Though it seems like the punchline to a bad joke, the truth remains: It's not easy to be a model. Most don't ink seven-figure deals, get flown to set via private jet, or lounge around in bed all day (demanding at least $10k to get up). Many cat-walkers work their asses off in the face of fierce competition, body scrutinization, low pay, and a lack of stability, all on the hope of hitting it big, ticking off whatever career milestones they manage to achieve. Landing a magazine cover. Opening a Fashion Week show. Being hired to represent a brand. The new face of plus brand Torrid, Philomena Kwao, has just sealed that last one, and she tells us she's dreaming way bigger.
Since Kwao only broke into the industry two years ago — after winning an Evans modeling competition her friends secretly entered her in — this gig is a huge coup. Her career has simply taken off; Philomena's been circling the globe for both editorial and commercial shoots, and she walked in the groundbreaking Isabel Toledo x Lane Bryant show. She quickly caught the eye of Torrid's CEO Lisa Harper, who explained, “When Philomena began modeling for us, we were blown away by her intelligence and passion for helping others…on top of being drop-dead gorgeous. We know real beauty when we see it. And, this is it.”
As Harper suggests, that beauty isn't only skin deep. Kwao's got a bachelor's degree in economics, a master's in international health management, and she founded an organization to make a positive impact on young girls' lives.
We sat down with the model to talk everything from diversity in fashion to her stand-out hairstyle, and what she really thinks about the label “plus size.” In the process, she showed us she's exactly what the industry needs.
What does being the face of Torrid mean for you?
“[It's] truly such an honor. It means a lot to me, not only because being the face of a brand is an incredible opportunity, but by choosing me to represent them, Torrid have taken strides towards increasing diversity in fashion, and that’s a big deal. I’m really excited for the year ahead!”
What do you like about Torrid?
“The question should be what do I LOVE about Torrid. But, seriously. I love the way Torrid actively communicates with, and listens to, their customers, especially with regards to fit, style, and the fashions they would like to wear. Where else can you find such fashion-forward items at all sizes? My most favorite item of all has to be the jeans. I never used to be a denim girl until I tried on a pair of Torrid jeans.”
Do you feel that the fashion industry is becoming more diverse or more segmented?
"I feel like the industry is becoming increasingly diverse. More and more I see all sizes and all shades being represented. I feel that there is no beauty standard right now, and that the restrictions of the past are slowly but surely being lifted."
Read on for more on Philomena's career goals, and her take on the plus-size industry.
What is your ultimate career goal?
"Of course, I dream of the ultimate heights of modeling: a Vogue cover, a beauty campaign (Lancôme would be a dream), an international mainstream campaign for a store such as United Colors of Benetton, but ultimately I would like to use my voice to advance healthcare access around the world."
Do you feel there is more racial diversity in the plus industry than in straight-size?
"I think both industries are about the same…but I do think that the plus-size industry has previously been slow to embrace different races and use models of color in front-line campaigns. And for that reason, I congratulate Torrid in their steps towards diversity."
What makes you stand apart from other models?
"At first glance, I think my low cut definitely sets me apart from the other girls… How often do you see a plus model with no hair?"
Do you consider yourself plus size? If not, is there a label you use to describe your body?
"I try not to assign labels to myself. Sometimes I shop in the plus section and sometimes I don’t. I feel we attach too much significance to labels and, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. I am beautiful, healthy woman."
Have you ever padded?
"Maybe a padded bra or chicken cutlets to give shape, but nothing crazily extreme."
If you weren't a model, what would you want to do?
"Work for an international health agency such as the WHO or Doctors Without Borders working to improve the quality of, and access to, health in developing countries."