18 May 2013

The Business Of Curves

Nicolette-MasonIt's official: I'm done with New York University.  But I couldn't leave without writing about some curves, obviously.  Check out my final story, also posted on Fameology:

There were curves everywhere.

Hoards of plus-size women sipped cocktails while complimenting each other’s outfits, taking turns in the retro photo booth and grabbing “America’s Next Top Model’s” beloved Jay Manuel for brief meet and greets.  If it was any other night, Jay and his perfectly gelled, bleached white locks would’ve been the stars.  But this late February night was a celebration of curves, and Jay might be all kinds of fabulous, but the man is not curvy.  This evening’s main celebrities were Marcy Guevara, Ashley Falcon and Candice Huffine – celebrities in the world of plus-size fashion, blogging and YouTube-ing.

The unveiling of Lane Bryant’s new collection, a metamorphosis from its traditional, middle-aged soccer mom apparel to trendy, 20-something in New York threads, provided the ideal setting for plus-size ladies to talk fashion, shapewear and blogging while munching on canapés and sipping Lane-tinis.  Katie Conrad, a 22-year-old, size 22, culinary student from Virginia who won her place at the event through a raffle, hid behind a rack of purple, paisley dresses, trying to sneak a close look at Guevara, former “Big Girl in a Skinny World” columnist at Marie Claire and now plus-size guru on Rachael Ray’s TV show.  “How gorgeous is she?  And talented.  I totally watched her on YouTube way before she was famous,” she said peeking out from behind the racks.

Until a few years ago, fashion blogging and vlogging had revolved around thin women – women embodying Kate Moss and flaunting their size 0-2 frames and “edgy” styles.  But recently the blogosphere has become more welcoming to a new kind of icon – the plus-size fashionista.  As with most bloggers, few have made it to the point where their sites have brought them fame or fortune, but that doesn’t stop hundreds from trying.  Fame in the form of a talk show host, fashion magazine columnist or professional blogger is a possibility, albeit an unlikely one.  Some have hopes that they will be the next “Big Girl in a Skinny World.”  And others don’t want fame at all, but rather a big enough following for them to feel they are doing something to help other women.

Only a few weeks before the event at Lane Bryant, The Daily Beast reporter Judy McGuire wrote “The Plus-Size Blogging Craze.”  Pointing out the growing number of plus-size women on the blogosphere, she noted, “Sick of being ignored by fashion magazines and relegated to sack dresses with screeching prints, a growing number of women—unapologetically plump and tired of being treated like third-class citizens—are taking their musings online.”

Yes they are, and at growing numbers.  More than 400 plus-size blogs and vlogs have sprouted up in cyberspace, reigning in the U.S. and U.K.  For bloggers wanting to break out, there are only a handful of possible fame-launching career opportunities for them: Marie Claire’s “Big Girl in a Skinny World” column; People’s plus-size column; inStyle’s brand new plus-size column; Redbook Magazine’s monthly plus column, and Style Blazer, which in late April hired Marie Denee of The Curvy Fashionista as their new plus-size columnist.

Back in 2009, the competition – and high profile media outlets – in this new plus-size internet world was almost nonexistent.  Guevara started her YouTube channel, “The Marcy Minute,” because a: she’s always loved fashion, b: she’d been aspiring to be a television host since age 11, and c: there wasn’t a lot out there at the time for bigger gals.  By luck, plus-size fashion magazine Skorch stumbled upon her channel and asked her to produce videos for their site.  It wasn’t long before Marie Claire needed a new “Big Girl in a Skinny World” and picked her up.  And before she knew it, Rachael Ray came calling.  Four years down the line, she’s plus-size royalty to the many hopefuls.

Guevara credits her success to blogging about her life.  “If you’re blogging about anything, plus-size fashion, food, travel, live it and be passionate,” she said.  “I’ve heard that it’s from nine to five that pays your bills, but it’s from five to nine that really matters.”

Before being discovered, Guevara scoured brands and shops for her readers and shared her findings in a voice that could be characterized as part “I’m sexy and I know it” and part high-end magazine classiness.  As for her niche, well, as noted, she’d practiced being a television host while still in a trainer bra and graduated from college with a degree in broadcast journalism – she knew how to talk to a camera.

Achieving that level of blogging success is extremely difficult.  Bob Lotich, author of “How to Make Money Blogging: How I Replaced my Day-Job with My Blog” says, “It is a really unique case for a blog to turn into a full-time job.”

For Lotich, who runs the Christian Personal Finance blog, success stemmed from, “eagerness to learn, hard work and commitment.”  Never from the desire to be famous.  “Personally, I have no desire for a bunch of people to know my name,” he said.  “I just love that the site has gotten enough eye-balls that it pays the bills.  But if there was ever a time to have a chance at fame, today is the day.  With the internet we are in the age of the micro-celebrity, and almost every niche has celebrities.”

Niche or not, even the fact that there are a half dozen plus-size celebrity blogs is a considerable achievement.  Marie Denee, who has just been hired as the plus-size columnist at Style Blazer, attributes this entirely to social media.  “There may have been a few plus-size bloggers out there before social media became big, but once women could connect, share style tips and bond over being curvy, the market had to change,” she said.

