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Ashley Graham

The Activist

"I wanted to be a voice for the younger generation to feel more comfortable in their bodies"

The 2023 Pirelli Calendar celebrates the muses who have inspired photographer Emma Summerton and, more broadly, the remarkable power, passion and talent of women


Ashley Graham can trace her realisation of the need for greater body diversity in the fashion industry back to her youth.


“For me, it really started because I didn’t have anybody to look up to growing up – as far as somebody that I could relate to about my body,” said the campaigning model, fashion industry disrupter and ardent advocate for body positivity and inclusion.


No one was “talking about their cellulite”, she recalled. “There was no one talking about their back fat, there was no one who was able to be honest.” She yearned for “somebody that I felt was real and honest about the truth of our bodies”.


“I wanted to be a voice for the younger generation to feel more comfortable in their bodies.”


“I wanted to be a voice for the younger generation to feel more comfortable in their bodies”


Cover story


Graham has been shaking up the world of fashion and modelling ever since. In 2014, she co-founded ALDA, a collective aiming to represent “beauty overall — without divisions, boundaries, and most of all, IN ALL SIZES”. Then, in 2016, after years of modelling, the Nebraskan native had a career breakout moment when she became the first plus-size, or curve,model to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue. The following year she became the first plus-size model to appear on the cover of American Vogue,alongside Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid. She was also shot by Patrick Demarchelier for the January 2017 cover of UK Vogue, which had also never shown a plus-size cover model.


It marked a seismic shift for an industry that had traditionally excluded larger models from its highest-profile jobs. Soon Graham was everywhere – walking in Paris Fashion Week and receiving the first Women’s Empowerment Award at the United Nations Women for Peace Association luncheon in 2018. Mattel even released a Barbie doll tailored to her measurements in 2016.


Changing an industry


Graham has blazed a trail with frank discussions about the realities of her body. “I started to claim confidence in my cellulite and my back fat and my cellulite on my arms,” she told CNN in 2016. “That’s how you get on the cover of Sports Illustrated.”


She has walked the catwalk for Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Michael Kors and Tommy Hilfiger, among others, and has appeared in campaigns for Revlon, Calvin Klein, Marina Rinaldi and Levi’s. She’s also hosted a TEDx Talk entitled “Plus-size? More like mysize”, designed a lingerie line, appeared as a judge on America’s Next Top Model and wrote the memoir A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty and Power Really Look Like.


And in 2020, Graham was shot by Annie Leibovitz for her first solo US Vogue cover, pregnant in a gold caftan, alongside the words “the model who changed an industry”.


Today she has 18.6 million followers on Instagram, where she promotes her message of body positivity and self-acceptance with highly personal, unfiltered posts about her cellulite, post-pregnancy body and motherhood – she has a son, born in 2020, and twin boys, born in 2022, with husband Justin Ervin.


Speaking out


In Emma Summerton’s 2023 Love Letters to the Muse Pirelli Calendar, Graham embodies The Activist. Summerton has been inspired by activists throughout her life, she said,and admires many models who have used their platforms for advocacy, including Cameron Russell and Adwoa Aboah.


“Ashley Graham is one of them,” Summerton said. “She’s very comfortable in her body. She’s very positive about her body, who she is. She’s a fantastic, sexy, hilarious, smart, amazing woman... and I thought it was important to have someone in [the Calendar] who talked about these things publicly.”


“She’s very comfortable in her body. She’s very positive about her body, who she is”


For the shoot, Graham wore silver latex stockings and underwear and was encased in a wave-like sculpted piece made to fit her body designed by Amanda Harlech, the set’s style director. She was shot reclining on a couch with wet hair. “I love [Summerton’s] energy,” Graham said. “She just makes me feel sexy, iconic, gorgeous.”


Graham said she was honoured tobe in the Calendar. “I’ve been an activist for body diversity in the fashion industry and in homes all over the world,” she said. “It’s important for women in every stage of our lives that we’re not afraid to embrace where we are. I’ve never been afraid of talking about where I am in my body journey. Because we all know our body journeys can be a whole rollercoaster of excitement... and I think it’s important for us to have these honest, real conversations about that instead of having to fit into a perfect box, and what society has told us is a beauty standard, because there truly is no beauty standard.”


“We all know our body journeys can be a whole rollercoaster of excitement... and I think it’s important for us to have these honest, real conversations about that”