We've been fighting the fight for size acceptance for what seems like eons, and it's recently seeming like things are finally paying off. With more female plus-size models landing major magazine covers, launching their own clothing lines, and being signed to major agencies, it's easy to think that the fashion industry is finally inclusive. But when we consider all of the recent achievements, one aspect seems conspicuously excluded from the enfranchisement of plus-size, and we're left wondering, Where are all the bigger male models? Enter Zach Miko, IMG Models' first "Brawn" model.
Similar to how IMG Models eschews "plus-size" for "Curve," so too did the agency rebrand its male plus model as "Brawn," a term IMG president Ivan Bart told WWD "has a positive message" and is about "physical strength." After booking his first modeling gig in July 2015, Miko has found himself on the roster of one of the most prestigious and well-known agencies in the world less than a year later — a feat made even rarer by his 6'6" height and 42-inch waist. And although "plus-size" male models have existed before Miko, none have ever experienced the visibility that he has commanded since his first Target shoot.
To learn more about this accidental trailblazer, we sat down with Miko to talk about what he thinks of the fashion industry, body acceptance, and size discrimination. Because that fight for inclusivity? It's far from over.
How did you get involved in modeling?
"I'm an actor, and my acting manager is good friends with a hair and makeup artist at Tribeca Studios, and they were looking for a big-and-tall guy for the first time. At the time, no modeling companies in New York had big-and-tall guys on their roster, and they didn't have anyone with those proportions. So, she had actually reached out to my manager, and my manager texted me and asked, 'What's your waist size?' and I said, '40, 42, why?' and she said, 'Oh, great, you have a test shoot today.' And I went, and I did the test, and they booked me almost immediately, within an hour after the test shoot. They said, 'Your first day is Friday, come on in.' And that's how I started modeling!
"I didn't think it was going to be a big thing. I was just really excited that my rent was going to get paid that month. Then a blog called Chubstr actually wrote an article about me [and the Target campaign], and then everything kind of spiraled from there.
"It was fun! It's been great to have this platform and especially to speak out about body positivity and inclusion in the fashion world. Then Ivan Bart, the President of IMG Models, reached out to me on Instagram. He said, 'Hey, I've read a couple things about you, I would like to have you in for a meeting.' And I was like, there's no possible way he wants to meet with me! I mean, I'm not in the fashion world, but I knew who IMG Models was. That's Gisele and Kate Moss — there's no way you want to meet with me! But they did!
"So I went in with my acting manager, we met, we talked, and it was all very overwhelming. Ivan was so cool and straightforward...As a big guy, it's just awesome to see different body types represented in anything. I had been following Ashley Graham, so I knew they repped her, and Ivan starts telling me his whole view of IMG Models is to continue to push for inclusion and diversity and just to evolve standards of beauty and evolve the fashion world. I was like, there's no way this No. 1 modeling agency in the world is not only talking to me, but all of their ideals are clicking perfectly with mine. It was very serendipitous. I felt like it was meant to be."
Your size has actually helped you in terms of the modeling side of your career. Do you feel like it's been a hindrance at all with your acting?
"It's been a huge hindrance! And that's what's funny about it: Modeling is supposed to be way more superficial than acting, but I've been told by every casting director in New York City to either lose weight or gain weight. They were like, 'You either need to get down to 2% body fat and be ripped or you need to put on another 100 pounds.' It's very weird. Based on my size, I'm never considered for a romantic lead, and I might never be.
"One time, I booked a miniseries. They flew me out to the Appalachian Mountains, where we were gonna film for a month. We were doing hair and makeup tests, we were scouting locations; on the very last day before we started principal photography, the executive producer came for last looks, stops, sees me, and says, 'Why is this guy so big?' He turns to the director and asks, 'Why is this guy so big? This looks weird!' He and the director get into a fight, and I'm asked to leave.
