When Nancy Upton entered American Apparel’s “Next BIG Thing” search for a plus-size model, her goal was to mockingly protest the company. Much to her surprise, she ended up winning the popular vote online with her racy food photos. But the company snubbed her and sent her a long letter explaining why.
Upton called on photographer friend Shannon Skloss and did a photo-shoot with a high-fashion feel, but a clearly ironic message. The images showed a scantily-clad size-12 Upton posing seductively with a variety of messy foods.
“I thought to myself, ‘What are they sitting around in L.A. thinking? What would they see when they look at a fat girl trying to be sexy?’” Upton told ABCNews.com. “Well, she would be eating.”
In one image, she is soaking in a bathtub filled with ranch dressing. In another, she is eating chicken off the bones in a swimming pool.
“I feel like there are two levels [to the photos]. On the surface…the satirical message is I was trying to be sexy, but just couldn’t stop eating,” Upton exclaimed mockingly. “I want to so badly be accepted, but food!”
“But the real message is, I can be fat and I can be beautiful. The two are not mutually exclusive,” Upton said.
While voters loved her statement photos, American Apparel was less than amused.
“It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that ‘bootylicous’ was too much for you to handle,” American Apparel’s creative director Iris Alonzo wrote to Upton in a letter she posted on her blog, Extra Wiggle Room.
When she first read about the competition, Upton, 24, was offended by the campaign’s tone and choice of words. “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,” said the competition’s description. The winner would receive a trip to L.A. and a modeling gig for the company.
“I just felt talked down to, like I was being condescended to,” Upton said. “Their pants could be ‘sexy,’ but bigger girls had to be ‘curvalicous’ or ‘booty-ful.’” American Apparel is well-known for its racy–and often controversial–ads featuring super-skinny models in compromising positions.
At the end of the letter, Alonzo wrote: “Oh—and regarding winning the contest, while you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.”
Though Upton has no problem with the fact that she will not be representing American Apparel anytime soon, she is happy to have ignited a national conversation.
“I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do on a greater scale than I realized I was doing,” Upton said. “I’ve provoked discussion and promoted awareness about the depiction of plus-size women in the media.”