Model and Body Positivity Activist Tess Holliday Wants Genuine Diversity in Ads
What brands can do to be more inclusive
By Kristina Monllos
If you ask Tess Holliday for her opinion on the current state of fashion and beauty marketing, be prepared for a long list of what’s wrong with the industry—and why even brands that appear to be inclusive need to do better.
She would know: Holliday, a model, body positivity activist and founder of the Eff Your Beauty Standards movement, has worked with major brands like H&M, Benefit Cosmetics, eBay and ModCloth. She’s also an influencer with 1.7 million followers on Facebook, 1.5 million followers on Instagram and 65,300 followers on Twitter. So, suffice it to say, if Holliday has a problem with your marketing campaign, her more than 3 million followers are going to hear about it.
As she prepared for the release of her new book, The Not So Subtle Art of Being a Fat Girl, Holliday took a break between stops at the Today show and Watch What Happens Live With Andy Cohen to chat with Adweek about her work with brands, what she wants to see from marketers, Lane Bryant and more.
Adweek: Earlier this year there was a campaign for the new movie Red Shoes and the 7 Dwarfs that had an image of a skinny version of Snow White next to a larger version of Snow White with copy that read, “What if Snow White was no longer beautiful.” You called out that campaign online, asking why it was approved by a marketing team and why it was OK to tell kids that “being fat [equals] being ugly.” Do you believe you have to call out ads like that?
Tess Holliday: I was the reason that the campaign got shut down, which is embarrassing for them because it shouldn’t ever happen to begin with. Sometimes I’m just surprised at how a gigantic table of people can sit around and discuss how they’re going to advertise something [and come up with a campaign like this]. The amount of stuff that can just go through so many hands and be so horrible.
Is there anything you’ve seen that you think is successful and inclusive, something marketers should learn from?
The way that Rihanna has marketed her makeup line is extraordinary. I think the ads for it and seeing so many women of color and the fact that when she came out with the shades it had a model of each color [modeling] the makeup line—that is genius. Also, why did it take Rihanna doing a makeup line to actually show the lack of products for women of color? Now all of these beauty brands are scrambling and trying to make sure that they have the tones that she’s coming out with. So that’s probably the most powerful ad that I’ve seen to date. … She did use a plus-size model in the actual campaign, but she was a size 12, I think, so it would be nice to see someone visibly plus-size. But it’s still nice that she thought to include someone plus-size.
You’ve worked with brands like H&M and Benefit Cosmetics. Have those campaigns been inclusive? What has that experience been like?
I was a part of H&M’s campaign that they did almost two years ago. It was very diverse. It had all kinds of different people in it, including Iggy Pop, who is amazing. I was really proud to be a part of that one. The Benefit campaign that I did last year, it had myself and a transgender model and a couple of other people. … I try to be conscious socially of the campaigns and ads that I’m a part of and making sure they’re diverse. Because if you’re not, and you don’t think about it, Twitter will let you know.
Lane Bryant brought back its “I’m No Angel” campaign during the Emmys. That’s something that’s received a lot of accolades from the ad world. What do you think of it?
I don’t want to get myself in trouble. I just feel like it’s boring. To be honest, that representation and visibility are important, so it’s great to see plus-size models. And I’m friends with Danielle Brooks [who stars in Orange Is the New Black and appears in the campaign]. She wrote an endorsement for the back of my book. [Model] Denise Bidot is one of my good friends. I’m a huge supporter of them. It’s wonderful that they get to be in campaigns, especially Danielle as a woman of color and one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. But I just think [Lane Bryant’s] campaign felt forced and it just felt like—they just have so much money and I wish that, again, where is the person past size 16? All of those women were under a size 14, OK. They’re supposed to be representing plus-size women and they consistently keep showing us the same kind of body. I, unfortunately, wish that they would understand that there are people like me who wear their stuff but wish that we would see ourselves. I would have been much more moved by it if there was diversity in sizes.
So you’d like to see more size diversity?
The diversity [in Lane Bryant’s campaign] doesn’t really go past a certain size. Unfortunately, people cling onto those messages because in the plus-size world, you’re just so hungry for some kind of representation and visibility that you take crumbs. It’s really important to stop taking crumbs and say, “This is what we want.” I always tell people put your money where your mouth is and don’t buy into those brands. But we really only have a handful of places to shop. I have Lane Bryant underwear on right now. What am I going to do, you know? So it’s tough. … And the fact that there are so many women that are my size and we aren’t seeing them … You know, there are other models like me. I happen to be the only one signed and the most prominent one at this time, but I can name at least 10 models that are my size or bigger that could kill it in any of those campaigns but are not given the spotlight or chance.
You’re on a promotional cycle for your book right now. Let’s talk about the Tess Holliday brand.
Yes. I feel like it’s funny that you say that. When I was in London, I met up with a model, and I won’t say her name because I don’t want to get her in trouble, but her publicist told her, “Do you see what Tess Holliday is doing? Don’t do that.” And the model had to be, like, “Well, I like what she does and I like that she speaks her mind.” And [the publicist] goes, “Yes, but brands won’t work with her because she’s so outspoken.” I thought that’s so ridiculous because I don’t ever want to be viewed as the controversial person or the person stirring the pot. But I also think that if you have the social media platform and you’re not using it to educate your followers and to show where you stand on matters, then why even bother?
Is it true that brands won’t work with you?
It’s hard to say because I work plenty and I obviously haven’t had an issue getting myself booked on shows and stuff like that. I was up for one once, and I didn’t get it, and I even felt a little uneasy about that. … I have a good relationship with everyone I’ve worked with because I’m a professional. I will speak my mind, but I will also never intentionally hurt someone’s feelings.
How involved were you in the marketing campaign for your book?
I was very involved. I clashed with [the publisher] a bit because it took me a while to understand that I’m not a model, I’m a brand. My husband works in branding, which I didn’t even know when I met him, so he was responsible for suggesting that I change my name from Tess Munster to Tess Holliday, which I appreciate. He even had input on the book, as to how I should look, and worked with my stylist to help me because if I had my way, I literally would have shot the book cover naked with, like, troll doll earrings or something like that. … So my body is not Photoshopped [on the cover]. It’s all lighting. They smoothed it a little bit, but this is my body, which I was proud of. For the back of the book, they sent me a photo that the photographer, who’s amazing, had edited and you couldn’t see my cellulite. So I was like, “My legs are too Photoshopped. I want you to be able to see my cellulite.” And they were like, “That’s the first time that I’ve heard that.” But I thought that this image was important.
Is there a message you want the ad world to take away from reading this?
I’ve said it before but [the importance of] diversity and real diversity and genuine diversity. With the Body Positive Movement, [brands] have jumped on it so much because they see that it’s a moneymaker and it’s a hot buzzword and it can get them attention and a pat on the back. But people can tell when it’s not genuine. I built my brand on authenticity, and I try to be as honest as I can. I sometimes mess up, and even if brands mess up, it’s important to say, “We messed up and we want to do better” and ask their actual consumers what they want to see. Of course you’re going to get some people that just say garbage. But I feel like the majority of people want to see people who look like them, whether that’s people who aren’t able bodied, fat people, trans people, people of color. The world is so diverse, and I feel like we’re getting better, but we’re seeing the same people and the same bodies. I just want to see more, and I want people to do better. I’m probably going to get myself in trouble from this interview, but buy my book!