Wants the haters to kiss her ass

Cosmopolitan (UK) - - Contents - Words FARRAH STORR ★ Pho­to­graphs BEN WATTS

On the morn­ing of this cover shoot, Tess Hol­l­i­day rose early. Still bleary with sleep, she pulled back the bed cov­ers, looked down at her body and said out loud, to no one in par­tic­u­lar: “I’m a 300-pound, five-foot­three, tat­tooed mother-of-two… and I’m about to be on the cover of Cosmo.” And then she wept.

The tears have been plen­ti­ful, she tells me, since I sent her an In­sta­gram mes­sage some months pre­vi­ous with the words: “Fancy be­ing on the cover of Cosmo?” She still has the mes­sage. She took a screen­shot, then sent it to her man­ager ask­ing if it was a joke.

That Tess Hol­l­i­day is not only on this cover, but that she is one of the busiest work­ing models to­day, is, let’s be hon­est, a mir­a­cle. Be­cause how does a 33-year-old woman who grew up in a trailer in a Mis­sis­sippi cow field, with zero con­tacts in fash­ion, end up on the cover of mag­a­zines and on bill­boards across the world? How does a young woman who isn’t model height or weight and whose body is cov­ered in tat­toos (the faces of her hero­ines Dolly Par­ton, Mae West and Miss Piggy trail down her right arm like ivy) make it in one of the cru­ellest and most com­pet­i­tive in­dus­tries in the world?

The doubts started the mo­ment she en­tered the UK. Hand­ing over her pass­port, the bor­der-con­trol guard looked at her pic­ture, looked at Hol­l­i­day and then asked her what she did for a liv­ing.“I’m a model,” she ex­plained. The man paused. “What? Clothes?” he replied. She smiled. “Well, I’ll model what any­one asks me to.”

She stared back at him. He looked back at her and then… he smiled. “OK. Well, good on you,” he said be­fore wav­ing her through.

“I wish I could show you my phone,” says Hol­l­i­day, reach­ing for her bag the morn­ing af­ter our cover shoot. We are in a back­room of Shored­itch House, the hip­ster epi­cen­tre of Lon­don’s hippest club in the cap­i­tal’s hippest post­code. Around us, furtive young men in stud­ied out­fits bend over lap­tops, sip­ping hand-pressed cof­fee while talk­ing about “dis­rupt­ing” the world. By con­trast, Hol­l­i­day ar­rives in pleather leg­gings and a sexy but­ton-down top, her milky cleav­age trem­bling like two bur­rata balls.

Hol­l­i­day is tired. She wears no makeup and her hair is scraped back in the fash­ion of an ’80s ice-skater. She was “trolling” the haters last night. “There is this one shoot I did and this girl com­mented “You’re so dis­gust­ing, f*ck… how many McDon­ald’s ham­burg­ers do you eat a day?” I re­sponded to her at 3am this morn­ing, be­cause I couldn’t sleep, with: “Yeah, it’s crazy, right? I just ate a tonne of Chee­tos and I gained all this weight overnight. Weird, huh?” And then I just left it.“This isn’t ge­netic,” she says, ges­tur­ing to her size-26 frame.“This body wasn’t me sit­ting around eat­ing Chee­tos all day – al­though I f*ck­ing love Chee­tos. When I hit pu­berty, I had gi­gan­tic boobs and a butt and I was al­ready dif­fer­ent to ev­ery­one else. I have lived in a marginalised body al­most my en­tire life.”

In many ways, Hol­l­i­day rep­re­sents the era through which we are liv­ing: a time when those who con­ven­tion has pushed into the cor­ners can fi­nally step out.“Marginalised” voices and faces are slowly creep­ing into the main­stream – peo­ple like Mun­roe Bergdorf, model Win­nie Har­low and swim­mer El­lie Sim­monds have all played their part in show­ing the world that there is an­other way. But with con­se­quences. Be­cause con­ven­tion can be a nasty op­er­a­tor and when you’re stand­ing on the front line dis­man­tling it, you need a strong voice, an iron con­sti­tu­tion – and a de­voted army. Tess Hol­l­i­day, thank­fully, has all three.

