Everyone knows Crystal Renn. You've seen her in magazines. Yesterday, when I met her at the 34th St. Lane Bryant — which is decked with pictures of the dark-haired plus-size supermodel — even a customer was telling Crystal's life story.
"I read about that girl!" said the woman. "It's like, I think she was anorexic, and then she gained all her weight back, but she's still a top model." Crystal's agent, Gary Dakin at Ford, smiled wryly.
Crystal and the other two models in Lane Bryant's current campaign were at the store to film, viral-video-style, a snippet of a segment of them all trying on clothes and shopping. "Do you Twitter?" asked Gary, of a sales assistant. "Tell them to Twitter that the Lane Bryant girls are all at the store getting new clothes."
They did many takes of the trio stepping out of the dressing rooms in new ensembles, and styling each other's outfits: jumpsuits with belts, lingerie, and boyfriend blazers over long t-shirts. Crystal was on her way to catch a flight to Canada to shoot for Elle magazine, and of course the video shoot was behind schedule. So when it came time to talk, we jumped in a cab to her neighborhood, Williamsburg, so she could pack. Five o'clock traffic gave us plenty of time to talk — about her experiences starving herself to be a straight-size model for years, the point at which she broke down and had to enter recovery, and the amazing ignition of her plus career, all of which is chronicled in her new memoir, Hungry, co-written with Marjorie Ingall.
After returning to her natural size, Steven Meisel booked Crystal for American Vogue — the "Shape" issue, of course, because American Vogue still fails to feature plus models any other month of the year — and then, the famous photographer shot her for an editorial in Vogue Italia. Since then, she's worked with photographers like Patrick Demarchelier, Arthur Elgort, Ruven Afanador, and Ellen Von Unwerth. She's walked the runway for Jean-Paul Gaultier, been in campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana, and she's made the covers of international editions of Elle and Harper's Bazaar.
A handful of other models have gone from disordered misery at straight-size, to self-acceptance and a new career at what the modeling industry calls plus. (Kate Dillon and Carré Otis are notable examples.) But perhaps most importantly, Crystal seems to be slowly helping the notoriously sizist industry change its ideas of what a plus size model can be: she rarely looks like the typical friendly, smiley, approachable stereotype of the larger model. Although she can look adorable styled as a pin-up, she's also booked for jobs that require a confrontational look, an overt sexuality, or a darker kind of beauty — it's probably no coincidence that she says she was a high school goth, and that when we met, she was wearing complicated black paper-bag-waisted pants, a deconstructed black t-shirt, and a cropped black vest with serious shoulder pads. (She particularly likes the designer Rick Owens.)
Crystal and I played a long round of model geography, locating mutual friends and photographers we'd worked with. We compared everything from childhood hobbies — collecting unopened Barbies, bottlecaps, and Star Wars figurines (her), collecting Kinder Surprise toys and not swapping stickers with the other girls at primary school (me) — to favorite kinds of chocolate ("I'm very particular about my chocolate," says Crystal) before we started bonding by swapping industry horror stories.
CR: But you know what: I made a decision to do this job. Nobody tied me to a treadmill.
JS: It's true, it's true.
CR: Or locked me in a closet, and forced me to not eat. Although — I got a contract to go to Japan, and I refused it, because this model told me, They locked me in a closet for three days…So I mean, I'm sure somewhere, maybe someone is being forced.
JS: Japan can be really brutal. I never worked there, because I heard similar kinds of horror stories. A friend actually told me that she got off the plane, and she was immediately booked on four jobs in one day. That was Day 1. She got to sleep for five hours, and then she was booked on another three jobs. That was Day 2. No client had any food, because they were all booking her in four-hour increments, with no obligation to even let her take a break. By Day 3, he'd had basically nothing to eat since arriving, and she collapsed on set. She had to be taken to hospital, and as the EMTs were putting an IV in her arm, the client was trying to stop the ambulance from leaving, and screaming into his cell phone to her agency, ‘I'm going to charge you for the time your model is wasting!' While she was being taken to hospital.
CR: That's so gross. That's incredible...I actually heard something similar the other day, I was at a studio and this client said, ‘Oh my God, I booked this girl for all this money, and she's outside crying into her phone. Ugh!' I'm thinking, well, why can't you guys shoot one half of the story now, and her part later? I mean, who knows. Maybe the girl is like, ‘I didn't get enough drugs and I'm freaking out.' That's the stupid reason — but maybe something serious happened? Maybe someone passed away? And this woman, as opposed to going up to this girl asking, ‘How are you?' she was screaming down the phone to her agency about how unprofessional the model was.
