“There are no real plus size icons for me,” The Real co-host and author Loni Love told Hello Beautiful earlier this month—ironically, while hawking her first fashion collaboration with full-figured fashion stalwart Ashley Stewart. While The Glow Up and a whole gang of Aretha, Oprah, Queen Latifah, Jill Scott, and Lizzo fans would beg to differ (not to mention anyone who’s watched Adele or Ashley Graham’s seemingly limitless rises over the past decade or more), Love then doubled down on her statement in a tweet that suggested she was specifically referring to black plus-sized models, asking “where is our Naomi Campbell?”
In the past week since those comments went viral, I’ve thought about them far more than I’d like to. That’s because for me—a woman who spent 20 years of her life as a working plus-sized model, reaching the top of her field and earning name recognition within our then-much more marginalized corner of the industry—Love’s words stung. As much as I’d love to be the type who shakes off the willful ignorance of others, thinking of the years of work, unequal pay, and occasional humiliation my counterparts, industry advocates, upstart influencers and I channeled into helping the plus industry become the “size-inclusive movement” now enjoying a toehold in the mainstream fashion industry, the cavalier attitude of Love—herself a marginalized presence on The Real’s set—was a slap in the face.
Not to mention the fact that while Love may be blissfully unaware, those of us entrenched in the plus industry have long had our “Naomi.” Her name is Liris Crosse, known to many as the model competition winner of Project Runway’s 16th season in 2017, the first plus model to do so in the series’ history. But long before she stunned the likes of Tim Gunn (who wrote the foreword to her recently released book, Make the World Your Runway: Top Model Secrets for Everyday Confidence and Success) or the men in that famous bachelor party scene in The Best Man, fashion insiders and plus industry pioneers alike regularly referred to the brown-skinned, long-legged, “Crosse with the killer walk” as the “Naomi of Plus.”
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Many on social media attempted to educate Love on this fact, and after repeated tagging, Crosse herself finally weighed in, presenting the receipts on her now decadeslong career—including her extended stint as the face of the same brand Love is now collaborating with. Inexplicably, despite what seemed to be a civil exchange, Crosse was dismissed and ultimately blocked by Love, presumably for trying to defend her—and by extension, our—place in an industry Love is now entering (fashion being adjacent to, but not the same as entertainment).
And see, Loni, this is where you got us effed up.
Aside from Crosse and myself, black women have been holding it down in the plus fashion industry—our generation alone included acclaimed and in many cases still-working beauties like Tami Fitzhugh-Thompson, Keicia Noelle, Tonya Pittman, Wyinnetka Aaron, and many more in the pre-social media era of models and influencers who helped make possible the inclusion a new generation is now enjoying.
Don’t know any of our names? We’re not surprised—but that doesn’t mean we weren’t there doing the work—just like you were, Loni.
“Let me be clear: Loni is allowed to have her opinion for sure, but I feel to whom much is given much is required,” Crosse tells me following her online exchange with Love. “She has a million followers and a TV show so she can’t make broad statements. When you present certain things as facts when that’s not the case, that’s when you have to do your research before you speak further, or be open to being educated.
“I tried my best to educate her on who I was, some plus icon history and what many plus models go thru for our ‘mainstream acknowledgment,’” Crosse continued. “Our industry is just in the past five years getting more exposure, but it doesn’t mean that there still haven’t been icons or achievements made all this time...Imagine if Loni would have really left the door open for us to communicate so she could have brought me on with fellow black plus icons of the past, present and future so we could really give them greater shine?? Instead, she said she was open but blocked me, ‘cause I guess the truth hurt.”
My longtime agent Gary Dakin agrees. Having not only pioneered the plus division of the world-renowned Ford Models but subsequently co-founding acclaimed size-inclusive agency JAG Models, Dakin has been one of the architects of the full-figured modeling industry. In fact, he has discovered and/or fostered the careers of many of its now-famous faces—including Ashley Graham, Crystal Renn, Iskra Lawrence, Candice Huffine, Mama Cax, Marquita Pring, Julie Henderson, Myla Dalbesio, Precious Lee, Sabina Karlsson, Philomena Kwao, former Miss Teen USA Kamie Crawford and many more. And speaking from my own experience, Dakin has also long been a champion of black models in the industry he helped build.
“We’ve been having this conversation for 20 years,” he says when I ask his opinion on Love’s comments. Unlike many, Dakin is reluctant to jump on the “she is wrong bandwagon,” preferring to treat it as a teachable moment about marginalization.
“There’s a way to talk about the women who did all the work and didn’t get the status and the notoriety and the name recognition,” he continues. “This work was already done, and they opened the door. So, like any other industry, people that have broken the mold often go unrecognized and unappreciated—and many times, that is people of color, people of a different size, people out of the ‘norm’ from what the idea of beauty is. Now that we’re creating that and everyone’s embracing it doesn’t mean that the work hasn’t been going on for the past 20 years...it just wasn’t in a time that everything was documented second-to-second on social media.”
