Episode 6: Ashley Graham
First discovered in a shopping mall at the age of 12, Ashley Graham’s remarkable career trajectory has helped shift perceptions around inclusivity and body size, as well as redefine the global vision of beauty. She has regularly spoken up about body diversity and been instrumental in bringing size acceptance into the mainstream.
As a model, Graham was selected as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue rookie in 2016, landing one of three covers for the iconic title – the first US size-14 model to do so. She has since graced the covers of countless global magazines, from international editions of Vogue to The Wall Street Journal, has received numerous Women of the Year awards, as well as securing a place on Forbes’ coveted ‘30 under 30’ list.
In 2015, Graham gave a TED Talk where she explained how she stopped devaluing herself and reclaimed her body as her own, and in 2017 she released a book entitled A New Model: What Competence, Beauty & Power Really Look Like. She has also launched a web series called Fearless, encouraging guests to take chances to live life on their own terms, and hosts a successful podcast of her own, called Pretty Big Deal.
In this final instalment, hosted by our content director Alice Casely-Hayford, Graham opens up about motherhood, motivation and what she’s doing to continue changing minds in the fashion industry.
Read highlights from the podcast below…
Ashley Graham on the limiting nature of the term ‘plus-size’
“What people want to do is they want to give you a name and they want to categorize you, put you in a box, because it makes everybody feel safe. And I’m not here to make you feel better about my hip size, or my belly size. What I am here to do is to make other people feel confident with who they are.”
On the progress of the BLM movement
“I keep going back to Opal Tometi – she is one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter… and she said that being an ally is a verb. And it hit me because it’s like, you have to put whatever it is that you want to do into action. You can’t just talk, you can’t just read, you can’t just watch a movie – what action are you going to do? And so that really hit my core. And I think a lot of people should just be standing up and speaking up – you know, no matter what race you are.”
On her own words of affirmation
“I talk a lot about affirmations and your words having power in every aspect of my life. And now, after having Isaac [Graham’s son], my affirmations have changed quite a bit, but they’re just regarding my body and my business and things like that. But there are so many people who have to change their minds when it comes to the fashion industry and what is beautiful… It’s slowly changing, but there is still so much tokenism and only using girls one time in a show or, you know, things like this that are very frustrating to watch.”
On her intention with her podcast
“I was like, you know what, screw this – I created my own lingerie, swim, all these different lines, and I’ve built a business for myself. Why can’t I go and also make my type of what I feel is like a TV show at this point in time? Because I don’t really watch TV – I mean, I binge-watch great series that come out on like Netflix or Hulu or whatever, but I’m not watching daytime television. And our generation isn’t – we’re listening to podcasts. And I’m like, that’s my TV show. That’s where I’m going with this. So I just did it the first season – I did it with my manager, and we hired a producer and, the three of us, we just went in and we did it. And it was so much fun!”
On her changemakers of the future
“OK, so we all know Amanda Gorman – she’s absolutely amazing, and I’ve known her for the last four years. And we have done events together and she’s always, you know, opened up with beautiful poems and I’ve actually had the chance to spend time with her and she’s such a beautiful person. And I am so excited to see Paloma Elsesser and Precious Lee rise to the top, because these are two women who are not just drop-dead gorgeous, but also have these changemaker ambitions for this next generation.”
Episode 5: Rina Sawayama
Rina Sawayama is no ordinary singer-songwriter. Her music – fusing electropop and R&B with elements of nu-metal – has garnered a growing legion of fans the world over, but she’s brought about meaningful change within the music industry, too, by questioning rules that were blatantly unfair.
In July 2020, Sawayama posted a public tweet about her ineligibility to be nominated for major UK music awards, such as the Mercury Prize and Brits, as she does not have British citizenship. The artist holds an ‘indefinite leave to remain’ visa for the UK and has resided in Britain for the past 26 years. Following her tweet, the hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish began trending on Twitter and the movement gained support from fans and followers including Elton John, Boy George and MNEK.
Following the campaign, the singer spoke with the chairman of the BPI [British Phonographic Industry], which organizes both the Brits and the Mercury Prize, and convinced the organization to review its criteria – and in February 2021, it was announced that the infrastructure had changed. Her nomination for the Brits Rising Star award was the happiest outcome the artist could have imagined.