"I've been removed from several projects for literally just being bigger than everyone else there. And they're like, 'We don't know how to shoot this.' You know, they shot The Lord of the Rings with perspective, I'm pretty sure they can figure me out. So it's funny that fashion, which has such a stereotypical bad rep, is the one to open up their arms to size diversity."
What misconceptions do you feel you had before you started modeling?
"I kind of grew up without fashion in my life. I appreciated it very much, but it was not something I was physically able to take part in, just because of my size and shape. I did think that it was just, like, this elite group; that if you weren't up to the beauty standards they've decided, you had no right to be part of it. Actually getting involved in fashion, I found that it was the complete opposite of that. It's just an ever-evolving industry, and especially right now. I feel like we're going through huge growing pains, in a good way, with the issues of size and diversity, and I can't believe I actually kind of get to be a part of that evolution."
Why do you think it's taken this long for public acceptance of a plus-size male model?
"I think for the last several decades people [have been growing] tired of being told what is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is not. We all have our own opinions and want to explore and have these different opinions...And the women's [fashion] industry has done an absolutely incredible job of supporting that idea, and each other, and body sizes, and the models and designers out there. Because women got fed up! Fashion is as much of an art form as it is a business. But it's this art form that we're told we're not allowed to take part in because of our size.
"Men are catching up, but it's kind of behind. The industry gets the support from the customers. Women bound together, said, 'Yes, this is beautiful, this is what we want to see, this is what we've been waiting for.' A lot of men are afraid to say that. There's still a big thing in the men's community of this 1950s macho, false-bravado, masculinity ideal that people hold on to. A man is supposed to be strong and emotionless. And it's like, why? The idea of having feelings and having insecurities or anything is showing weakness, but it's not showing weakness, it's showing that you're a human being. Men are definitely coming around. Especially big men who are going, 'I'm tired of dressing like a 6-foot toddler.' We want to feel good about the way we look.
"I've spent my whole life trying to change my body, and it wasn't until recently that I realized I was trying to change for other people. I was trying to change so that people would perceive me differently if I do this. People will love me more if I look this way. If I really sat down and thought about it, I would have realized I had no issues with my body and the way it functioned or looked. The only issue I had was what other people would think of it and me."
You clearly are a lot more comfortable with your body now than you once were. Did you have an epiphany, or was it a gradual building of self-acceptance?
"Self-acceptance is an everyday struggle. I feel everyone needs constant reminders, because there are constant setbacks. I've tried to make the rule for myself to not read the comments on any article or any Instagram post. I still do, like an idiot. It's funny because the majority will be lovely, but that one mean comment can take you right back to being in third grade and you feel terrible again.
"I always had a fear growing up that I scared people. I've always tried to be bubbly and charming. It was really this director [at an acting conservatory] who said to me that you don't have to make people comfortable with you. If you're comfortable with yourself, people will be comfortable with you. That was the first time I started taking pride in being a big person.
"My wife is the most amazing woman in the world. She has really made me feel loved and attractive. She bet me $500 at one point that I would be in People magazine’s [Sexiest Man Alive issue]. I laughed and thought it was silly, but I'll be honest: She has a way better chance of getting that money than she did last year. Meeting her and being with her is feeling secure with yourself and safe. Feeling like one other person at least thinks the world of you. That is an amazing thing that helped me with my confidence.
"Finally, the last thing was working with Target. After my second or third gig with Target, I saw the pictures and thought they looked great. I remember coming home and seeing my wife, and I told her that I love being the big guy. I want to be the big guy. I've always wanted to be the big guy, but I thought I couldn't be the big guy. Now, for the first time, I want to be big forever. I don't care if I'm not cut and chiseled like an Abercrombie model. I don't want that ever. I want to be who I am."
What advice would you give to others who are struggling with their self-image?