JS: And the poor girl has to walk back in there, try and recover from whatever personal crisis she's been dealing with, and—
CR: Because if you're a model, you're not a person, and you can't have feelings.
JS: It's true, it's true. Some people in the industry, it's just like they're missing an empathy chip.
CR: Right! Some people. Not everyone, there are good people.
JS: Oh, absolutely. Not everyone. But there's an attitude that's like — it's girls to order. You pick one out of the lineup, and you want that one, and you want her to do these poses, and you want her to wear these clothes.
CR: Right. And you're going to get her exactly how you want — like she's a doll. You have to remember there's a soul and a heart in that person, and feelings…
Crystal shares a story about a time on a shoot when, after telling the client that she was dealing with a personal crisis, instead of being understanding or thankful that Crystal had still turned up ready to work, the client promptly made a private situation into a huge deal, and loudly questioned her professionalism. Crystal complained to her agency, and they talked to the client. Which, in modeling, is exactly how the system is supposed to work: Model is treated unfairly, model contacts her representative, representative deals with situation appropriately.
JS: There are these people who are going to take some kind of an ‘In' that you gave them, and use it against you. As some kind of leverage.
CR: Definitely missing the empathy chip. Totally missing it. Did you have any experiences like that?
JS: I did, actually. I told a story of when, during the sad break-up of a long relationship, I went to work for the first time in a new market, having gained a few pounds above my fighting weight. And I got to Milan, and the agency was upset. Extremely upset. The woman — it wasn't my booker, my booker was great — but the woman who was in charge of doing all the measuring, was viciously unkind. You know, it's your first day, you're on your way home from the airport and they whip out the measuring tape to see where you're at.
CR: It's so uncomfortable.
JS: You're standing there naked in front of strangers. After stepping off your long flight, it's the first thing they want to do. And this woman said, ‘Ugh. These hips…' And I made the mistake of telling her the basics of what was going on. I made sure to say, But I am getting back on track! She just looked at me and said, ‘We had another girl who just broke up with her boyfriend, and she's not been eating at all. It's strange how some people react.'
CR: Are you serious?
JS: Yep. She was like, Shame you aren't one of those girls who stops eating during times of emotional strife! Because we'd really prefer that!
CR: We would prefer you to handle stress in a different way, Jenna! Can you manage to change your way of handling stress? And depression? Can you do that? Yeah, that makes sense. Wow.
JS: It was ridiculous. I can laugh about it now, but at the time I just wanted to cry.
CR: Of course…I can't even believe people are like that. I remember being on this shoot once, and this was when I had put on the weight, you know, after starving for so long.
Crystal is talking about the period when, while still working as a straight-size model, her metabolism slowed and she started, slowly, gaining weight even despite her extremely disordered eating and near-constant exercising. Crystal used to maintain two gym memberships to avoid detection as a compulsive exerciser.
CR: I was working on a commercial with this girl who was 6' tall, and there's me, who's 5'9". We wore the same bathing suit, and the stylist said...‘Oh honey, it's OK. You just have a fat ass!'
CR: That's what he said. So I go into the bathroom. I have a fucking fit in the bathroom. I am so angry, I'm like — steaming hot tears are pouring down my face. I'm like, this freaking guy, has just pushed my wrong button.
JS: Let me find your weak point and jam it in there!
CR: You just have a fat ass.
JS: That's disgusting. That he would say that. To anyone.
CR: I just remember being like, dying inside. And then I had to go be on camera in a bathing suit. I have never felt so disgusted with myself or with everyone around me.
JS: That's terrible.
CR: That rubbed me the worst. And that was right before I made the decision to stop what I was doing. I was like, What do you want? What do you want from me? I am doing everything I can. There's no food. There's exercise only. And I am still not the size that you want.
JS: I think it's — I think the relationship that you have with your own body is the thing that's most under threat when you're modeling.
CR: Yeah. Yeah!
JS: Because you're forced to analyze your body, as if from a third-person view.
CR: Totally. I love that you know that…You're an object.
JS: You objectify yourself...You know, when I was reading your book, I was just struck with the thought, How is it possible that your old agency never noticed that this girl had an eating disorder. They asked you — they told you — to lose a vast amount of weight. Like, 40% of your body weight.
CR: I don't think they really understood what they were asking. I want to think that they didn't really understand what they were asking me, a 14-year-old girl, to do. I mean, [when someone is asked to diet down to a certain measurement] nobody knows for sure how many pounds that will actually be.
JS: It's so fucking naïve though. And, Jesus Christ, when you're dealing with such young girls, irresponsible.
