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Porter
Cover story

Passion and Purpose

With

Ashley Graham

It would be easy (and lazy) to peg ASHLEY GRAHAM as the model who put ‘curvy’ on the fashion map, but that would be doing the activist, author, podcaster, entrepreneur and mother a huge disservice. Here, she talks to PHOEBE LOVATT about living bravely, what acceptance really looks like, and why she’s not sweating the small stuff any more

Photography Yelena YemchukStyling Natasha Royt
Cover Stories
This image: dress, Brock Collection; fringed clutch, Bottega Veneta; tights, Wolford; sandals, A.W.A.K.E. Mode; earrings, Pomellato; rings, Anita Ko. Opening image: dress, Tove; earrings, Eéra; Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko

It’s a Monday morning in late March and Ashley Graham is showing me her underwear over Zoom. When I asked what she has been wearing to navigate these sartorially confusing months of quarantine and virtual meetings, she angled her laptop camera to give a full look at her black, high-waisted briefs. (From the waist up, she is bare-faced and elegant in a simple ecru sweater – and, apparently, I am “lucky [she’s] wearing a bra”.)

Since she started modeling full-time 16 years ago, Graham has become one of the world’s most successful models – “curvy, fashion, plus-size… whatever you want to call us,” as she puts it, or otherwise. Now 33, she is famed for the vocal role she has played in the body-positivity movement; leveraging her interviews, brand partnerships and considerable online audience (she currently has 12.3 million Instagram followers) to champion the acceptance of all body types and sizes. More often than not, she uses her own US size-16 frame to drive home the point – although she’s quick to clarify that “I don’t post myself half-naked to get the likes. I post myself half-naked so that someone who’s 10 years younger than me knows that that side butt, that hip dip – that’s not abnormal to have.”

Graham is speaking to me from her home in Brooklyn, where she has lived since leaving her home state of Nebraska at just 17 – “I was like, ‘See ya later, suckers!’” she laughs. She has lost none of her down-to-earth, Midwestern warmth – perhaps it’s particularly amped-up after an extended recent stint at her family home. Having welcomed their first child, Isaac, in January 2020, Graham and her husband Justin Ervin made the decision to drive back to Nebraska when the pandemic hit. An initial plan to stay for a few weeks ended up being six months, and Graham got “the maternity leave I never could have asked for,” she says. “I got to have great one-on-one time with my mom and my husband. Also, my mom has a boyfriend now and I was able to get to know him in a big way. There were a lot of silver linings, for sure.”

Dress, Philosophy di Lorenzo Serafini; tights, Wolford; sandals, Khaite; earrings, Eéra; Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; rings (left hand), Alighieri; (right hand) Khiry Fine; Anita Ko

A self-proclaimed “glass-half-full kind of person”, Graham is usually good at looking on the bright side. She attributes her remarkable positivity to regular prayer sessions with Ervin (they met at church 10 years ago) and frequent journaling, especially since the pandemic started. “I’d never journaled this much in my life, and I’m not even doing it on the laptop, like a normal person,” she laughs. “Do people actually write with a pen?! Because I’m writing and my hand is cramping!

On her various social media platforms, Graham emits an aura that is half goofy best friend, half rousing motivational coach: one minute, she’s buzzed on caffeine and beatboxing into her latte cup on TikTok; the next, she’s posting no-filter photos of her postpartum stretch marks on Instagram, or taking to Twitter to implore her followers to share their affirmations for the week. “I am bold! I am brilliant! I am beautiful! I am worthy of all!” Graham booms when I ask her to share her own mantras of choice.

“I mean, having a BABY and then a pandemic, BOOM, smacks you in the face! It’s like, OK, time to take a BREATHER”

Dress, Ulla Johnson; tights, Wolford; sandals, A.W.A.K.E. Mode; earrings, Eéra; Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; necklace, Stone & Strand; rings (left hand), Alighieri; (right hand), Anita Ko; Khiry Fine

The affirmations are working for her. Despite her insistence that the pandemic has helped her to slow down – “I mean, having a baby and then a pandemic, boom, smacks you in the face! It’s like, OK, time to take a breather” – Graham is working on “lots of brand endorsements and pitching stuff to TV right now.” She is tight-lipped on the exact details but admits she has big plans for her podcast, Pretty Big Deal, where recent guests have included Jada Pinkett Smith and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors. As she prepares for its fourth season, Graham says her dream is to turn the podcast into “a larger community based around confidence, because I think [a lack of] confidence is plaguing the world in a big way. Not just with women, but with men, too.”

