Speaking to fellow plus-size model and Glamour fashion features editor Lauren Chan at Saturday’s theCURVYcon, Lee discussed her journey to becoming the first plus-size African American woman featured in Sports Illustrated and Vogue — all while speaking up in favor of diversity and body-positivity.
Lee started off wanting to be a lawyer and an advocate, up until her freshman year in college, when a friend took her to an open call for Elite Models in Atlanta. It was “super cold” and “kinda creepy,” she says, but she was offered a contract. Two days after she graduated college, she moved to New York — and met Lauren Chan her first week in the city.
It’s been five years since she became a full-time model, and Lee has created a hybrid advocate-activist-model niche for herself in the body positive community. “When I began modeling… I take such pride in the responsibility of talking and discussing diversity, things that aren’t really discussed as much in the fashion world,” she said.
Her goal is to make inclusivity the norm, even if it means she has to step up as the representative of her community. That means putting her name and everything else that comes with being a model — her height, her weight — out there alongside her voice. “In fashion, everything is visible, everything is on display… you can go online and find out my hip size. I had to get used to being so in the forefront and accessible,” she said. “I want to show the range, I want to show that [the plus-size community] is fashionable, that we are beautiful, and that we have a voice.”
Lee has walked high fashion runways, appeared in magazine spreads, and has chosen to walk in the CurvyCon Fashion Show this NYFW. Those accomplishments shouldn’t be seen as disparate, she says. Curvy women can celebrate their curves while still participating in the fashion industry at large. “We are worthy of being a part of [the fashion industry,] but we can also celebrate being curvy and having events like CurvyCon in the same week as Fashion Week. It’s going to take radical discussions to propel people who are higher up in publications, and designers and casting directors,” she said. “It’s not just designers, there’s a whole world that’s involved with casting and seeing the things that we see in the media and in fashion.”
As the world is getting more inclusive, however Lee wants to end tokenism in the industry. Publications and runway shows shouldn’t feature a black, plus-size woman because they fear backlash if they don’t, or want the positive press that comes with inclusivity. They should do so because it’s an honest reflection of the world. “I want it not to be such a shock when you see a curvy girl or a brown girl… I don’t want it to be a gimmick,” says Lee.
Her identity as a black, plus-size woman is a huge part of her decision making in the industry, she says. “I never, ever disconnect from the fact that I am a black woman, and that everything I do is to propel us forward. Yes, we have so many struggles. Black women in general have daily struggles without even talking about size. Being an African American today is something that requires a lot.”
She stays focused on her “goal,” which expands far beyond becoming a supermodel or booking magazine covers. Lee wants to bring her community to the top with her. “By being positive, by slaying, by doing anything I need to do to change the fact that you need privilege. I started from the bottom, I worked my way up through this industry. And I don’t want anybody to have to feel like they can’t do it because they think it’s easier for someone else.”
Lee’s mantra? “It gets tough, but I’m tougher.”
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