Crystal Renn, the most successful plus-size model in the world, is hell-bent on inspiring women to stop hating their bodies. The 23-year-old published a memoir, Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves, in September of last year. It details her struggles with anorexia and her transformation from a starving, near-dead straight-size model into a healthy size-12 supermodel.
Crystal was just 14, a gorgeous five-foot-nine size 12 being raised by her grandmother in Mississippi, when a scout promised her fame and fortune if she would just perform him the small favor of losing half her body weight. She did this with the single-minded focus that she later used to become maybe the first plus-sizer to be viewed as a “real” model. She recently chatted with Vice about eating disorders, divorce, yoga, and how to change the fashion industry.
Vice: You were very complimentary to Kate Moss in your book, but what did you think of her recent comment that “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels”?
Crystal Renn: [laughs] It’s really funny that you mention that. I was just talking about it yesterday. I actually love her as a model. However, that comment really disturbed me. I don’t know if she thought about what she was saying and the effect that it would have on all the people who look up to her. I mean, how many people look up to Kate Moss? She is an icon, and for an icon to say such a thing can be quite devastating to the younger fans.
Yeah, it was really fucked up. So what inspired you to write Hungry?
Because of what I’ve been through, I have a lot to tell women when it comes to how they look at their bodies and having confidence. I think it’s an issue that many women have with themselves.
Some of the stories in the book were really upsetting for me to read, even though I worked at magazines and I know what goes on. I just can’t believe how terribly you were treated as a straight-size model. That story about how you were sent home from a catalog shoot in Chicago because you were “too fat.” That’s awful. I can’t believe anyone would treat another human being that way.
I have to say that I don’t run into many people who are capable of such disgusting behavior, but this particular person was one of them. I had just turned 17 at the time. After the client told me, “You’re fat,” I went and ate all the tacos and all the meat at the catering table and was like, “Thanks for the food,” and walked out.
I love that. It’s so badass.
[laughs] I was so angry, and I was extremely hurt. I was like, “OK, well, he thinks that all I do is eat all the time, so I’ll just go and show him.” That was definitely one of the moments where I thought, “I can’t continue doing what I’m doing. It’s not working.” And that ended up being one of my last jobs as a straight-size model. Luckily, not long after that, I learned about plus-size modeling, and it was a done deal. It was a decision I made in about one second.
That really struck me, how quickly you decided to let your body be its natural size. You had the meeting with the agent where she said that your thighs needed to “come down” and all of that. You told her about how badly you were already abusing your body, she told you about plus-size modeling, and the next day, you decided that’s where you wanted to go. It was amazing to me that you had the presence of mind to make that decision so quickly.
Basically, when I was 14 years old and I got scouted, I made the decision in one second that yes, this is what I want to do. And in the same way, I decided to give it up. If something’s not working, I have no problem making a very quick, life-changing decision.
It also sounds like your recovery from your eating disorder was really quick, even though anorexia can take a really long time to recover from.
I got to the point where I knew that if I continued doing what I was doing, I would lose my life. I would lose my life for a job. That didn’t make sense to me. I said to myself, I’m not going to do the work that I want to do because I’m starving myself and I’m exercising eight hours a day and I’m a size 6 now. I’m not the 0 that I was. Not only that, I’m not going to accomplish the goals that I had for the rest of my life. I wanted to continue to model, do the editorial, the artistic, but I knew I had to change my path. When that agent mentioned plus size, I was like, why didn’t I know about this from the beginning? I was kind of shocked that they even offered this type of modeling. I switched to Ford, a new agency for me, within a week.
I’m really glad you’re working for change in the fashion industry. How long did it take to go from “I’m changing my life” to “I want to make a bigger change in the world”?
It wasn’t that long at all. I moved into the Ford apartment and I was the first plus-size model to ever do that. It felt special that they allowed me to do that. I was like, I am still a model, it doesn’t matter what size I am. At a shoot, someone hired me who knew me back in the day when I was really sick. She said, “Wow, you look different! You look healthy, you look happy, what happened to you? Because before, it was disturbing to look at you. You looked faraway, lost, and ill. What is the change?” I remember thinking, OK, do I tell her the truth or do I lie? I decided at that moment that I have nothing to lose. She talked to someone at Teen Vogue and Glamour, and next thing you know I decided to tell my story to both of those magazines.
