IT IS December and fall is just moments away, but it's already nearly 90 degrees this morning in Brooklyn, a sultry, saltybreeze coming off New York Harbor. I arrive at the DUMBO House, the member-only social club right on the East River, and at precisely 9 a.m. I step up to the lobby check-in. I'm meeting Ashley Graham, I'm telling the woman at the desk, whose eyes widen just past my right ear. Then I sense a sound, someone standing nearby. "I'm right here," Graham says in a false-husky voice, steaming my neck back. Punked, just outside the doorway.
A fashion editor friend of mine who has known Graham for years has been telling me, "She's the opposite of hard work— she's the best girl, ever," and I get what she means right away. Graham has an uncanny knack to make you feel more relaxed and happy than you expect, but like you might be a stronger, more funny person than you think. In minutes, we're cackling like eighth graders in a sex-ed class, and it doesn't take long to understand why the world seems to be tilting in its direction, when everyone finally comes to her Perspective, which is one of revolutionary honesty, a kind of punk-rock dedication to being straight about almost everything— body-positivity above all else. That's exactly why Revlon made her a brand icon, and why she's been a spokesperson to many more, including Marina Rinaldi and Swimsuits for All and Addition Elle. That's why Ellen DeGeneres chose Graham to host her new series Fearless with Ashley Graham, where Graham speaks to everyday people who, as she puts it, "take a chance at something they never thought they could do." And that's also why Kim Kardashian West and Lilly Singh and Gayle King are all too happy to visit Graham's podcast, which is in its second season and which she is confident enough to hav.
Wearing a black chiffon dress from The Row that skims the surface, Graham is five months pregnant when we meet. I love this dress, she says to reveal it in profile as she changes. Look? See? It's perfect for pregnant — here she's stretching her belly out as far as it goes, and she's starting to laugh. "Just look at it! Here is the trick of my band!"She pulls her pregnant stomach all the way in and smoothes the flat out top. And it's not pregnant! Then: You're hungry? Yeah, yeah. Yeah, well, well. I got ta eat. That's my new stuff. What, if no food exists? We're not going to have to stay. "But wait. Want to see the swimming pool very fast? The view is kind of maj. Graham welcomes everyone we encounter exuberantly up the stairs we go: yeah, boy! Hey, sis, hiii! Standing by the pool, we take in the sweeping — in reality, the big — view; it's the ultimate palimpsest that allows you to see all the layers of the past of New York. Graham tells me in the summer, hanging out here on weekends, she and her best friend. You've got to arrive at 6 a.m. Wait in line to get a swimming pool bed. Then my best friend on the street will come and wait for me in line. I'm showing up at 7:30 and we've got our own bed all day. We're coming here instead of moving to the Hamptons, which is not our thing. Only walk the street! It's our cover!
Yet Graham has been a Brooklyn resident since 2006 in a cramped apartment in Chelsea for a couple of months. In reality, she has lived in Park Slope at the same modest address since she was 17 when she signed with Wilhelmina and began earnest modeling. Rachel, the best friend listed above, was the property agent who found the apartment for her. "She's been riding or dying for 16 years," says Graham, who now points out a building off in the distance where she and her nine-year-old friend, filmmaker and documentary filmmaker Justin Ervin, eventually purchased a serious home: a gigantic three-story loft, a dope triplex, as she might say in one of the many voices in her repertoire, under construction for many, many months. Finally, New York City's best view will be hers. "For all those years, I put away my money," she says of renting. "I mean, I wasted money or things like shoes, and. caviar. "She laughs. "But for me this apartment is a huge deal."
We go downstairs to find a table and order tea. I remember her hair, a fare-thee-well shellacked. Homegrown, boy!"She is keeping them for testing. I assume this color is called "High Maintenance."Her left ear is like a wind chime, you can hear them clink together with so many earrings. She says seventeen holes. Immediately she begins to vibrate her big black purse, not the zzzzt. zzzzt. Zzzt of a cell phone with, say, a vibrator, a constant low frequency buzz. "Please call me, Jonathan!"She says, smiling and finding the guilty: a handheld fan. I'm just asking. "Yeah, that's it! When are you pregnant? And is it hot? You need to walk around the city one of these. "And then she takes out a smaller bag from her big bag. I took it to the Fenty show last night— the little retro moment of Chanel. Tomorrow I'll give it back to my stylist. Don't have it!
It's Fashion Week, and three nights ago, Graham walked for Tommy Hilfigerx Zendaya. "Tommy told me that I was the first pregnant woman ever to walk the runway. It was like a block party in Harlem, so big were all kinds of women, all sorts of genders, races, and the heels of everyone. It wasn't a regular catwalk— it was concrete with potholes, still under construction. So I hoped that I wouldn't fall down. What a dreadful lot to ask in her second trimester for a model — I've got wounds on my foot!”
