Dying to be the next Gisele

Crystal Renn almost starved to death to be in Vogue. She finally got there, after she embraced her natural curves

Published September 15, 2009 10:15AM (EDT)

Crystal Renn
Crystal Renn

When Crystal Renn was 14 years old, a modeling scout showed up at her charm school (yes, really) in Clinton, Miss., showed her a picture of supermodel Gisele Bundchen, and said, "That could be you." There was only one catch: The healthy, 5-foot-9, 165-pound cheerleader would need to shave 9 inches off her 43-inch hips to get work.

In her new memoir, "Hungry: A Young Model's Story of Appetite, Ambition, and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves" (co-written with Marjorie Ingall), Renn tells the story of how she lost 70 pounds and landed a quarter-million-dollar modeling contract at 16 -- which was not her happy ending but the gateway to her personal hell. Renn developed anorexia and exercise bulimia, subsisting for years on "lettuce with a side of batshit," and joining two gyms so that no one would notice her working out up to eight hours a day.

And still, it was not enough. Dangerously underweight at 98 pounds, Renn took a test photo for her agency in which her collarbone juts out like a shelf and her arms look about as strong as pussy willows. Her agent's opinion: "You're too heavy here." It only got worse when, despite her continued starvation and obsessive exercise, she began gaining back the weight. After she hit Size 4, the then 18-year-old was hauled into her agency for a come-to-Jesus talk. Staring at a Polaroid of Renn in which she still looks utterly waifish to a layperson's eye, the agent declared, "The thighs need to come down."

Upon hearing that, writes Renn, "Something snapped." She quit working for that agency, and Ford Models soon signed her to their plus division -- accurately predicting that once Renn returned to her natural size, she'd be a superstar -- then waited patiently while she taught herself to eat again.

Today, Crystal Renn is the most successful plus-size model in America, not only showing off the latest from Lane Bryant but competing with "straight" models for coveted jobs she once believed she'd never get if she let a drop of oil pass her lips. Back around 165 pounds and wearing a Size 12, she has starred in an ad for Dolce & Gabbana, walked the runway for Jean Paul Gaultier, and finally achieved the very ambition she nearly died for: being photographed by Steven Meisel for Vogue. She recently posed nude for a forthcoming Glamour spread celebrating plus size models -- who have become something to celebrate in large part because of Renn's mainstream success, even if Lizzi Miller's oddly captivating belly roll is currently taking all the credit.

Now that she has her curves and her personality back, Renn's more in demand than she ever was as a thin model, when photographers found her listless and vacant. "The stereotype of models is that we're brain-dead," she writes, "but some of us are just starving."

By the time you were in sixth grade, diet talk was already rampant among your peers, and you learned about eating disorders from other girls at the strict Christian school you were attending. But for a while, you seemed almost immune and refused to participate in the traditional "I hate my body" bonding rituals. How do you think you managed to tune it all out at first, and what changed?

I was the goth girl. People called me "witch." My best friend, however, was very different. She liked to roll her shorts up -- you know, at the Christian Academy. It's a different type of personality, I think. She was definitely prone to [dieting], and that's where I saw it for the first time. It started with SnackWells and fat-free things, and I remember thinking, "Why don't you just eat the real thing? Why do you eat this stuff?" She would count out how many cookies she would have. A couple of times she bragged about puking. I just thought, "That's so gross! Why would anyone do that?"

My mother was never on me about my weight. I think that once you get neurotic about what's in your kids' mouths, that's where some things start. But it was never like that in my house. It was only later when, you know, a scout comes to you and offers you the dream of the world -- I just latched on and went, yeah, sure, I'll diet. I'm the type of person that is quite extreme. It's either yes or no. And here's this scout, like, "You're gonna be a model -- you can travel the world and make a lot of money, and get out of Clinton, Mississippi! All you have to do is lose 9 inches off of your hips!" I was 14 years old. I just said yes. It didn't even cross my mind what I would be doing to myself. It didn't even, at that time, matter.

And what started out as this tremendous boost to your self-esteem -- hey, kid, you could be a supermodel! -- ended up undermining your confidence. You lose 70 pounds, you get to New York, and everyone in the industry starts analyzing your appearance to death. There's always something wrong.

I have this observation about the "most beautiful girls in the world" -- models, right? They're constantly being put down for their looks. An average, everyday girl who's absolutely beautiful -- let's say a pageant girl, maybe not a model -- everyone praises her: "How beautiful you are!" You go into modeling, it's a completely different story. The most beautiful girl in the world would be completely picked apart.

You were still anorexic and obsessively exercising when you started to gain weight again, but the people at your agency just told you to diet and work out more, because they assumed you were slacking. I think a lot of people don't realize that's how it often works -- when you're starving, eventually your body will start fighting to keep weight on.

