The portraits you are about to see are of breathtakingly gorgeous women. They're models; that's their thing. But, like many of us, when they were young girls and picked up magazines, they were flooded with images of women who didn't look like them (save a Benetton ad or two). They didn’t see curvy bodies, freckled faces, natural curls, or feline-like eyes reflected in those pages, but instead models who appeared to be created from one mold. And that mold was the basis for what was typically considered "beautiful."
But, as we all know, beauty is not a one-size-fits-all situation. And the fashion industry is slowly shifting away from pushing out a homogenous POV, casting a more inclusive net. We're starting to see beauty defined in broader terms — and hopefully one day, there will be no terms at all. Here are six unique models who are helping us get there.
Ashley Smith Ashley Smith’s modeling career had a sluggish start — it almost never happened at all. The Texas native was discovered at South by Southwest when she was a punk teen sporting half-inch gauges in her ears and a lip ring. Though everybody around her had a “You’re born in Texas, you stay in Texas” mentality, as soon as she turned 18, Smith packed her bags and moved to New York. She fell in love with the city, but the fashion industry didn’t fall in love with her — at least not right away.
“I’m a free spirit, so I didn’t have the fear of failure. It was more about, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m just gonna go out there and do it,’” she says. “And people were hesitant — you know I don’t have a very typical body — especially coming from East Texas, where you eat Taco Bell three times a day. People were like… ‘Oh, you’re short. You have boobs. I don’t know how this is gonna work.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know either.’”
As a punk kid with a self-described “fuck you” attitude (and rainbow hair), Smith had always embraced standing out in a crowd. But when she started in the modeling world, that mindset didn’t exactly work in her favor.
Though casting agents loved the gap between her front teeth, her body was not what they were looking for. “They said, ‘You’ll never do the shows, you’ll never be editorial,’” says Smith. “They were putting me in a box in the beginning. I just wanted to make some money, so after a year, I decided to quit."
But her agent convinced her to go to Paris before throwing in the towel; Smith obliged and her luck quickly changed. She booked shows — big ones — the kinds of jobs she was told she would never get. She walked in Chanel at the Grand Palais, Balenciaga, and Prada. Earlier this year, she was featured in Sports Illustrated. And she has never looked back.
Smith, now 24, credits this shift in the fashion industry in large part to social media. “It [gives things] such a wider scope,” she says. “Now, it’s more about personality and [being] more open-minded.” Smith’s positive, live-in-the-moment spirit is also what makes her beautiful. “I take a lot of pride in being myself and finding what is beautiful for me rather than going, ‘Oh, that’s beautiful. Let me attach myself to that.’ [I find] what is beautiful for me inside and put that out into the world.”
Rau, who was born a male and started transitioning to become a woman at the age of 16, began her modeling career just two years ago with a spread in American Playboy and has since been featured with Tyson Beckford in OOB magazine and shot by Bruce Weber for Barneys New York. Though she joins Andreja Pejić and Hari Nef as one of only a handful of transgender models in the spotlight, Rau says she feels like too much of a neophyte to be considered a significant part of any shift in the fashion world — though she does see and appreciate the changes. “I think the industry is more open-minded and realistic of today's society,” Rau says. “It finds me interesting enough to work with. They see beyond just the plastic to the personality.”
She says: “I wanted to be a model, but never thought I could. Becoming a good-looking woman was already a blessing to me, then a fashion model. It's a real Cinderella story I'm starring in…I still can’t believe it.”
When asked if she feels like she has a different role to play as a model because she is transgender, Rau definitively says no. “I'm too rock 'n' roll to be a role model,” she says. “I am just being me and doing my job. I feel more like a woman, to be honest — I often forget being transgender. I know it sounds funny, but I've been fully a woman since I was so young, I moved on a long time ago. Sometimes, I am like, ‘Oh my god, you are transgender, how crazy.’ My mind is deleting the transition episodes and the pain, and just keeping what comes after. It's really complicated to explain, but I just feel like I was born the way I am today, and it's amazing.”
As for the future of the fashion industry, Rau thinks we will see more diversity and images of real people. “Every model should represent a part of any kind of woman, because every woman is beautiful to me.”
Sabina Karlsson When 26-year-old Sabina Karlsson walks into a room, the effect is dizzying. She already towers at 5'11'', but her broad frame and fiery mane of natural red curls make her beauty feel even more expansive. Like a Chuck Close painting, she captivates from afar, but the closer you get the more enraptured you become. Her face is peppered with auburn freckles that gather intensely around her lips and the bridge of her nose. And there’s a gap between her front teeth. Though that feature is reminiscent of Lauren Hutton, Karlsson truly looks like no other model.
Karlsson has always possessed the power to captivate a room. She was discovered at the age of four in Sweden, where her Swedish father and Gambian mother still live. By the time Karlsson was 15, she was booking fashion shows across Europe. But as she grew older and her body began to develop beyond the gawky teenage and model-requisite dimensions, she found herself exhausted and unhappy. In order to maintain a “straight-size” model weight (typically sizes 0 to 2), she was working out sometimes as much as three times a day, and adopted beyond poor eating habits. Her body just wasn’t meant to look that way, so she stopped forcing it.
“In 2010, I just hit this point where I was so tired,” she says. “I couldn’t go out with my friends, because I had to bring my own food. I was constantly thinking about what I could eat and what I couldn’t eat. I just couldn’t enjoy my life — and I wanted to.”