Hol­l­i­day’s voice be­gan mak­ing it­self known back in 2013. Back then, she was on the pe­riph­ery of suc­cess: all the slog, hus­tle and con­stant graft was start­ing to pay off with the odd un­der­wear gig here, the oc­ca­sional mod­el­ling job there. Jus­ti­fi­ably proud (be­cause ev­ery­one said she would never make it as a model), she posted some of the shots on her Tum­blr ac­count, along with small es­says about how she had learned to love her body. In her book, The Not So Sub­tle Art Of Be­ing A Fat Girl (think part mis­ery mem­oir, part hys­ter­i­cal self-help tome), she writes: “I was not de­lib­er­ately court­ing con­tro­versy, but it was clear that many peo­ple were not used to see­ing pho­tos of some­one fat in their un­der­wear. But for ev­ery 10 peo­ple who loved it, there was some­one who loathed it. The in­sults were al­ways the same: ‘you’re fat,’ ‘dis­gust­ing’ or ‘pro­mot­ing obe­sity.’ But my mes­sage was that ev­ery­one’s jour­ney with their body should be re­spected. There is too much pres­sure on peo­ple to look or be a cer­tain way.” A few weeks later she found an on­line fo­rum dis­cussing her body. They were say­ing she was too fat to be seen in a bikini, and too big to

“I was tired of hurt­ing… I didn’t want to be here”

wear stripes or show off her arms. Fu­ri­ous, she dug out a pile of old mod­el­ling shots – one of her in a bikini, one of her in a spot­ted cropped top, one of her in a pen­cil skirt and an­other of her in a sleeve­less dress. She posted them on In­sta­gram with the words: “I want YOU to join me in wear­ing ‘dar­ing’ fash­ions & stop hid­ing your body be­cause so­ci­ety tells you to. Break out those hor­i­zon­tal stripes & hash­tag #effy­ourbeau­ty­s­tan­dards.” Within an hour it had been shared 1,000 times. Hol­l­i­day’s army was start­ing to gather. To date, the hash­tag has been used on In­sta­gram over three mil­lion times, ac­com­pa­nied by im­ages of men and women whose bod­ies defy the con­ven­tions of Love Is­land aes­thet­ics. There are stretch marks and cud­dly bel­lies and thick strong thighs that strain out of trousers, as well as the oc­ca­sional im­age of those de­fined not by weight but by race, sex­u­al­ity and dis­abil­ity.

#Effy­ourbeau­ty­s­tan­dards made the fash­ion world wake up. In 2015, Hol­l­i­day be­came the first size-22 model (a UK size 26) to sign with a ma­jor mod­el­ling agency. She stood de­fi­ant on the cover of Peo­ple mag­a­zine in the US, starred in an H&M cam­paign along­side Iggy Pop and walked at Fash­ion Weeks. Vogue US ran an ar­ti­cle that asked: “Will 2018 be the year of Tess Hol­l­i­day?” On the sur­face, it looked like it might be. But be­hind the scenes it was a dif­fer­ent story. Be­cause in 2018, she was fall­ing apart.

Like most things, she shared the news with her so­cial-me­dia army be­fore the wider world. Af­ter the birth of her sec­ond child, Bowie, Hol­l­i­day was suf­fer­ing with post-par­tum de­pres­sion. She de­scribes it as like “drown­ing” and spent the months from Jan­uary 2017 un­til spring 2018 “in the worst men­tal-health state of my life”. Com­pound­ing the de­pres­sion was a rere­lease of trauma she had faced grow­ing up in Mis­sis­sippi. She could feel a groundswell com­ing.

“It felt like the wa­ter was boil­ing over and things were com­ing to the top again,” she ex­plains.“I re­mem­ber very vividly driv­ing in the car with Bowie and I thought to my­self, ‘I wish I could just dis­ap­pear. I wish I could van­ish.’ It felt at that point like I was caus­ing ev­ery­one around me so much pain. It felt like a never-end­ing black hole. I was so tired of hurt­ing… I just didn’t want to be here any more.”

The trauma that she men­tions here is mul­ti­fold, some of it well­doc­u­mented, some of it less so. Some of her ear­li­est me­mories are of abuse: the con­stant emo­tional abuse her mother suf­fered at the hands of her fa­ther (she then left him when Hol­l­i­day was a small child), as well as the suc­ces­sion of inap­pro­pri­ate boyfriends who came through the house.“There was one who used to try and tickle me and move his hands be­yond my hips. But I never let him. When he drove me any­where, I learned to keep one hand on the door han­dle at all times,” she tells me. One of those part­ners derailed the fam­ily’s life com­pletely how­ever when, in 1995, he shot Tess’s mother in the head. Twice. Against all odds, she sur­vived but was left par­tially paral­ysed. With spi­ralling health-care costs, the fam­ily moved into an old trailer parked in the back of her grand­par­ents’ gar­den. Noth­ing ever grew there, she tells me, ex­cept this­tles. Her next tat­too, she says, smil­ing, is go­ing to be a this­tle.

“But you know, al­though we were poor, my mom made sure we never did with­out. She shielded us from our poverty.” She tells sto­ries of her mother promis­ing ice cream but only if they could play the game of col­lect­ing cans for weeks be­fore first. Or the “fun days” she would or­gan­ise where she would take Hol­l­i­day and her brother on a tour of the city.“She would take us to this bak­ery where we got to choose any treat we wanted. But it was a dis­count store where every­thing was about to go off! And there was this store in town called Hud­son Sal­vage – it’s still there – where they get stuff dam­aged by tor­na­dos and hur­ri­canes. Mum would take us there and then the li­brary. She had no money but she made every­thing spe­cial for us.” Her eyes wa­ter when she men­tions her mum, who she says is cur­rently liv­ing in the old “car port” of her grand­par­ent’s home to help care for them.

