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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!
Ashley GrahamWell, 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.
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]?”
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.
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.
You know, my thing is: If it's vulgar, and it's, like, me grabbing my breasts and showing nipple, I'm not going to do it. When I said, “I don't do nip and bush,” I didn't feel like I had to be specific as to what kind. So you might even see more nipple coming up. But trust me: You will never see my vagina! [Laughs.]
And then going to church on Sunday?
It's a gut intuition. I ask myself, “Is this right for me, my brand, my career, and my relationship?” Doing the music video with Joe Jonas—and making out with him—was something that I talked to [my husband] Justin about before I went in. And he understood I was playing a role. There are reasons to set boundaries for yourself, but there are also reasons to keep doors open. With that video I wanted to let the world know that love comes in all sizes.
It was a bit weird to go home after because I wanted to be like, “Babe, guess what I did today?” And Justin was like, “Do I really want to hear about you making out with another guy?”
Yeah. He is. [Laughs.]
There was an incident on set of a campaign job when I was 17 years old—I haven't told this story—and there was a photo assistant who was into me. He was like, “Hey, come here,” and he led me into a closet. And I was like, “What?” I thought he was going to show me something. And he pulled me in, and he pulled his penis out. And he was like, “Grab it.” And I was like, “No! That's disgusting.” I freaked out. And thank God I was closer to the door, and I just bolted out.
No. And sure enough, I've seen him at jobs since. I even knew a girl he dated. I didn't tell her because there was a voice in me that said, “Maybe he's changed.” It was my young mentality. But I told myself, ever since that incident, that I wasn't going to allow someone at work to manipulate what I wanted to do on set. So any image that you see out there is one that I wanted to take.
Now I know that. At the time I didn't. Then, it was like, “Did I do something to provoke that?” Or, “Did I give them a signal that it was OK?” The insecure girl inside me was like, “Well, maybe I did something.” To all those girls out there: No, you didn't do anything.
Well, when you sit down with your girlfriends, what do you talk about? Dating. So to tell my story is to share my highs and lows of dating, finding Justin, and abstaining from sex [with him] before marriage.
There was a point in my life where I had dated a terrible guy. Our whole relationship was based on sex. And I was letting him dictate who I was by his behavior, drinking problem, and abuse. One night he chased me around the kitchen with a butcher knife, and I ran into the bathroom and called my mom. I feared for my life. I was like, “He's going to slice my face open and I'm not going to have a career.” That was an eye-opening experience for me. So with my next relationship, I didn't want it to be based on sex.
He was different. He was consistent. He's safe and a little nerdy. But there's nothing basic about him. He's the adventurous one in the relationship. If we're in another country, he's pushing me to go hiking, and I'm like, “Can we lie in bed and order room service?”
He tells me, “You're the hardest-working woman I know.” And to hear it from your man is, like, a whole other thing. We don't go to bed mad at each other. We play the Nice Game—after a fight, when we're done arguing but there's still a weird energy, whoever says, “Let's play the Nice Game,” the other person has to say something nice about them. Then [we go back and forth and] we remember why we love each other. And we have a lot of sex. [Laughs.]
Yeah. I don't think there are a lot of curvier celebrities dressing übersexy. People on social media actually get pissed when I have my body covered. They're like, “Why would you cover your beautiful curves?” And it's like, “Maybe I felt like wearing a sack today!”
“Screw you.” And get out of bed. Unless you're married. Then it's like, “Bring it on, daddy.”
It's such B.S.! You don't have to turn into a vixen. I'm a nerd in bed. My hair looks crazy. My husband sometimes says I look a little cross-eyed. [Laughs.] It's really about being you.
It's always difficult. As women gain weight, they start judging themselves. But who cares! Embrace what you have. Say, “Belly, you might be poking out today, but I'm going to choose to love you and nurture you.” The more you talk to him about how you don't like yourself, the more you're training him to not like you.
She sounds like my kind of lady. Honey, I have a full bush. Period. It's about your preference and your partner's preference.
Married sex is a little different because it becomes very available. You have to make it a little unavailable, so go on dates that are out of the norm. We'll rent a crazy car and drive down the Pacific Coast Highway and then, you know, have fun in the car.
Just tell him! Men are so easy. You feed them, you support them, and you have sex with them. That's all.
Only a few things—which are in the works. Isn't that wild? But, you know, I'm a woman of faith. And I really believe that if I say, “God, this is what I want,” He says, “I'll give you your desires, as long as they line up with My will.” And why wouldn't it line up with His will for me to let women know that they should love the skin they're in?
Sexy is being redefined by women. We have control over our bodies and our voices.
Lauren Chan is Glamour's fashion features editor.
Model: Ashley Graham at IMG Models; hair: Shon at Julian Watson Agency; makeup: Sir John; manicure: Andrea Escorcia; production: Select Services.