They called her “cottage cheese thighs.” They called her “thick.”
Ashley Graham’s bullies even came up with a soundtrack for her life and shouted it as she walked down the hallways of her high school in Nebraska.
“They would make that truck backing-up sound,” she recalled, cringing, “Beep, beep, beep.”
The worst of a lifetime of brutal fat shaming came after a modeling agent saw her at a local mall and suggested that she join an industry known for zero percent body fat.
Of course, he told her to please lose all that weight. She knew it was coming because size 14 in the fashion industry is considered a crime.
“The really hard moment was when my dad said, ‘Honey, if an agent is telling you to lose weight, then maybe you should lose weight.’ I was 15, standing in our living room having a moment I will never forget. I never had a parent tell me to lose weight and it hurt.
“Of course, he was thinking like a businessman. It’s not that my father didn’t love me. He wanted me to succeed,” she said during an interview at the Fashion Show mall in Las Vegas. It was her mother who had a different way of looking at it.
“She told me, ‘You’re like all of the women in our family. You’re like so many women in the world.’ ”
Turns out that her mom was right. Time magazine has named her as one of their 100 Most Influential People. She even has an Ashley Graham Barbie doll that’s coveted by her 5.7 million Instagram followers.
Graham, 30, and still a size 14, was in Vegas recently to debut her sexy lingerie line, which is sold at Macy’s.
Fans flocked to the event because Graham — who dubs herself a body activist — made history in 2016, as the first “curve model” to hit the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
She wasn’t content with a one-and-done moment of triumph. Her fashion line soon will include jeans, bikinis and one-piece swimsuits. She’s also the author of “A New Model” (Dey Street Books, $26.99), which talks about her journey from Nebraska to the top of the modeling world.
That world is pretty crazy, which is why Graham begins each day looking in the mirror, not to admire her perfect skin or slather it with the latest moisturizer.
Speaking her truth
“I say my mantra,” Graham said: “ ‘You are bold. You are brilliant. You are beautiful. You are worthy of it all.’ ”
That New Age moment is combined with a solid Midwest work ethic and a never-say-die attitude.
“Let’s face it, I’ve worked my butt off for the last 15 years to get to where I am today. It has been a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
It also has been about having an inner resolve to get past those who judge a woman based on her size.
Graham was walking through a mall with her father when she was 15, and a man approached, asking her if she ever thought of modeling. It turned out that he worked for an agency. It didn’t take long before she was living in New York City and facing the harsh realities of a brutal industry.
“I had so many agents tell me that at size 18, I would never work or work again,” she said. “I heard, ‘Go home and lose some weight.’ ”
She even tried to follow their advice. “I tried every diet, from living on cabbage soup to fasting to Weight Watchers, and then came the frozen meals and the shakes,” she lamented. “I realized that the more I took care of my body, eating what was good for me, then I felt happy and whole.
“It doesn’t matter what size your hips are when you measure them,” she said. “It’s about, ‘Do you feel good and healthy in those hips?’ ”
A 2010 ad for Lane Bryant changed her life. “It was banned from TV because the feeling was: How dare a curvy girl be on TV in lingerie,” Graham said. “The truth is it put me on the map.”
Just don’t call her a plus-size model. “That’s divisive. It puts you in a category of someone who could care less about her body. That’s not true for me,” she said. “Why don’t they call you a confident model who embraces her body?”
Graham’s outspokenness is why fans flock to her appearances, where she talks about the realities of body shaming.
Ask her: Who is a bigger critic of the curve — men or women?
“I don’t think guys judge curvy women as much as women do,” she said. “It shocks me how catty some women can be. In my whole life, I only had one guy break up with me over weight.
She started her fashion line because items such as sexy bras and lingerie are limited for curvy women.
“I have big breasts,” she said. “So does my mom and sister. We’re sexy girls who don’t want to wear a nursing bra.”
Seventeen collections later, Graham’s products are known for sex appeal and solid support. “They look and fit better,” she said. “They look as sexy as the bras and lingerie made for much smaller women. I wanted to have the lace that came off the runways in Paris and the designer pinstripes. Every woman should have all those choices of sexy and essential undergarments.”
“One of the best compliments I ever got was from a husband who said, ‘Thank you for creating lingerie that fits my wife. We’re finally having sex with the lights on.’ ”
“Men tell me, ‘I see a real difference in my woman because now she’s embracing her curves. She feels sexy and is sexy.’”
That’s the idea for Graham who has been married since 2010 to cinematographer Justin Ervin. She recently posted a picture on her Instagram where she’s kissing Ervin in a swimming pool with her legs wrapped around him. She’s in a black bikini with string bottoms and he’s grabbing her butt. “No caption necessary #marriedlife,” she wrote.
Her fan base went wild.
Changing the industry
“Never before have you seen the fashion industry embrace so many types of people,” Graham said. “There’s the curvy girl, the short girl, the freckled girl, the girls with piercings and tats. It’s fantastic.
“It used to be that in high school, girls would feel like, ‘No one looks like me, talks like me, acts like me,’ ” she said. “Now, different is in. You can be who you are.
“There is still a long way to go,” she added. “But there is a movement toward acceptance.”
Graham, who lives in Brooklyn, said her Sports Illustrated cover marked a major moment in that movement. “It changed my life forever while being such a history-making moment,” she said. “I will forever be grateful to them for taking a chance and putting me on the cover.
“Yes, it changed my life, but it changed so many lives and that’s the win,” she said. “It said, ‘It doesn’t matter if you have back fat. You can be sexy and beautiful.”