Meet the supermodel who is changing how the retail industry treats plus size women

Ashley graham sports illustrated InstagramAshley Graham

In February 2015, a model from Nebraska made history when she appeared as the first-ever truly plus size model in an ad in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition.

And Ashley Graham didn’t stop there.

She recently launched a plus-size line with lingerie company Addition Elle at Nordstrom, tapping into a market that Victoria’s Secret hasn’t touched.,

Graham talked to Business Insider about the moves she’s made in the modelling and lingerie businesses, and how she’s working to help transform society’s perceptions of plus size women.

Graham became a model out of sheer luck (and good looks).

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'It was one of those stories that you've heard a million times,' she recalled to Business Insider. 'Where I was in a mall, I was 12 years old, and somebody came up to me and said, 'hey -- you wanna be a model?' And there happened to be a scout right there, and I look over and there's like a line of like 300 girls in this mall in Nebraska and I was like uhhh... sure!'

She credits her parents with helping her sit things straight. 'Thank God my dad (is) a businessman,' she said.

Graham moved to New York at 17.

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'Of course I went through the struggles of learning how to be an adult,' she said, 'but it never affected my career because I was just very straightforward. Straightforward with what I wanted and my dreams and my goals and all of that.'

She soon experienced her first major controversy.

Lane Bryant/YouTube

'I was in the Lane Bryant commercial that was banned from television which was so cool,' she said.

The 2010 commercial wasn't allowed to air on ABC during 'Dancing With The Stars' or on FOX during 'American Idol,' CBS News reported.

Lane Bryant accused the networks of banning the ads because of the plus size women, especially considering the ubiquity of sexy Victoria's Secret ads which could air at the same time.

'It was a controversy (and) everybody thought, 'oh ... this is terrible,' but honestly, I thought it was great because it was giving us a platform to be able to talk about body image and acceptance. And media isn't putting curvy women on ... newsstands and on television,' she added.

'That was the whole thing,' she said, 'they were offended by my curves and lingerie.'

So in November 2013, she launched a line with Addition Elle -- largely because the plus size market is pretty sparse -- especially when it comes to sexy lingerie.

Courtesy of Addition Elle
Graham in her Addition Elle campaign.

Women have petitioned in hopes of seeing Victoria's Secret sell larger sizes, but Ashley Graham went ahead and made her own sexy line.

'I felt like the was a huge gap in the market for sexy and supportive lingerie,' she said.

Now, the line recently launched on, and come October, it will be available in select stores.

Courtesy of Addition Elle
Graham in her Addition Elle campaign.

'This is a huge, huge, huge accomplishment,' she said. 'I'm so excited because now my girls in America -- who are the majority of (my) fanbase -- can actually get their hands on some of the awesome sexy merchandise.'

Graham believes that it's not just lingerie that's tough for plus size women to find.

Courtesy of Addition Elle
Graham in her Addition Elle campaign.

She was blunt with us: 'Shopping sucks for a curvy girl if you just don't know how to do it and especially if you don't know where to go.'

'It's like, if you go into a TJ Maxx or a Marshall's and you have to start hunting -- that's how it feels for any type of curvy girl -- it's just like a hunt.'

This mission-like approach to shopping is in part because retailers are facing some challenges when it comes to creating stylish clothing for plus-size women, of which there are notoriously few options.

'The thing about plus size women -- curvy women -- is we're not all shaped the same,' Graham said. 'We're not just straight up and down -- we're hourglassed, we're pear shaped, we're apple, we're big breast, small breast -- so not just one plus size retailer is going to be able to give you everything you want.'

Recently, she signed with IMG, which is monumental for a plus-size model.

Jason Hetherington/Elle UK

'That has been insane career builder as well,' she said to Business Insider, 'because I now have an agency that reps the biggest supermodels in the world and they haven't categorized me (as plus size), so (it's) huge!'

She spoke at a TED Talk in May, encouraging others to accept their bodies -- flaws and all

She's become an ambassador for promoting body positivity and self-acceptance.

That said, she understands why retouching exists.

