A fashion glossy for full-figured women—but more importantly, a celebration of Classical feminine beauty—MODE magazine (1997-2001) remains the finest publication of its type, dearly loved by its readers for its gorgeous models, top-notch photography, superlative production values, and pro-curvy editorial policy. No one was more instrumental in the magazine’s creation than its Fashion & Style Director, Michele Weston. In the following interview (commemorating MODE’s tenth anniversary), Ms. Weston discusses the magazine’s origins, the elements that made it a masterpiece, and offers a frank assessment of the state of the industry today.
MICHELE: Michele speaking.
HSG: Good afternoon, this is Heinrich Saint-Germain. How are you?
MICHELE: Good, sir. How are you?
HSG: Not too bad. It’s a great pleasure to speak with you. I just posted about your TV appearance on Great Day Houston.
MICHELE: Thank you.
HSG: It was a marvellous segment. So, do you have a little time for a discussion?
HSG: That’s wonderful. As you can imagine, I feel very privileged to do this—
MICHELE: You have a great Web site. Everybody really loves it.
HSG: Thank you. There are many questions that MODE aficionados have wanted to put to someone at the heart of the magazine for years, and I’m delighted that, on their behalf, I can finally ask you about “the MODE love affair”—which only lasted a few years, unfortunately, but the memory of which still lives on in people’s hearts.
MICHELE: Well, MODE didn’t close because of its readers.
HSG: That doesn’t surprise me.
MICHELE: Their partner was a big company… [Nancy] LeWinter’s partner was a big company that did a lot of newspapers out in California, and they wanted to get out of the business of consumer magazines, so they needed them to find a new partner. And they were doing that, and they had a very good lead, and then 9/11 happened, and people were more wary to partner on something at that time, and they had a deadline. So unfortunately, that’s what happened with the timing.
HSG: That’s the answer to one of my two big questions.
MICHELE: But the owners really loved what we were doing, and it was a special, special partnership.
HSG: As you can imagine, for years, people couldn’t understand why MODE folded. They couldn’t believe it.
MICHELE: The audience was always there. It was just timing. It was just finding a new partner for the magazine.
HSG: What a tragedy.
HSG: What a shame. Okay, you’ve answered one of the two big questions that fans have always had, but let’s tackle the second big question later. First, though, do you know (since you were right on board from the beginning)—
MICHELE: I actually was the one who founded it, with Julie [Lewit-Nirenberg] and Nancy. I was one of the first editors brought on, and I helped do the mock-up of the magazine.
MICHELE: I was the Fashion & Style Director, and I came from years in magazine publishing, and I knew that beauty was not…by size. So when we started to work on the project, they said, “Well, what would it look like, Michele?” So I had saved things for years exemplifying what I would want to read, because I’m both the expert and the audience. And I was lucky to do it. Because it’s not everybody who gets to realize the vision that they always wanted.
MICHELE: I worked at Mademoiselle, and did special projects for Vanity Fair, Mirabella, InStyle, and Cosmo—all of the regular magazines. And this was such an incredible opportunity to say that style was style. And I remember coming back from the first shoot… We needed something to sell advertising with, so I had said, “Let me go out,” and I was sent to do two shoots. It was hard to get clothes, because people weren’t sure yet, and so I took the lovely Kate Dillon, who was really more a 14/16 then—
HSG: In fact, an Avenue ad once identified her as an 18.
MICHELE: She was a 16. But that’s okay. The numbers are very hard to do. Numbers are just— [groans].
HSG: But the point is, she looked curvy. She really did.
MICHELE: She was. And life goes on, and things change, and… She’s always been such a great role model as a woman who owns her body.
MICHELE:She’s now at Harvard getting her Masters, and will make a huge dent in the world in whatever she does with her degree.
HSG: That’s wonderful.
MICHELE: Very smart, lovely. Anyway, so I remember going on the shoot, and I took a photographer [Gerhard Yurkovic] that I loved from Mademoiselle, and we got ready, and I had hair and makeup done, and it was a very clean shoot in the studio, and he looked at me and he goes, “How do I shoot her?” And I said, “Oh, God.” I said, “Gerhard, just look through the lens. She’s so sexy.”
HSG: Well, of course.
