It’s a few days into 2021 and supermodel Paloma Elsesser is in her New York City apartment in a mode of post-reflection and pre-action. Makeup-free and glowing, she is talking me through her transition into the new year. “There were monumental things that I feel like I’ve walked away from 2020 with, and I’m definitely feeling a new charge, but, also, things that once felt OK don’t feel as good. Like feeling overworked, both mentally and physically – I definitely feel less gratified in that. Being on so many planes or booking this many shows doesn’t feel part of my purpose as much, especially off the back of what has been a painful year for so many,” she says.
While Covid-19, police brutality towards African Americans and a contentious election meant 2020 bore few moments of celebration, it also set in motion major shifts in accountability and systemic change across industries. In fashion, for instance, definitive movements were made towards a more diverse and sustainable landscape – causes that Elsesser has rallied for since the early days of her career in 2015. Being one of the few curve models of color in the high-fashion space, she carved out her own niche. Her social media platforms seamlessly mix talk on the personal, political and pop culture – and eschewing usual tropes for familiarity and candidness has made her a favorite of these spaces in the past few years (her current Instagram following stands at 350k).
“I know when I am BOOKED, it stands for something BIGGER than simply walking a show or booking a CAMPAIGN”
“I’ve never really struggled to make friends and I really value community – it shifts and changes. Your best friend can be your community; your family can be your community. And my community, as it looks today, is very different to what I had when I was younger,” she considers, presumably touching on her now-global reach.
Elsesser has steadily climbed through the ranks in the fashion industry, booking more and more prestigious gigs and breaking barriers as she went. Following a run of high-profile shows for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Lanvin, Fendi and Salvatore Ferragamo, and campaigns for Marni, Coach and Fenty Skin, she concluded 2020 with two landmark achievements for any model: a US Vogue solo cover and the Models.com award for Model of the Year, becoming the first plus-size model of color to receive the accolade.
“Larger bodies in these kinds of blue-chip campaigns, until very recently, just didn’t happen,” says Elsesser. “I know when I am booked, it stands for something bigger than simply walking a show or booking a campaign. I ask myself the question, ‘What is my position necessitating?’ I personally don’t like being a ‘first’ in this way – it can be frightening to be the first plus-size model of color to do ‘X’, but it is also incredibly inspiring.” Indeed, it’s been a monumental ascendance to the top of the modeling game in a relatively short period of time, especially for someone who, through lack of representation, didn’t always see the career as a viable option.
“There is a HUGE proportion of the world who still wants a very thin white woman modeling clothes. But there are also TONS of people who want to see something DIFFERENT. I sure as hell do”
A native Californian, Elsesser was born to an African-American mother and Chilean-Swiss father, in a large and close-knit artistic family of creatives and academics. Although she didn’t grow up wealthy, her childhood in central Los Angeles meant fraternizing with people of extreme privilege and attending mostly white private schools – an experience she found jarring, though her amiability made her adaptable. “I’ve always been in pursuit of connection and have found it in small and big ways… My mom would tell me [that] I would be five years old, talking to strangers all the time!” she says, laughing.
After high school, Elsesser decamped from her hometown to New York City to study psychology and literature at The New School (“I thought I would be a practicing psychologist”), where she, by her own admission, immersed herself in the “hodgepodge of artists and skaters” who ran the downtown circuit. “I had an opportunity to exert my own independence and I think I thrived in nightlife; I could be without the kind of social constraints of LA.”
Though with new-found freedom, other habits from her past followed, and Elsesser overcame an addiction to drugs and alcohol nine years ago. “I think the circumstances really came down to how unmanageable my life had become. Despite always being liked, I had never felt as low. I was in a cycle of self-betrayal that I didn’t even know at the time and I just bottomed out on all the behaviors, and I knew that something had to change,” she says.