She attended the fashion show of Serena Williams last night, where she was sitting with Kim Kardashian West and La Anthony. "Kim immediately began to tell me,' Ashley, pregnancy may be the hardest part, but conception is the easiest part.' I'm just taking advice from everybody and not putting too much pressure on myself." "Serena's been like,' Call me; let's chat.'"
I'm writing something to her that rolls my mind off, Williams says. I was one of those people who wanted to know every horrific detail about what's going on. You have to go down there. What's going on everywhere. Like, why do my nipples get pregnant so large a week? That doesn't make sense; the baby still doesn't have to eat. All I wanted to know, and I still love talking about it. Since I feel it's important to change the paradigm and be like that, it's natural to be afraid and not to be one of those people who are like,' Oh, it's so awesome!Out of your head, just be frightened. This is natural.
Graham met Amy Schumer at a party not long ago, and Schumer scooped her up immediately and took her into the fold. She gave her a nursery tour recently. I was like,' Come over and I'm just going to tell you what I've learned and what I wish I've known,' says Schumer. And then I was like, "And the nicest thing I can do for you is to tell you that you're not going to hear from me again, but you can call me anytime." When you're pregnant, strangers are so in your face because they're so worried for you. And you're not seeing it. You may not be able to get it. And then you're like after you've got a baby,' Yeah, I get it!'
At first, Graham was a bit startled by all the attention of the pregnant lady. "I like my time alone, but I'm still the party's life when I go out. Now everyone who wants to speak to me is pregnant. "She laughs. "Only this camaraderie is there. It's a secret society about which I didn't know. For the first four months, I was covering my pregnancy. I always had power over my body— when everyone else wanted to decide what it was meant to be, I took full control of it— but I had this life inside me saying, "It's no longer yours, it's mine." And you just have to succeed. So I felt like I had nobody to talk to. I quickly gained weight. And I was all sad. And the one piece of advice I got from my stylist, Jordan Foster, was Make pregnant friends. None of my mates have been pregnant, let alone in relationships. And now I have nine mates who are pregnant.
Graham is, as a general, unflatable. And then she was removed from the hormones by the body. For no excuse, she started crying in public. That's what happened to me the other day: I was enjoying an almond butter-and-jelly sandwich with Justin and I took one bite and all of a sudden I began to get well. And then there's a complete sob! I've been chewing and crying and sobbing and I've been like, I DON'T KNOW WHY I'm CRYING BUT I REALLY UPSET THAT I'm NOT going to be in the NEW APARTMENT AND THE BABY I'm going to be here!!!! She lets loose with one of her bone-rattling laughs full-throated. And then she tells another story about her birthday, the day she announced her pregnancy, so she went to St. Barts. We're getting there and I'm brushing my teeth, and Justin's washing his hands, and there was something about how he put the soap on his hands that made me laugh hard. THAT'S EVER SEEN THE FUNNIEST THING!!! It wasn't funny, though. It's been my emotional thoughts. And I began to laugh so hard that I was hysterical. I said to Justin,' If you said something that was painful to me right now, I might start to cry.' And he just looked at me. And then there are: the shed!
THE NEXT MORNING AT 9:30, I meet Graham in the Williamsburg city house of her doula. Latham Thomas, a yogi who created Mama Glow, an online forum for expectant and new mothers, is a celebrity wellness guru and birth coach with a dedicated following in hip-hop and fashion. Her studio is made up of two ground floor spaces. The room is in the severe, painted millennial pink, modern-girly.
Before we see her, we listen to Graham. "Smells like heeeeere yogaaa. . "Her head-to-toe skintight black clothing swings into the room, ready to go, holding a boxy little Dior book bag. "It just came out," she says, "but in Japan alone. It's not cuuuuuute?"And then, rubbing her belly:" This morning, I think my stomach is getting bigger.
"Really early this morning?"Thomas's telling.
"Like an inch!"Graham interviewed yesterday Cindy Eckert, the company's co-founder who created Addyi, the female Viagra, for her podcast, which is also being posted on Graham's YouTube channel and is clearly where her heart is now. "The ultimate goal is to have my own TV show," says Graham. “My crew is all women, except for one nonbinary person. And we were all on the edge of our seats because Cindy spoke of sex, drugs, and billions of dollars!”(I sat in on Ashley's interview with Gayle King, and she not only coaxed King into talking candidly about her late-bloomer career and being single at 64, but also somehow got her cackling gleefully over ribald sex talk, admitting that she posed naked for a photographer in college, and debating the pros and cons of sending revealing selfies.) Graham thinks of Pretty Big Deal as conversations with women she is inspired by and wants to learn from — and she is a sponge, a pupil. “With Viagra, it's a blood-flow issue, but for women, when you have no sex drive, it's all in your head. And sexual fantasy transforms into this drug. It's not like here doing anything. . ”she grabs her crotch. "We've got a checklist for women: caring for children, worrying about our husband, worrying about our bodies. But that's the drug that flips and makes you want more.