MICHELE: And after three or four frames, he looks at me, and he goes, “Oh my God.” I said, “That’s it. That’s all it is. There’s no trick, no special thing you have to do.” You have to have a great model who’s willing to share part of her soul; you have to get that. And I remember coming back with the film, and Julie and Nancy saying, “She’s not a size 14.” And I looked at them both, and I said, “Is she not a 14 because she looks so good?” We all had to sort of smile and go, “Hm.” So that’s how the first shoot for MODE went and, you know what? That’s how the rest of it came. We had an incredible editorial team, and, you know, Abbie Britton [a.k.a. A.G. Britton] was a wordsmith and editor. She had worked with great talent in her years as a Beauty Editor, Journalist, and Creative Director. She was a Pied Piper—trusted and well liked, and brought many people to MODE, and found a lot of the photographers that were able to cross over with us, in shooting beauty in curves.
HSG: And she had a great philosophy, too.
MICHELE: We really worked very hard at it. Abbie and I and Véronique [Vienne] were the first three editors for a long while, and it was important, because Abbie… Abbie got it, and I can remember as she got it, because I was somebody who lived in that body, so I already knew what the possibility was. But it was very special.
HSG: The sum was greater than the parts?
MICHELE: The team was an incredible team all the way throughout. And even when I was away, out with my book… It takes a lot to get it, and it was a very special time, and I just feel privileged, and lucky, and fortunate to be able to have realized the vision that I always had. I have not seen anything that touches it.
HSG: Not even close. What about the name? The word “mode” sounds so chic and elegant. Unlike other magazines, you didn’t put the word “big” right in the title.
MICHELE:We worked cohesively with the Art Directors and Owners from 365 Degrees to create all this, even down to the design of the masthead and the name MODE was collaborative. We went through Art Directors and ended up with a super visionary—Karmen Luzzul. We went through a lot of names. We all tossed a lot of them in there, and this one was the perfect way to do it. You just had a tag on it, and that was enough. In the first year or so, we always had, “For sizes 12, 14, 16…”
HSG: People loved that tag, and as soon as that tag disappeared, in many readers’ opinions, the magazine started to slip. It was almost as if that tag was necessary to keep the focus. And as soon as it vanished, something was lost.
MICHELE: You know, it changed. It changed—
HSG: It did change. At the very end, everyone was saying, “It’s not the same magazine that it began as.”
MICHELE: I wasn’t there. Abbie wasn’t there.
HSG: But coming back to the glory days, let’s talk about the magazine’s high production values. One of the things that distinguished MODE from any publication like it, before or since, is that it felt so legitimate. It had quality. It could sit on the newsstand beside Vogue or Elle and it felt comparable. How did you achieve that? And why has everything else felt like a fringe publication, amateurish?
MICHELE: Because of the players for the editorial team. And the two publishers, Julie and Nancy, are long-time players. We all had a very distinguished pedigree in magazine publishing. We knew what we were doing. It wasn’t… I do love that everybody’s going out and trying to do things. I think it’s important. Because there’s 65 million women out there who wear a size 12 or upwards, for goodness’ sake.
HSG: Yes, but I wonder about that, because the difference is that when MODE was in print, because of its quality—
MICHELE: It’s still the team. We were creating what we knew, from all of the other magazines that we did, and we adjusted it accordingly to what we knew had to happen. We did have some problems. We had some people who were just a pain in the butt. They would do it for a bit and they would come and they would want… They would tell me, “That model’s too big,” and they can’t use her.
MICHELE: But you know what? In the end, all those people, when I was there, were always flushed out. It was, like, “You know what? She’s too thin. The pictures that you did are too thin, and your mission, as we sent you out to do these pictures, was not to make her look thin.”
MICHELE: Not your mission. Your mission was to shoot her because she’s beautiful, and make her look fabulous. That’s all. You learn that with anything, and I think that we all learned that.
HSG: Why did the creators commendably decide to make MODE a fashion magazine, rather than a lifestyle magazine—the latter being the theme of most plus-size publications?
MICHELE: Because that’s what we all came from. We came from fashion magazines. Being the founding Fashion & Style Director, it was very important. I had long lists of vendors, and we pulled in a lot of people. When we were there, Ralph Lauren launched plus-size, and a lot of companies did. There was always a commitment from the Liz Claibornes of the world and the Avenues, of course, and that was important, but there was a true understanding. Now, you know, everybody… It’s a good thing that we came about, because a lot of magazines became more inclusive on doing stories, Glamour and Marie Claire and Seventeen and CosmoGirl. It’s just time, and I think that’s the hardest thing, is the patience to learn what a good example does. I worked on Grace Woman with Ceslie for a bit—
HSG: I’m glad you bring that up, because that’s another point where MODE got it right, and everyone else got it wrong: the age demographic. Why did MODE (wisely) choose to target a younger readership than, say, Grace?