Jason Hetherington/Elle UK

'I think there's a fine line of going too far,' she said to Business Insider. 'And I am a girl who has talked about my cellulite. I've talked about, you know, the parts that jiggle, and although I love them, it's also really nice in a major campaign to not necessarily be distracted with some of those things -- if you're gonna take out like one or two dimples. But don't change my face, don't reshape my body, don't -- you know -- don't change the colour of my skin just to make me look like what you think the ideal is -- but I think mild retouching is totally fine.'

She thinks there's a lot of subliminal messaging in the media.

Jason Hetherington/Elle UK

'The other day, I saw at a restaurant, it said: 'get this skinny pasta,' skinny salad, or something, and it was like, you know, when was salad not skinny?' She said to Business Insider.

'Or ...'have flawless ageless looking skin,' and it's a 12 year old doing a campaign for skin care,' she added. 'I think that ... it's not just about body (image) anymore -- it's about age, it's about race, it's about how to look lighter, and it's sad, and it's terrible, but I think it's through not promoting curvy women on the cover of the magazines and putting them in hair and makeup campaigns and not really talking about it in the fashion industry (these problems exist).'

'I think things are changing sloooooooowwly,' she said. 'But I think there's a huge gap that we still need to conquer.'

But she did break some ground in her ad for swimsuitsforall in Sports Illustrated.

Graham in her swimsuitsforall campaign.

She had some words for those who were upset it was just an ad:

'I thought it's really sad,' she said. 'We're making history either way, and I actually met with some of the Sports Illustrated people after they had kind of calmed down a little bit and they told me ... 'we wouldn't have known our reader wanted a girl your size in the magazine unless we had put the ad in there.''

She said it was 'groundbreaking in so many different ways.'

She thinks it's not just women who want to see this -- it's men, too.

Graham in her swimsuitsforall campaign.

'It's showcasing (what) American women are wanting -- I think men, too,' she said. 'I think that not every man has the same taste in women.'

Some 'want women that just have a little bit more meat on their bodies,' she said.

But she's hesitant to use the word 'real.'

Graham in her swimsuitsforall campaign.

'I'm really careful with the word real,' she said to Business Insider. 'I'm not telling you 'don't say real,' but you know it's hard because ... there are a lot of thin women that are just naturally thin and what, that doesn't make them a real woman? So I'm careful with that.'

But despite her growing success and appearing in many magazines and shoots, her parents still keep her grounded.

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'My mum and dad just always really humbled (me). you know kept me grounded,' she said.

She cited an example. 'I would come home from a 3 week trip in Paris or something and I would get back in Nebraska and (my dad) would be like, 'hey, you gotta mow the lawn now!' I would be like 'what? You know i was just being fabulous in Paris, right? And they were like, 'we kinda don't care at all.''

And she has words for the naysayers.

Graham in her swimsuitsforall campaign.

'The main places I get negative comments are from Instagram,' she said, making her ask the question, ''why are you even following me?''

But she said, any conversation about the plus size community is a good thing. 'I don't look at it as a negative anymore. I just look at it as somebody's talking ... because 10 years ago we weren't. And ... I don't care if you call me a fat cow.'

Plus, she's out to defy the age-old myth that plus size women aren't healthy. She works out.

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'The other thing I get is, 'you're promoting obesity!'' She said.

But, she works out -- she said she does classes, machines, and that she's started to even lift weights. 'I want more definition like in my thighs and stuff, so you know I have body goals for myself as well, but I'm not trying to lose inches. I'm just trying to keep toned,' she said.

'You can be healthy at every size,' she said. 'As long as you're getting off the couch and doing something.' She said that even though she has 47-inch hips and a 32-inch waist, 'you cant see the abs because there's a layer of fat over them, but hey, whatever!'

Ultimately, she aspires to help people gain confidence and stop seeing size and the ultimate determining factor when it comes to how people feel about themselves.

Courtesy of 4 GIRLS
Graham helping to mentor young girls with the 4 GIRLS organisation.

'I really, truly believe beauty is beyond size,' she said. ' And I use that hashtag -- ' sexy is a state of mind,' and your sexy is different form my sexy but as long as your finding that inner self love then… then that's what this is all about. That's really truly what my message is -- finding self love within yourself and not comparing yourself to others because there's no such thing as perfection, because perfection doesn't exist.'

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