Though Denee is optimistic that plus-size fashion will continue to get attention online, glossy magazine paper is another story.  Plus writers tend to get one little column on one little page – separate from the straight size trends.  But Denee doesn’t think this is a bad thing.  “You need to have the distinction,” she said.  “Only a plus-size woman can write about plus-size fashion.  She can relate to the readers.  It may be separate, but being included in a magazine is still such an amazing feat and proof of the change in the industry.”

This apparent change in the industry may also be attributed to designers and brands wishing to expand the range and sales of clientele.  According to Cynthia Nellis, fashion guide on About.com, the size of the average U.S. woman has changed drastically.  In 1941 the average woman was 5’2”, 129 pounds.  Today she is 5’4” and weighs 144 pounds, wearing between a 12 and 14.  For the fashion industry, incorporating plus-size divisions may simply be a way of customizing itself to fit the majority of women, who are no longer a size four but a 14.

So if the average U.S. woman is a size 14, there’s no surprise that plus-size fashion gurus are in demand.  After gaining a following via Facebook, 30-year-old Tiffany Crawford launched the plus-size YouTube channel and accompanying blog “Lace N’ Leopard.”  Though very important to her, blogging and YouTube-ing don’t pay the bills.  Crawford works in commercial finance and photography, and someday hopes to own a successful clothing boutique and design her own pieces.

Without false expectations or skyrocketed aspirations toward fame, then, why spend so much time and energy on her channel and blog?

“It’s not about being well known for being a plus-size fashion blogger,” she said.  “It’s about having a common love for fashion, being happy in your own skin and encouraging others to do the same.”

Crawford may not aspire to fame, necessarily, but her Instagram, Facebook, YouTube channel and blog attract 2500 to 4000 followers on each.  She’s not writing for inStyle, but these numbers are much higher that many plus-size fashion bloggers ever achieve.

Some, however, do hope to climb the ladder of curve guru hierarchy.  Twenty-six-year-old Mary Demetra started her YouTube channel “Glitter Odyssey” one year ago, and hopes to become a well-known plus-size fashionista.

“It would be amazing to have more exposure whether it be through television, print or any other medium,” she said.  “I receive e-mails on a daily basis, telling me how I’ve helped girls and women of all sizes and all over the world, which tells me that I am on the way to my main goal.  But the more exposure the better!”

So what exactly constitutes fame in the world of plus-size fashion blogging and vlogging?  Demetra believes there are two levels of fame.  The first is being well-known in the community of plus-size bloggers, while the second is being well-known beyond YouTube and blog circles.  So does anyone not into plus-size fashion actually know those “famous” fashionistas?  Apparently yes.  Plus-size or not, body image is a controversial issue among young women.

Take Rose Feiner, a senior at Syracuse University about to graduate with a double major in history and anthropology.  She has no apparent fashion knowledge at all and isn’t remotely plus-size.  Yet she knows all about the fashion stars.  “If you’re a 20-something living anywhere with internet access, you know who Marcy Guevara and Nicolette Mason are,” she said.  “Women love real role models.  So when people like Marcy and Nicolette stand up for their bodies proudly, you hear about it.”

Feiner was wearing sweats and Ugg boots.  She really couldn’t care less about the latest Vogue curvy spread.  But she’s proof that anyone who makes a difference will garner a type of celebrity outside their chosen niche.

Then there’s Yossi Loloi, an Italian photographer who has spent much of his career doing portraits.  Though Loloi has always been fascinated with larger women on a personal level, it wasn’t until 2006 that he started his Full Beauty Project and showcased nude SSBBW (Super-Sized, Big Beautiful Women), all 450 pounds and larger.  In 2006, plus-size blogging and fashion were minimal.  His Full Beauty shoots were something completely new in the mainstream.  Seven years later, Yossi sees what he calls an “explosion in plus-size blogging and modeling.”

“Slowly what began as a subculture or a community became popular thanks to individuals that promoted beauty of all different sizes,” he said.  Though Loloi thinks there is much to be accomplished in terms of size acceptance, he does believe that plus-size bloggers/vloggers are helping the cause in their own way.  His hope, however, is that these women don’t attempt to simply emulate the straight size world, but instead preserve their own uniqueness.

As for Mary Demetra, the plus-size blogger hoping to receive more exposure, it’s easy to see she’s on the right track to curve celebrity – after 12 months she’s racked up 2500 YouTube followers, way more than average.  Her goal: “one million trillion!”

One-million-trillion followers may be over-reaching a bit, but with the change in the plus-size fashion industry, tens of thousands of followers for a blog isn’t that unlikely.  Jeni Starr, author of “The Plus-Size Girl’s Guide to Plus-Size Confidence,” has researched and written on the changes in public perceptions of being plus-size.  Because of the reactions she’s received for her writing, she is optimistic that in time, more plus-size bloggers will get their chance at the spotlight.  “So far I’ve only gotten support and I’ve been touched by women who feel they were really helped by the message of my book,” she said.