CR: I think so. They have certain requirements, and I don't think they want to think about how the girl meets those requirements…A lot of girls never come forward to their agencies and say, Hey, I starve myself to maintain the standards that you've set for me.
CR: You know, they're not going to do that. I'm one of the only ones. And that's the reason I got a book.
JS: True. And congratulations.
CR: They're literally unaware. And that's, I think, what is the problem. People look away. They are unaware. Not only of themselves, but of the wider problems.
JS: It's true. Everyone sees some little piece of it, but nobody — yet — has stepped forward to take ownership of the problems in fashion in any kind of a holistic sense. I'm curious, how did that feel to walk in to your old agency — after taking that last set of Polaroids, and them still wanting you to lose weight after having an eating disorder for years — how did that feel to walk in there, and say —
CR: I literally had a breakdown. I was like Really, Really? I started to get hysterical. You think I should ‘Maybe go on a diet?' Oh, maybe! Maybe I should go on a diet! Let's see, what am I doing: Eight hours, twice this weekend. Sixteen hours in the gym. Maybe go on a diet! I am eating only vegetables. Maybe go on a diet! What do you think I should do, because I would like to know! Tell me what I should do that I am not doing already! Because I think I have gone above and beyond what any normal person would do for their job! Please, tell me!
CR: Right! Tell me! So that's when my old agent said, Well, you have two options. That's when she understood — she realized, obviously I had done everything…So then she obviously offered me the two options: do commercial work, or do plus size modeling. And she wasn't too keen on the idea of plus size modeling. She was like, It's for old women.
CR: And I'm thinking, but I can be any size I want and still model!
CR: (Laughs) Do you know what I mean? Settle for commercial work and still starve myself to be this size?
JS: Plus, she was basically asking you to give up the dream of modeling. Which is that you might book that job with Steven Meisel.
CR: That was exactly it. That was 100% it. I didn't want to lose the dream. Because they would have never supported me in sending me to those people. And I would have been still miserable, in a horrible emotional state, still looking terrible, still starving, and for no dream…Choosing the unknown, but still the dream, was of course the option. I'm not going to lose my life. Wonderful! I know it sounds so casual to say that —
JS: But it was a real concern.
CR: It was a real concern! Where do you go from there? If I'd continued eating as I did even for another couple of months, I would have been in a hospital. I was really starting to be sick.
(Here, having arrived in Williamsburg and sat down outsider her building, we were interrupted by one of Crystal's elderly neighbors, who wanted to warn us not to sit on the curb, and also to tell us to eat at a certain Italian deli around the corner, where he once brought "someone from the Governor's office — because we know all them people." He talked for five minutes.)
JS: (Laughs) That's a real piece of Brooklyn right there.
CR: That's the guy on the block. And he tells me about the same restaurant every time. He'll say, ‘You know that restaurant over there…' And I'm like: I already know what you're going to say. Yes, I know the restaurant. And Armando says, ‘Hello.'
CR: It's sweet, but like, the twentieth time…
JS: Retirees, man. You move away from Florida [where Crystal grew up, before moving to Clinton, Miss.], and you think you're out of the woods.
CR: In Miami, it's more — you see these kids walking around at the malls. And they wear these really skimpy outfits, and I — cus I told you, I was the Goth girl, wearing my huge glow-in-the-dark JNCOs—
JS: When I read that part of your book, I felt such recognition. Because I used to make my own pants, in high school. I was after that whole silhouette of the road cone. My friends and I were all into sewing and just making whatever we could...we would make these pants with hems out to here.
CR: That's cool. That's really cool! I would have to say that I liked people like that in high school. Who would do interesting things, as opposed to — I guess ‘conforming,' and wearing the same old Gap sweater. Nothing wrong with Gap, Gap's great — but everyone having the same sweater? Really? You and I would have been great friends.
JS: I think so, too. One of the things I always loved about the fashion industry was that sense that it was all the high school misfits, put together in one room.
CR: Totally! Yeah. I actually feel, weirdly enough, now that I'm my normal size, that I'm actually more accepted now than I've ever been in my entire life.
JS: That's really heartening.
CR: It's true. Because, God, I was so uncomfortable in high school. I felt like I was — just a complete outsider…Now that I have accepted myself, and I'm in the fashion industry, I totally feel more accepted by others.
JS: What a wonderful irony!
CR: I think that I've found my place. That's why I'm so happy — the people I work with, my peers, are accepting of me. I came into the industry and I was pulled apart because of my weight, but now, I don't have to worry about such things anymore. I'm in the best, most magical place that can be. It's great.
And then she went inside to pack her suitcase and go to the airport.