The biggest name in American modeling today isn’t working for Victoria’s Secret or walking the runways at New York Fashion Week. And by “biggest” I mean the most talked about, most searched-for, most cheered … and most likely to shift the cultural landscape.
The biggest name in American modeling today is Nancy Upton, whose buzz index is off the charts following her audacious spoof of American Apparel‘s ill-considered “Next Big Thing” search for real-life plus-size models.
As you probably know by now, the 24-year-old Dallas actress and student (and a size 12), was so incensed by AA’s patronizing pitch for its new XL size range that she entered the contest by submitting raunchy photos that show her pigging out with a variety of foods while dressed in lingerie.
And, as so often happens in today’s viral media world, the lonely solo voice on the sidelines suddenly shot to the front of the chorus: Nancy’s entry in the AA contest led the fan voting and, presumably, will earn her a “professional” photoshoot for the company that pissed her off in the first place. Nancy has said she won’t accept the prize, which is a good thing because THAT would be an awkward moment.
A piece on Jezebel.com ignited a media frenzy, which Nancy herself has been tracking on her own blog ExtraWiggleRoom. A huge debate is taking place in online forums about the treatment and portrayal of larger women, and Nancy’s role in sparking the discussion. You can read what people are saying by following the lenfthly list of links on her blog, including a foul rant against “fat chicks” over at Barstool Sports, which is a repulsive blog for the beer-belly crowd.
See other images from Nancy’s photoshoot at the bottom of this post.
Here’s the original AA ad copy that aroused Nancy’s ire:
Think you are the Next BIG Thing?
Calling curvy ladies everywhere! Our best-selling Disco Pant (and around 10 other sexy styles) are now available in size XL, for those of us who need a little extra wiggle room where it counts. We’re looking for fresh faces (and curvaceous bods) to fill these babies out. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be the next XLent model, send us photos of you and your junk to back it up. We’ll select a winner to be flown out to our Los Angeles headquarters to star in your own bootylicious photoshoot.
After lashing out at AA’s “‘Hey, come on, fatties, we want you to play, too’ tone”, Nancy went on to explain the motivation behind her entry in The Daily Beast:
“I immediately thought, based on the way it was written, ‘Wow, they really have zero respect for plus-sized women. They’re going to line them up like cattle and make puns about them until they’re blue in the face.’
“The company (AA) was co-opting the mantra of plus-size empowerment and glazing it with its unmistakable brand of female objectification. …
“The puns, the insulting, giggly tones, and the over-used euphemisms for fat that were scattered throughout the campaign’s solicitation began to crystalize an opinion in my mind. How offensive the campaign was. How it spoke to plus-sized women like they were starry-eyed 16 year olds from Kansas whose dream, obviously, was to hop a bus to L.A. to make it big in fashion. How apparently there were no words in existence to accurately describe the way American Apparel felt about a sexy, large woman, and so phrases like “booty-ful” and “XLent” would need to be invented for us.”
There seem to be media eruptions every few months in the continuing debate over the portrayal of larger women in fashion marketing, but few that are as authentic as this. And behind the broad-stroke parody of Nancy’s gross-out photoshoot is a smart, clear-eyed woman with a keen grasp of the issue and a very deliberate purpose. She may be shocked at the response, but I doubt she’s surprised to learn she touched a sensitive cultural nerve.
What interests me the most about all this is what Nancy Upton will do with all her newfound attention, if anything. Is she willing to take on the role of an anti-discrimination icon, or is this just the first salvo in a guerrilla campaign by average women who are sick and tired of being either ignored or pandered to by the fashion world?
If Nancy were a journalist, her stunt might be dismissed as a media ambush on American Apparel (big corporations make big targets, even creepy ones like AA). If she was a celebrity, it would come across as one of those finger-wagging, Kaley-Cuoco-in-a-fatsuit charades with a too-earnest message no one wants to listen to.
It’s her anonymity, though, that gives Nancy’s project some real punch. This isn’t Crystal Renn or Beth Ditto preaching from a position of relative privilege, or Lane Bryant scoring with a clever marketing tie-in. This is the voice of the consumer, biting back. Cynical marketing execs who think that kute-n-kuddly ad copy can cover up corporate sins might want to give their heads a shake.
So far, Nancy and her message have stayed remarkably focused — not an easy thing to do in the middle of a media firestorm — while keeping tabs on the commentary flying around her.
If and when she eventually fades from the headlines — as so many of these episodes seem to do — she will have at least reminded us of an important, enduring truth: brave voices make a lot of noise.
Photos: Shannon Skloss