In this podcast episode, hosted by our content director Alice Casely-Hayford, Sawayama talks about music-making, progress within the industry and her deep admiration for another changemaker, model and activist Munroe Bergdorf.
Read highlights from the podcast below…
Rina Sawayama on finding new ways to engage with her audience
“I think for all of us… gigs and festivals are something we really look forward to; where we find ourselves, lose ourselves. So I really can’t wait to get back to that. But, in the meantime, social media has somewhat filled that spot – and, actually, I’m really grateful because, without that, I don’t think my album would have been heard by this many people.”
On the barriers of getting into the music industry
“My parents are immigrants, we had no idea how people make money out of music: either you were, like, dirt poor or super-mega rich – there’s no in between. How do you put music out? How do you make money from music? No idea. So I really think it has to do with the options that were presented at school.”
On changing the rules for awards nominations
“I was able to chat to the chairman of the BPI, Ged Doherty, and we had a great conversation… Basically, it’s just an oversight… And the irony is that half the album was recorded in the UK, the other half in LA, but the album’s release is for a UK label – everyone who worked on it pretty much is British. And I’ve lived here longer than some people on the nominations list have been alive. So, you know, I just felt that that’s British enough. So I was able to announce that the rules have been changed to allow people who’ve lived here [in the UK] for five years, which was so amazing.”
On the power of positive campaigning
“With this whole campaign, I didn’t want to be negative whatsoever… that’s not the change I believe in, really – I always believe in positive change… I always try to tell it in a way that’s informative. I knew it was a misunderstanding. And a lot of these things are just oversights. And I always like to give people – even the people I don’t know – the benefit of the doubt. So, you know, I wanted to change things, but I didn’t want it to turn into hate.”
On her passion to keep speaking up
“I’m so fortunate that the thing I campaigned against actually changed, and I know that’s not the story for the more important issues in the world. So, yeah, I’m always going to be outspoken; I will always try, and try to defend my music as well. I do think my music is inherently political… I’m not talking about, like, stop the war or whatever, but I’m trying to spread messages of love in sort of niche areas or niche communities that people have actually forgotten.”
On her ultimate changemaker
“Munroe Bergdorf is just so amazing, and I honestly can’t imagine a world without her. I don’t know how she does it every single day, where she doesn’t get fed up with the world and just give up because, to her especially, you know, people are so horrible to trans people. And as a person she’s so loving and so funny. I just find her incredible.”
Episode 4: Lisa Joy
“Nobody wanted to hire a pregnant woman for a writers’ room… It was just assumed I’d sort of retired,” explains Lisa Joy, the trailblazing screenwriter, director and producer, of the glass ceiling moment she smashed through with aplomb – going on to script her thrilling film directorial debut Reminiscence – during this apparent career hiatus. “It was during that time when I was very ill at home with morning sickness. And I just remember I would sit on the couch alone in the dark, puking into a bucket while cuddling my dog. And I was thinking, this can’t be the end, it surely can’t be the end of it. And for the first time in my career, I wasn’t there to write for anyone else – no one would hire me. And so I decided to write for myself and I wrote something in solely my own voice.”
The germ of Reminiscence – a sci-fi thriller about a private detective who helps his clients retrieve lost memories, starring Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson and Joy’s long-term muse Thandie Newton – was inspired by a poignant visit to Joy’s paternal grandfather’s home in the north of England after his death, which triggered an epiphany about the power of memory. Joy was brought up in New Jersey by her Taiwanese mom and British dad, and though she doggedly pursued her dream to be a screenwriter throughout her youth, she feared her ambitions were “frivolous” and she diligently embarked upon a traditional career path training to be a lawyer, before gathering her courage to make an audacious leap into the fevered, raw competitiveness of the Hollywood writers’ room.
From her first gig in 2007, when she became a writer on the rule-breaking mystery-comedy Pushing Daisies, to the extraordinary series Westworld, which she co-created together with her husband Jonathan Nolan in 2013 (Emmy-nominated many times over and now about to go into its fourth season), Joy has brought a uniquely female perspective to the sci-fi universe.