After jobs as a hostess in a restaurant and working in streetwear retail, a quite-literal golden opportunity presented itself. The legendary makeup artist Dame Pat McGrath reached out to the model to become the muse of the inaugural product of the Pat McGrath Labs line, Gold 001. “I didn’t know much about fashion, but I knew she was – and still is – the definitive makeup artist. To be affirmed and nurtured by her was incredibly important to me,” Elsesser shares. The admiration is mutual: “When I first saw Paloma, I knew she would be a major beauty of a generation,” recalls McGrath. “Not only did she have a timeless face, but also a vivacious spirit – exactly what I look for in muses for Labs.”
With McGrath’s co-sign, other brands, designers and editors began to take notice of Elsesser, enamored with her standout beauty, refreshing point of view and the joyous energy she brings wherever she goes. Elsesser has the throwback quality of ’90s supermodels (complete with a memorable mononym) and the ability to straddle both commerciality and cool. You’re as likely to believe her to be part of Eckhaus Latta’s art-adjacent Lower East Side crew in one of the brand’s runway shows as you are of her, posey-pink-cheeked and smiling, for a Glossier campaign. Elsesser makes both look just as alluring.
“FASHION never has and never should be responsible for shifting the WORLD view, but does it play a part? ABSOLUTELY”
“When I show up on set, I want to make timeless pictures, but I also want to make the day nice. [The creative teams I work with] aren’t just people, they are people I have relationships with, who I care for and who care for me. It’s not just like we’ve been partying together,” she says. “They are in my face 60 times a year, you know? Of course I’m going to ask you how your family is doing. I think that’s what work should feel like. Fashion can be a painful and judgmental industry. I want to be a person in the room who doesn’t make you feel that.”
While Elsesser radiates positivity, her accelerating profile and platform has meant she has also been the target of some social media critique. “I see the comments from people who say, ‘She’s too fat. She’s not tall enough. She can’t walk.’ It is hurtful, but it just comes with visibility. I know there is a huge proportion of the world who still wants a very thin white woman modeling clothes. Like, tons of people. But there are also tons of people who don’t [want that] and want to see something different. I sure as hell do.” While she sees the acceptance of her and other curve models as a promising first step, she knows the industry has a long way to go.
“The average-size woman in America is my size, a size [US] 14, but there are women much larger than me who have zero representation and I am conscious that I can’t represent everyone,” says Elsesser. “I can’t be the only representation for a size-20 woman. I’m not supposed to, I never try to, I’m never meant to, it’s not my experience. But I also know things have to start somewhere. And even within that, I try not to forget to itemize my own privileges, and to remember the more marginalized people, the more oppressed people in the world. Fashion categorizes my beauty as ‘so revolutionary, so crazy, so surprising’ and that I am brave – and that’s weird to me. I really feel my most beautiful, emotionally and spiritually, when I am with my community of people who I love. Where there’s laughter, where there’s love, and I am not thinking about the physical. That’s where I feel the most content.”
Though Elsesser feels comfortable speaking out towards injustices in and out of the fashion world, she’s quick to correct the idea that she is an activist. “Historically, I felt nudged into saying that. I think my understanding of what was going on around me and [that] I felt comfortable speaking out about things [meant that] suddenly I was an activist,” she says. “People dedicate their entire lives to activist work, to organizing and theory. I do not feel I am an activist. Fashion never has and never should be responsible for shifting the world view, but does it play a part? Absolutely. And I’m an advocate for fashion continuing to hold itself accountable.”
So, with the world at her feet and some of the fashion industry’s biggest accolades already achieved, what’s next for the model who is committed to moving things forward?
“I would definitely like to create some clothes, specifically for my market and above,” she shares. “I know I am not a fashion designer, but I think the way in which I want to go about it will be different. I would also love to write my own book, in essay form. It’s what I was in school for before I started modeling. There is a lot I want to share about my life, about being sober, and I want to be the person who tells my own story. I am not in pursuit of being the most famous model, I am more concerned with being a respected human being. [And] to know that, in my time in the industry, no matter how long or short, I made more changes than harm.”
The Beauty of You with Paloma Elsesser
Model Paloma Elsesser talks about what beauty means to her – from the morning rituals that make her feel her most confident to her beauty mantra for 2021