Frisky Q&A: Crystal Renn Is America’s Next Top Plus-Size Model (And Author)

Kind of ironic, huh? A book called Hungry that I just ate right up as quickly as I could. But model Crystal Renn’s autobiography is that good. Seriously, I could not put down Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition, and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves for two days straight.

In her incredible memoir, written with former Sassy health editor Marjorie Ingall, Crystal shares how she was just a teen girl living with her grandmother in Clinton, Mississippi, when a modeling scout changed her life. The scout approached her at a charm school class and said Crystal could be just like Gisele Bundchen if she wanted to—meaning, she had to take off a lot of weight. Over the next several months, a 165-pound Crystal became anorexic, starving herself so she could drop 70 pounds and become a “straight-size” model.

I didn’t even realize it was a size 00 at the time. I just wanted to look like the girls in the pictures and I wasn’t going to stop until I did.

She got her big break, though, and moved to New York City. But it wasn’t the fairytale she was hoping for: Crystal was overcome with anxiety about keeping her weight at a totally unrealistic size and surrounded by folks in the modeling industry who constantly remarked about any pound she gained. She exercised for hours and consumed little more than lettuce and Diet Coke. She’d never had any body image or food issues before, but anorexia literally had a stranglehold on her brain. For two years, Crystal lived in this daily hell, until one day someone at her agency looked at a photo of her emaciated frame and admonished her, “The thighs have got to come down!”

That’s when something snapped. If Crystal had to starve to be a straight-size model, she wasn’t going to be a straight-size model anymore. She left her agency, ate real meals for the first time in years, gained her normal weight back, and fell into the uber-supportive arms of Ford’s plus-size modeling division. Today, as a size 12, she’s one of the leading plus-size models in the industry, having posed for Vogue, Dolce & Gabbana, and for the cover of international editions of Harper’s Bazaar and Elle.

This week I was lucky enough to talk with Crystal about her book, Hungry, her former eating disorder, body image, and what aspects of pop culture she thinks are the most positive for our bodies.

The Frisky: You wrote about how you became a model with anorexia because of “a perfect storm”: You were losing weight so you could be a “straight-size” model; you had a lot of anxiety about not being successful; the industry was pressuring you to look a certain way; you had a rough childhood; and lots of other reasons. But what do you think was the number one thing that really pushed you to become anorexic?

Crystal Renn: The major thing was I wanted to get out of Clinton, Mississippi. I wanted to travel the world, to see different things, to get out of the small town I was living in. So when a scout approached me and said, “You can travel, you can make money, and not only that, you can be Gisele!” pointing to Gisele [in a magazine, saying], “You can be like her!” And I had never been the beautiful girl! When someone said [I could be a model], something clicked in my head.

So I have to say that was the driving force in my head behind my choice to stop eating, basically. But of course, there were many other things. I had a lot of stress and many other things that happened in my life. It might have been my way of controlling it. Modeling, basically, pulled the trigger.

The Frisky: Do you think if you had been born to be 110 pounds, you would have also been anorexic as a model?

CR: No, I don’t think so, actually. I think it was the promise of getting a new life, of getting out of my small town, that probably pulled the trigger. I had no eating issues before then. It wasn’t something on my mind, ever. It was never something that occurred to me, to watch my weight really. Of course, I knew I wasn’t the size 2 that everybody at my school was, but it didn’t bother me. [I thought] This is the way I am. It was only when someone offered me the world that I decided to take it. And to get the world, in my eyes, was to starve myself.

The Frisky: When the modeling scout first met you, you weighed 165 pounds. But interestingly, in the book, you say it was only when you got below 138 pounds that you got really paranoid about your size. Why was that?

CR: I started out with good intentions. I cut out desserts. I cut out fast food, and all those things you’re “supposed to do,” so-called, when you’re on a diet. But then I got to a point where there was no more weight loss. So I restricted more food and I went to the gym even more and then it turned into “do as much exercise and calorie count as much as I can!” to turn into the [size] 00 that I wanted to be. And I didn’t even realize it was a 00 at the time. I just wanted to look like the girls in the pictures and I wasn’t going to stop until I did.

The Frisky: Do you think modeling should have more regulations about what sizes the models have to be?

CR: Of course. I’d love to see regulations be set in stone. But I would like to see a variety of women on the runway. I was actually just having this conversation last night: If you see 20 girls on the runway and they’re all size 0s and six feet, it really hits you in the face how thin they are. But now if you have a few of those thin girls, three or four, and you throw in size 8, you add size 6, you add size 14 — the power of that message [that thin is the ideal] is now lessened. I think it would be such an amazing message to say all women are beautiful.

The Frisky: What’s a good step the modeling industry or the fashion industry could take to make that happen?

