Lauren Karaman is many things: a model, an actress, a singer, a creative director, and an activist. She has modeled for Target and Ellos and co-directs a body positive photography project. She has appeared in Glamour Magazine and Refinery 29. Oh, and she’s currently a regular on a little show you may have heard of– Project Runway.
I sat down with Karaman to chat about her experience as a plus size model in the fashion industry. She’s a breath of fresh air in a toxic media landscape cluttered with photoshopped glossies and spreads about juice cleanses. Talking to her made me think that the energy I put towards ranting about Victoria’s Secret could be put to better use supporting inclusive brands and celebrating beautiful bodies wherever I see them. And, of course, I got the inside scoop on Project Runway– freshly re-branded and back on Bravo for 2019! Below are excerpts from our conversation:
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Chloe Hyman: What was it like getting the news that you’d be a regular model on Project Runway? You must have been SO excited!
Lauren Karaman: In true 90’s rom-com style, I just so happened to be hanging out with my best friend and my boyfriend the moment I got the call from my agent that I was going to be on the show. When I hung up the phone, they simultaneously screamed before hugging me from either side as I happy-cried on the Upper West Side. When the happy tears (and the immediate calls to my family) subsided, we kept in 90’s rom-com style and immediately walked to a diner for the most satisfying pancakes of my life.
CH: Were you a fan of the show previously?
LK: Ohhhh yeah, I’ve been a fan-girl since Siriano’s season. I’m thrilled this show catapulted him the way that it did. The fashion industry is better for him.
Recently I read a quote from Siriano on this subject that made me swoon. Explaining his love of diversity, Siriano recently told Teen Vogue: “All people are beautiful. There is no correct size, shape, colour, or age. As a creator of fashion, I celebrate the body that wears my work. What an honour to be chosen, to be appreciated, and to be seen. That honour extends in both directions.” If only more people looked toward Siriano for inspiration, both on and off the runway.
CH: It feels timely that Siriano would be a part of this new iteration of Project Runway openly celebrating models of diverse sizes! I know they’ve been featured before on the show, but this is the first time that, as a viewer, it feels really emphasized.
LK: I was among the second group of plus size models ever to be on the show. Plus size models weren’t introduced to the show until season 16. It took 16 years for us to be invited into the workroom, and now here I was. To be part of this step towards inclusivity in my industry, on a show whose casting decisions could start conversations on societal beauty standards internationally, is a deeply satisfying feeling.
CH: Do you define yourself as a plus-size model? I know the vocabulary around size inclusivity is constantly changing for the better, and it has always struck me as very odd that there were only two options.
LK: When I entered the modeling industry, there seemed to be only two classifications of model: “model” and “plus size model.” That never felt right to me. Not to be punny, but the word plus carries a lot of weight. With ‘plus’ comes years of fat shaming, judgmental looks, backhanded compliments and twisted body image. With ‘plus’ comes limited options (if any), thoughtless silhouettes, and shopping racks hidden in back store corners. With ‘plus’ comes a qualifier. There was no qualifier for smaller models, they were just “models.” Why the qualifier for larger ones? Considering nearly 70% of the women in this country wear a size 14 and above, wouldn’t it make sense not only to produce those clothing options, but to let them live freely among front-of-store clothing racks, keeping 2/3 of the US female population from exclusively booking it to the back of stores?
Though ‘plus’ has been used as a bad word, it’s not. Though plus size models have been an afterthought, we are not. The fashion industry has marginalized plus size women, yet we are the majority. The “plus” qualifier in front of my title is not a negative, it’s a term of pride. It’s for everyone who has worked for more visibility in this industry, and for everyone who has refused to be invisible.
CH: I couldn’t agree more. The creation of new categories for bodies is increasing the visibility of diverse bodies in media, but still demonstrates a patriarchal desire to control/own women’s bodies.
I hope that the visibility of plus size models has translated into real opportunities for you and other models. Has the conversation around fatphobia and size inclusivity engendered more opportunities for plus size models? Or does it feel like more of a media frenzy, with a token brand here or there heeding the call for inclusivity?
LK: I honestly feel like I started modeling at the perfect time. One of my first modeling jobs was an interview and video series for Refinery 29 that went viral: ‘Plus Size Models Get Real About Their Profession.’ In the series, we examined the toxic myth: “When I’m skinny, I’ll be happy” and the other personal and professional effects of sizeism. People were reaaaaallystarting to speak out then. Over five million people viewed that video, my inbox filling with messages from women relating around the world. These messages often turned into deeply personal conversations about painful relationships, eating disorders, and the desperate desire to dismantle that myth in their lives. Some even found the courage to speak up for themselves. I feel really luck my career started that way. It was work that led to healing for myself and my relationships, all while encouraging others to have open conversations, too.