MICHELE: Because we really felt that what was important—and I kept saying this—was: We can change that demographic (of those 20- and 30somethings, college kids that are going to school). Their heads, their mindset, could be adjusted, with our help, in seeing themselves. What we were doing was an inspirational magazine, as opposed to an aspirational magazine.
HSG: That’s a very interesting distinction, and one that I’ve never heard before. How would you define that distinction?
MICHELE: This is a big point. I think that it is very important to inspire. To be inspired by something that you see, and go, “Oh my God, I would love to have that,” or “Oh, I would love to be able to do that” is great. But to have to aspire to be Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell is absurd, and I think we’ve always been very clear with that. We always said, “Look, in this lifetime, your name is not Kate Moss, or Cindy Crawford, or Naomi Campbell. Your name is…your name. And be the best of you.” And that’s really what MODE’s mission was, was to celebrate that, and to be an example for people who lived there, and did that, and just be more of a celebration. You know, “Style beyond size.”
HSG: The youth aspect of MODE was also reflected in your editorials. You saw things like models dancing in camisoles in the Bahamas. You saw them suntanning, riding horseback—
MICHELE: It was a celebration. It was a celebration of you, and it was also… Because it was hard to get clothes. Sometimes I would say, “It’s a celebration of your body first,” and to get women to understand that no matter where you were, you were the best of you. It’s so hard, because if you can’t love yourself first, it’s very hard to… Well, it’s impossible to move from where you are. That’s why you get such eating disorders going on, because you’re not okay with who you are. And what we wanted to do was to make sure that, yes, you are just fine where you are right now. I mean, who cares? Be healthy, and be happy, and live your life to the fullest. That was the mission, and I think that we did that well, and it was just a very special time.
HSG: But to return to the philosophy of the magazine, let’s consider a famous caption from an early issue of MODE: “The beauty of Kate’s face is that it is full.” That is a complete reversal of what other magazines were (and are) saying, since they are resolutely against fullness, while MODE said that fullness is beautiful. How did you accomplish such a turn in aesthetic thinking?
MICHELE: You go back to what we said, and that is, that we’re here to inspire you to be the best of you, and that’s what we did. Language for me was very important. I did a lot of the events at the stores, and we did a lot of media stuff, and it was really important to change words. I can remember being with Katie Couric the first time, the first year, and us having the clothes on mannequins, and there was a leather skirt from Liz Claiborne on a mannequin. I said, “This is a great skirt It goes from a size 14 to a 26.” She goes, “That’s a 14? That’s a big skirt.” That innocence, that fear of what would happen to her. She was in a media world where everybody tells them they have to be thinner, thinner, thinner, thinner. That’s what their world is. And so you look at the world and go, “Okay, how do we hold our place here?”
HSG: It’s interesting that you mention the specific nature of the media world: “That’s what their world is,” because one of the things that readers said of MODE was that, within its pages, it created a kind of “alternative reality”—a reality in which curvy was admired, adored, even preferred. And I wonder if you think MODE was able to pull this world into that alternative reality, that better reality of curve-adoration?
MICHELE: Yeah, and that’s probably what I miss the most about what we were able to do, and that was to really keep shifting what is beauty.
HSG: And that’s why individual plus-size editorials in non-plus magazines can’t have the same effect, isn’t it? They can’t have the same impact as a whole magazine that creates its own, separate world.
MICHELE: No, it can’t. It just has to be the right mix of editorial and…the staff.
HSG: The other thing that was different about MODE was the tone of the magazine. It wasn’t angry or defensive. It didn’t have an inferiority complex. It was very relaxed. It didn’t have the kinds of “scare stories” that so many magazines do. In the book Spin Sisters, the author (a former editor of Ladies’ Home Journal) excoriates the magazine industry for propagating fear in its stories. MODE never did that. It didn’t say that you were about to die if you didn’t read such-and-such a health piece in the magazine. It just created a pleasurable environment.
MICHELE: Magazines aren’t supposed to scare you. They’re supposed to inspire you.
