What it's like to break into plus-size modeling, from 4 women doing it now

The final four, from left: Sophia Ervin, Julia Rose Miller, Seairra Thompson, and Haley Rudolph. (Photo: Torrid.com)

The first Torrid fashion show during New York Fashion Week received mixed reviews. Some called the plus-size retailers’ NYFW debut “a rare moment of the real,” while others believed the brand, unfortunately, helped to “reaffirm fashion’s disdain for fat people.

Regardless of whether you liked the clothes or not, the moment marked a turning point in the body-positivity movement in a world where skinny rules. As for the runway models themselves, 10 were chosen from 15,000 applicants to Torrid’s third annual model search. The contest is now down to the final four. The winner will represent the brand in advertising campaigns and public appearances for a year.

Of 2017’s contestants (up by 5,000 over the year before), the final four — one of whom will be deemed the winner at the end of the year — include two Texans, a Californian, and a Canadian, all under 25. And though they are young, some of their stories are profoundly heartbreaking and inspiring in one breath.

Torrid held five live castings for this year’s competition, though contestants could also apply online. Finalist Haley Rudolph, a 24-year-old financial analyst from Toronto, applied “on a whim,” she says. “People have told me in the past that I should model, but I’m risk averse,” Rudolph tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “One of the reasons I applied was because there are models I follow who inspire me to love myself more, like Ashley Graham or Candice Huffine or Maria Gimena, who won last year.”

After the castings were completed and online submissions closed, Torrid executives and a panel of celebrity judges — including Project Runway Season 14 winner Ashley Nell Tipton and makeup artist Priscilla Ono, as well as Huffine — helped pick the top 10 finalists, who then participated in test photo shoots.

When the contest opened this year, Torrid hadn’t announced that applicants would have a chance to walk in New York Fashion Week. That surprise came later.

“I started bawling when I found out. My fake eyelashes were coming off!” recalls finalist Julia Rose Miller, a 20-year-old from Austin, Texas. “I was going to New York Fashion Week. Everything I wished for was coming true.”

All four finalists agree that walking the Torrid show represented a marked shift in an industry that has almost always excluded women above a size 12. Even though the majority of American women (67 percent) are considered plus-size, most retailers — and certainly not luxury brands — do not carry sizes larger than an 8 or 10. That’s despite the fact that the plus-size market represents $80 billion in latent demand.

“When I was younger, I was always trying to squeeze myself into straight sizes,” says Rudolph. “There was something psychologically ingrained in me where I wasn’t accepting the size I was, and I wanted to fit straight sizes and fit in with everyone else.”

But the inclusion in New York Fashion Week now means the finalists, as well as other plus-size women, can start to feel validated after years of the media, fashion brands, and people in their lives telling them otherwise.

“For a long time, I struggled with my weight and I hated the person I saw in the mirror,” Miller tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There was a point when, people don’t know, but I lost a lot of weight because even though I was dieting and eating healthy, I was also bulimic. I was sticking my hand down my throat because I had to be the one-digit, perfect size.”

Finalist Seairra Thompson, a 19-year-old from Berkeley, Calif., also describes a difficult path to self-love.

“I was plus-sized, I looked nothing like my [high school] peers, and they let me know every day. Everything about me was targeted,” Thompson says. Suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalizations stained her high school years. “I felt I didn’t deserve to be alive because of how gross people said my body was.”

It wasn’t until a scout approached her about modeling that she felt any sense of self-worth, Thompson remembers. “I thought, ‘This is my body; this is me.’ I can’t throw me away.”

That doesn’t mean everything’s suddenly simple now for each of the four women. Not only are there malicious online commenters, but there are other plus-size women who have criticized the finalists for not being big enough.

Some of [the Torrid contestants] said I wasn’t plus-size enough and I didn’t represent them, that they couldn’t connect with me. That made me so unbelievably sad, like I didn’t belong anywhere,” Sophia Ervin, a full-time student and restaurant server, says. “I’ve never been told I was too skinny before that.”

Bolstering their social-media profiles is also challenging for some of the finalists (“I wasn’t confident putting myself out there; doing that brings criticism,” says Thompson), but it’s what they signed up for. The Torrid Model Search contest rules indicate that if selected, you must have at least one public social media account, Facebook or Instagram, on which you post regularly and interact with the public.

But as the end of the competition approaches — voting closes on Oct. 29 — each woman is finding it harder to imagine a life without modeling fitting in somewhere, because what may have been a confrontational, intimidating experience before now feels like the future. “I feel so amazing in front of the camera; I feel so comfortable there,” says Ervin. “I can’t not do it.”

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