The CultureMap Interview
Nancy Upton chews the fat on confronting American Apparel's insulting plus-sizemodel search
American Apparel’s brand is, let’s face it, pretty skeezy. From the homemade porn aesthetic of its ad campaigns to the accusations leveled against the company’s founder and CEO, American Apparel isn’t exactly positioned as the do-gooder it was back when its marketing focused on the fact that its clothes were made in the USA.
And even when it attempted to broaden its reach and begin selling clothes in plus-sizes, the announcement was made in typically icky fashion: By searching for the “booty-ful” model who was “XL-ent” enough to be their “next BIG thing.”
This grossed out Dallas actor and SMU student Nancy Upton enough that she decided to call American Apparel out on its subtext — if all the company could think to do when talking to plus-sized women was to make up new words to use in place of admitting that they could actually be attractive, she’d give them the sort of modeling submission they really wanted. She and Dallas photographer Shannon Skloss took a series of photos in which Upton — who had never modeled before — posed provocatively while pouring chocolate syrup down her throat, stuffing a whole fried chicken in her mouth and lying in a bathtub full of ranch dressing.
The images rose to the top of the campaign — when the contest ended Friday, Upton stood in first place, though she doesn’t expect a phone call from the company — and made the rounds on various feminist blogs and subsequently larger news outlets from around the world. CultureMap talked to the Texas native about her campaign, the responsibilities that come with becoming suddenly Internet-famous and why people are so fascinated by these pictures.
CultureMap: Have the past few days been kind of mind blowing for you?
Nancy Upton: It’s hard to talk about, because I feel like it makes me seem really stuck up, but when I was on my way to school this morning, I got an email from BBC Brazil asking me, “Can you answer a few interview questions real quick, so we can publish them immediately?” And I felt like I should do it, like it was important, so I did it, and I was running late for my first class.
And my professor kind of gave me this look when I went in, like, “Oh, late again, Upton!” And I wanted to be like, “I was talking to the BBC!” [Laughs] So it’s been a little weird like that. I guess I’ve never really had to align my school and job responsibilities with my artistic responsibilities in such a unique way.
CM: Did you expect any of this when you took those pictures?
NU: Not really. I feel like any time you’re gonna do a — I don’t want to call it a stunt, because it wasn’t done for attention or publicity or money — but anytime you do something where you’re going to make a statement, you hope that people will like it, and that they’ll see it. And so I figured I’d do it, and my friends on Facebook would think it was funny and they’d repost it, and people who saw it on the Internet would troll it, and be like, “She’s horrifyingly fat and weird!”
But I didn’t expect it to become international news. That’s pretty surprising.
CM: Why do you think this has blown up?
NU: I think a lot of people really don’t like American Apparel. I could be wrong — I’m sure there are people who really like them — but all of the negative attention they’ve gotten over the past few years, I feel like it’s a common thread. I feel like it’s a combination of the fact that American Apparel makes news all the time for doing douchebaggy things, and then — I feel like a lot of women who are plus-sized don’t generally point it out, or call themselves fat.
I feel like people feel like it’s a four-letter word, or you shouldn’t say it. And I’m trying to promote a concept that says, “It’s OK, a lot of people are, let’s not be weird about it.” I think that resonates with a lot of people — this idea that I don’t have to dance around talking about my body, or use euphemisms. I can just be honest.
CultureMap: A lot of people can write about those things, but your project expressed it visually in a way that seems to resonate — it really is worth a thousand words.
NU: So much of that was the photographer, Shannon Skloss. She’s amazing. It came out much better than I could have even hoped.
CM: On your blog, you seem really interested in the dialogue here, and you’re not defensive of your position. That’s really hard to do on the Internet, where people are jerks.
NU: I’m really trying to push that dialogue. This wasn’t something that was done with an agenda about making me popular, it was done about bringing awareness to a subject. It is the Internet, which is a form for people’s crazy, but it’s also a form for people’s genius, and I feel like you can’t really have one without the other.