CR: If they made the sample sizes a size 10, as opposed to a 2 or a 4, then they could pin the clothes to a smaller girl. A curvier girl could get into a size 10. I know when I do editorial [meaning, artistic photo shoots for magazines], they find a way to get me into the smaller clothes. I’m a size 12! So I think a good starting place would be a 10 because it takes the pressure off the models to be one way, to fit in the sample sizes. That’s ultimately why they have 34-inch hips, because the excuse of the sample sizes is always there: “Oh, but the sample sizes! We can’t have bigger girls because of the sample size!” Well, then let’s take the pressure off! Maybe that’s the regulation: sample sizes have to be a size 10 and see what happens. If there’s a change there, let’s go to the next step: changing society’s ideas about what beauty is.

The Frisky: That’s something that struck me in the book, how you’d go on these shoots and stylists would complain about not being able to dress a normal-sized woman. Honestly, doesn’t that just mean a stylist doesn’t really have talent if he only knows how to make one singular body type look good?

CR: That’s funny you say that, because I thought that very same thing many, many times over. The best stylists, I’ve actually found, they don’t complain. Working the way I work now—I’ve been blessed to work with Dolce & Gabbana and Vogue now—never once, never once, have I heard a complaint about my body. If anything, I’ve heard the opposite: ‘Oh, wow, your body’s amazing, I love clothes on you!’ The compliments keep coming!

But when I was a straight-sized model, remember, I wasn’t doing the caliber of work that I had dreamed to do. I was definitely working on a lesser scale than I am now. Those people didn’t know what to do with a different body type! Of course, when I was thinner, when I was exactly what they wanted, they were fine because it was easy. All you did was pin the clothes. There’s no challenge there. I think they were definitely frustrated because they’re used to a girl with 34-inch hips walking in the door and if you’re anything but that there’s definitely a disappointment factor that takes place. But now, I never have that problem. Never once have I had someone make a negative comment in the past six years as a plus-sized model. Which is extremely good, I have to say! You’d expect the opposite … Well, except for that first job. Actually, one of my first jobs, I didn’t even realize it but a friend of mine told me the stylist was complaining, but I think [my size] was something that she wasn’t used to, something she hadn’t seen.

But that’s why I’m here and that’s why I want to speak out! I want to change people’s ideas. I want to change what’s been ingrained in them forever in this business, that variety is what I think is the most beautiful thing. I want to make it a point that all different women can be idealized as beautiful for what they are.

The Frisky: Have other models thanked you for speaking out?

CR: Definitely. I’ve had a lot of girls say, “I’m going to gain weight and go to the plus-size side of things.” That’s now their goal. I’ve also had people say, “You know what? I don’t even want to do this modeling thing anymore because it’s not healthy for my body, so I’m going to become a makeup artist or a stylist or a casting director.” They change their path, because not everyone has the burning desire to be in Vogue.

But I think the thing that’s been really special to my heart after writing this book is [that] I get letters from girls who are in hospitals, very, very sick with anorexia, and they write me and say, “I think that I can recover. I am going to recover because I have read your book. I feel empowered to do so. I believe change is possible.” When I get letters like that, I know this whole thing was worth it.

I remember being at a shoot, before I had ever told anyone [I used to be anorexic] at my new agency and someone asked me, “What happened to you? You used to be so thin! What happened?” And I remember thinking in that moment, “Should I lie or should I tell the truth?” It was this back-and-forth thing in my head all in one moment. And I made the decision to tell my story and I know that’s where everything in my life began. I felt immediately better. It was like therapy to get it out there instead of keeping it in.

The Frisky: So do you find yourself speaking up a lot when you hear people make judgmental comments about bigger people?

CR: I’ve been lucky enough not to hear many comments, but definitely when I do, they get a look (laughs). They get a look, or I call my agent and say, “This is outrageous!” But it has happened probably twice.

The Frisky: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

CR: Definitely, yeah. I would say there’s nothing women can’t do. I do, however, think there are two things holding us back from going to the next level: self-hatred and lack of confidence. I think once we get through that, there’s nothing we can’t do.

The Frisky: Are there any good TV shows or movies or magazines that you think are really great for showing women of all body types?

CR: Glamour magazine, my God is that magazine positive. It’s first and ahead of the group when it comes to accepting bodies of all different sizes, especially the November issue—there’s going to be a whole group of women of all sizes in this issue coming up. I think it’s out right now — check that out! Oh, and anything with America Ferrera. She’s so positive. [Her movie] “Real Women Have Curves” talks about her struggle, which anyone can relate to, and it talks about finding herself and love and life.

People need to idolize—that’s a terrible word, but, idolize—people who look like them instead of idolizing people who look like completely the opposite, an impossible ideal. Once you start to do that, it’s going to save your life!