I’m encouraged that the conversation around fatphobia and size-inclusivity within the fashion industry has yet to be silenced. The more we call out the toxicity within these systems, the harder it is to ignore us. It’s so important to speak up, and to take ownership of our own bodies, despite the exclusive box the fashion industry has taught us to try to fit in. I’m interested in an industry that produces representation for all people, celebrating the diversity and individuality of every human being. Let’s stop classifying who deserves to be seen and dressed. Just imagine how that could change the societal narrative we’re all influenced to believe—maybe we would all stop trying to change ourselves!
CH: Let’s talk about some of the retailers that have heard your voices and are listening! Are there any brands you admire that feature diverse models and sell diverse sizes?
LK: Universal Standard. They are a true example of what real inclusivity looks like when it comes to diversity. To name a few more, I love Chromat, Siriano, Modcloth, Asos, Third Love, Ellos, Eloquii, Swimsuits for All, Savage X Fenty, Aerie, American Eagle, and Target brands like Joylab and Wild Fable.
CH: I love Chromat. This is a fantastic list. I’d also love to hear about the REAL Catwalk, because I saw the pictures on Instagram and loved them. It seems like a great example of what you’re talking about—people speaking up, loudly, demanding their beauty be recognized.
LK: Isn’t the Real Catwalk fabulous?!! I LOVE being a part of it. It began two years ago as a guerrilla-style lingerie runway show in the middle of Time Square, and has now grown into an international event. It is a celebration of ALL people, ALL bodies, founded by my friend KhrystyAna Kazakova, who you might know as a finalist from cycle 24 of America’s Next Top Model, or any of the other amazing work and activism she does!
Anyone who reaches out to walk in the show is invited to participate. There are no restrictions based on age, gender, race, size, or whether or not ‘model’ falls in your job description. The Real Catwalk is a true coming together to champion ourselves, each other, a message of self-love for us all. And my god, is it exhilarating to walk the runway in your underwear in Times Square amongst hundreds of people who agree: enough is enough. We all deserve to be celebrated and seen. Sexy comes in all shapes and sizes whether the fashion industry acknowledges that or not. In a time when the fashion industry seems to be taking steps forward while also taking steps backward, the Real Catwalk is a powerful event.
CH: I also love how the self-love movement, overlapping with women’s empowerment and other intersectional movements, are not just appearance-based. You yourself wear many hats, and there’s been increased reverence for celebrities in politics, activism, and technology—I’m thinking of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Karlie Kloss—host of Project Runway—is doing the same with her fantastic coding program for girls. It’s just fantastic.
LK: I’m super excited about Kode With Klossy, too! What an amazing program, and free—(what?!) I couldn’t agree with Karlie more, that now, more than ever, women need to have a seat at the table in shaping the technologies that are shaping our world. As someone who is extremely intimidated by technology (I had an early 2000’s nokia cell phone wayyy into 2013), I would have greatly benefited from a program like this as a teen. Karlie created a program that not only teaches young women to code, but encourages their creativity within it. I love that! She’s a supermodel making it cool to code all while empowering young women.
CH: And you’re doing the same, with your work for the 36.24.36 Project with Ashley Garner. Any 2019 updates?
(The 36.24.36 Project is a photography project helmed by Garner and Karaman, in which the two hear women’s stories and photograph their bodies. The name is a reference to the measurements women have long been taught to aspire to. I interviewed the artists for the Superfine! blog back in 2018 and we talked at length about this project—have a read here.)
LK: At the beginning of 2019 we were invited as guest speakers for the Why Women Project’s live storytelling event SPEAK: live stories from the feminist gaze.
Their theme was ‘Unconditioning,’ stories of unlearning identities pressured upon women, and we were thrilled to share our images and story. Beginning this May, The 36-24-36 Project will be hosting monthly body image workshops at Devi Collective in Greenpoint, Brooklyn! For more information about those workshops and our future gallery shows and events, follow us on instagram @36.24.36 project or on our website.
CH: Modeling, art, acting, singing, activism… you literally do everything! What’s your secret? A time-turner?
LK: Ha! Since I have no time-turner, I’m stuck getting by with good coffee.
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For more glam shots (hello that NECKLACE), and your daily dose of body confidence, follow Lauren Karaman on Instagram. And be sure to tune in to Project Runway, Thursdays at 8pm on Bravo!
Until next time!