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n a world in which self­ac­cep­tance seems rare, model Ash­ley Gra­ham, 28, hap­pily em­braces the ob­vi­ous: She. Is. Gor­geous. “I love my hour­glass fig­ure,” she says. “You can be sexy and feel good in your skin, no mat­ter what size you are.”

Ash­ley’s break­out came when she was Sports Il­lus­trated’s first-ever size 18 cover star in Fe­bru­ary, closely fol­lowed by a screen-melt­ing role in DNCE’S ‘Tooth­brush’ video. She has over 2.7 mil­lion In­sta­gram fol­low­ers, is the face of H&M Stu­dio and a judge on Amer­ica’s Next Top Model. But the Ash­ley ef­fect is most pro­nounced in ev­ery­day places: women sit up taller when she’s around. They want to talk to her. Of­ten, they walk away beam­ing.

The Ne­braska na­tive has built her ca­reer around self-love af­fir­ma­tions (“My thighs are so sexy, they can’t stop rub­bing each other,” she tweets) and the gospel of #Beau­ty­be­yond­size. She prefers the term cur­va­sex­a­li­cious to plus-size (“We don’t say, ‘My skinny friend.’ Why do big girls have a la­bel?”).

Her procla­ma­tions re­flect warmth, hard-won self-ac­cep­tance and pas­sion to change how we see our­selves – and have cat­a­pulted her onto the front lines of a grow­ing body-pos­i­tiv­ity move­ment. She proudly flaunts so­called flaws, cel­lulite and all, and is re­brand­ing what it means to be sexy based on one qual­ity: con­fi­dence.

Ash­ley didn’t start off ex­pect­ing to re­shape the con­ver­sa­tion around women’s bod­ies, though, and her suc­cess as­tounds her. But it took 16 years of hus­tling while agents urged her to stay in the plus-size lane, rather than aim for high fash­ion or Hol­ly­wood.

She was scouted at a mall at age 12, al­ready 175cm tall and a size 14. “The agency didn’t say plus-size, but it was au­to­matic be­cause plus starts at size 10.” That’s not to say she was in­se­cure about the term. “Con­fi­dence starts at home,” she says, “and some­thing my mother never did was look in the mir­ror and say she was ugly or fat.” But Ash­ley wasn’t im­mune to teenage strug­gles. “I al­ways felt sec­ond best be­cause I was never the pret­ti­est, skin­ni­est, fastest or smartest (I have dys­lexia). Then, all of a sud­den, peo­ple were like, ‘You’re gor­geous.’”

Within a few years, she was fly­ing around the world for gigs, then re­turn­ing to her mother, Linda’s, “chore-ori­ented” home. She cred­its her fam­ily for her level head. When pho­tog­ra­phers on set would fawn over her, her re­ac­tion wasn’t, “Wow, I’m so pretty!” she says. “It was more like, ‘Cool! What is this world?’”

At 17, she signed with Wil­helmina Mod­els and moved alone to New York City. She soon dis­cov­ered the in­dus­try’s uglier as­pects and, af­ter one agent waved cash in her face and said, “You can make a lot more of this if you lose more,” her body im­age took a dive.

She tried ev­ery pos­si­ble diet, but none stuck. Her con­fi­dence and sense of con­trol over her body plum­meted. “I went from a size 14 to a size 20,” Ash­ley says, “It was a dark place.”

She couldn’t see her­self as beau­ti­ful at size 20, but more than that, “It was the way I was treat­ing my body. I didn’t un­der­stand the health as­pect.” The for­mer school bas­ket­ball and vol­ley­ball player stopped ex­er­cis­ing, los­ing her tone. Within a year of mov­ing to New York, “I looked at my­self in the mir­ror and said, ‘I hate you. You’re so gross.’”

Her crum­bling self-es­teem pro­pelled her through toxic ro­mances. “I dated all the wrong men. I thought I could feel ap­pre­ci­ated through guys.” When one boyfriend dumped her, “He said,

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