As the industry continues to redefine what being a "model" really means, there’s no time like the present to use one’s looks for good. To shed light on some of fashion’s loudest voices, we present Model Citizen , a bi-monthly column that features the change agents who have stories to tell — not products to promote. Because in 2018, a model is more than just a pretty face.
Thanks to the recent steady pace of increasing diversity across the industry, retailers are finally catching up when it comes to inclusivity. As part of their own search for new faces at the end of 2017, size-positive retailer Universal Standard set out to find their next star. And boy, did they ever: Jess Miller, a plus-size, queer, devout Christian, is ready for her close-up.
Out of four finalists, Miller won a coveted contract with New York modeling agency The Lions through the search, becoming the first plus-size model they've ever signed. She joins big-timers like Cameron Russell, Kate Upton, Grace Bol, Veruschka, and more. Plus, the Seattle native is featured in the brand's latest lingerie campaign, too. But like most models today, there's more to Miller than meets the eye. We caught up with the rookie to talk everything from her win to how she plans to incorporate her sexuality and religion into her modeling career, and what's next for the woman whose childhood dreams just came true.
You're a model now. What have you learned about yourself through this process?
“If I could look back at what my wildest dreams were as a child, I would describe exactly what’s happening right now. It racks my brain to think that I’m living my childhood fantasy, and that it’s a reality and no longer just for a certain type of model who gets to live their dreams; it’s possible to find something that brings you joy and to make a career out of that.
“If I allow myself to really go for something, then there will be so much more I can reach. When I’m thinking the impossible isn’t possible, that’s when I cut myself off from a lot of really great things that can happen. I’m not perfect, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.”
In terms of timing, do you think it's a coincidence you're breaking into the industry now?
“Right now feels perfect. Last year, there were so many key preparation moments that, had I not gone through them, I wouldn’t be ready to face what’s happening right now. I don’t think that I’m necessarily a trailblazer; I’m much more comfortable joining a chorus of voices and elevating the stories of others who still haven’t been heard yet. I think if it were a different time, I’m not sure I’d be comfortable with this because I don’t think we need another white woman telling people how to live. I just don’t think that’s what we need right now.
“But I think we do need people who are willing to share their stories and perspectives that haven’t been represented yet — or represented well — and I want to take up the space that I know that I’m allowed to take up. In my doing that, and claiming what I know to be mine and taking it back from other people trying to define me or put me in a box, I can say, This is our space, now come join me. That’s much more my style. There are so many people like me who are waiting for an invitation or an encouraging voice, or who don’t realize there’s space for them yet.
I’m not perfect, but that’s how I’m feeling right now.
“I need other people here with me, too. I can’t do this by myself. We don’t need one voice. One person is not going to have the full understanding of the context and history that makes up us as individuals. It has to be a chorus of voices who say where fashion goes next. There’s liberation and beauty in seeing someone you’ve never seen before.”
Explain how the intersection of your faith and fashion will help/add to your career.
“A lot of what makes up my identity would probably be defined as opposites by others. So, I find myself internalizing a lot of false binaries that the world has. My own existence, then, feels like a rejection of people who try to put me in boxes. As I go through life as a queer woman, and as a Christian — which both have their own external and internal limitations — I feel like my existence is protest to what people think both of those things are and look like.
“Being in the fashion world, you’re told you have to look a certain way. But I’ve already shed those expectations. And as I continue to study my Faith and read scripture, and get really involved in that community, I’m so grateful because I feel like my Faith has given me a sense of purpose, a calling in the world that is beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of for myself, and more. There’s been so many people that I’ve met that I know are my chosen family who will be with me and supporting me through life. Whether you get that from your family, friend group, or a Faith-based community, that’s something everybody needs — people on their team.
“At the same time, in the Christian space, I’m too gay to be there. I’m too gay to be Christian but too Christian to be gay. I’m often on-edge, living cautiously, and making calculated decisions. And that gets really tiring. I just want to exist and live fully. In these two opposing lives, I’m struggling trying to say that you can be queer and be Christian, and you can be of Faith and be in the fashion world. It’s funny: I feel like it’s a second coming out of the closet when I tell people in fashion that I’m religious. I get the same anxiety as if I was coming out to them as queer.
“But I don’t mind being the bold one. I’ve gotten past most of the timidity that comes with wondering how people will perceive that information. I’m gay, I go to church on Sundays, I work at a church right now, and I want to get my masters in Divinity.”
Do you think there is hypocrisy in the fashion industry when it comes to religion?
“To a certain extent, every group of people is a little bit problematic and hypocritical. Like, in fashion, when people talk about inclusivity, it’s only if you can make a buck off of it. The fad of inclusivity is something I’m really worried about right now. We’ve seen a lot of brands who are helmed by women of color and queer folk, but I feel like it’s the bigger brands who come and see these ideas and that it works, so they co-opt it and make so much money and make carbon copies to send to everyone. But that attitude is concerning.
I just want to ask: Do you honestly care about these issues and these people?
“I just want to ask: Do you honestly care about these issues and these people? Or are you only interested to a certain extent that it works for you, and then are you going to move on to the next fad? But this happens in any culture that’s centered around trends and things that will come and go. But people need to be treated sustainably and with care. You have to assess the longevity of all of this.”
What will you do when you encounter religious motifs in fashion shows and shoots?
“I’m in a constant state of learning, so I’ll have to cross those bridges when I get there. There may be a situation that I don’t even realize is problematic until after the fact. But, if I were in a situation where I knew it was going to be harmful to me or another person’s identity, I would just try to get to the core of what we’re doing and why it’s important. And, really, if it’s for fashion or something else.
“But, to some extent, I may view certain ideas as necessary critiques on religion or sexuality. Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I stand behind everything that goes with the title. I’m not always going to agree with everyone or come at things from the same perspective. There are critiques of Faith and even LGTBQIA culture that I have.”
What do you hope to accomplish in the industry?
“I hope to normalize the hearing and accepting of different perspectives. And I want to normalize what different bodies look like. Even myself, I’m ‘plus-size’ but every time I tell someone that, they don’t understand. I’m a size 14, but I’m also 6’2”, so it gets stretched out. I don’t even look like I represent all plus-size bodies — there’s no way that I could. But I do represent a lot of women who don’t see themselves in print, advertisements, or the media in general.
“I want to work with brands who haven’t historically worked with plus-size models. It would be a dream to help break that wall, or the plus-size glass ceiling, for those designers that haven’t yet cast plus-size models. I want to walk the runway at Fashion Week, too. I think group shots are important, too, when you see a group of different people co-existing together, with different sizes, shapes, heights, ethnicities, etc."
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