"It is about learning to love who you are right now, in the moment. I spent my whole life going, 'Once I lose 50 pounds, I will be great. Once I start this exercise route, once I gain or lose weight. Once I do this or that, I will be happy and content with myself.' It's not. It is great to have goals, whether it's physical, educational, or emotional. You should have places you want to go. Life's a journey, and destinations are a big thing. However, that doesn't mean you hate yourself in between. It is just as important to love yourself on the first step of a journey as it is at the end of a journey. Who you are at this very moment is attractive, beautiful, desirable, and valid."
I've seen a lot of the female models who advocate dropping the label "plus-size" who don't actually necessarily fit into that size range themselves. I would love to know your take on it.
"We use the term 'brawn' [for men], and for women, we use the term 'curve.' Whether we like it or not, terms like 'big' and 'plus-size' have developed very negative connotations over the years. They shouldn't, but we live in a society where big is bad but skinny is good. Using terms like 'brawn' or 'curve' is all about changing the context these words are said in. For brawn, [it] means power and physical strength. Curve is confident, sensual, and sexy. It takes all the positive aspects of size and highlights those rather than having negative hang-ups with words.
"Plus means additional and extra. There is nothing extra about a single human being. It makes you feel like you are a leftover person. I will still in conversation use the term 'plus,' because it is easier to just say, but that's really the only way I still use it.
"The way a lot of women react to the [term] 'plus-size' is the same way I felt at 12 years old, when my mom was taking me to the husky section. I still get cold sweats hearing the term 'husky.' It brings back every bad memory I know of not belonging. Ashley Graham thinks that in the next five to 10 years, there will not be differential between plus, petite, and regular. Why are they all kept separate?"
Where are your favorite places to purchase big-and-tall clothes?
"It is really hard to go into actual brick-and-mortar stores and purchase big-and-tall clothing. The internet was amazing for my family because we were able to order clothes easier. My dad would order from L.L. Bean and that was basically all he wore, and I grew up wearing those hand-me-downs. Since then, I have been able to work with a lot of great brands. One of my favorites is a big-and-tall brand from the U.K. called Bad Rhino.
"A lot of clothing stores like Levi's and Ralph Lauren do offer big-and-tall clothing if you special-order it. But if I could have that feeling of walking into an actual store, picking something off a shelf, trying it on, and purchasing it and leaving, that would the most amazing thing. It's not something I've been able to do since I was 12. I have not been able to physically buy clothes in a store as an adult and try them on."
It's interesting to hear this from a male perspective. I have certainly encountered that type of shopping issue as a bigger woman.
"Fashion is all about the consumers. I think a lot of the reason you haven't heard it is that the people who have those problems don't talk about it. They just go, 'Oh, I guess I'll wear this one pair of pants for 10 years.'
"I also think we are seeing a sea change of men embracing personal style and fashion. There's definitely a newer generation of men who are embracing their style. I spent most of my life not caring about fashion because I knew there were no other options. If a young kid grows up with options to look stylish and embrace fashion and learn about it, I wonder how many men would be interested in fashion."
What's been the most amazing thing that's happened to you so far since you were announced to be part of the Brawn division?
"The biggest little-kid excitement in me was when George Takei put a post about me on Facebook. I think that was the most exciting moment in my whole life."
What's next for you?
"Hopefully more modeling. It is really interesting — everything is up in the air right now. I am definitely working with a couple big-and-tall brands. They have been really wonderful. I am really hoping in the next year some more luxury brands and top-name designers are going to start to offer clothing for me or any other big guy to model for them. People ask me why big brands aren't calling, and it's because they don't produce clothing for me. They aren't going to advertise something they don't have yet. Hopefully it is enough of a change in the industry for people to see this is something people want. Let's develop new products, let's push new things.
"I am trying to stay out there as much as I can for young men and women. I don't want to use the term 'spokesperson,' but as a body-positive advocate for them. I knew I grew up feeling a lot of insecurity and pain for the way I felt about myself. If I can be there to show people that who they are is already wonderful, that's something I'm really going to try to help with."