Just last week, model La'Shaunae Steward was signed to Revolt Model Agency. She's only 22, but to her, the signing has been a long time coming. Last summer, Steward gained a mass following on Instagram through unfortunate circumstances, when a troll made a fat-shaming meme out of one of her photos. In the end, the joke was on them, as within just a few weeks of the viral meme, Steward went from 4,000 Instagram followers to 60,000—many of them young women who looked up to Steward for both her fashion sense and determination to continue posting gorgeous, bold selfies in spite of her dedicated trolls.
In the past year, Steward has collabed with Jeffrey Campbell to create La'Shaunae x Jeffrey Campbell, a size-inclusive shoe line, and launched Inclus Models, a platform focused on elevating unsigned models who exist outside of the standard white, tall, slim, able-bodied model stereotype. Through it all, she's been vocal about the challenges and frustrations she's faced inside not only the industry, but the world at large. One of those frustrations: the work she had to put in to finally get signed. In light of her new contract with Revolt, Broadly spoke to Steward about her journey from being a teen who loved bold fashion to a signed model.
BROADLY: How did you get into fashion?
LA'SHAUNAE STEWARD: I grew up playing with a lot of dolls, and I always tell people the story of how obsessed I was with Bratz. A lot of people think I'm joking when I say Bratz helped me become a creative person when it comes to fashion. Ever since I was younger, I would religiously change their clothes, and I was always known for being really vibrant with my clothes and carefree with what I wore. I never was afraid to wear anything.
And that stayed with you as you grew up?
When I was a teenager, my mom would tell me I couldn't wear certain things. I'd go out in public wearing anything, and I became really paranoid because my mom would always tell me to change my clothes, so I used to think that there was something wrong with me—but she was doing it to protect me from other people. In school, there was a dress code and I would get in trouble for that because I was bigger. There would be people who were smaller than me wearing the same things, but they wouldn't get in trouble.
So people weren't accepting of you and your style?
People asked me, "Why are you wearing that?" or said I should wear something bigger—that's something people tell bigger people. I didn't start gaining weight until the ninth grade, but I was already conditioned to think I was fat in middle school. I was always made out to hate myself by everyone I grew up with. I was really suicidal because of people bullying me. I had to leave school when I was about 14. Guys would record me on the school bus as they told me to kill myself. My mom went to the school, but the guys ended up only getting three days' suspension, and when they came back it was a thousand times worse. So I did home school for a year. I was really insecure, I was paranoid, I was anxious, and [when I went back to school], people made fun of me for no reason. It was mainly my teachers that were mean to me, because I would miss a lot of days at school and they didn't believe in me—I avoided coming to school all the time because I didn't want to be in a situation where people picked on me. I graduated high school in 2015, one year late because of bullying.
That's another reason why I wanted to get into modeling: I was always told I would never be good enough for anyone or anything because of how I look. So many people told me the world would only care about a certain type of girl. I grew up watching America's Next Top Model and saw that the girls on there weren't big. One model, Toccara Jones, was one of the first reasons I ever wanted to model, but I never saw myself actually applying to agencies
What made you want to get into modeling?
I wanted to be a fashion designer since maybe third grade. As I got older, I didn't know how to sew anything and I told myself I would go to college for fashion designing but I never did that because I didn't want to be in a situation where I was being bullied again. I started to just be [open] online about what I deal with and bullying and stuff, and I was on Tumblr. I used to talk about my issues, and at the time I didn't have trolls watching my every move, so I wasn't scared to talk about my issues and my mental illness. A lot of girls started to find me and say that they looked up to me, and say that they would love to see someone on magazine covers like me because they don't see girls who have a certain style who are bigger.
How did the bullies and the people who doubted you contribute to your decision to pursue a modeling career?
I really wanted to prove so many people wrong. I just wanted to do something that I knew would really help other people who've dealt with what I did in school. There was this part of me, ever since I graduated, that was like, I can only imagine how many girls are going to deal with what I did in school, and there are so many girls DMing me every day telling me that they're being picked on in school for how they look, and that we're the same size and they don't know how they're going to get through high school. I felt the exact same way, so a part of me doing this is to show girls who look like me that you cannot let bullies determine your future, because a lot of them will tell you that you're not going to be good enough for anything. It's worked out for me more than it's worked out for the people that bully me. Exactly what they told me I wouldn't be doing is exactly what I'm making money doing.
I prove to so many girls that there's nothing wrong with them. If people like Kendall Jenner or Bella can get into modeling, so can you. It does not matter if you're not white or thin—you can be anything you want in the world if you go for it. I have given up so many times when I was younger and as I got older, I told everyone that I would not give up on my dreams, I told everyone that I would not stop applying to agencies. For the last three years I've been applying to agencies, and so many of them have ignored me. One of my dream agencies told me that I was too short. Even after that, I still never gave up.
What steps did you take to get to where you are now in your modeling career?
I was really active on social media. I was really vocal about what I wanted to do with my future. I reached out to so many people. I asked people for advice. I followed people I looked up to and a lot of them followed me back. I always tried reaching out to everyone I wanted to work with, even if I didn't get responses or they rejected me.
What does it feel like to finally be a signed model?
Sometimes I get overwhelmed, but sometimes it makes me feel really, really good about myself. When I'm on set and when I'm at shoots is probably the time where I feel the highest about myself; I feel untouchable. There's this feeling of comparing [being on set] to when I was crying in bathrooms about not feeling good enough, and now people are taking pictures of me because they see me as good enough.
What were the most frustrating parts about this journey?
One thing that is still frustrating is not being appreciated in the ways that I feel like I deserve. I feel like a lot of people don't treat me as if I'm worthy. A lot of models treat me like I'm not on their level, like I'm just some Instagram star. I constantly get called an influencer, or people just call me an Instagram celebrity and I don't see myself as either of those things. I see myself as a model or a fashion designer that hasn't started yet. People will label me as everything except what I say I am. I'm not appreciated as what I am and a lot of brands and companies still don't take me seriously.
Another thing that has been really frustrating is the whole being signed issue, because I've been trying for so long. After almost four years it's finally happened, and one of the biggest frustrations I have is being put on hate threads where there's tons of people bashing me about things I can't change about myself. I hate that I can't Google my name without seeing that, and I don't think I deserve that. It reminds me so much of what I dealt with in middle school and high school. I can't delete that stuff, and I don't want agencies or brands to see that as the only thing I've accomplished.
Why is it important for you to be vocal on social media and transparent about this industry?
There are a lot of models online that only post the good stuff—their perfect moments of them traveling. Then there are models like me who aren't making money and can't afford to buy the things they want to buy and there are so many days where I have mental breakdowns and there are so many people who don't talk about that stuff. It's frustrating: When you're a person like me you have try 99 percent harder than all those girls because it's been a lot easier for them to get signed than it has been for me.
You've accomplished one of your biggest goals in getting signed. What's next for you?
I see myself designing and becoming a more established model, but I don't just want to be known as a model—I want to have my own store of stuff I really, really fuck with. There are so many designs in my head I feel like are never going to be in plus size. Once I have enough money, I definitely want to do that. I see myself having my own New York Fashion Week show. If I had my own show, I would definitely cast a lot of models that look like me.