Still there is no less focus on dieting or perceptions to be thin despite stores like Forever 21, Nordstrom, ASOS and ModCloth adding plus-size styles.  “I think that it’s still swimming against the current when there’s a multi-billion dollar diet and beauty industry that wants to convince us we’re not okay as we are,” said Starr.

That doesn’t deter Nicolette Mason, the current plus-size columnist for Marie Claire.  During a recent chat, she radiated optimism for the future of the plus-size fashion world, though she does admit that she’s “just a positive person.”  Blogging in one form another since she was 14, Mason has always had an internet presence.  But her goal was never to brand herself a plus-size blogger.  “It’s more an identity that people have put onto me than I’ve put onto myself – probably because I’m a fashion writer and happen to be fat,” she said.  But with a design background from Parson’s and a slick, well designed blog, she caught the eye of some big names – first Vogue Italia and then Marie Claire.  A few years down the line, she’s topped 10,000 Twitter followers and related to a ton of girls through “Big Girl in a Skinny World.”

“The cool thing about plus blogging is that there isn’t one type of blogger,” she said.  “In the plus world, the major players have such different styles and aesthetics.  There’s a lot more diversity, a lot more representations of race and economic status, and that’s not really seen in the straight size world, where the top tier bloggers are white and somewhat affluent.”

She’s got a point.  In the plus world, Guevara is the classic, Cali girl.  Mason dons designer threads.  Gabi Gregg is edgy – a little punk rock even.  Ashley Falcon is the prototype girly girl.  And Marie Denee is boho-luxe.  Each of these ladies has their own identity, and because of it, they’ve stood out.  They weren’t all trying to be a plus-size imitation of Kate Moss’s grunge look.

Mason thinks the popularity of plus-size fashion will continue and that magazines will cater to it as a “matter of survival.”  She does, however, think it’s the mainstream magazines that’ll do this as opposed to those like U.S. Vogue.  But then again, Redbook features considerable fashion coverage and has not one, but three contributing plus-size columnists spearheaded by Tanesha Awasthi, who started as a personal blogger for “Girl with Curves.”  She’s got about 7000 Twitter followers and is helping the high-fashion world embrace curvaceousness.  With women like Awasthi and Mason, who spend thousands to don designer threads and show that plus-size ladies can wear the expensive, high-end outfits that’ll make them look like an Upper East Side Gossip Girl, there’s the possibility that Vogue or other top tier magazines will accommodate them as well.

“The bottom line is hard work, good taste, having good writing skills and curating those skills,” she said.  Mason also thinks blogging can lead to many more opportunities than magazine writing.  “People can become buyers, personal stylists, personal shoppers – if you want to get your name out there with plus-size fashion, it’s not just about the print world anymore.”

It seems the business of curves can take on a lot of forms, and aspiring fatshion icons (the term plus-size Twitter and Tumblr lovers have turned trend) just have to find one that works for them and pays the bills.  Even Guevara and Falcon are personal and professional stylists as well as bloggers and hosts.

Guevara echoed this belief that plus-size fashion fame doesn’t have to be limited to a career in print or television hosting – a common misconception amongst bloggers and vloggers.   As well as being buyers, stylists or shoppers, she said, “We need women in the design field who are plus-size and have a passion for constructing amazing garments that are affordable and wearable.”

This is happening as well, but just as with bloggers becoming pro’s, it’s happening one girl at a time.  Domino Dollhouse, an e-commerce site for quirky, fun fatshions, was founded by plus-size blogger Tracy Broxterman of “Chubble Bubble.”  Her personal style blog led to the shop’s founding – and these days she’s cited by top tier bloggers like Guevara as a unique and trendy place to shop.

As Lane Bryant’s festivity started coming to a close, Katie Conrad, the culinary student who was there by the luck of a raffle ticket, stared solemnly as Guevara and Falcon left the store.  “I wish I’d talked to them,” she sighed.

Conrad isn’t a blogger.  She doesn’t want to be a blogger.  She doesn’t want to make YouTube videos.  But she’s plus-size, and admires the plus-size women whose claims to fame have been their larger body types and ability to spread a love of curves.

“I can’t help feeling plus-size bloggers seems genuine – like they really care about what they’re writing and fame isn’t important,” she said.

She stopped, downed the rest of her Lane-tini, and picked up a hat reminescent of the kind Ashley Falcon constantly wears for photo shoots on her blog.

“Or then again, maybe everyone in their 20’s wants to be famous in one way or another.”

   Advice from the pros on turning your blog into your job:
  • Be more creative: do it!  Buy a point and shoot and take pictures, shoot videos on your laptop, but never underestimate the power of preparation, training, dedication and hard-work – Marcy Guevara

  • Going to school, studying journalism and rising through the ranks in a magazine is still going to be very valued in          the print world.  The bottom line is hard work, good taste, having good writing skills and curating skills – Nicolette Mason

  • The ones who make it aren’t afraid to be themselves.  In my case, this commitment means that I show my bubbly-ness.  For others, it may be their awesome style (VintageOrTacky comes to mind) or craziness (Fafinette comes to mind) – Mary Demetra

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