When he met Crystal Renn for the first time last September over lunch at the Royalton in Manhattan, Stephen Gan, the influential creative director of fashion magazines like Harper's Bazaar and Visionaire, had the same reaction as virtually everyone who comes face to face with the industry's reigning plus-size model.
"You're not big," Gan said.
Renn — 23 years old, 5 feet 9, bra 38C, waist 30, hips 42, hair and eyes brown — is a size 12. Gan half expected Mae West. Photographs in the international editions of Bazaar and Vogue had so emphasized Renn's natural curves, and in some cases exaggerated them with lighting and digital manipulation, that he imagined her to be much larger, with the personality of a vixen, rather than the breathtaking but normal young woman who had come to tell him her story.
Renn has heard this before. So-called plus-size models are constantly being told by editors and designers that they don't look fat, which is meant to be a compliment, Renn said in her recently published memoir, Hungry. Still, it does become tiresome for a model who aspires to wrest fragrance and beauty contracts from women who are size 2 or smaller, she said. "It's simply bizarre that 'normal' is the new overweight," she wrote. "We've seen that super-skinny women can be as unhappy as the fattest fat girl. We know how awful it is to obsess about every calorie. We've just opted not to make ourselves crazy."
Three years after the outcry over alarmingly thin fashion models led to an industry reckoning, magazines are making a point to include more diverse body types, especially those with fuller figures. So it has not gone unnoticed by Renn and the fashion industry that the backlash against skinny models has, in effect, given her career a major boost.
She is, from a high-fashion standpoint, "far and away" the most successful model in the plus-size division of Ford Models, said her agent, Gary Dakin. In the February issue of Glamour, she appears in an eight-page fashion feature on sheer clothes. For the March issue of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair, she was photographed, by Ruven Afanador, in a blond wig as Anna Nicole Smith. And she was described by Gan as the inspiration for making the new spring preview issue of V magazine, an offshoot of Visionaire that he also edits — a "size issue," including several portfolios starring plus-size models.
"It's going to be a bit hard on the eyes for a lot of fashion people," Gan said during an interview in the SoHo offices of Visionaire earlier this month. "It was about dealing with a subject that in my world is such a taboo. In fashion, putting on 2 pounds is a taboo."
The issue, whose images were circulated online a few weeks ago, ahead of its newsstand appearance last week, has sparked countless discussions about broadening the cast of models in magazine editorial features, runway shows and ad campaigns. One of the V portfolios shows side-by-side images of Renn and Jacquelyn Jablonski, a size 2, wearing the same-size runway samples from Versace, Proenza Schouler and Dolce & Gabbana.
Some who commented on the Web said that they were pleased to see models with bodies that more women could relate to. But others complained that the images were exploitative, that they glorified obesity or were a publicity stunt. It struck many readers as patronizing to hold up Renn as an example of a plus-size body, given that the average American woman is a size 14.
A humble beginning
Renn arrived for an interview wearing a cosmic glitter Maison Martin Margiela cat suit, a sleeveless cardigan from Preen, Rick Owens' floppy boots and what looked like a bicycle lock around her neck.
For all the appearance of success, she has had darker days, as chronicled in her book, in which she describes starving herself to be a "straight size" model, the industry term for girls who meet the prevailing standard of beauty, which is to say extremely thin.
It was not until Renn acknowledged an eating disorder six years ago and began to eat normally that her career took off as a plus-size model.
Although she embraces that label, she also sees it as a means of changing expectations among designers and magazines — and even the public — that models have to look a certain way.
Renn was born in Miami. Her mother, who was still a teenager, left her to be raised by her grandmother, Kathy Renn, a successful saleswoman of Mary Kay cosmetics with a pink Cadillac in the driveway. Renn came to know her grandmother as Mom, while her mother, named Lana in the book, remained largely out of the picture until her teens.
When she was 12, Renn and her grandmother briefly moved in with Lana in Clinton, Miss., but their relationship ended with a violent confrontation.
She never knew her father. "I don't have a picture," she said. "I don't even have a name."
When a modeling scout told her she had potential provided she lose weight and shrink her hip size from 43 inches to 34, Renn saw a means of escape from small-town life in Clinton. On a regimen of Diet Coke and sugar-free Jell-O, she began by losing 28 pounds in three months. By 2002, when she moved to New York at age 15, she weighed 95 pounds and had lost more than 42 percent of her body weight. On her first day in the city, she landed a shoot for Seventeen.
Kathy Renn, now living in Riverside, Calif., where she is the executive director of a nonprofit group, Fuel Relief Fund, said she always thought her granddaughter was in control of her diet and weight.
"One thing about Crystal," she said, "is she is very goal-oriented. When she set her mind to going into modeling, that's what she did." Although she followed her granddaughter to New York for several months, she was not fully aware of Crystal's weight struggles until she read the book.
"It hit home, and hit the heart," she said. "Basically, when it got down to being too much, she literally turned her life around."
When the book was published last fall, Crystal Renn said, she felt that she was able to close the door on a period of her life defined by hatred of her body. Ford describes her as the highest paid plus-size model, although Dakin would not disclose how much she makes in commercial work for stores like Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and her biggest client, Evans, a retailer of plus-size fashion in the United Kingdom. (Her total annual earnings are estimated to be in the high six figures.)
"I've always felt, in some ways, like an outsider," said Renn, who now weighs about 165. "But that is the fashion industry. You know how that is. The creative one at the school, the outsider, the goth or the gay guy — whatever it is, they always get made fun of. I feel like they all got together and moved to New York City and made the fashion industry.
"And here I am," she said. "I feel right at home, very much accepted and very happy."