By Leah Kelley
International model Leah Kelley has modeled swimwear in Aruba, walked the runway at Milan Fashion Week for designer Elena Miro — a job pretty much unheard for a “plus-size” model in our thin-focused society — and was named one of Jezebel’s five plus-size models to watch in 2011. Leah also made a splash (pun intended) all over the internet for a striking set of photos, where she was submerged in blue-dyed bath water, shot for fun with swimsuit designer pal and fellow model Robyn Lawley. Leah is pushing the boundaries in all directions of what “plus-size” means — we asked her to tell us how she does it all, and where she finds her confidence.
What made you want to get into modeling? How did you get your start?
From the time I was three years old I liked looking at magazines with a lot of different models and clothing styles. I have pretty much always loved fashion. It’s an area where you can really be unique and create your own style. I sent a submission to FORD Models, as well as several other big name agencies, after a catastrophic illness at the age of 19 nearly took my life. I knew afterward that I needed to go for my dreams, and I felt extremely lucky to be alive.
As a model, your livelihood is based on confidence in your appearance. How do you stay confident?
Like anyone else I have vulnerable moments, and that’s when I remind myself that confidence comes from feeling good about yourself overall. I think the key to confidence is to not focus on the things you perceive as negative, and instead really stay focused on all that is positive about yourself. I truly believe that what you internalize you will externalize. If you feel negative and sad about a perceived imperfection, that attitude is reflected through your looks, and conversely, when you focus on positive aspects about yourself, then you exude an energy that clearly is reflected through your appearance.
What does your beauty routine consist of?
I love makeup! I couldn't even begin to talk about all the products I love. For day-to-day looks, I do try to keep it pretty simple, and go for the bold looks at night. During the day, I think only one feature should be "bold.” If you have a dramatic cat eye then I would probably keep the lip neutral, and reversely if I wear a bold red lip, I keep the rest of my face fresh and clean, rarely even applying mascara. As for my skin, I religiously apply moisturizer with sunscreen to my face everyday, and I thoroughly cleanse my skin every evening before bed to help prevent breakouts.
What does being a plus-size model mean to you? Do you feel like you need to be a role model at all?
First, I consider my professional title to be "model." The modeling industry has deemed me "plus-size" because my measurements are greater than a size four. I would like to see the modeling industry represent women of all sizes and shapes, and I want the clothing industry as a whole to forgo boxing women into categories, since there is a plethora of shapes and sizes that exist. I think it will be a great day when models of various sizes walk runways together, appear in the same ads, and the industry embraces the differences that make women unique rather than separate them by a predetermined ideal. As far as being a role model, I would like to be known as someone who strived to unite women, by advocating for change that embraces all women, rather than a category of women.
What would you tell women who have trouble feeling confident in their body?
While it is easy to compare your body to other women you may see as ideal, learn to embrace your own body and accept yourself as unique. Avoid categorizing yourself as "too thin," "too heavy," "too short," "too tall," or whatever perceived negativity you believe exists. Rather than condemn yourself, find things about yourself that you like. Be objective. Be willing to work hard for things you really want to change, and be realistic in the endeavors you choose to undertake. Everyone has good qualities, and this will begin the process of finding the "confidence" or "self-esteem" that you are looking for.
Which models do you look up to? What is it that you admire in them?
One of my biggest role models is also one of my good friends. Robyn Lawley is outspoken and courageous with her opinions about the fashion industry, and the change that needs to happen. She is also multi-talented — an international supermodel, and an active environmentalist, she also runs a food blog called robynlawleyeats (which is being made into a cookbook), and has her own swimwear line (which I am happy to say I modeled for). She’s a published photographer, a successful DJ, and an AMAZING friend. I am uncertain how she does it all so well!
I have also always loved Christy Turlington. Everything about her exudes class and refinement. Not only classically beautiful, with one of the most recognizable faces of fashion, she is also a humanitarian, and an all-around inspiring woman. Her non-profit organization, Every Mother Counts, facilitates making pregnancy and childbirth safe for women all over the world.
There is criticism sometimes as a plus-size model that you are too small to be representing that demographic. How do you respond to that?
I think women have been trained to categorize themselves into roles, and reject other women that do not fit into that predetermined concept. This categorization is a mechanism that makes women derisive toward each other, and it highlights insecurity rather than promoting acceptance and camaraderie among females as a whole. I would like to see women channel their criticisms into useful feedback, encouraging retail giants and designers to offer a full range of clothing sizes that are modeled by women of different sizes and shapes, which actually represents the figures of all women.
Did you always feel beautiful and comfortable with your body growing up, or was it a learning curve?
Growing up was definitely a learning curve when it came to my looks. I was a larger kid in my youth, and I was also a "couch potato." I used food to entertain and soothe myself when I felt stressed. By my teens I started to tower over many of my classmates, and I felt somewhat awkward. I would have moments of feeling beautiful during my childhood, but I had a bad habit of comparing myself to other girls around my age, and then I would feel inadequate. During my last year in high school my attitude changed, and I started to accept me for me, and stop with all the comparisons. As a result, I became a lot happier.
What does your fitness routine consist of?
I perform a combination of cardiovascular and strength training exercises weekly. I try to switch up my routine to work new areas and to keep from getting bored! Like everything else in my life, my workout is a work-in-progress and evolves and changes over time. I usually strive to work out four or five times a week. I feel a positive difference in both my physical and emotional health when I exercise, and I try to avoid skipping workouts because it leaves me feeling toxic. I admit that my diet is a work in progress, and I sometimes can be a junk food eater. Frankly, I love a great big slice of NYC pizza from time to time!
Any advice you would like to share with our readers?
As cliché as this might sound — On your worst days, just believe in yourself.
Born and raised in California, Leah Kelley started modeling at the age of 18, and she has worked as an international print and fitness model ever since. Currently, she is signed with Wilhelmina Models NY, FORD Models Miami, and Innovative Artists for Acting. Additionally, Leah is a licensed realtor with Keller Williams in NYC. After many years of fluctuating her body to appeal to a fashion industry standard, Leah stopped trying to please others, and began a journey to find her own body's healthiest self. Read about this on new fitness and fashion blog ThickandToned.com, along with beauty and style tips she picked up over the years in the fashion industry.