HSG: But MODE—
MICHELE: That’s what they’re supposed to do. That’s what we were there for. We were there to inspire you. That’s what we did.
HSG: But why was MODE so regrettably unique, then? Who do other magazines not follow that approach?
MICHELE: You had the staff, and the editors, and the vision, and people are still talking about it. And part of that is really good, and part of it is really sad. It’s like, “Oh my God, how come we can’t make this move forward, in the way that it should?” which just breaks our hearts. There should be more. But I started to say, what was important was, we really wanted to see magazines be more inclusive, and I like that there’s magazines now that are more inclusive of things. I still don’t think we’re there yet. I think that sometimes you just can’t get all the information and the inspiration and the stories and the point of view that you need from one [magazine] as opposed to another. So you go and you try to find one that really reflects you, and that was one of our gifts. Our gift was that we had a staff, we had people who were willing to learn it.
MICHELE: Well, because they just didn’t get it. And [we said to them] “Guess what? You need to not be here with us, because we will not have any girl feel bad about herself.”
HSG: Speaking of models, since it’s the focus of my site, I would like to ask you a few questions on that topic. In its very first issue, MODE printed the result of a survey in which readers insisted: “No size-8 models—if you’re saying that sizes 14 and up are really fashionable, use models and fashions that reflect it.” And that was such an important aspect of MODE, yet so many other magazines have failed in this regard. They’ve had their size 10-12 ceiling. How was it that you had the foresight to accommodate public wishes in this crucial area?
MICHELE: Because, you know what? We put our foot down, and that’s what we did. We did.
HSG: And I’d like to mention (and I don’t think this is a superficial point, because this is, after all, an aesthetics-oriented business) that many MODE readers marvelled at how frankly beautiful the models in the magazine were. They were drop-dead gorgeous. Was beauty an active criterion in selecting the models for MODE?
MICHELE: You always look for beauty. They’re models. I mean, they are models. And this is what a lot of women don’t understand today. You know, being a model, or a supermodel, to that degree, is a freak of nature. It is just like finding the Cindy Crawfords and the Tyra Bankses of the world. It is a freak of nature.
MICHELE: There are not a lot of supermodels and major models. And there’s a reason why. Because God just didn’t create a million of them. And that’s what women don’t understand. There is a standard. Even in the plus-size world.
HSG: Even? Especially!
MICHELE: Absolutely! It’s a standard for modelling. And you know what else? The biggest thing that we did was, “I want you to be able to share a little piece of yourself and your soul,” and not everyone can do this. It’s a very hard thing to do.
HSG: I would like to ask you something on that point. In your book Learning Curves, you share an interesting anecdote about Barbara Brickner (Barbara being one of the two most beautiful MODE models). Fans have always had an impression of her as projecting so much self-confidence, and she has certainly imparted confidence to many full-figured women. And yet, in your book, you reveal that for MODE’s immortal swimwear shoot—still the greatest swimwear shoot of all time—Barbara actually felt self-conscious.
MICHELE: Everybody is. Because they’re human. But these girls also believe that somewhere in them, that they have something that they were willing to share, which was their own beauty. What we’re trying to do now is let people understand that, no matter what size, we all live here together.
HSG: I would like to ask about one specific MODE model, and then we can return to more general topics. In all the years since MODE was in print, Judgment of Paris readers have always had a clear favourite, one model whose beauty surpasses any other’s, and that is Shannon Mare.
MICHELE: [with a smile in her voice] Oh, Shannon Marie. You know why they love Shannon Marie? I’m just looking at pictures of Shannon. Because she was really full-figured, especially because she was a real hourglass, and was heavier on the bottom, which is what most women are, in body shape and type, and Shannon just had that ability to… She was one of the few.
HSG: She was also revered because she was one of the few models who went up in size rather than down, and from the point of view of benefitting the cause, cases like that send a wonderful, positive message, showing women that it’s okay (indeed, beautiful) to become curvier.
MICHELE: And what I like is I like individuality. I like something very special. It’s so hard. You know that, Heinrich. It’s so hard.
HSG: It is. Great as MODE was, I don’t think you ever capitalized on the budding celebrity status of your models to the degree that you could have. Full-figured women want to have celebrities of their own—not a Camryn Manheim, but goddesses who can surpass straight-size celebrities in beauty.
