Fashion is known to be a brutal space for mere mortals. In an industry that is highly judgemental, unapologetically superficial, and given to ageism, racism and fat shaming, it’s no wonder that most of us wouldn’t dream of a serious modelling career. And if you are a healthy size 14 and black? Forget it!
But then we are not created equal. Some of us have the nerve to change the conversation with a level of courage and confidence that is frankly awe inspiring. Of recent years we’ve seen a slow shift away from the skinny, Caucasian archetypes of beauty towards a much wider representation. And some are leading the way in style.
Enter Paloma Elsesser, a model who has defied the stereotypes like no other. Female, of mixed African American, Latin and European descent, and a size 14, Paloma’s American, English and Swiss citizenship have afforded her and her sister Ama a unique opportunity to revolutionise the space of diversity in representations of Beauty.
Born in London and raised in the predominantly black neighbourhood of Mid-City, LA, Elsesser comes from an atypical, artistic family that she described as “hippie poor”, educated but not affluent. With Black Methodist grandparents, an African-American mother and Chilean-Swiss father, both musicians, she and her siblings were a difficult-to-box multiracial minority amongst trendy white peers within the celebrity culture of L.A. It made them feel like outsiders, with a deep-seated desire to find community.
“You don’t just have rich people as classmates; you have cool rich people. This person is so-and-so’s daughter; this person’s dad composed the theme to Titanic; this person’s dad is James Cameron! That was strange for me.”
After school, Paloma moved to the thick of it in New York city. There she studied psychology and literature at The New School and indulged in the creative arts, with a particular interest in media.
“Modelling was never on my radar—at best, I thought maybe I could do some personality work. I used to watch MTV and think about how sick it was to be a VJ.”
However, friends like Australian stylist Stevie Dance thought she had a unique look, equivalent to curvy models Crystal Renn and Sophie Dahl. Elsesser showed up at modelling agencies, but unschooled in fashion and how to carry herself, she was rejected repeatedly.
The Right Kind of Plus Size
“I wasn’t tall enough or thin enough, and I wasn’t the right kind of plus. I was this chubby weird brown girl from L.A., just figuring things out.”
This affected her self-esteem and began an unhealthy coping mechanism which included drugs and alcohol. Whilst she’s many years sober now, it’s an ongoing fight against addiction.
“When I was younger, it was drugs and alcohol; now it’s overthinking and money,” says Elsesser. “So much of it comes back to transparency and vulnerability. Everyone is in pursuit of their own goals, and the by-product of that is loneliness…We tend to view hardship as something with a beginning and an end. I haven’t overcome everything, but I continue to put up a good fight.”
Elsesser put her aspirations on the shelf, keeping herself busy with a growing social media following and managing her friend Earl Sweatshirt’s tour of 2015. Then she received an email that changed everything. Legendary black makeup artist Pat McGrath was hunting for unique faces for the launch of her namesake cosmetics line. Whilst trawling through Instagram Elsesser immediately caught her eye. For McGrath, the discovery was a once-in-a-lifetime affair comparable to Hollywood’s Golden Age leading ladies.
“There’s something cinematic about Paloma,” says, McGrath. “She’s a modern Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne or Rita Hayworth. Her face, her body, and her mind are beautiful—and she has a wonderful personality brimming with fun and joy.”
Though Elsesser lacked fashion knowledge, she knew of McGrath’s legendary work and position in the black community.
Nevertheless, it took some courage to step out of the arena of the usual plus size syndicate of B-grade catalogues, e-commerce work and fit modelling to enter Fashion Month’s centre stage. Ingrained attitudes of plus-size and the constant rejections lead to a sense of impostor syndrome on Paloma’s first showcase during Lanvin’s Spring show in 2016.
““I was looking out at all the people, all the girls, all the chaos, and was like, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’ And I started crying. A couple of our first assistants scooped me up and held me and [told me], ‘You’re supposed to be here. None of this is the most important thing. It’s what we do after this day that’s important.’ ”
Fast forward from that first winning debut and Elsesser’s popularity has skyrocketed, walking the runway and modelling for Nike, Inc., Fenty Beauty, Proenza Schouler, Fendi, ASOS, H&M, Eckhaus Latta and Mercedes-Benz. She has also appeared in American Vogue, Vogue España, Vogue Arabia, Teen Vogue, Elle, W, Wonderland Magazine, and Glamour.
The poster girl for Fashion’s decade of diversity, in 2018 Elsesser was on the front cover of British Vogue‘s April issue with Fran Summers, Radhika Nair, Adut Akech, Faretta, Selena Forrest, Halima Aden, Vittoria Ceretti, and Yoon Young Bae.
Since then Paloma, along with her sister Ama, have forayed into acting, beginning with the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems. She has also made waves with Victoria Secret’s 2021 swimsuit campaign “Destination: Swim” which has garnered much attention for its body inclusivity.
Inspiring and Revolutionising
Elsesser’s influence is clearly changing fashion. Supporters of Elsesser’s career have gone so far as to credit her with inspiring and revolutionising their designs.
Long term collaborators Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta say of Elsesser, “Paloma wears clothes so beautifully, and having a dialogue with her, or even fitting things off her every season and getting feedback, has been great. It’s not just about plus sizes—it’s about how clothing can fit a multitude of people if it’s designed in the right way.”
Elsesser’s popularity goes beyond being plus size or multiracial, to her advocacy of pluralistic representation in fashion, and her passion for connecting with the wider community. A force in the online space, particularly since COVID, her circle of fans and industry friends, designers, filmmakers and influencers have united over shared belief in Inclusion. Her Instagram following is impressive and influential to a generation of women who say Paloma’s work helps them feel more empowered, regardless of colour, race, or size.
Elsesser is acutely aware of the impact of her work in the Fashion industry:
“When a size 14 person like myself says no to doing a show, they may not put anyone larger in that show—therefore that sample doesn’t go into the editorial season; other girls my size don’t get shot in looks that aren’t lingerie or a jacket; there’s a whole cycle happening. My participation isn’t just about me.”
Paying it Forward
“Not every part of fashion needs to focus on politics and reality—this isn’t CNN—but ultimately, we all have a level of responsibility”
“When she started, there was no one else like her—especially among curve models,” says IMG’s director Mina White.
With her growing influence, Paloma Elsesser is giving back and paying it forward, buying her family a home, working with Mutual Aid’s Community Fridge Program and National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People campaigns, as well as working on her own plus size label.
“I want to be making some clothes that are for us!” she says with a grin. “When I see the clothes that are offered to our community and see what extended sizing looks like, do I feel validated and seen? No. We have to be incredibly resourceful because we don’t have the luxury of just walking into a store and picking out what we like.”
“I’ve learned so much about myself and the next evolution of what I’d like my career to be,” she says. “It’s an immense honour even to be able to do this—but it also feels like something that should have existed long before I started.”
Being embraced as America’s everywoman, cool and sensual in one image, the girl next door in another, Paloma Elsesser embodies a new and unique American aesthetic. It has taken her to dizzying heights, giving her a place on the selection committee for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award. And on the Time 100 Next list for helping “so many women feel powerful within their own strong and beautiful bodies.” It’s clear that her popularity is anything but a fad, and that her rising star will be influential in fashion for years to come.
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