BY Sally Holmes
“I’m ready for society, Hollywood, the press, magazines, everyone, to just catch up.”
This weekend, Ashley Graham made history when she landed her first Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover. For the first time ever, the magazine published three different covers―UFC star Ronda Rousey and Hailey Clauson are also featured―but it was also the first time SI featured a plus-size model in the spread. We spoke to Graham yesterday about her reaction to the news, why this is such a significant moment, and why, more importantly, we should all stop talking about it already.
When did you find out you’d made the cover?
It’s live to tape, so I found out about three or four hours before everyone else—that was the hardest secret to keep ever. I thought hiding the fact that I was actually in Sports Illustrated was a hard secret to keep, but being on the cover, that was even harder.
What’s been everyone else’s reaction?
Every single person has just said congratulations, this is what needed to happen, this is truly showing that there is change in the fashion industry, that there’s change in people’s minds and understanding that beauty comes in so many shapes and sizes. I think that Sports Illustrated has not only talked about it, but now they’re proving it. History was made yesterday and I’m so excited for what’s to come.
I was reading your Instagram comments and your fans are so excited!
My fans are incredible. Don’t you dare talk bad about me on my Instagram, because my fans will come out and they will eat you alive. I have been so blessed not only to talk about things that I want to talk about in my industry, but also to have a platform—and people want to hear about it. People want the change; people want the difference; people want to know what’s going on. People want to see themselves in the industry that for so long has ostracized girls of my size. And here we are finally at that breaking point where we’re not having to have that conversation anymore. I wasn’t put on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a plus-size model, I was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a model, as a rookie, as Ashley Graham. This is exactly where we’re headed, and yes, there are so many more things we need to do in the curve/plus-size industry. But we are on our way and Sports Illustrated made it very clear that they’re very excited for women diversity, especially in their magazine.
On your Instagram you say the cover is for women who have been made to feel they weren’t beautiful because of their size. How important is this cover for the growing body positivity movement and for inclusivity?
This cover will go down in the history books. First of all, Sports Illustrated is known for curvy women on the cover—you know, a sexy, curvy woman, half-naked. And it’s tastefully done…. For so long I never thought that I could get covers. For so long I thought that I was so big and so thick that people like Sports Illustrated wouldn’t look at me—and for so long I had people telling me that wouldn’t happen. I had managers telling me that wouldn’t happen. It was proof yesterday that no matter what your dreams and goals and desires are to be whatever in the industry you’re in, you can do it. Don’t let your image, don’t let your size, hold you back. If I had let my hips or my jiggly thighs hold me back or the fact that I’ve got these big heavy breasts, then I would not be where I am today. And I don’t want women to hold themselves back. I think there are too many women who are self-conscious about the way they look―the way they see themselves in the mirror. I hope that this cover is a testament to them, proving to them that they are beautiful no matter what.
What work is left to be done?
I think that the work that’s left to be done―and I see the end in sight at this point―is to just let go and stop talking about it. It’s definitely ‘stop talking about the whole size thing.’ I don’t go to my girlfriend’s house and say, ‘Hey, I’m your big friend, let’s talk about big things.’ It’s not a topic of conversation within my friend group—I’m ready for society, Hollywood, the press, magazines, everyone, to just catch up and say, ‘These women are just like the women we’ve been using for so long. Let’s just throw them into the mix and stop talking about it.’
So what was shooting this like? How did you get ready for that?
My thing really, truly is affirmations—talking to myself. I might sound like a crazy person, but that’s the way I pump myself up. You know how some people are just like ‘I have to talk about it’? Sometimes I’ll call my husband and we’ll talk about it, sometimes I have to talk to myself in the mirror. So I start talking to myself: ‘You got this. Don’t think of this as Sports Illustrated, just think about this as the best swimsuit campaign you’ve done in your life. And just kill it and own it and don’t put that pressure on yourself.’
Then we get to set and I’m like, You know what, I’m going to be like Emily DiDonato, I’m going to be like Kate Upton. I thought about Elle Macpherson, just like pulling my bathing suit down, squeezing my boobs together. I’m like, This is my Sports Illustrated moment. And I didn’t even think about hiding anything—I honestly went into it [with the idea that] I’m going to show myself off because no one of my size has ever been in this magazine and I need other women to know that they are just as beautiful.
What was your reaction when you saw the cover?
As I was walking out, I had to go to the bathroom and I didn’t know what was going on, I was like, I’ve got to pee, and one of the producers says, ‘Can you wait?’ and I was like, Ugh, fine, and I was kind of annoyed, because I really had to pee! So I go to the front and they’re ushering me to go up with Ronda Rousey and I’m like, ‘Ronda, what’s up!?’ And she’s like, ‘I’m obsessed with you!’ And I’m like, ‘No way, I’m obsessed with you!’ And we’re like having a moment, not even realizing what’s going on—I’m thinking all the other girls are going to line up behind us and we’re going to do a Miss America wave or whatever, and sure enough, it’s me, Ronda, and Hailey. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is Hailey’s moment, this is amazing.’ Because of course they’re going to have Ronda out here, because it’s Ronda Rousey, and I’m thinking, you know, they have me out here because it’s my first time and they’re making history with a girl my size. And I start whispering to Hailey, ‘Hailey, you got the cover, you got the cover.’ And she’s like, ‘What?’ And I’m like, ‘It’s you, girl, you got the cover.’ And all of a sudden Nick Cannon announces it we all turn around and it’s three covers and HOLY COW we all just start screaming. I couldn’t believe it. I think I saw my whole career flash before my eyes because I realized what that meant.
It was one of those things that I thought could happen, but I didn’t know if it would happen, and in that moment I just thought, Thank you, God, thank you, MJ [Sport Illustrated‘s assistant managing editor, MJ Day], thank you, Sports Illustrated. I almost fell to my knees—you saw me start to bend over—but I was like no, because my boobs are going to pop out the top and that is not going to be cute and I’ve got Spanx on and my dress is going to rip and I can’t show these things off to the world.
I mean, I couldn’t talk—I’m never the person that can’t talk –and then I just started hugging people. It was amazing.