MICHELE: I agree. I totally agree. We’re thrilled with what Charlotte [Coyle]’s been doing over the past couple of years with the TV thing. You know, those are all the things that make these girls so rich, in giving back, and figuring out what they should give to the world, which is really, really important.
HSG: Okay, now, my other “biggest of all questions.” There have been two questions that have haunted MODE’s readers for years. You answered one of them right at the beginning. Here’s the second one. And in fact, this issue came up on MODE’s forums more often than any other topic. Why did the models start getting smaller? This marked the decline of MODE. This was when you started to lose reader enthusiasm. Why did the models start going from, generally, 14-16s, to 12-14s, to 10-12s? Why did that happen?
MICHELE: Why did that happen?
HSG: And you can’t be unaware of that question, because—
MICHELE: No, why did that happen? Because the girls started to think that they… I think that there was pressure from retailers to be a certain size. I think that… It’s a really tough one. I agree with you. Why did they get smaller? And you even hear from some of the agencies. They started to want smaller girls. And this is the whole thing also with retail stores. The idea of having an image of a bigger woman at some of the stores (even though they can have plus-size departments), for those CEOs and presidents, scares the crap out of them. Isn’t that a shame?
HSG: Do the decisions go that high?
MICHELE: It depends on the owner of the store. It really does.
HSG: Just look what happened with The Avenue. It used to feature Kate Dillon when she was a size 16, and now, it’s been disappointingly using faux-plus 10-12s for years. Who makes these decisions? It is the casting director? Is it…?
MICHELE: It’s a lot of people who just get the wrong things in their head. It’s like I said, for a little bit, we had these terrible people who were booking, or who were styling, and we just said, “No, no, no, no. That’s not what we do here. We don’t make people look thinner.”
HSG: I only asked you because this was the one and only thing that people had against the later MODE. And when MODE folded, it was a tragedy, yes, but people hoped that perhaps it would be succeeded by a magazine that would go back to the original MODE—MODE the way it was at the beginning—and use true plus-size models.
MICHELE: Well, Heinrich, find me some money, and I’ll put together a magazine that can do it again. Find me money. It also helped that we were with a great publishing house, that they let us do what we were doing.
HSG: You had a free hand, would you say?
MICHELE: Oh, yeah. Really, they were supportive and amazing. You know, Freedom Communications really supported what we were doing, and worked with the team, and that was great. Julie and Nancy were great at finding people and companies like that.
HSG: How about photographers—how did you choose them? The equivalent among photographers to Shannon Marie or Barbara Brickner among models was Michel Arnaud.
MICHELE: Michel Arnaud was brilliant.
HSG: He was, wasn’t he?
MICHELE: Him, and also Bruno Gaget.
HSG: Yes, those two, I would say.
MICHELE: They were our strongest.
HSG: Initially, I never paid attention to MODE’s photographers—only the models. But years later, I was amazed to discover that over half of your best editorials were shot by Michel Arnaud. How did you find these great talents?
MICHELE: They were photographers that we used at other magazines that we worked for, and so we were looking for somebody who was able to see beauty beyond size.
HSG: And how was he able to see this, while others couldn’t?
MICHELE: You’d have to ask him, but he never believed that it wasn’t possible to capture beauty as beauty.
HSG: How fortunate that the stars aligned his path with yours.
MICHELE: We were very, very fortunate, that that’s what we had.
HSG: In many of MODE’s best pictures, the poses, the type of photography, was about accentuating curves rather than hiding so-called “flaws.”
MICHELE: That was our mission.
HSG: But how did you get over that deeply-ingrained, wrong-headed idea of "flaws"? How did you escape that?
MICHELE: Because, thank God, that’s not what we believed, and that’s not what I saw when I looked at women, and that’s not what Abbie saw when she wrote about the body, and everything shifted. I mean, there was a lot of shifting. I can remember when Abbie shifted. It was a pretty powerful thing. Which is cool.
HSG: Oh, of course.
MICHELE: But [today] these girls really think that they are supposed to be, and my response to them is that not everybody is supposed to be.
HSG: I’m so glad that you mention that.
MICHELE: There’s lots of ways to be a role model. We’re still in business. This is still a business, you know, and we’re supposed to be making money doing this. We want to celebrate it so that it works. All these things about the size of girls, again, it comes down to the pocketbook. You give them money, you make a decision. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy any clothes because they’re being such a pain in the butt…
HSG: But is it really just a case of money? Or would you say that some people who work in the fashion industry simply have their own personal aesthetic predispositions, and will not budge from them, regardless of public preferences?