Karlsson turned her focus toward improving her health and embracing her natural shape, and continued to work as a plus-size model. Though she and some of her colleagues would like to see an end to the modeling industry’s mandated plus-size and straight-size labels (“We’re all just models, we shouldn’t be defined by our size,” she says), she is thankful for where she is in the industry.
Kelly Mittendorf When Kelly Mittendorf broke into the modeling industry at age 16 (with a Prada campaign, no less), she received a dose of reality right off the bat: “My agents sat me down and were like, ‘You’re very different. We’re so supportive of that, but it’s not going to be the easiest thing for you. But if you want it, you can have a long career based off of that [difference].”
Mittendorf never blended in growing up in Arizona, so standing out wasn’t something she was afraid of. “I looked different from everyone in my high school,” she says. “I wasn’t blonde and super-bubbly. I was introverted and wore boys’ clothes to school. I was pretty oblivious to everything that was going on and that carried over into my career, which I’m really grateful for.”
So she dove into modeling, and just like in school, her wide hips and feline-like features (her look is often referred to as #kittendorf on social media) set her apart from the others — and she embraced it. “When you’re first starting, it kind of hits you in the face like a wet fish,” she says. “I did not have the same body as the other girls. I could not be cast in editorials where I looked like the other girls. I was always the one that stood out in a situation, which is good — it’s awesome.”
The 21-year-old model has started to see more women in her business who fall outside the typical mold, and like Smith, credits a lot of this change to social media. "It gives people a platform on the other side of things to be like, ‘This is what we want to see. This is what we respond best to. We like things we can relate to better than this unobtainable [for most people] standard.’"
But Mittendorf says the industry still has a long way to go. “Things are evolving to being more inclusive — at least beauty standard-wise,” she says. “I don’t think that it’s been a super-drastic change, but it’s been refreshing to show up on set and see girls like me and for my little sister to open a magazine and say, ‘She looks like you,’ or ‘She looks like me.’ But I think the biggest change is going to happen when models start being treated not as mannequins…but as actual women, and as representations of themselves.”
Brandee Brown Brandee Brown has often found herself feeling uncomfortable behind the scenes at fashion shows and photo shoots — specifically in the hairstylists’ seats. In a sea of fine, straight, and relaxed hair, the 24-year-old Harlem native is one of the few African-American models who sports natural hair for shows. Because of this, many of the hairstylists she encounters backstage haven’t had much practice working with textures like hers, and Brown gets weary entrusting her locks to inexperienced hands.
Still, Brown doesn’t place all the blame on the stylists; she views it as more of a cultural issue. And for her, feeling uncomfortable is not something to avoid, because nothing will change in the fashion industry unless it encounters more women like her. “People shy away from bringing up things like this in conversation, because it brings up race and awkward things. It makes people feel weird,” she says. “But that is the exciting thing about change: talking about things that make us feel uncomfortable, so we can get through it and get past it. It’s all great!”
Brown has seen baby steps toward change since she started in the industry as a 15-year-old fashion photographer’s assistant who was coaxed in front of the camera, but still feels there are major strides to take. “Let’s be realistic, there is not just one type of beauty standard,” she says. “We’re sponges, so if we put out one type of image out there, then our children will believe that is the way they should look — that is how they will understand beauty. One [natural-haired model] out of a catrillion is nothing to count for,” she says. “It’s not really tipping the scales.”
Fortunately, Brown does have a few contemporaries who are starting to redefine the tired beauty standard. “When Lineisy Montero walked down the Prada runway with her cute 'fro and wasn’t dressed like Foxy Brown…but as a cute woman with the rest of the models walking down the runway, that was beautiful,” says Brown. “That is the imagery we want. Why does it have to be a big deal, like, ‘Oh my goodness, that is crazy?!’ It is beautiful to bring attention to, but not to over-characterize and mock it like it is a huge, big thing. [Natural hair on the runway] should be normal.”
Denise Bidot As a young girl growing up in Miami, Denise Bidot watched her mother constantly struggle with her weight and decided she wouldn’t follow her down that path. “I remember just always knowing when I was little that beauty wasn’t based on a size,” says Bidot. “Here was [my mom], the most beautiful woman I know…worrying about what size she was so much [that it caused her] to lose so much happiness. I just didn’t want to do that.”
At 29, Bidot has a successful modeling career and a seven-year-old daughter of her own who is looking up to her. “I’ll come home from work and she’ll be like, ‘Mommy, you don’t need makeup, you’re beautiful just the way you are.’ And it melts my heart, because I just want the next generation to grow up knowing they’re perfect and there’s nothing wrong with them — so by the time they’re our age, they’ll be really confident.”
Bidot never actively pursued a career in modeling. She actually moved to Los Angeles when she was 18 with the dream of becoming an actress, but kept getting told she’d be perfect for such-and-such role if she lost weight. “I just wasn’t willing to do that,” she says.
She adds: “I was not going to compromise who I was for an industry, no matter how much I loved [acting]. I felt like talent should be able to speak on its own.” So Bidot decided to become a makeup artist, which eventually led her in front of the camera and down the plus-size modeling path.
Though some models take issue with the labels "straight-size" and "plus-size,” Bidot doesn’t see them as an obstacle or a drawback. “I’m not going to shy away from an industry that’s not only supportive and included me, but also made me feel beautiful in the long run,” she says. “I’m proud of being a plus-size model, and I think there needs to be distinction. I’m a happy girl — I have nothing to complain about.”