For instance: unbeknownst to most, ours was the generation that helped bring the previously marginalized plus market into new perspective as we graced the pages of our own high-fashion editorials in the then-wildly popular Mode magazine (no affiliation with Ugly Betty, but then considered the “Vogue for plus-size women”—and helmed by black editor-in-chief Corynne Corbett). Those editorials, many of them styled by yet another black plus pioneer, Susan Moses, have been widely credited with helping give the industry insight into the fact that bombshell beauties come in sizes above a sample size—and with our own ample audience and platform.
Ours were also the faces that helped launch the plus lines of established designers like Tahari, Michael Kors, and Tommy Hilfiger (where I was the first black plus model to garner five-figure campaigns). We were the first to star in major shows during Fashion Week, where indisputable icons like Queen Latifah, Aretha, and Anna Nicole Smith appeared alongside us on Lane Bryant’s biannual catwalks, then positioned by parent company Limited Brands as the full-figured counterpoint to their Victoria’s Secret fashion shows. We were the first generation of plus models to have billboards in New York City’s Times Square and shoot with famed photographers like Patrick Demarchelier, Carter Smith, Mathew Rolston and Walter Chin. And ultimately, we were the first to land even fleeting appearances in mainstream fashion publications like Glamour, O and even Vogue.
But all of that pales in comparison to the impact we had on our community of women, and the respect and reverence we had for the women who made our moment possible, including industry pioneers like Sharon Quinn, Chenese Lewis, Lisa Scott and Angellika Morton, who was the first plus model of any ethnicity to be inducted into the International Model Hall of Fame. Those are the women, along with better-known names like Emme, Natalie Laughlin and Kate Dillon, who were our mentors; just as we, in turn, mentored many of the industry’s current stars (yes, including Ashley Graham). Case in point: In addition to still modeling full-time, Crosse turned her extensive experience into her popular “Life of a Working Model Bootcamps.”
“One of the things I teach my ladies is: immerse yourself in the culture as a model to make it,” she advises. “Study the history, go to events, follow people on social media so you can really learn the business.”
The same advice could be useful to Love, were she humble enough to accept it. Instead, she glibly advised us to “Look up icons and black plus size... Thxs.”
“Here is my thing,” says Dakin. “I think since the idea of plus-size ‘fashion’ is actually a [still relatively] new one when it comes to designers, the entire industry has been desperately lacking role models over a sample size. But it only takes a little bit of digging to find the Angellika Mortons, the Maiyshas and the Tamis of the world that was the [plus] industry, and the women who paved the way for today’s new lineup...Many more were doing the work without the accolades so freely bestowed by social media or those not in the know about an industry before the internet became a factor in ‘history.’”
“Black models, particularly black plus models have been around for years doing the work!” echoes Crosse. “It’s a shame that the industry and mainstream media will many times appoint just one model of color at a time or even just one plus model, period. Times are evolving and we’re seeing changes with diversity in size and shape but I want to see more with race; I also want to see our own celebrate us, from blogs to fashion mags.”
But perhaps what’s most disturbing—to me, at least—are the metrics by which Love is classifying worthiness or “icon” status, which would appear to be solely through a white, sample-sized, mainstream gaze. Since she herself can only tick one of those three boxes (thanks in large part to The Real), Love’s cavalier dismissal of women who represent the same demographic she does smacks of a type of elitism that rarely expands to even include her, despite her visibility and privilege. It’s a bitter pill to swallow (erasure does leave an aftertaste)—especially from the sole woman tasked with representing the well-documented majority of American plus-sized women on her daytime talk show.
This past July at Essence Fest, I found myself seated at brunch alongside one of my plus icons, Living Single’s Kim Coles. As I greeted her, referencing a shoot we did together over 15 years ago, she said, “You don’t have to remind me, Sis. Of course, I remember; you were one of the first black plus supermodels!” What moments like that and many others remind me is that while we may not be “real plus size icons” for you, Loni, to the legions of women who found validation in us because they weren’t seeing themselves elsewhere, that representation was transformative—and that’s the gaze that matters most.
But perhaps Plus Model magazine said it best:
We don’t dispute Love’s career accolades or her contribution in empowering women with those boss moves. However, after that interview, her recent interactions with plus size women, most of whom are Black, are not empowering other plus size women. What it’s doing is showing a side of Love that is not plus positive at all...
Your words are not helping to elevate us, Loni Love. And that’s not the definition of empowering plus size women.
Instead of blocking our voices, we hope you will consider humbling yourself and actually listening to what we’re saying. You might actually find that plus size icon you seek in the process and learn more about the plus size industry.
Oh, and you’re welcome.