Exactly. You could be eating 800 calories a day, every single day, it doesn't even matter, but your body does start to gain weight. Honestly, I think that was the most difficult thing at the time. It was like, "I'm doing everything right! I don't understand why it's not working!" And with the type of mind that I have, that makes me go crazy. But I mean, thank God it happened, because look where I am now. Now I'm able to tell people, "Avoid the diets, because you will gain it back, most likely, and you're just going to live in a hellish world while doing it."

You talk in the book about how everyone in the industry claims this impossibly thin standard is someone else's fault. We only want the thinnest possible girls because they fit the sample sizes, or because designers want them, or because magazine editors do -- and the editors say it's only what consumers demand. Where do you begin to unravel who's really responsible, and how do you fix it?

I think, ideally, it starts with sample sizes. A Size 10 for the sample sizes would be a great start -- up from, like, what? A 2? A 0? That's a huge step. Then they could pin the clothes to very thin girls, the ones who are naturally thin, but curvier girls, like a size 14, could get into them. I know that, because I'm a 12, and I've been able to get into sample sizes -- you know, with a lot of effort [laughs] -- but I do editorials all the time, and sometimes we have to work with it. And you can absolutely pin the clothes down. I have size 24s pinned to me all the time. So I think a 10 would be a great starting place so no one could say, "Oh, well, the sample sizes are the reason we don't hire bigger girls."

Now, who do we go to next? Is it the designers? Is it the editors? I think then, it's about changing people's minds about what beauty is. And that starts also in society. I think every day, women feel helpless against the ideals set for them, but I think that they could step up. They can write to magazines. They can say, "We demand to see a variety of women." I don't want to see only a size 14 in magazines -- I want to see all women. All different sizes, all different hair colors, skin colors, eyes. Not only is that interesting and creative, I also think it's important for women's self-esteem.

Speaking of that, I was a bit surprised to read that you're basically fine with all the Photoshopping magazines do these days.

Photoshop is a part of the business. It is a fantasy. I think people need to be aware, sure, that there is Photoshop. And I think a lot of people do know -- maybe not enough. I think it only becomes bad when you completely change the entire person. Like, let's say a Size 16 actress shows up to the shoot, and she ends up looking like a 6. Why didn't you hire the Size 6 actress, if you were so adamant about showcasing a Size 6? I think that's when it becomes a little iffy, because then you're basically lying to the public. But yeah, sure, smoothing things out, making the clothes look good, taking out the zit -- I think that's definitely OK. Don't make me a Size 2 in Photoshop. However, yeah, sure, retouch the zit, please! It's a magazine shoot. We're supposed to step it up.

In an industry where, as "The Devil Wears Prada" taught us, "6 is the new 14," you're a Size 12 sometimes getting work that would usually go to Size 00 models. Does that represent a shift in the fashion world, or are you an anomaly? Is anyone else crossing over like that?

I don't know about other people and what their dreams and goals are. Since I was 14 years old, I had a dream: I want to be in Vogue. I want to travel the world doing editorials, and working in high fashion. That is why I starved myself. That is why I almost lost my life. Because I wanted it that bad.

So when my body wouldn't allow me to do that, I decided I'd rather not lose my life, and I would like to continue my dream. I thought, you know what? I'm gonna keep the dream, different path. I didn't lose hope, I didn't lose confidence, I just said let's channel it differently. I think that's why I've accomplished the things I have, even at this size, because I never gave up.

And I was on the people around me to treat me no different than a Size 0. I was like, "Send me to those photographers! Send me, and see what happens. The worst thing they're gonna say is, 'No way.' And then, whatever, then we go to the next one. The interesting thing about Ford [modeling agency], as opposed to other agencies, is that they have many different categories of models. So when you're with an agency that's that supportive of a variety, I have to say, the judgment is way, way less. And the pressure is off. They were completely, 100 percent behind me, and because of them, I was able to do what I do. Another agency would have said, "No way."

You say in the book that you think the pendulum is starting to swing toward larger models getting more work and respect -- it almost has to, since there's no way models could get any smaller. But the thing about pendulums is, they inevitably swing both ways. Do you think there's real change happening, or are we just going to go right back to an emaciated standard in 10 years, once the industry gets bored with curves again?

Just like anything, it's a cycle. In the '50s, it was all about big boobs. '60s, it was all about very skinny legs, very skinny frames, Twiggy. Then you've got the '80s, with these Amazonian women, who were tall, you know -- wide shoulders, boobs, hips, powerful. Then you go to the '90s, you've got waifs again. Then you go to now -- what is "now"? Nothing's really "in," there's nothing to define "now." But I think definitely the '90s have spilled over, and it's probably become more extreme.

You're right. It is going to swing back, because it has to. But I think instead of swinging back to one body type, I'm going to say it again, there should be a variety. Nobody should look on the runway and see only 14s. That's ridiculous. I think there should be all different sizes on the runway, and I think that should be what's modern. Let's stop making one body type cool for a decade and start to say all shapes and sizes are accepted -- and not only accepted, but absolutely ideal, the most beautiful. Health! Health is the most beautiful.

By Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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