MICHELE: It’s really, really hard to get around them. It also has to do with the buyer. If it were me, I’d like to go after the buyers, [telling them] don’t play safe. I’m willing to spend this money because we can. So don’t play safe, and don’t give me another plain suit, or another white shirt. I want fashion pieces from you. And I love that Michael Kors… Michael Kors is selling really well for basic pieces, and those things are really good news, and I’m glad that that’s continuing.
HSG: Something that really struck me about MODE was how ahead of its time it was. You had Natalie Laughlin in camisoles before girls were wearing Torrid camisoles.
MICHELE: Well, that’s also Abbie, since I would give her lots of those, and the two of them just made decisions. That blue dress—
HSG: Yes, the specially-cut one.
MICHELE: Well, yeah, because it’s a Badgley Mischka pattern. I had the dress made.
HSG: The brilliance of that. It didn’t exist, and yet MODE made it a reality.
MICHELE: It was important. I was just… How are we going to prove that this is what it looks like on the girl? And that was the way to do it, was to keep breaking the rules. Using pieces in a way that you didn’t. I mean, many of us had been using pieces of clothing in a way that nobody ever thought about. And it’s really important to challenge the norm. And that’s just what we did.
HSG: It’s so true. You had bare midriffs before anyone was doing bare midriffs.
MICHELE: Yes! It’s a lot of… Abbie was great at that. It was one of her strengths. Me, I still liked as much fashion as fashion. So we each had our own style.
HSG: Was there a tug of war in the magazine between the more conservative elements, and those who wanted to push the boundaries? I remember the first cover, for example, was very conservative—just a headshot. Readers were disappointed. They couldn’t even tell whether the model was plus. I myself was going to write MODE a letter, imploring you to be more daring. Then the second cover came along, with Natalie Laughlin’s décolletage on view, and I thought, “They’ve got it.”
MICHELE: Because we learned. We learned that we needed to have at least three-quarter or full-length for a cover, really. Although some of our covers were close. You know, beauty covers are great too. You had to get the barometer of how women felt.
HSG: Is it indeed a barometer? Or it is a case of nudging the audience towards a more adventurous place?
MICHELE: I think that’s what we did.
HSG: How much is a lead, and how much is a push?
MICHELE: You’ve got to push. Lead and push, I think it’s both. Although there are women who didn’t ever get it. They felt like it was not for them. Well, that’s fine. There’s 65 million of you.
HSG: Isn’t that part of the problem, that a plus-size magazine (since there’s usually only one) is expected to be all things for all people?
MICHELE: And it can’t be.
HSG: Magazines try to cover all the bases, and they can’t. But here’s a question, speaking as a male admirer of the magazine. MODE always seemed very “man friendly”—that is, from the male point of view, our appreciation for full-figured women seemed…appreciated. By contrast, there is an element in "size acceptance" today that seems astonishingly (and self-defeatingly) hostile to men who admire full-figured women. Women are sometimes even given negative labels to attach to men who prefer the curvy aesthetic. But MODE was free of all this. It never had this hostile tone. Why did you adopt this approach? Or was it just incidental?
MICHELE: You know what? We also really held our ground there, you know. That’s what we believed and wanted to appear.
HSG: How about “the vacation feeling”? Many readers have said that reading MODE was like being on vacation.
MICHELE: I love that.
HSG: How were you able to devise that approach? Because at the time, dull “career wear” was probably dominant in the plus-size field.
MICHELE: It goes back to something that’s really important: a great staff at the right time, with the right players, who were willing to push the boundaries, and really, really make a shift. We were so lucky. I feel so privileged. We really were a very lucky group of editors to help create that. Not everybody gets to do that.
HSG: You mentioned before about encouraging women to find creative outlets besides modelling, and I agree. This is why, in my interviews, I’ve tried to approach different people in the industry, from a stylist to an agent to a retailer to the first editor of Figure (much derided)—
MICHELE: Figure magazine? What I would love to see happen to Figure is… I had actually worked on the prototype for that one too, the first prototype. I think that what’s important is the mixing of things. I think it can’t just be a story with all Lane Bryant, a story with all Catherine’s, a story with all Fashion Bug. And the mixing of clothes is what women do. Once we start to do that, it changes. It’s also the way the thing’s shot, and who’s shooting it.