I ask if the abuse was con­fined to emo­tional and phys­i­cal abuse. She says it was, al­though she was sex­u­ally abused by a school sports coach when she was eight.“I told my mum, but it wasn’t in a ‘telling on him’ kind of way. My mum says [that I said it]

non­cha­lantly. But she flipped and pulled me from the team. I have def­i­nitely lived with my head in the clouds. I’m a naive adult.”

Then, when she was 22, the un­think­able hap­pened: she was raped. Hol­l­i­day’s book doc­u­ments this, but sug­gests it hap­pened only once. She says it hap­pened a fur­ther two times with the same per­son. “I didn’t re­alise it was rape [at the time]. Which a lot of peo­ple don’t. It wasn’t un­til I started talk­ing to peo­ple that it clicked.

“The first time I went back to his room. I thought he was cute. I was into him, but I didn’t want to have sex. He forced him­self onto me. The first time I let him do it, but I was also told I had no choice. And that’s why I didn’t re­alise it was rape. The sec­ond time I was in his liv­ing room and he started mak­ing moves on me. I didn’t want it to hap­pen and said no again, but it hap­pened again,” she tells me.

Con­se­quently, she has un­wit­tingly be­come a vo­cal lead on the MeToo move­ment.

“An old friend of mine, who I used to casually date, mes­saged me a few

months ago. He said, ‘If I ever did any­thing that made you feel un­com­fort­able, let me know, be­cause I re­alise that I prob­a­bly did some things that were not ap­pro­pri­ate grow­ing up.’ And I was like ‘Wow!’ I’ve never had any­one say that to me.”

She has fi­nally found hap­pi­ness with hus­band Nick Hol­l­i­day, a graphic de­signer from Mel­bourne, who she met on Tum­blr. (“He mes­saged me say­ing,‘I love how you in­spire women.’”) The pair dated long-dis­tance for three years be­fore he moved over.

“Nick is the first man that I’ve ever had sex naked with,” she says.“He is the first man I have had sex with more than three times – the rest were onenight stands. I never had an or­gasm be­fore Nick. He was the first per­son who when I went to turn the lights off, turned them on and said,‘You’re too beau­ti­ful to have the lights off.’”

Of course, now she says she looks back and re­grets hid­ing her body. “I was a US size 16 to 18 my en­tire life be­fore I had Ri­ley [her first son, who she had at 20]. I look back on those pho­tos now and I don’t wish I was that size, but what I wish is that I loved my­self 120 pounds ago. I’m at the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life now and it took me be­ing the heaviest to fi­nally love my­self.”

She ref­er­ences Nick a lot. Their bed­room habits in­clude cack­ling through her In­sta­gram pri­vate mes­sages.“I get all sorts – peo­ple jack­ing off, mar­riage pro­pos­als, men get­ting an­gry that I haven’t re­sponded to their 50 mil­lion mes­sages about how much they want me. Nick and I some­times lie in bed and go through my in­box be­cause it’s fun. Al­though I get a lot of dirty dick pics. We are al­ways like: ‘Could you at least wash it be­fore you send it? You know… make it look a bit more pre­sentable.’”

Nick iden­ti­fies as “queer” which, she says, means that oth­ers ques­tion their monogamy.“We are def­i­nitely monog­a­mous!” she laughs. Tess, mean­while, ad­mits to iden­ti­fy­ing as “pan­sex­ual”.

“I’ve done a lot of soul-search­ing this year and I think I prob­a­bly fall into the pan­sex­ual cat­e­gory… it’s a ro­man­tic at­tach­ment to peo­ple re­gard­less of their sex or gen­der iden­tity,” she tells me.

As the in­ter­view draws to an end, I ask Hol­l­i­day if she thinks the fash­ion in­dus­try will ever change, or whether con­ven­tion is sim­ply al­low­ing the un­con­ven­tional to have its “mo­ment” in the sun. She pauses and, for the first time, looks deeply se­ri­ous.

“Un­for­tu­nately right now it’s a lot of mo­ments. I have had peo­ple say to me: ‘Shut up al­ready with your di­ver­sity. You al­ready made it.’ But I’m not talk­ing about me and my ca­reer. I’m talk­ing about the tonne of models out there who don’t have the op­por­tu­nity be­cause they don’t have three mil­lion fol­low­ers on so­cial me­dia.”

And with that she reels off the list of meet­ings she has to get to in the next 24 hours. Be­cause it’s still all a hus­tle. It’s still all graft. But that’s what makes a mo­ment be­come a move­ment, and then fi­nally… a fix­ture.

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