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When Lizzie Haines finished her life-changing year as the winner of Curvy Kate‘s 2011 ‘Star in a Bra‘ contest, she sent a surprise to the UK lingerie label’s office: a handmade quilt featuring a woman’s torso with plus-sized 3-D curves held in place by a Curvy Kate bra and knickers.

It was more than just a thank-you gift. “The quilt is designed so that ANYONE can hold it up and become a ‘Star in a Bra‘, channeling the ethos of the company and their groundbreaking competition,” Lizzie wrote on her blog. To prove her point, employees posed behind the quilt and posted their comical pictures on Facebook.

It’s hard to put a price on that kind of unsolicited tribute, but enthusiastic testimonials are nothing new for Curvy Kate.

Still less than three years old, the UK manufacturer of D-K cup lingerie has become one of the industry’s great success stories of recent years, despite the improbable odds of wresting market share away from established full-bust brands like Panache, Fantasie and others.

And much of that overnight success can be attributed to its popular ‘Star in a Bra‘ contests, which have turned customers into followers, fans and, for some, members of the growing Curvy Kate family.

The 2012 version of the SIAB competition in Britain attracted entries from more than 1,000 curvaceous applicants who submitted candid photos of themselves in lingerie, and will likely surpass 100,000 online votes. See the UK finalists here.

Now, the plus-size label with plus-size ambitions is facing its biggest test yet: exporting that feel-good community spirit to America. Curvy Kate is currently seeking entries for its first U.S. ‘Star in a Bra‘ contest, which is open to all “confident and naturally curvaceous women who are a D-plus cup size.” Entries close at midnight on Friday, after which judges will choose 30 finalists who will be profiled on the Curvy Kate USA Facebook page. A winner will be named after two weeks of online voting in June.

What they’re asking doesn’t sound like much — just upload five photos and a written summary of why you are entering — until you realize that Curvy Kate‘s target audience is made up of women who frequently deal with body image concerns, who are largely overlooked by the modeling community, and who are unaccustomed to being asked to pose in their undies for the whole world to see. Simply entering the contest can be a test of one’s bravery.

Lizzie Haines, the 2011 UK winner (above), said her size 14 figure and 32H bust made her feel “fat and frumpy” and made her the target of catcalls during her school years. Now 31, she entered last year’s contest as a way of confronting her self-image issues after years of dressing in baggy clothes to conceal her cleavage and curves. She won the title with 64,000 fan votes and since then has walked runway shows in Paris and the UK, modeled for Curvy Kate‘s next catalogue, and was named plus size model of the year in Britain. This spring, she is serving as a judge for the 2012 UK contest and will help mentor finalists.

“The search is a fun, enthused and eclectic event celebrating life, diversity and passion,” she said. “It’s so much more than underwear. It has changed my life.”

In a contest brimming with such transformational stories, it’s hard not to root for all of SIAB’s contestants.

Curvy Kate‘s model search is hardly an original concept, but it has built an eager following by turning the competition — and the brand itself — into a global confidence booster for women of all sizes.

“Our model search is dedicated to looking for fun and confident women with natural curves who aren’t afraid to flaunt their figures,” Steve Hudson (above), the company’s managing director, told Lingerie Talk. “From day one, we have searched for real women who epitomize the brand and our values. Curvy Kate puts our customers in the spotlight season after season, showing how great every woman can look in a well-fitted bra, accompanied with the right attitude and some killer confidence.”

But will American women rise to the challenge?

Lingerie model searches have become commonplace in Britain, Asia and Down Under (Australia even has an annual pageant-style lingerie model competition). But the idea has had a rockier time in North America, where “real women” campaigns have trouble finding and keeping an audience.

Wonderbra‘s clever video series ‘Real Women of Wonderbra‘ wasn’t renewed after its first campaign and even Victoria’s Secret abandoned the amateur model competition that was part of its TV fashion show a few years ago.

Staging an amateur model search can be a logistical minefield, and the results are often criticized. The major complaints? That the winners are cherry-picked by the brands to promote their corporate image; that pictures are routinely Photoshopped to make applicants appear more glamorous than they are; and that the contestants are often aspiring professional models looking for exposure, not the “average” women that the campaigns are meant to appeal to.

