Wants the haters to kiss her ass
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.