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First Plus-Size 'America's Next Top Model' Winner Speaks Out About Body Image

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Whitney Thompson has had big success since being the first-ever plus-size winner of "America's Next Top Model" during cycle 10. But that doesn't mean she's a big fan of the business, or of the fashion industry. ("There is no soul in modeling," she told me in an interview on Friday. And: "I applaud Vogue for having a shape issue, but screw Vogue for not having shapes in every issue.")

In fact, Thompson spends most of her time these days speaking to college-aged girls about healthy body image (see her bare all in ads for Love Your Body Day, October 23, 2010). She's even a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association, whose annual conference (held this year in Brooklyn, NY) just finished up Monday. That's how I met up with her -- through my work with young women and binge eating at HealthyGirl.org. I sat down with her a couple of days ago to talk about fashion, sample sizes, body image, eating disorders and her days in a model apartment with chain smoking, Master-Cleansing 16-year-olds. The highlights are here:

Q: First, you've never suffered from an eating disorder, so why be a spokesperson for the National Eating Disorders Association?

Whitney Thompson: I've never dealt with an eating disorder personally; I have friends who have. The reason I went on [Top Model] though, is because I wanted to change the fashion industry. Because it obviously affects people and they way that they view themselves. I mean, when the majority of all 9-year-old girls have been on a diet, we're doing something wrong. And so, even though I haven't been personally affected, it's obvious that the industry is affecting people and it does make women feel bad about themselves, or worse.

And it's totally unrealistic and we're setting people up for failure. And I don't think it's fair for especially children and younger girls to see the airbrushed images and think like, oh that's what I'm supposed to look like, or that's what beautiful is, because that's what the fashion industry tells them.

Q: Sometimes with advocates for any kind of change, there's a lot of venom. They sort of say, "Everyone is evil, look at what they're doing!" rather educating. Where do you fall?

WT: Well, I definitely try to offer solutions. There are companies that I don't agree with like Victoria's Secret and I tell people to boycott them and I tell people to write them letters and express their emotions. The thing is that we let the fashion industry define what beauty is and then we're putting our money into their pockets, and so we are fueling this. It's not all their fault, we are equally as responsible.

So I think it's important that you make it known. If you don't like girls who are size two with breast implants being waved around in front of your daughter and being told to them that that's what's beautiful, then don't support it. Cancel the magazines. Write them letters and say I don't want these girls in the magazine. Tell them if you're not going to put a size six, if you're not going to put a size eight, forget it.

Karl Lagerfeld two years ago was saying the only people who care about plus size are the fat mummies sitting on their couches eating crisps. Now he's shooting the plus issue for V, are you kidding? Really V, you forgot about that? I mean, it was a huge issue. And he has a Chanel line for plus girls and Crystal Renn's in it and it's so fake, it's so phony and people just jump on the bandwagon. So I think it's important to do research and be smart about the companies that you do support.

Q: I've heard model bookers say things that made me cringe about models right in front of them. Do you think some people treat models like they're not people?

WT: Oh yeah, models get treated like crap. Worse than anyone. We get fed last, we don't sleep, they treat you like nothing. When you think about it, everyone thinks modeling is so glamorous, but you don't get to say what you wear, you don't get to say how you look, what your hair color is, what length it is, where you live, what you do -- you have no voice at all. And the bookers -- because I was a straight-size model growing up in high school, and my hips were always one inch too big -- and, yeah, you have 45-year-old men saying, "You're too fat." You're a teenage girl. It's really disgusting. It's an awful industry and, yeah, there is no soul in modeling.

Q: Eating disorders are often genetic, but these are the types of experiences that can trigger them. A comment like that from a grownup who has your career in his hands ... how did that make you feel as a 15-year-old girl?

WT: Awful, I mean that's an awful thing. It was very mentally wearing on me. I vividly remember having a peanut butter and jelly [sandwich] on the seat next to me when I was driving somewhere and I ate half of it with no crusts and I thought I'm really hungry, I want to eat the other half and I remember like, breaking down and crying because it's so frustrating. And I'm going, like, "I don't want to be fat, I don't want my hips to be big, but I'm hungry." And I quit modeling because of it.

I said, you know what, it's not worth it, I want to eat pizza, and I want to be normal, and I just think that life is too short to not have dessert. And so I did, I quit.

Q: You quit for how long--did you quit until you went on "Top Model?"

WT: Yeah, I did. I quit and went to college for a year and I thought I wanted to be a doctor. And then I went on spring break my freshman year to Los Angeles and when I was in the airport flying back home somebody came up to me and said, I work for "America's Next Top Model," do you want to try out? They said I would be considered plus size. Because of my experiences I was like, "Oh yeah, I'd love that." Instead of thinking, "Oh no, I'm plus size," I was thinking, "This is awesome, I could do something with this." And that's what I did. And then I won! [laughs]

Q: We all know that plus in modeling and fashion does not mean what plus means in real life. Do you ever have a problem with that or for you is it just a term, a word?

WT: I'd love to introduce myself to people as a model, [but] if I do that, they look me up and down and go Really? And so I have to say I'm a plus size model. But, truthfully, size six is considered plus size and some size fours are too fat to be models. My BMI is where it's supposed to be and I workout and I eat right -- I mean most of the time. It's all about balance.

Q: Plus modeling seems to be having a real moment.