One of the few successes in the genre has been Beach Bunny‘s annual bikini model search, but there’s nothing average about the polished beauties who make the finals each year. Have a peek at this gallery of last year’s finalists, which looks suspiciously like a modeling agency casting call. That’s 2011 winner Xenia, below, a Russian stunner whose profile lists “my portfolio” as her most treasured possession.

Brands can actually damage their reputation if it appears they are exploiting — or have simply misread — their own customer base when staging model searches.

The concept backfired a year ago when American Apparel‘s search for a plus-size model was parodied in a hilarious photo shoot by a Texas woman who was enraged by the condescending language in the company’s ‘Next Big Thing‘ campaign. Her efforts earned her first place in fan voting, but the humiliated clothing company refused to grant her the prize.

As well, the “winners” in such contests are not always paid for their modeling work. Contestants are usually required to waive the rights to their own images, giving the sponsoring brand a bonanza of spicy material to flog on social media, websites and in advertising. Scottish brand Ultimo, for instance, uses “real women” campaigns as a key part of its aggressive marketing strategy, but the only prize for winners is a free photo shoot and a “goodie bag” of lingerie.

Even winning one of these contests is no guarantee of future opportunities once all the hype has died down.

Lucy Moore, a 20-year-old student, was the runaway winner in fan voting when erotic novelties retailer Ann Summers launched a model search last winter to find a “face” for its new line of sexy lingerie.

And while Lucy (middle, above) did appear in ads promoting the company’s Valentine’s Day lingerie collection, the size 16 beauty is nowhere to be found today among the predictable assortment of slender models in cleavage-boosting push-up bras on the Ann Summers website.

Curvy Kate has largely avoided such pitfalls by keeping the rules simple, the atmosphere fun, and building close relationships with contestants. As the main photo at the top of this article shows, there’s no ideal candidate and no restrictions on size, age or body shape.

“We’re not looking for one ‘type’ and don’t believe just one girl is Curvy Kate,” Hudson said. “Rather, we believe that anyone who can wear our lingerie should be given the chance to model it. Whether that’s a size 6 or 16, we want to celebrate all women and their curves.”

The company doesn’t accept retouched photos and they don’t allow critical sniping in the Facebook comments. The rules don’t prohibit professional models from entering, but they require the winner to work exclusively for Curvy Kate in the first year after the contest — a move that tends to dissuade career models from applying and keeps the focus on “ordinary” customers.

In fact, the Curvy Kate SIAB contests borrow from the spirit of earlier amateur model searches conducted by maternity labels Cake and HotMilk, both of which seemed less interested in selling bras than in giving average women a new context for appreciating their own shapes and making peace with their body-image anxieties. For many women, viewing the photos from those contests was liking looking in a mirror and seeing a world of new possibilities for themselves.

Likewise, the winner in the Curvy Kate USA contest “will become the newest ambassador for self-acceptance,” Hudson said.

The SIAB winner will receive up to $900 worth of Curvy Kate lingerie and the opportunity to negotiate a one-year modeling contract with the company within 30 days of being named winner. That contract isn’t guaranteed, but the company makes a point of only using amateur models discovered through its model search competitions. (The first UK winner, Lauren Colfer, still works as one of Curvy Kate‘s brand models.)

And Curvy Kate believes American women are long overdue for their turn in the spotlight.

Curvy Kate launched ‘Star in a Bra‘ in the U.S. because we believe many brands lack in showing a true representation of their customers,” Hudson said. “The average American breast size is now a 36DD, and the average dress size is a 14 or larger, but many fashion brands still choose a model that is, on average, 23% lighter than the typical woman.

“We use our real customers as models because beauty comes in all sizes, and women need to see how fabulous a shapely figure can look in well-made lingerie created just for them.”

And although the SIAB contest was initially held because the fledgling label couldn’t find a suitable model for its products, Hudson admits that the buzz surrounding the competitions has put Curvy Kate — which now has more than 200 stockists worldwide and over 20,000 Facebook fans in the UK alone — on the map.

“The ‘Star in a Bra‘ model search is a pivotal part of the Curvy Kate brand and has definitely given us our own unique signature in the market. The search allows up to build a strong relationship with our customers, making them a big part of the overall picture,” he said.

“Without ‘Star in a Bra,’ we would still have a gorgeous product, offering a great fit (but) ‘Star in the Bra‘ gives the brand personality, a burst of energy and a fun element to what we do. We hope that every time someone wears a Curvy Kate bra they feel a little more confident and a little more proud of their amazing curves.”

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