The three of us get to laugh about how this can clarify all: it's just physiological for men; for women— can you get my shopping list out of my head, please? Graham is surprisingly sex-positive for someone who constantly brings up Christ and her religion and goes to church most Sundays— who even met her husband in church. She's thinking about it all the time— although there's nothing remotely offensive about it somehow. She manages to be unusually frank about, say, body functions and still maintain a sense of decorum, even as she pulls up her pants to show me her brand-new SKIMS, or asks me to see the scabs all over my arms from the poison-ivy outbreak I had a week before. Once I finally roll up my sleeve to show her, she's releasing a huge, blowing joyful note, like a finale opera singer.
I feel like there are waves of sex in every relationship, she says. You're like, huh, we need this to plan? And now things were really diff-er-ent with pregnancy. "She laughs. "Because this big bulge can be vulnerable if you're lying on it or moving into a new position. Literally, I asked every single friend of mine who had babies or who was pregnant,' What are your positions?This must be a normal conversation between mothers.
It's no wonder that she clicked with Schumer. She's a starter of the goddamn flames, Schumer says. Only blowing the wind out of you, Ashley. She's one of those unique, genuine people. No horseshit, don't you know? This is a compliment, isn't it?
Graham and Thomas go into the yoga room and get back on their mats, but a little chatter in the intentions of the day before they prepare to inhale and exhale and lock. And my advertiser freaked out, "Graham says," because she's like, ' Mama Glow is your doula? She is the doula of DJ Khaled's mom! '
Pregnancy has become a pop culture for better and worse. Something that was once considered so private that now happens live on social media as to be locked away from the world. Serena Williams wonders if everything started on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991 with Demi Moore, nude and pregnant, surprising all the squeamish prudes and church ladies. "I was only 10 at the time," says Williams, "but I remember thinking it was cool." Ten years later, when Us Weekly reported on dubious rumors and paparazzi shots of celebrities pumping gas in Beverly Hills, the whole strange "baby bump" phenomenon began. Tabloid copycats increased their pursuit of the potentially pregnant, bringing it to the stalking stage. One bloat afternoon leaving The Ivy and all of a sudden: Is JENNIFER PREGNANT? And then social media came along, and by curating the story of becoming pregnant and giving birth and bouncing back, or not, women began to own their narrative.
Williams says, "I think it's a good thing, but it also puts a lot of pressure on us. To me, I was troubled by the whole lie of' the snap back.' I had a little trouble with Instagram's girls' lies— like getting out of the baby's hospital and. You do, you do. Look thinner than ever before. That's not going to happen to me! That's one thing I've learned and the thing I've been telling Ashley: it's special for everyone— literally every bone. In an hour, you might jump back. I haven't done it.
Now Thomas is almost sitting on Graham's neck, coaxing her pelvis to open up to relieve the back pressure. Woman, look at the versatility you're covering, Thomas says. Says Graham, I'm really versatile, her head buried beneath her belly somewhere. "It's easy. How do you think I've got that?
When the session is over — and after Graham re-enacts some of her yoga poses so that Thomas can take photos ready for Instagram so that Graham can share them right away, because that's how it all works now— Graham and I go further to Williamsburg to meet her husband at The Hoxton hotel for breakfast. "I think Justin's messing with me," she says as she looks down the way there on her phone in the Uber. "I've just written' Nearly there!And he said back,' It's Manhattan, isn't it?He's a mystery. He likes to get out of me a lift.
One day in 2005, when Graham was still working the elevator as a volunteer at The Journey, a non-denominational church she attended in Manhattan, in relative obscurity as a "plus size" catalog model. A visitor has arrived. "Hello. Welcome to the ride, "she said. It was Ervin, who was so fascinated that all morning he missed Sunday service and rode with her up and down. A few days later, he noticed Graham on Facebook "in an uncreepy way," she says. They eventually went out for a year-long coffee and got married when Ashley was only 22 years old.
If I tell Justin that it took us only four seconds to start behaving like we knew each other since high school, he suggests Ashley might have been cast as Wonder Woman, because she has a golden lasso. Lynda Carter's old TV show? She'd throw the golden lasso, put somebody with a lariat, and they'd tell the truth. That's what Ashley is doing: she is disarming people to be able to tell the truth right away.
