RUNWAYS and magazine covers are no longer a one-size (or gender or color) fits-all world. Models are now harnessing the power of their platforms to speak up and disrupt the status quo, working to transform the fashion industry into one of real inclusivity, beyond lip service or tokenism. Meet five models-cum-activists who’ve altered the industry with their looks — and so much more.
DISCOVERED on Instagram by legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath, 25-year-old Elsesser grew up in LA, the daughter of a Chilean-Swiss father and African-American mother. Through her bikini-clad selfies and refreshingly honest Instagram captions, she’s now changing the way fashion represents women of different sizes and cultures. “It took a lot for me to be able to say that I’m a plus-size model or a model at all without feeling terror,” she told Allure magazine. “We’re told that if you’re not this one archetypal kind of beauty then you’re not worth it … But it’s not true. Emotionally, it’s so taxing. It takes so much energy not to love yourself.”
ONE of the fashion industry’s most in-demand faces, Nef was the first transgender model to be signed by a major agency (IMG). The 24-year-old Columbia graduate recently starred in Gucci’s latest fragrance ad and appears as a recurring character on Amazon’s “Transparent.” She has also become an outspoken advocate for transgender rights. “There isn’t a trans moment,” she told the New Yorker in 2016. “There were zero, and now there are 10 to 15. That’s not a moment. If anyone’s having a moment, it’s white cis men … It’s just a presence where there was an absence. We deserve so much more.” And indeed, Nef’s family has encouraged her to go for so much more. Nef, writing for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, shared her mother’s unflinching advice: “There are going to be a lot of people looking at you. They will say hurtful things … you need to have a thick skin. They’ll say you’re ugly, disgusting — but it’s an opportunity for you. Own it. If this is what people want from you, give it to them.”
CANADIAN model Harlow first caught the world’s eye as one of 14 finalists on “America’s Next Top Model” in 2014. Born with vitiligo, the 23-year-old has gone on to model in the pages of splashy fashion magazines, star in a recent Swarovski campaign and cameo in Beyonce’s visual album, “Lemonade.” In a 2014 Ted talk, she recounted a painful childhood: “I was singled out because of this skin condition, I was bullied, I was alienated.” Now, she says, she simply wants to be seen as a person. “I’m very sick of talking about my skin,” she told Elle Canada earlier this year. “I am literally just a human. I have the same brain as you; there’s a skeleton under my skin just like yours. It’s not that serious.”
GRABBING headlines in 2016 as the first model to wear a hijab while walking in major shows (including her debut on Kanye West’s catwalk), Aden has also landed on the covers of CR Fashion Book and Allure. Before making a splash in the fashion world, the stunning 19-year-old — who was born in a Kenyan refugee camp and raised in Minnesota — was the first Somali-American to compete for the title of Miss Minnesota USA. “It took me a while to just be comfortable in my own skin and really just wear my difference proudly — not be ashamed of the way I dress,” she told Vice. “I feel like that’s something a lot of women experience … I say I’m different, but really, aren’t we all different?”
HANNE GABY ODIELE
BELGIAN supermodel and Alexander Wang muse Odiele has walked countless runways and fronted a jaw-dropping list of A-list fashion campaigns throughout her impressive 12-year career. But in January, the 29-year-old gained even more attention after revealing that she is intersex (born with sex characteristics that aren’t typically male or female), in an effort to reduce stigmas and advocate for others. “It is very important to me in my life right now to break the taboo,” she told USA Today. “I am proud to be intersex.”