“I still get DMs saying I’m no Duckie Thot and that’s true,” says model, designer and body-positivity activist La’Shaunae, sitting in a quiet corner of a New York hotel. “Because I’m not anyone else, except myself.” Whoever said that millennials were an apathetic generation of non-self-starters has clearly never met the Summerville, South Carolina native who, after seeing an Instagram call-out for new names to add to the annual Dazed100 rundown, beat out YouTube stars, Hollywood names and, most tellingly, established runway models to snag the number one slot on this year’s list.
It’s understandable why comparisons stir up deep-rooted emotions for the 23-year- old, who speaks with feeling throughout our conversation. She grew up alternative, black, fat and female. She was taunted throughout school for the way she looked. But instead of fading away, La’Shaunae didn’t ask for permission from a world that wasn’t ready for her; instead, she created her own universe. Using Instagram as her tool, she galvanised her love of fashion, starring in a campaign for plus-size fashion brand Universal Standard that created a much-needed conversation about plus-size representation. A viral image from the shoot became a catalyst for the fashion industry to consider just how willing it was to depict all women. Now, after working with Jeffrey Campbell (on a collection of shoes for women with wide feet), La’Shaunae wants to shake up high fashion, using the blueprint of models such as Paloma Elsesser, Ashley Graham and Chloé Véro to build a career that is distinctly her own.
“I feel like a certain group of plus-size is being represented, but they are not the plus-size that I am considered (to be),” says La’Shaunae. “I’m bigger and darker than all those girls. They have opened doors for a lot of plus-size models, but there’s still a long way to go.”
You live in South Carolina, where you grew up. Tell me about that.
La’Shaunae: I grew up in the woods of South Carolina. Ever since elementary school, I was bullied. From (then), I never saw myself as anyone. I wanted to be a designer and a model but I never saw myself as a pretty girl in front of the camera. I grew up around people who would tell me that I wasn’t beautiful enough to do beautiful-girl things like modelling. High school was a little better, but not much. There were these older guys who would talk about my body. As a fat girl, I didn’t have the ‘good parts’ of being a fat girl – big butt, nice shape. I was always really alone.
So you didn’t have a crew or clique?
La’Shaunae: I had friends but they were all really shady to me because they would like me when no one was around, but when everyone was around they would pick on every little thing about me. I would get in trouble at school for wearing certain things that thinner girls didn’t have an issue wearing. If I wore leggings, I got in trouble for it. There was a dress code, but it wasn’t very strict until it came to me.
Was fashion a form of escapism for you?
La’Shaunae: Ever since I was young, I used to draw in sketchbooks. I would always draw ‘pretty’ girls in pretty outfits. There was a part of me (that) always wanted to be a designer, but I never pursued it because I didn’t have the finances. I was always interested in things that people told me I would never be able to do. (Music also) really helped me, like Tyler, The Creator. I remember going to Camp Flog Gnaw (festival curated by Tyler) in 2014. The day before, I went to this breakfast place with my mom and as soon as we got there, I saw Tyler in the street. I shouted his name and he turned around and waved at me. The next day, I met him at (the festival), and he told me how sick I was. I remember crying and hugging him. I went back to school and no one believed me. They were calling me stupid for missing school for going to a concert, and I was like, ‘It’s not just any concert, because that concert saved me from hurting myself.’ That day helped me a lot. He was saying not to let anyone dim your light, and not to let anyone tell you that you can’t be something.
“Once (brands) get that stamp of approval for being inclusive, they don’t care about being inclusive afterwards” – La’Shaunae
It made you believe that you could follow your passion?
La’Shaunae: Yeah. After I left school, I started feeling differently about myself. I experimented with different hair colours. I bought clothes I never saw myself wearing before. And when I posted them, I would get so many people (saying), ‘You’re helping me right now, because I never saw anyone that looks like me go out there and do what you’re doing.’ There are girls who reach out that are dealing with the same exact things I was dealing with. Whether they’re in an abusive relationship or (have) an abusive member of the family, they all tell me how they are dealing with their stuff, and it’s really driving me to try harder and better myself, because I’m helping other girls, but also myself.
What went through your mind after the response to the Universal Standard campaign?
La’Shaunae: I was so terrified when I saw the picture. Out of all the pictures, why did they choose this one? I felt like I looked so unappealing. The only thing that kept me from freaking out was the amount of support that I received online. I felt anxious and nervous, but I also felt a sense of power that I’d never had before. I got a lot of DMs and new followers. A lot of interviews from people asking me how I felt, but also a lot of people asking me if I was ever going to diet, and I really didn’t want to sound like a ‘good fat’.
What does that mean?
La’Shaunae: It’s a plus-size person who tries to be acceptable to thinner people by saying that they exercise, they’re not unhealthy. And I haven’t eaten anything bad in months because I’ve been really sick and I’ve been limiting everything that I was eating. I’ve never opened up about this, but I’ve had an eating disorder for some years. In middle school, I was a (US) size 12/13 and in high school, I went from a size 13 to size 20. Now, I’m a size 24/26. I get a lot of questions based on that picture, people asking me if I’m ever going to diet. I get so much unsolicited advice and questions about (my) health. Fat people can have eating disorders just like thin people. Since I was 14, I’ve gained 200lbs because I was really depressed and I overate. But in high school, I would eat and then make myself throw up, and that lasted until recently. I don’t want to be that person any more.
What compelled you to reach out for the Dazed100?
La’Shaunae: I follow Dazed on Instagram and saw that they were doing it again this year. I knew that with this opportunity a lot of people could see me and hear my story of how I’m trying to get into an industry that is not accepting of a black, short model who is over the size of 20. I said on my Instagram that it would be important for me to make the list and maybe finally start my career. And then, a lot of people voted for me on the site. I posted about it every single day.
What’s your ambition now?
La’Shaunae: I want to book more jobs. On magazine covers, doing shoots, we’re always picked last for everything and, once we do one shoot, they never pick us for anything else again. Once (brands) get that stamp of approval for being inclusive, they don’t care about being inclusive afterwards. I want to see more of us do stuff for high fashion, and not just fast-fashion brands. I want designers to make stuff for us, without it always being custom.
Why was it important to win the Dazed100 and not just be on the list?
La’Shaunae: Because I wanted people to finally see me. For as long as I can remember, I have been discredited for who I am. It was a validation for me. A lot of people don’t see me as high-end or worthy of being a model. And I wanted to show I have people behind me who see me as that.
Hair Benjamin Muller at Management + Artists, make-up Grace Ahn at Julian Watson Agency using NARS, set design Danielle Selig at The Magnet Agency, photography assistant Joey Abreu, styling assistant Diego Lawler, make-up assistant Sena Murahashi, set design assistants Dave Caddo, Joe Arai