During lockdown, Graham also made time to join Gen Z on TikTok, where she has been heartened to discover a new legion of young people continuing the body-positivity messaging she helped bring to the mainstream. “It’s so nice to know that the next generation is taking care of themselves and having these constant conversations,” she says. “So, I get on as the granny, like [she adopts a pitch-perfect comedic voice], ‘Hey, everybody! We’ve been having these conversations for quite some tiiiiiime.’”

“I’ve had to go through a different BODY journey, post-pregnancy – just UNDERSTANDING her and being OK with her”

Dress, Ulla Johnson; earrings, Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; necklace, Stone & Strand
Dress, Tove; bralette (just seen), Alexander McQueen; earrings, Eéra; Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; rings (left hand), Alighieri; (right hand) Khiry Fine; Anita Ko

Graham tracks the painful trajectory to self-acceptance in her 2015 TEDx talk ‘Plus-size? More like my size’, which has been viewed more than four million times. Since her first modeling gig at the tender age of 12, Graham feels that the discourse around body inclusivity and positivity “has progressed immensely”. These days, she notes, “It’s not just the models and the influencers – the whole [fashion] industry is talking about it. And if you’re just talking about it but you’re not doing anything about it, you’re getting called out.”

At the same time, Graham feels there’s a long way to go until we reach her ultimate goal: “The point [women] don’t have to explain our bodies at all.” She feels conflicted about the way that rampant image retouching on social media is contributing to body dysmorphia, while remaining grateful that platforms like Instagram have given her and so many others “a voice to be able to say what is beautiful and what is OK. I wish that, when I was younger, there had been someone as outspoken as I was, who was as fearless with their cellulite and back fat, so I could know that this was normal; this was what a body looks like.”

“I’ve always kind of lived BRAVELY and fearlessly, but through my home birth and RAISING him in this pandemic, it’s like, oh yeah, I guess I am pretty FEARLESS”

Dress, Fil de Vie; earrings, Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; ring (just seen), Khiry Fine
Dress, Fil de Vie; tights, Wolford; sandals, Bottega Veneta; earrings, Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; ring (just seen), Khiry Fine

Motherhood, she admits, has challenged her to reach a new level of peace with herself. “That was a big deal,” she says of pregnancy. “In the beginning, I was like, an alien is taking over my body and I am getting larger and larger by the moment. Then this alien popped out and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I love you.’ And you just don’t care. But then Covid hit, and all the gyms shut down, and I’m living with my mom, eating cinnamon rolls every day,” she laughs, rolling her eyes. “People will tell you this lie when you get pregnant, which is that the weight falls off when you breastfeed. But it’s a lie! I’ve had to go through a different body journey, post-pregnancy – just understanding her and being OK with her.”

When it comes to getting dressed these days, Graham says she’s “more thoughtful” than she once was. “Mostly I want to be comfortable, but I do care. I plan it out a little bit more.” Like many of us, her current wardrobe features a lot of sweatpants, but she dresses them up with sweaters from Frankie Shop and The Row, and kitten heels by Prada. Her grooming regime is equally low-maintenance at the moment – “Honestly, I’m all about anything that’s fast these days. Although I do draw the line at two-in-one shampoo and conditioner” – but she still commits to twice-monthly facials. And, she adds gleefully, “I just started shaving my armpits again!”

Trench coat, Isabel Marant; fringed shoulder bag, and sandals, both Bottega Veneta; tights, Wolford; earrings, Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; ring (just seen), Khiry Fine

Becoming a mother has “changed everything”, says Graham. “I’ve had a lot more calmness and peace in my life since he got here because it’s like, why sweat the small stuff?” Since giving birth, Graham feels she has unlocked a level of confidence that was previously unknown, even to her: “I’ve always kind of lived bravely and fearlessly, but through my home birth and raising him in this pandemic, it’s like, oh yeah, I guess I am pretty fearless. It just feels good.”

New York is also feeling good as it emerges from its long lockdown winter, Graham says. “It’s calmer than usual, but there’s also a hopeful energy here,” she observes of her long-time home. “You can feel the lightness coming back.”

“I really learned the value of FAMILY and community through this WHOLE thing. I’m so GRATEFUL for that”

Dress, Oscar de la Renta; earrings, Pomellato; Maria Tash; Ileana Makri; Ole Lynggaard Copenhagen; Dubini; ear cuff, Anita Ko; ring (right hand), Anita Ko

After such a life-changing year, what are Graham’s hopes for the new world that is taking shape as we speak? “Well, I really learned the value of family and community through this whole thing. I’m so grateful for that,” she says. “That’s something that I really want to take into my career and continue to expand upon.” With her characteristic glass-half-full positivity, Graham says she feels the past year has actually “created a lot of optimism and hope, for the country and the world, because we’re doing it together. That really puts a smile on my face.”