She has said of the stories of female fortitude and rebellion depicted in Westworld that she has poured more than 30 years of her experience of being a woman into their creation. As she puts it: “Those characters become shared souls between a writer and a performer.”
Read highlights from the podcast below…
Lisa Joy on her unlikely journey to Hollywood
“I always loved writing, but there are some jobs that just seem impractical – as though you’ll just be this destitute, mad lady wandering the streets one day, if you’re actually crazy enough to go for them…”
On being offered her first job as a writer
“I knew this chance probably wouldn’t come again; that it was now or never. And it was a reduced chance because I’d actually gotten the job, which is somewhat unheard of, you know – normally it’s years of indentured servitude as you work your way up the ranks. And so I left for it. And it changed my life.”
On the importance of visibility, and believing in yourself
“I would try to contribute as much as I could [to the writers’ meetings]. And then, one day, somebody on staff sort of took me aside – and I think this just represented this individual’s views – and she said, ‘You know, you’re a diversity hire, so no one really expects you to say anything or talk.’ And so I started to wonder if I was supposed to be abiding by some kind of different rule set. And it really made me think, so much of anybody’s career in life is a matter of managing self-doubt, especially in the face of a culture in which you’re not used to seeing people like yourself in the roles that you longed to be in… Everybody always feels a bit like a fraud, no matter what they do.”
On the transformative effects of writing
“Part of the reason why I love writing is because you don’t have to be you. When you’re thinking about a story, you can cast aside all the fears you have of yourself, all the fears and vulnerabilities, and you can slip into the skin of other characters. And you can give them the love and attention that sometimes you wish the world would bestow upon you. And it’s this incredible gift to be able to explore oneself and one’s world through fiction.”
On playing to your strengths, despite the barriers
“Nobody really expects a female writer to want to do these giant set pieces and giant action scenes… People kept asking me if I wanted to do, you know, romantic comedies or things about fairies or pixies – and, you know, I have nothing against those movies, but it’s just not my forte.”
On the connection between screenwriter and performance
“[I loved] getting to work with Thandie [Newton] and Evan [Rachel Wood] – watching those brave, brilliant, magnificent talents embody those characters; characters that have some of my personal experience in them… and also some of theirs. Those characters become shared souls between a writer and a performer, you know, and both of those women have done such great things – not just on the screen, but in life.”
On her optimism for the future
“Change is happening, and it’s happening in a more dramatic way than I could have ever imagined at the start of my own career, which was not that long ago… The world was very different, and we have a long way to go, but I’m really so impressed by the new voices in our world, by the younger generation, by how fearless they are… in pursuing their own voices and feeling entitled to a place in this world. And feeling entitled to think about the big issues like climate change, like sexism, like racism, gender issues, and I’m constantly learning from that dialogue. I’m constantly trying to shed the old skin of my beliefs, which always should evolve for every person.”
Episode 3: Aranya Johar
Initially inspired by hip-hop, 22-year-old Aranya Johar sarted writing poetry at just 10 years old, and began performing in clubs in India at 12, with the support of her mother (who surely qualifies as a changemaker herself). Her most famous poem, A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender – which lifted the lid on misogyny, acid attacks, rape in marriage and the sexualization of girls – is challenging and candid. And in a society where physical and sexual attacks on women are chillingly widespread, it’s incredibly brave.
To get a sense of Johar’s impact, A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender has been watched online more than a billion times. She is a clear, unflinching voice on gender equality on the global stage – in fact, she is one of the youngest-ever members of the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council. Hers is a voice that should be heard.
In this podcast episode, hosted by our brand director Sarah Bailey, Johar discusses everything from foot binding to hair removal – and reveals how her mother would help smuggle her into clubs to perform when she was still a young girl.
Read highlights from the podcast below…
Aranya Johar on sneaking into clubs as a young girl
“So I think the first poem I ever performed was probably when I was around 11, 12 – we didn’t have many open mics in the city… and for all of them, you had to be above the age of 18. But my brother and my mom and I, we were trying to, like, sneak me into the clubs. But once the organizers found out I was just there for the sad poetry recitation and not to get intoxicated, they were a lot more understanding.”
