May 19, 2008 -- Could stick-thin models be on their way off the runway?
That's what some are wondering after Whitney Thompson became the first plus-size model to win "America's Next Top Model" last week.
Thompson, 20, is a size 10. She's not at all fat by conventional standards; she's slimmer than the 34 percent of Americans older than 20 who are obese. But compared with the impossibly thin models dominating runways around the world, she's big, and she's considered plus-size in the modeling industry. She's heard that her entire career.
"I've stood there in the middle of an agency with everyone pointing at me and saying 'four more inches off the hips would be great,'" Thompson said. "I don't recommend any girl putting herself through that, but I did and I stand here unchanged, physically.
"Right before I left to do the first episode in L.A., I was with one of my best friends and she said, 'You're fat. You are not going to make it in this competition,'" she continued. "So every week that I made it, I was like, 'Ha!' Obviously, we're not friends anymore."
Thompson is the latest plus-size woman to make waves in the modeling industry. Earlier this year, Chloe Marshall became the first plus-size woman to make the finals of the Miss England competition.
"I know I will stand out from them, but in a good way," the 5-foot-10-inch tall 16-year-old said in March. "I want to bring plus sizes back, and I want to show teenagers that you can be beautiful whatever size you are."
The British media don't agree. In April, columnist and former Miss England judge Monica Grenfell lashed out at Marshall in London's Daily Mail, writing, "Who does she think she's kidding? What she's demonstrating isn't bravery but a shocking lack of self-control. Instead of flaunting her figure, Chloe ought to own up to the truth. She is fat, and she got that way by overeating."
Thompson has her critics, too. A day after she scored the title of "America's Next Top Model," her Wikipedia page was hacked to say "Anya Kop [a stick-thin "Top Model" finalist] should have won you fat b**** ... you don't deserve this." (Thompson's page has since been restored.)
But big's not a bad thing. Tyra Banks, former catwalk queen and host of "America's Next Top Model," made it her mission to stamp out the "flesh equals failure" mentality after tabloids dubbed her "America's Next Top Waddle" and "Tyra Pork Chop."
In an industry struggling with impossible standards for skinniness, it may be time to get over heroin-chic and welcome back the Rubenesque. Starting in September, the British Fashion Council will require models to present a medical certificate of good health. And in 2006, Spain banned models with a body mass index of less than 18 from its catwalks.
"I personally would welcome more flesh on models," said Simon Doonan, creative director of Barney's and author of "Eccentric Glamour."
"I think that the cadaverously thin models on the runways right now are unattractive, not alluring; they're starting to look old. It's starting to become tired. And fashion is intrinsically cyclical. It makes sense that there should be a shift toward a fuller figure. They couldn't get any thinner than they are now.
"At runway shows, I cringe at how thin the girls are," he added. "And the funny thing is, they don't look alluring. They don't look interesting. They just look incredibly young and incredibly hungry. They don't have a magnetic allure to them the way Linda Evangelista or Naomi Campbell did in the '90s. That disappears when someone gets under a healthy weight."
Thompson beat out 13 other contestants to win the 10th cycle of "America's Next Top Model." Thanks to her win, she's now a Cover Girl for CoverGirl cosmetics and is represented by Elite Model Management. She will also have a cover and six-page spread in the July issue of Seventeen and a billboard in Times Square.
Ken Mok, the executive producer of "America's Top Model," predicts Thompson could be the most successful of all the show's past winners. For her sake, and the sake of the modeling industry, he hopes she ends up being a household name.
"It's a happy breakthrough for us, in the sense of hoping that we can have an effect on the industry that embraces the skinny white girl," he said. "People in the industry poo-poo the idea of a plus-size model. But there's room for tons of different types of people in the world to model. It's ridiculous. It's discrimination, it's biased, it's people stuck in the old way of thinking. That's why it's so important that Whitney not only won but that she does well so that these people shut up."