Tess Holliday isn’t your typical supermodel. She’s not even your average plus-size model. At 5’ 5” and 280 pounds, she’s making a splash as the first model of her size (which is a 22, thank you very much) to sign to a major modeling contract. But she’s everything. See:
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And here’s what you need to know about her:
She’s always wanted to be a model. Tess, 29, (born Ryann Hoven, then she went by Tess Typhoon, then Tess Munster, now she’s using her fiancé, Nick Holliday’s, surname) grew up in Laurel, Miss. and says she “wanted to become a model out of delusion.”
Tess told NPR, “It was always something that I wanted to do...Then as I got older I wanted to do it even more because there was no one in the media -- especially modeling clothing -- that was petite and that was bigger than a size 16. I wanted to kind of be that person.”
She chased that dream, even when it seemed impossible. Tess did not have an easy childhood -- her earlier years were plagued by domestic violence; in her teens, her family was constantly moving. On top of that, she was bullied relentlessly in school, to the point where she felt she had to drop out.
"It took a really long time to get over things that had happened to me during the vital years of my life," she opened up to NY Daily News. She went on her first modeling audition in Atlanta when she was 15, and was told even then that she was “too short and big” and would be “lucky to even do catalogue work.”
It didn’t get easier when she grew up and got inked: “It’s hard enough to break into my industry when you’re my height and my size,” Tess says. “[But] there’s not many clients that will hire you if you have Miss Piggy tattooed on your arm.” Still, she never gave up.
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She was discovered on social media. When she wasn’t booking gigs, Tess took matters into her own hands and started posting modeling shots online. Her first official gig, as the face of the A&E show Heavy, she booked off her Model Mayhem site.
But she got signed to MiLK Model Management, a major U.K.-based agency, off of Instagram. With nearly 900,000 fans on Facebook and 700,000 followers on Instagram, it was hard to miss Tess.
"I started following her, and saw how many followers she had -- more than most models,” MiLK owner and director Anna Shillinglaw says. "She's such an important role model for so many women."
Now, Tess is using her social media power to make a change. “I have this passion inside of me to help other women feel confident and comfortable in their bodies,” Tess explains to People in their new Body Issue, for which she is the cover girl. She started the hashtag #EffYourBeautyStandards, “As a small step in that direction,” she says.
And then it took off: “It’s become a movement,” she continues. “Millions of women have joined me, letting me know that they now feel good about how they look and are free to wear what they like. I get the most unbelievable letters and emails from women every day. They are so honest and heartfelt.”
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She doesn’t care if you call her “fat.” “The reality is I am fat. It’s a word. It’s an adjective,” she explained in a profile by Buzzfeed News. “And I don’t care.”
Ditto to calling her plus-size: “I feel like it’s a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time,” she says of the campaign to rid the fashion industry of the “plus” label -- though that label generally applies to models who are between sizes eight and 16.
Tess continues, “The term [plus-size] is never used in hate...It’s an adjective. I am plus-size. It’s like getting mad that somebody calls me a redhead. I am a redhead.”
But just know she won’t cover that “fat” up. "I really want to be able to show my body off,” she said on set of her People shoot. “There haven't been many plus-size women at all showing their bodies in a big magazine. They're usually always covered up. I really like to portray something sexy and positive for plus size women.”
Which is why you’ll often see Tess donning lacy lingerie and two-piece bathing suits for her photoshoots -- and the selfies posted on Instagram In the past, she tells LA Weekly, “I’d wear the most beautiful dress and ruin it by putting on a frumpy cardigan, because I was too afraid to show my arms.”
“[Now] I’ll often think, ‘Is this going to piss people off because I’m showing off my body?’ If I think it will, then I’ll wear it,” she attests. “People put their fears on others. Just because you’re afraid of being fat, don’t put that on me. I’m not recruiting people to be fat. I’m just existing in this body and I’ve found a way to love it.”
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As for people who mask their criticism of her body as concern for her health? Tess doesn’t want to hear it. "Size isn't an indicator of health," she’s said, noting that she works out four times a week. "I don't smoke. I barely drink. I work 15-hour days, I'm getting married this year and I have a [9-year-old] son."
She’ll probably be working even more soon: She’s been named a top plus-size model by Vogue Italia, and has booked campaigns with Torrid and U.K. brands Yours Clothing and Simply Be. With her newfound fame, who’s to know what will come next. Vogue?
We hope so.
Speaking of plus-sized women changing the world, ET spoke to ‘Fat Girl Walking’ blogger Brittany Gibbons about her message of acceptance: