Paloma Elsesser: The model who overcame otherness

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For years, to be on the cover of Vogue, you had to look a certain way: white, tall, and above all, skinny. When the magazine placed beloved black media mogul Oprah Winfrey on the cover in October 1998, editor-in-chief Anna Wintour reportedly suggested that Winfrey shed 20 pounds before the shoot.
And it wasn’t just Vogue. Elsesser, the curvaceous London daughter of an African-American mother and a Swiss-Chilean father, will not soon forget the incident in Paris that brought her to tears.
In 2015, Elsesser, 22, was in town with makeup artist Pat McGrath, who hired Elsesser to promote her first eyeshadow. Once the model was behind the scenes of Lanvin. A self-proclaimed tomboy at Supreme, she’s never been to a show in Paris before, and her first time faded when she saw the cast: mostly white, all skinny. Elseser is beautiful, with warm brown eyes and a beaming smile. But, crushed by the weight of her otherness, she began to cry.
“I shouldn’t be here. I don’t look like anyone here,” he recalls. “Who am I kidding? I’m not a fucking model.”

How things have changed. Today, Elsesser is one of the most sought-after muses of fashion. Now 30, she has walked the catwalks of European luxury brands from Fendi to Chloé, including four shows for Lanvin, and has appeared in major campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Coach and H&M. Even Victoria’s Secret, once infamous for its one-dimensional beauty standards, hired Elsesser.
As society changes and fashion emerges “from the dark ages” where older models fought for jobs and equal pay, demand for plus size women is on the rise, says Next Models agent Becky Thorpe. These are the fees they may require. “Clients pay as much or even more than they pay for traditional models to gain access to (bigger models),” adds Casting Partner Casting Director Trianna Lawrence.
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Plus size models, usually defined above size 4 in fashion and above size 12 in the mass market, are a lucrative business. “Once the agencies saw that a girl like Paloma had a real path to success, they started signing more contracts,” says stylist Carlos Nazario. “And when brands saw the engagement and attention they were getting on the runway and in ad campaigns, they wanted a piece of the pie too.”
But Elsesser’s elevation was not passed on to her. If he was a beneficiary of wider social currents, he was also a catalyst, driving and opening up space for others. “I think a lot of her work in the modeling business is against the industry,” says Samuel Ellis Scheinman of DM Casting.
the face of change
Elsesser appeared on the scene at a time of political upheaval. A smoldering culture war has begun to flare up in the United States after Donald Trump became president and George Floyd was killed by police, adding fuel to the Black Lives Matter fire. Simultaneously, there were broader calls for “body positivity”, a movement for greater acceptance of all bodies, regardless of size, shape, color, gender, and ability.
Fashion has changed along with society. In 2017, British Vogue hired black stylist and journalist Edward Enniful as its editor-in-chief. In 2018, Louis Vuitton hired African-American designer Virgil Abloh as artistic director of the menswear department. Fashion shows and magazines began to feature a wider range of characters. “The industry in 2017, 2018, 2019 started offering a counteroffer to the American political system of the time,” Sheinman says. “I think we’re starting to see that there has to be a radical message in casting.” It didn’t hurt that it was good marketing.

In 2016, despite being hired to spearhead the launch of Pat McGrath’s cosmetics company, Elsesser was still struggling to find runway work for major fashion brands. The following year, things began to improve after she began working with art labels such as Eckhaus Latta. In 2018, she, along with Bella and Gigi Hadid, participated in the launch of Rihanna’s Fenty x Savage lingerie line. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2020 that she signed with luxury brands such as Alexander McQueen, Lanvin and Fendi.
That season was a turning point for plus size casting. A week after Fendi first brought plus-size models to the catwalk, Jill Kortlev became the first plus-size woman to walk the Chanel show since Crystal Renn 10 years ago. From the end of 2018 to the beginning of 2022, the number of brands choosing plus-size models for their shows has skyrocketed by 374%, according to data provided by Tagwalk, a company that tracks runway trends.
The change has been a boon for Defendant Elsesser, whose runway presence has grown by more than 830% in the same period, Tagvolk said. Over the past two seasons, she has walked more couture shows than any other plus-size model in the world.
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From “poor hippie” to the main muse
Often the best models break out of obscurity, their lives changing overnight. According to Scheinman, Elsesser’s rise was “more organic”. She started modeling late at the age of 22 with the encouragement of her friend Stevie Dance, a former fashion editor for Pop magazine.
“The call was not that I was going to change the industry,” says Elsesser. She was working as a waitress at the time and needed money. paid $500 for one day, it’s amazing.” She didn’t see many models like her, but she reasoned, “If I don’t exist, maybe I should.”
Elsesser was born in London but grew up in a “poor hippie” family in Los Angeles. His mother once claimed government benefits to buy groceries but shopped at a local health food store. She also valued intellectual curiosity, and as a child, Elsesser accompanied her to the Bodhi Tree bookstore in West Hollywood. “I remember I was in the sixth grade and brought a stack of books to my mother; one of them was written by Anais Nin, an erotic poet,” recalls Elsesser. “She said, ‘Yes, add to cart.’

Elsesser got a scholarship to an elite private school. But she says the most valuable thing she learned as a child was self-belief. One day after school, she complained to her mother about how “all the girls in class were White and skinny,” so her mother gave her “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s seminal 1970 debut book about how White beauty standards distort Black women’s sense of self-worth. Elsesser was always bigger than her friends. “I was different but empowered in my difference,” she recalls.
After high school, Elsesser moved to New York. She studied psychology and literature at the New School but dropped out. Along the way, she befriended future fashion impresarios Angelo Baque and Raul Lopez. “It was like a weird cauldron of freaks all together, figuring it out,” she says.
Elsesser took to documenting her social milieu and streetwear-inflected personal style on Instagram, amassing a small but influential following. In 2014, she caught the eye of Pat McGrath, who made Elsesser the muse of Pat McGrath Labs’ Gold 001 eyeshadow. It launched Elsesser’s career.
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