For the most part, the articles have been positive, but if someone pops up tomorrow and is like, “This is why we’re disgusted by Nancy Upton,” I would post it, because it enters into that dialogue. That’s why I added something about how I respect women’s decision to enter the contest, when a few of them were upset with me — I’m trying to encourage people to keep a healthy dialogue open and see all sides to the argument. They’re valid.
CM: Do you avoid the comments sections, though?
NU: It’s really funny, because if you’re gonna put a photo of your belly fat, or your ass, on the Internet, there are gonna be people who say, “You look ugly,” and people who say, “Bravo! You look beautiful!” So comments like that don’t bother me. The things I started to read that did upset me was when people thought that I was trying to demean plus-sized women. That as opposed to saying, “This is how people see us, and it’s fucked up,” that I was saying, “This is how we really are.”
That’s not the point. But I have been reading a lot of the comments, because some people say some really amazing things.
CM: There’s a poll out there about whether this is effective or not, and some of the comments about whether you’re doing “the right thing.” It’s weird that people are holding the same standard to your campaign, like you have the same power and are in the same position as American Apparel.
NU: Yeah, it is very interesting that people look at it that way — almost from a moral standpoint. I wonder if it comes from a place where it wasn’t my responsibility to say something, but I went out on a limb — if that opened me up for that. It’s pretty crazy when you think about it, like, “Am I hurting American Apparel?”
But a friend of mine was like, “I’d make a big point of firing the people who made that advertising campaign.” And I thought about it, and I realized that is the sort of response you see sometimes, and what if they do that, and I lost five people their jobs? What if there’s a team of people who were really passionate about this, and I just came in and destroyed it? So from that standpoint, I do feel a little weird, because that’s not my point.
But if you align yourself with a company that has a tendency to piss people off, I guess that’s a risk you run.
CM: Maybe people take your campaign more seriously because it’s so well-photographed, and it looks really professional.
NU: It’s funny, because I’ve definitely had people be like, “What will your agent think of this?” So I try to make clear to people that this wasn’t my attempt to take the world of plus-sized modeling by storm or anything like that. I’ve never modeled before. I’m 5’7” and 180 pounds. What kind of thing that happened in my past would make me think, “Modeling! That’s where I should go!”
CM: Has anyone offered you any modeling opportunities because of it?
NU: At this point, no. There are a couple of channels that have started to open. As of right now, I really don’t know where I stand about that. I feel like part of the responsibility, if you garner attention because you’ve received support from people on a subject, you can’t look that in the mouth. The other side of that is that I’m a college student with no job, so if someone were to say, “Here’s 300 grand, come stand in a tub of whatever,” it’d be hard to say no. But I am definitely carefully thinking a lot about what will happen next, if there even is a next.
I would be the biggest jerk in the world to parlay the support from not just people I know, but strangers, and international strangers, into something that completely obliterated the message. That’s kind of my number one priority right now, is figuring out how not to do that.
CM: The photos make people feel a lot of conflicting things. On the feminist blogs, you’re a hero. On the comments section of AOL, you’re not. Do you think there’s value in just making people acknowledge that they’re uncomfortable with this topic?
NU: I definitely think so. It’s very telling that 50 percent of the comments are thoughtful discussion, and 50 percent is trying to decide if I’m actually a size 12 or not. I feel like it’s not a huge majority of people arguing about whether or not I’m attractive. It’s much larger into the scope of, “Can we just say that plus-sized people are attractive, without saying ‘plus-sized’?”
I think the fact that the photos make a lot of people uncomfortable is why it gets so much attention. I didn’t ask her to make me look super good. I bent over and squished my fat rolls to eat ice cream. There’s one photo where she smoothed out my thighs a little bit, but otherwise she never altered any of the pictures, she just put filters on them. There’s a reason for that, there’s a reason why the lighting isn’t always flattering, there’s a reason I’m not always in a sexy pose.
We wanted them to be kind of uncomfortable and real. And that’s OK. It’s OK for people to be a little uncomfortable and have to think about it. It wasn’t done in a way to make me specifically look sexy, or ugly, and I think that’s what stirs emotions in people.