WT: Yeah, everyone is jumping on the bandwagon, but as plus girls we've been ignored for so long that it's like you know they throw us a cookie and we're thrilled about it. We are thrilled and we have to be thrilled cause we've never had anything, but at the same time I think we have to be smart about it: Great, I applaud Vogue for having a shape issue, but screw Vogue for not having shapes in every issue. It's B.S. It's frustrating. It's infuriating because we have to be excited, we have to be thrilled that there's one issue that has girls who eat. Great! But it should be in every issue. So I think we have to keep fighting. We have to celebrate and pat ourselves on the back for what we've done, but we have to do more.

Q: A lot of what we hear from straight size models is "I'm naturally thin, don't get on my case about it." True?

WT: The majority of girls who do runway shows are 16 and under. Agencies and designers look for girls who haven't hit puberty yet and so we ship these girls in from Russia and Brazil and they're 14 and they don't speak English and these are the girls that I go to castings with. That's fine, they're all great and young and "naturally skinny," when they're 14 -- most people are. But then once they hit puberty, 16 and 17, they have to do drugs, they're doing cocaine, they're smoking cigarettes all day every day, they're doing the lemonade cleanse because if they don't then they get shipped back to wherever they came from, and that's just how the industry works.

A lot of girls get depressed, some girls commit suicide, some girls starve to death, literally, and we kind of just don't pay attention to it in the industry. We don't really talk about it, but it's very common.

I lived in a model apartment with all straight [size] models. One of the girls was on the lemonade cleanse for, I think, three weeks and her skin broke out all over in boils. But she was working in Paris every weekend and that's all that mattered to her. And does the agency say anything? They're not worried she's too skinny, they're worried she looks nasty because she has boils.

But if you were going back to a country where you had nothing, and you were one of many brothers and sisters, and you lived in New York for a few years and they were going to just ship you back -- of course you would do what you had to do. It's not necessarily the girls' fault, it's not going anywhere good for them, either. There's no happy ending to any of the stories.

Q: I've heard fashion editors at magazines complaining about how hard it is to find high-fashion clothes for bigger models. Why are samples so tiny?

WT: The samples are tiny to save money. Because when you make a sample, say there's a Versace gown and it's hand-beaded and it costs Donatella $40,000 to do. And she makes it for a size six, OK a model's going wear it on the runway and it probably will never get worn again. Well, wouldn't it be smarter for her to make it in a double 0? Because she's saving all this fabric, which means she's saving beading, she's saving work on the dress and it's cheaper. She's saving a lot of money by doing it at that size. And that's I think where it started and basically where it stayed. It goes back to models having no rights or say in the industry and instead of fitting the dress to the model, they fit the model to the dress.

Q. At the Council of Fashion Designers of America's "Beauty is Health" talk in 2008, I heard Michael Kors say that if designers would change their sample sizes it would help regular women because the actresses they look up to wouldn't have to starve themselves to fit into them on the red carpet.

WT: When I did the Versace runway show for "Top Model" I had to go through like 25 dresses to find anything that would even close. It all goes back to the consumer. There needs to be an actress who says, "Yeah, I'm not losing the weight, give me a dress that's my size, bottom line." And there need to be people out there who say I'm not going to wear your clothes anymore because every model I see in your ads looks sick and I don't support that. People just need to be more verbal. It's quite easy to just write a letter. There's no excuse to not make your voice heard.

Q: Do you think that things are changing at all?

WT: Yeah, definitely. Comparatively speaking. I mean, five years ago things were not nearly close to where they are today. I think it is definitely changing with people like Tyra Banks who is so outspoken, and me, Crystal Renn -- there are a lot of girls out there who are making a difference. It just takes time, it's frustrating.

Q: Do you ever worry that your chosen profession is just not good for people?

WT: Definitely. Modeling is a terrible job. It's not so much for me anymore because I got stubborn with it and I've kind of made my own decisions. I am a "bad" model if you will. [laugh] I went back to being brunette and I live where I want to live and I work with who I want to work with and that's kind of what I do because I got tired of being told what to do which is not what models are supposed to do. But I get to my shoots on time and I get through everything early. And that's all I care about. So as long as I'm doing that, I'm happy with myself. But the majority of models are certainly not in that situation and I don't think that they think past where this picture is going and it's paycheck to paycheck in the industry. And agencies feed you a lot of whatever you want to hear: "Oh yeah, I know you're really hungry but Dolce and Gabbana called today and they're looking at your pictures, so make sure you don't get those hips up."

Q: Do you think that you being this outspoken has made things hard for you?

WT: No. [laughs] People always say, "Oh you're so outspoken!" I mean, maybe in a way. I won't work for you if I don't agree with you. When I first entered the plus world, the plus world wasn't that supportive, we need somebody bigger. And then after a time they were like, you know you might be a little thin, but you are by far the most outspoken and involved plus size model. And I'd rather be outspoken than the Chanel girl, you know? And have people listen to what I say and be allowed to say something. Because most models aren't.

Q: You spend a lot of your time speaking on college campuses.

WT: I do work things around speaking. That's what I book first, that's what fills up my calendar and then I kind of fill it in with modeling. Because modeling is great too and it's important that I keep up my modeling career or else I won't be a role model. So I still do that all the time, I've been working a lot. But I love to speak.

Q: Did you ever in a million years think that when you went on the show to launch your modeling career that you'd be launching a speaking career?

WT: No, definitely not. If anything I'd hoped to, you know, leave the country and model in Germany and Spain and probably settle down eventually. But it's been the complete opposite. Starting my own company has been a lot of work, but good and I'm kind of building an empire now more than anything and setting myself up for more work. But that's fine. I'm 23, it could be worse. [laughs]

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