On the unexpected reach of A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender
“I thought it was a very specific piece that only certain kinds of people would understand. But I realized at a later point that, it’s not just us [in India]; it doesn’t matter how much of a safer country it may be, misogyny and patriarchy are still very much ingrained and structural.”
On the issue of women feeling unsafe when they go out alone
“Even to this date, when I step out for a party, [or] if I’m going out somewhere, the first thing I do is send my location to my girlfriends and my mom; if I’m going on a date, they will receive the number of the person [I’m with]. And these are just survival methods that have become normal, that so often men either don’t know happen or just don’t have to experience.”
On the vital role, and power, of online activism
“I love the power the internet has. And I think the internet doesn’t only play a part in educating, but it plays a part in organizing, which is immense power, and is incredible to see. So I’m very hopeful about how the internet is going to impact activism, and it’s definitely going to make it more accessible to people. Now, it’s just about making sure we’re doing it the right way.”
On the importance of being a force for change
“I said, ‘Mom, if Malala [Yousafzai] got shot in the head for asking to read and educate herself, then what’s another woman doing the same?’ Like, if this is what it’s going to take to trigger this conversation, I will volunteer. And just as people have been volunteering for years, for centuries, what’s another name on the list? But I truly feel it shouldn’t take people losing their lives for that to be a trigger for a conversation, which is why A Brown Girl’s Guide to Gender meant so much to me.”
On her feelings about the future
“I think we don’t have any option but to feel optimistic… What makes us activists is this idea that we expect better of our nation, expect better of our government, expect better of each other – that really brings about this bond, this need, this urge to bring about a society that doesn’t only cater and benefit privilege or a certain kind of people. So I think you need to be unapologetically optimistic, but you also need to be realistic about these things.”
Episode 2: Elizabeth Nyamayaro
In this episode, we are joined by humanitarian Elizabeth Nyamayaro – former United Nations senior advisor and the inspirational founder of HeForShe, the world’s largest solidarity movement for gender equality, famously brought to the attention of the global media with Emma Watson’s extraordinary speech at the UN in 2014. It was Nyamayaro’s near-death experience as an eight-year-old girl – quite literally dying of hunger in the drought in Zimbabwe – that introduced her to the United Nations when an aid worker saved her life. It sparked a dream in Nyamayaro that led her to London, New York and a life of extraordinary impact, raising up the lives of others.
The African philosophy of ubuntu – with its emphasis on our shared humanity – underpins her incredible work as a changemaker. In this podcast episode, hosted by our brand director Sarah Bailey, she revisits her upbringing in Africa with her extraordinary grandmother, GoGo; her riveting forthcoming memoir, I am a Girl from Africa; and the joy of Amanda Gorman’s yellow coat!
Read highlights from the podcast below…
Elizabeth Nyamayaro on her dreams to make a difference
“I still hold this strong conviction that my life must have been saved for a reason all those years back… And I also knew that my dream and my desire to make a difference in the world was inextricably linked to the hopes that I have for my own family, my own community and, most importantly, my African continent.”
On the inspiration behind HeForShe
“HeForShe was inspired by ubuntu. I knew that, because of our shared humanity, we needed to find an inclusive approach to addressing gender inequality, because as long as the pursuit of equality remains a struggle amongst genders, no one wins… And so I knew that we needed to find a way to bring men in as allies… to stand alongside women and girls, to really figure out a way that we could do this together.”
On how Emma Watson first became involved in HeForShe
“It was just one of those ‘just ask’ moments, right? I knew she was passionate about social issues… so I reached out to her publicist to organise a meeting. And from the moment I met her, it was sort of like a meeting of minds… and she was ready to make that commitment. So it just became such an incredible collaboration. And I know without a doubt that I would never have been able to do this without her, and I’ll forever be grateful – not only for what she did for HeForShe, but also for what she continues to do in support of gender equality. Yeah, she’s quite amazing.”
On the incredible reach of Emma Watson’s powerful speech at the UN
“Within the first five days of that speech, at least one man in every single country in the world joined HeForShe and generated more than 1.2 billion online conversations. And that’s really what catapulted HeForShe into becoming one of the world’s largest solidarity and gender-equality movements in the world today. So it was just remarkable and incredible to witness it all.”