Have you thought about working with any eating-disorder advocacy groups?
It’s something that I feel extremely passionate about. I think that women wake up every day and find it very difficult to look in the mirror. Self-hatred and lack of confidence are holding women back in this country, and it’s really a shame. I know, I’ve been there. Seven years ago, no matter who you were walking down the street—fat, thin, or in the middle—I hated you, because I hated myself. So I definitely want to help women overcome this. I tell my story, and I hope people can relate to it. If I can be more of a fighter for the cause, more of a warrior, I would like to take it as far as I can, possibly take it from interviews to public speaking, which in the past, believe it or not, has been a fear of mine. I think that’s the next step, even though public speaking, with the podium on the stage and all, is nerve-racking.
It seems like you’ve read a fair amount of scholarly books about body image and eating disorders. You cite a lot of them in the book.
A big part of my healing process was educating myself on what this disorder really is. Reading as much as I could has really helped me. Anorexia is about the mind. It’s a disease of the mind.
There’s one theory that dieting actually causes anorexia, and my impression from your book is that you didn’t have a body-image problem before you met the scout and he told you to lose weight.
You’re right. I will say that basically I had a traumatic thing happening to me for a couple of years before I had the eating disorder. And then I definitely have the OCD thing and perfectionist tendencies. If you take that, and you have a couple of bad years, and then a scout comes and tells you that you will be a supermodel if you lose weight, that you’ll be able to leave this small town and see the world, that you’ll be able to afford the education that you want, it’s like pulling the trigger. I was like, OK, if I lose weight I’ll be able to do everything.
I’m finding out more and more how to control my control issues, in a way. I’ve noticed that taking up hobbies like the piano and trying to be perfect at something else is really helpful. If I’m ever feeling anxiety, which I am totally prone to, I’ll go play the piano for a few hours.
How long have you been playing piano?
I’ve been going through a life change in the past year that kind of shook me to the core. I had to find myself all over again. I thought, What am I really about? And I thought, I love the piano. I bought one about a year and a half ago, and for whatever reason I didn’t really take it seriously. But about three months ago, I thought, this makes me happy, this is my yoga. So I sat down one day to learn the Moonlight Sonata.
And it helps?
This morning I woke up and I felt like the dead. The first thing I did was play that piece, and I felt immediately better. I got my coffee and now I’m talking to you.
You talk about yoga in the book. Do you still like it?
I haven’t done yoga in so long, but I really love it. It’s definitely a spiritual thing. It’s feeling completely in your body, in the moment. I definitely love yoga more than Pilates. I think I’ve read Eat, Pray, Love three times. It helped me a lot. It’s all about balance. It helped me through a tough time.
What tough time was that?
I went through a divorce, which I don’t want to go into too much. It’s not something that I expected from my life and it was a very hard time.
You don’t mention it in the book.
Unfortunately, we had gone to print. Divorce sucks, it really does, but after you’ve gone through the whole grieving process, you know you’ve made the right decision. Dating is definitely scary. It’s so new for me. A scary land.
Have you been in touch with your biological mom and your sisters?
No, I have not. They did not love the fact that I mentioned them in the book. I mean, we didn’t even have a relationship before the book came out. I kept my mother anonymous and I made it a point to protect my half-sisters, but my mother was still not pleased. But if I told the entire story of that part of my life, it would be quite explosive.
And how is your grandma doing?
She’s great. She works full-time for Fuel Relief Fund, which is a charity I’m involved with. I’ve been on the board since August. Haiti needs a whole lot of help right now with fuel for transportation and generators for the orphanages and the hospitals. This charity is the only one giving out fuel down there.
Are you thinking about going to college someday?
I am. Right now, the time is not there. One of the reasons modeling was so appealing was because I thought I would have the money to get the education that I wanted. I have a lot of things I want to study. I am fascinated by theology, astronomy, and science, and I get my fix from reading. But I would like to have some cool professors helping me out. I’m definitely interested in Brown, but I have some work ahead of me because I got my GED when I was 15.
What do you have coming up soon?
I will be portraying Anna Nicole Smith for Italian Vanity Fair. It’s really cool, because I’ll be blond. It will probably be a little controversial.
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