Ashley Graham enters Zoom looking photo-shoot ready. The 33-year-old supermodel, mother, podcast host, activist and businesswoman is in her Brooklyn rental’s second bedroom, which doubles as an office for her and her husband, the cinematographer Justin Ervin. “It is a disaster,” she says of the current space they’re using while their nearby loft is in its third year of renovations. Graham, on the other hand, appears pulled together, wearing subtle makeup and an oatmeal-colored cardigan from Khaite.
Then she tilts her screen down to reveal she doesn’t have on any pants. “I’m wearing underwear that I wore when I was pregnant,” she says of the black, full-coverage briefs.
Navigating the line between glamour and accessibility has become Graham’s hallmark. Her 21-year career as a model has included a great deal of firsts. She was the first size 14 model featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, in 2016; the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of Vogue, in 2017; and the first curvy model of her generation to receive a major beauty contract in the United States, as a Revlon ambassador in 2018. “My brand is about confidence and owning who you are and being honest with who you are,” she says. “I think that’s incredibly reflective of my Instagram, my YouTube, my podcast. I just wish that I had someone that was as real and honest and open when I was in middle school, high school, moving to New York.”
Her mother, Linda Graham, enjoyed sports in college, and Graham was an athletic kid too. “Nothing fit in the kids section where all my girlfriends were shopping, so I had to go to the mature woman section,” she says. “Even that stuff was either too big or so matronly. So I would cut up really small clothes and then wear very provocative outfits.” Graham grew up moving between Texas, Georgia, Arkansas and New Hampshire before settling in Lincoln, Nebraska, where her mother is still based part-time, in junior high. (Her parents divorced in 2013.) She was discovered at a mall and started modeling at 12. In an industry where plus size can mean wearing a size 8, she did a lot of catalog work and was told she would never do editorial.
In 2005, when she was 17 years old, Graham moved to New York. “I didn’t know how to cook for myself; I didn’t know how to take care of myself. That’s when I got my freshman 30, and my weight skyrocketed,” she says. “My self-esteem plummeted, and I had my agents telling me if you don’t lose weight, then you’re not going to work. The lowest part of realizing that I didn’t get a job because I was ‘too fat’ actually gave me the courage and the ambition to go and fill a void in an industry.”