On what equality looks like on the ground
“I’ve done lots of work with men in South Africa on the HeForShe taverns, where men realised that they needed to be part of the solution in ending domestic violence… They are meeting on a weekly basis; they are encouraging each other to become good role models for their children, but also better spouses for their partners.”
On the importance of taking action
“The challenges are enormous, and they are real, and it can feel rather overwhelming. But I've also found that, at least in my case, the benefits of speaking up and taking action always, always outweigh the risk of not doing anything, because there’s just so much at stake for humanity – you know, there is widening inequality that needs to be addressed; we are dealing with a real moment of reckoning on racial inequality, and gender inequality remains a big challenge. We have now seen that compounded by the current Covid impact. And so we just have to take action, no matter how small those actions are.”
“How awesome was that coat? And I mean it because it embodies so many things. So yes, yellow is my favourite color. Because personally, it reminds me of the beauty of African yellow skies that I used to wake up to in my small village in Zimbabwe, but it is [also] a color of hope and optimism. And I think, watching Amanda wear that coat… I think it was just right. We all felt hopeful about the world. And now I wear lots of yellow pretty much all the time as well, because it’s my small way of carrying a piece of Africa with me; I kind of need that; I need to be tethered to Africa all the time. And when I wear yellow, I feel at home.”
Episode 1: Meena Harris
We are joined for our first episode in the series by the indomitable Meena Harris, the Harvard-educated lawyer, producer and inspirational founder and CEO of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign, a female-powered organization that brings awareness to social causes. Harris is also a New York Times bestselling author, having published two books for children – Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea and Ambitious Girl – both of which encourage young readers to think differently about ambition and what they can achieve in life. In fact, the first book was inspired by the childhood of the author’s mother, lawyer and policy expert Maya Harris, and her aunt, Vice President of the United States Kamala Harris.
Clearly, Harris comes from a line of successful women – thanks in part, no doubt, to her grandmother Shyamala Gopalan, a biomedical scientist and civil rights activist who would ask her daughters, “So what are you going to do about it?” when they experienced social injustice. As a result, the young Harris was taught the importance of aiming high and fighting for what she believed in. At Phenomenal, this has translated into a number of important issues that affect underrepresented communities, from campaigns encouraging people to vote, to mobilizing mothers across the country to help end separation at the US/Mexico border.
Listen to host Alice Casely-Hayford talk to Meena Harris about ambition, inspiration, talent, TikTok, and why failing is all part of the process…
Meena Harris on what truly inspires her
“There’s nothing that gives me more hope and pride and inspiration than to learn about new people doing extraordinary things – and also to support that work. This is what is at the core of what we’re doing at Phenomenal – it’s thinking about how we use our platform, our voice, our community, our influence, to raise awareness and amplify the work of folks that are doing really important stuff on the ground every day.”
On remembering that, with the ups, there are also downs
“With having a voice that people listen to, or a platform or whatever privilege you have, there comes great responsibility… and yes, there can be pressure in that. Ultimately, for me, it’s just trying to do my best – and nobody wants to fail; nobody wants to let people down. But I also think I’ve become more comfortable just trying to be authentic, and honest, and be myself, because that’s all I can be. For me, part of it is understanding that we are all on our own journeys, we’re all human and that it’s OK to fail. And it’s part of being entrepreneurs – you have to get comfortable with that.”
On putting her faith in the young
“I really have so much hope and faith in the next generation of leaders and, frankly, just seeing them leading and doing so much in ways that I certainly was not doing at that age – that is just so impressive to me. And just ordinary young people… who are doing what they can in their own communities and their own spaces to create a more inclusive, beautiful, creative, more equitable, just world.”
On where she finds inspiration
“TikTok is another place where there’s just so much talent and creativity. And again, especially coming from young people, who are using their voices and platforms to do really interesting, creative, wonderful things. And that is super-inspiring to me. So I consider myself proud to follow their lead. And I think we are in very, very good hands.”
Read highlights from the podcast below…
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