out new role models, including supermodel mogul Kathy Ireland and Cindy Eckert – “She made the female version of Viagra. And then she sold it for billion dollars – that’s my mentor!” – Ashley began to see the importance of taking that first step, or leap, to make your own success.
She is now developing her own clothing range, is working on a lip kit with Revlon, and is set to host the Ellen DeGeneres-backed TV show Fearless this year. “I wish I started earlier,” she says. “I always encourage people to start before you are ready. It encourages me to go out and be fearless.”
3. Find the opportunity in everything
When Ashley’s star was on the rise in 2010, a lingerie commercial she recorded for Lane Bryant was banned from TV for being too racy. While she could have seen this as a loss, Ashley chose to turn the moment, and media storm surrounding it, into leverage.
“That put me on the map, and I thought ‘I am going to capitalise off this’,” she tells. “I went to every CEO of every lingerie company that I had a relationship with and I said ‘Do you want to do lingerie with me?’ One woman said yes immediately, the CEO of Addition Elle based out of Montreal and I’m now on my 24th collection with them.”
4. We still have a way to go with diversity
Although the list of designers working with Ashley is growing, with Christian Siriano, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs at the top of this list, Ashley says she still struggles to convince some brands to dress her. “The hard part is having these conversations with the designers and asking them why they are not adding diversity in their runways, why they are not having this in their campaigns,” she says. “There was one point in my career where I was like, ‘I’m not doing any more nude shoots because they have to dress me. I am tired of lingerie and pearls and diamonds. I want to have a look. And they have to provide it’.”
5. The power of positive thinking
Ashley had to teach herself to love herself before the rest of the industry began to catch on to her cover star status, and she did that by changing her inner-dialogue with affirmations. They go:
I am bold.
I am brilliant – “Because I was diagnosed with ADD and dyslexia and it thought I was stupid.”
I am beautiful – “Because I want to understand that my cellulite, my thick hips, my round arms and my lower back fat are beautiful.”
I am worthy of all.
I love you.
“I repeat this to myself every morning and it really reminds me. It centres me before I go on stage or before I go into a big meeting. And I feel like to get into that confident zone for anyone, you have to put that time and effort in. Affirmations are huge.”