Anyone who’s seen an American Apparel advert featuring slim-hipped, doe-eyed girls in sparkly hot pants will know they're not known for the fuller figure friendly styles. However, earlier this year, they announced a competition to find a plus sized model for the launch of their new XL range. The tone of the announcement was undeniably patronising , “Are you the next BIG thing?” they asked, declaring they were looking for “booty-ful” girls who need a “little extra wiggle room”.
Nancy Upton from Texas saw the advert and decided to shoot her own take on it and submit it in to the competition. Beautifully shot and cheeky, the photos show Nancy lounging around nearly naked, with a sultry look in her eyes and a mouth full of food. Looking to subvert the competition, no one was more surprised than Nancy when she won. We spoke to Nancy about American Apparel, the ensuing, unexpected media frenzy and plus sized women's place in fashion.
How did the idea come about?
I read an article about the contest on jezebel.com and the wording of the article seemed really insulting and condescending in the way it reached out to plus size women. It was something that really stuck in my mind as the rest of the week went by. It occurred to me that these women think that plus sized women are just eating all the time and I thought it would be funny if we took pictures that reflected that.
How did you feel when you found out that you’d won?
I was very surprised. I wasn’t home when the voting closed and I got text messages from people telling me I’d won. I also knew, having entered the competition and read all the legal mumbo jumbo, that just because I got the most votes didn’t mean I was going to be asked to work for the company.
Did you at all anticipate the level of attention this would receive?
Absolutely not. Not at all. I thought that maybe a couple of people might notice, a couple of feminist blogs or something, if I reached out to them, but I had no idea it would get this kind of international attention.
Why do you think it’s received such attention?
I think for a couple of reasons. I think that very rarely, especially in America, do we see plus sized women photographed in a real way, when you can see that their skin isn’t perfectly smooth, that they’re not tanned or toned. Plus sized models are always photographed using tricks to make them look thinner, to make them look a certain way. We didn’t do any of them, so it was quite in your face compared to other plus sized models. The other thing is, your country is so incredible with satire, but America has lost touch with that. The only time we see satire now is over the top in movies, so for people to see this, it was really shocking.
Has the reaction been mainly positive?
I’d say it’s been mainly positive. Obviously there’s been some comments on the internet, people telling me I should “go die” and stuff, because that’s what people do on the internet. But for the most part, the well-spoken and real responses have been pretty positive. I’ve had a bit of hate mail and a few people saying that what I did was actually really bad for the world of plus sized modelling.
I’ve had some people rush to American Apparel’s defence, to say “hey at least they’re extending their sizes blah blah blah, why are you taking a shit on it? Why are you making them look so bad?” That especially to me is interesting, when people rush to this giant company’s defence. They’re a multi million dollar company… But for the most part, really positive stuff.
What about the reaction from American Apparel itself?
Well they sent that first letter, and then the women that wrote that letter reached out to via email and then we spoke on the phone and the company invited Shannon and I to come stay in LA on their dime and come visit the factory. It was incredible to meet them, there are so many smart, strong, independent women who work there, and you never would have expected what happened to come out of a team like this. They were all feminist, level-headed women. For the most part, the talk we had was about how I would have marketed it, where I would go in the future.
I think what I said was taken to heart but I could tell there were definitely individual people who got their feelings hurt, and that was kind of surprising to see, because when you think of big companies making decisions you don’t really think about the heart that goes into it.
Do you think the way the competition was carried out is quite indicative of how women bigger than a size ten are treated in the world of fashion in general? Or was this quite an American Apparel-specific thing?
I think it’s a more general thing. I feel if you’re a plus sized model in America you’re not taken seriously in the world of fashion. You’re marketed in a very certain way, as a cutesy add-on, a novelty. I made this point when I was on the Today Show, if you’re marketing a dress to a size 6 you call it sexy, if you’re marketing it to a size 16 you call it “curvaceous!” Why can’t both of them just be sexy?
And where are you going from here?
Next, I’m definitely going to work on a book. I’m excited to do that. After that it’s still up in the air. I’ve had a technology company reach out to me to talk to people about how best to use social media and marketing. I’ve had a couple of companies and independent designers approach me to do photo shoots for them. Stuff across the board, really. I like that there’s a lot of varied stuff going on.
So you won’t forever be remembered as the girl who did that spoof American Apparel shoot?
Let’s hope not!
Hear more from Nancy Upton at extrawiggleroom.tumblr.com