Okay, and having fun, Graham says. Justin is staring at me for a second. Hey, it's not like you're in trouble. We're going to talk about how celebrity shifts, because there seems to be zero tolerance for anything that reeks from fake. I think the credibility is all in this century, "says Graham. "This is gold. Nothing is more sexy than being your real, truthful self. And the more you are, the more you are welcomed, and the easier it is to navigate successfully. I haven't got a profile. That's it. Only be on your own!
Graham wasn't always so sure in himself. When she was 12 years old, she was discovered at a mall in Omaha, and her first work was to model bras for a bankrupt midwestern store that sold everything from make-up to toys. "I don't know if a 12-year-old model is even legal to have a bra," she says. Right out of the gate, Graham was branded with the vague-yet-too-specific term "plus size." "If you had asked me if I felt more size then I would have replied,' Oh, I'm 12 years old and a size 10.' I didn't have any association with that phrase. And as I grew up in the plus-size industry, it was like everyone was trying to get rid of that name.—And now we're in an age where women once again embrace plus-size, embrace the word fat, accept curvy and big girl, because women aren't one-dimensional. Why use a single word to describe a wide range of women?
Graham was cast in a 15-year-old Lane Bryant film. "It's been one of their last big shows," she says. "I recall that Mia Tyler was in it, and afterwards I had dinner with her father and the whole band, Aerosmith, and I didn't even know who they were. I turned to their guitarist, asking,' What are you doing for a living?I was kicked under the table by my mother!"By the time Graham moved to New York, there was no respect for" curve models, "as she calls them. "You would have heard of Emme, perhaps you would have heard of Kate Dillon or Sophie Dahl. I've been Crystal Renn's best friends. In New York, we kind of born each other. She was only one year older than me, so we found it out— she was the queen of the editorial. So she'd show me how to nakedly flip my hair in the mirror and how to pose and change my profile. Yet until I was on Sports Illustrated's cover, I just never had the chance to do those things editorially. That's when I was taken seriously by people.
But the turning point came when she starred in the notorious television ad for Lane Bryant in 2010. "It's been called' too dangerous," Graham says. "And it was just me in the lingerie and a trench coat that would meet for lunch with my boyfriend and, you know, have a real meal. But the media proclaimed it to be a fat-shaming moment, and the momentum forced them to keep it going. "Why would a 16-size lingerie model be banned from TV and not a 2-size model?"Suddenly, Graham did Leno and made dozens of interviews with the radio and the public. "It put me on the map," she says, "and a conversation started."
Had she ever tried to be thin and fit the mold? "I was never tiny, so I don't even know how it feels. But I had people telling me that I had to lose weight. I've tried every diet that man knows, but it doesn't work because I'm a curvy woman — a big-boned, fat, corn-fed girl from Nebraska. That's who I am. And the more optimistic I became when I acknowledged that, and that's when my career really began to take off.
We've all ordered the same big full English breakfast, and we've washed all of our dishes. "Honestly, it's the responsibility of Justin," Graham says. "I'm eating like him." And then, in a gravely macho accent, funnier: "I'm eating like a MAAAAN." "But right now it's fine, because I'm pregnant."
Unknown to me, this morning the couple decided to announce the gender of the baby to Vogue. Today, though, they're getting back and forth into a ridiculous, bickery on exactly how to tell me. Graham finally says, "Will you tell me what I'm carrying? And, like, there's a thing you can say by, like, the bump's form.
"That's so cool," Justin says. "That's what everyone says. Perhaps it's just that people feel like Ashley's having a girl on-brand."
We are engaged in a dialogue about how pregnant people have to answer the same questions on an ongoing basis: when are you due? What do you look like? What's the gender? "It's the evolution of existence," Justin says. "Wow, are you dating? What's it like? Do you think you could get married? Hey, thanks! When are these children? What's the sex? When is this due? So it's just this small talk development that people feel they have to indulge in as a couple throughout the different stages of their life.
Graham's eyes are rolling. "And they're curious, too." Pause. "It's like most mothers. They really want to know."
Graham finally comes out with it: "It's a kid." She grew up with two sisters and she's really close to her mother. "There's nothing I know about girls, so I'm so curious about it." Justin chimes in: "A kid she owed me. What about all this beautiful, holy, feminine energy that she has surrounding her 24/7, I want a little sidekick. "I can't help but ask," When are you due? "Sure," Graham says, sighing a dramatic, false put-up. "I'm going to tell you this: 11 January. He's going to be a Capricorn — just like his dad. Graham looks around and notices that we are the restaurant's only people left. She looks at me and then lets Justin rip it: "It's a booooooy!!!”