HSG: Quality matters.
MICHELE: But also, how you go out there doing things…changes what things are. I know that just sounds so bland. But you have to give the girls room to be who they are. The girls also have to be willing to really share parts of themselves that, again, not everybody is ready to do.
HSG: Speaking of Figure, it did something that readers regard as the capital crime for a plus-size magazine: it ran diet ads, while MODE never did. How did you come up with the wonderful policy to never, ever run diet ads of any kind?
MICHELE: It’s wasn’t appropriate.
HSG: So you weren’t tempted by the money? I’m sure they would have offered—
MICHELE: Sure, but it wasn’t appropriate.
HSG: They would have driven dump trucks full of money to yours doors!
MICHELE: But it wasn’t appropriate.
HSG: But that’s so right. Why doesn’t everyone realize that?
MICHELE: No, it wasn’t appropriate.
HSG: That’s so right, and so obviously right, to everyone—to MODE, to full-figured women, to the men who admire them—so why doesn’t everyone in the fashion industry realize this?
MICHELE: Well, because they want to make money. For us, it was just not appropriate. It’s not appropriate. You don’t do that. God, you just don’t go there, because it makes women feel the one thing that we never wanted anyone to feel—and that was, that they weren’t okay.
HSG: Right, that’s so true.
MICHELE: And that was something that we were really committed to. So I’m glad that we were always able to do that. I think it was really, really important.
HSG: Do you think things are changing generationally? Do you think that the younger generation of plus-size girls have more of a love of their figures than—?
MICHELE: Yes, yes.
HSG: You do think so?
MICHELE: Yes. Absolutely. Because they want change, and they want to be included. You know, inclusivity is what we’re looking for.
HSG: There was no Torrid at the beginning of MODE, but perhaps MODE helped bring Torrid into existence.
MICHELE: Torrid was starting. They’re a great team. They didn’t grow for a bit, they were very Goth, but now, it’s a great look.
HSG: It’s a great concept.
MICHELE: I love Torrid. I just used it for TV. They’re so modern, and they’re so terrific.
HSG: It’s funny that you should say “modern,” because I was thinking the opposite, since the time when MODE’s absence was mourned most was when the “New Femininity” of romanticism in fashion debuted a few seasons ago, with the peasant blouses, the frills, the ruffles, the Bohemian skirts, etc. Fans of MODE were all lamenting, imagining the gorgeous shoots that MODE would have done with these styles—the natural landscapes that you would have used, the girls whom you would have dressed in these fashions. But, alas, MODE was gone, and Grace, for whatever reason, refused to explore these styles. Grace was just limited to career wear.
MICHELE: I don’t know what that… You know, they had a whole mission over there, which, you know, I’m not privileged to…
HSG: Well, it was an unlamented death when that magazine folded.
MICHELE: Was it? That’s interesting to hear. Really?
HSG: Oh, of course. MODE is an unforgettable love affair, while Grace was merely in the way. At first, people wanted to support that magazine just because we didn’t want another plus-size publication to fold, but after a while it became clear that the models were never going to be above a size 12, or less than 6 feet tall, and that the target age demographic would always be “mature” women, leading to editorials with sedentary activities, whereas MODE’s editorials were always so exciting.
MICHELE: That’s interesting, because we all learn when we hear from the public.
HSG: Everything MODE did right, Grace did wrong. And Figure, well, at least it’s doing one thing right, which is, the size of its models—
MICHELE: You have to remember, Figure was created as a custom publication. A custom publication is not a magazine that has everything in it. It doesn’t, and people must remember that. And it’s important, because they have their thing that they had to do. It’s so hard. There are so many things I would have loved to have seen happen to [Figure]. I really would have. I really would have loved to have seen much more room to move around things.
HSG: I can imagine. What’s your own background? How did you get started?
MICHELE: What, to be in the magazine publishing business? I came from being an accessories senior editor over at Mademoiselle, and I did a lot of special projects, when I left Mademoiselle, for a lot of magazines, with people doing straight size. I happen to be a really good market editor. That’s probably one of my favourite parts of the business, finding the clothes, finding the things that work the best, and that was just really important for me.
HSG: Do you have a fashion background? Did you got to F.I.T., or one of these—?
MICHELE: No, I actually have a degree in costume design and performance with an art history degree, so I understand clothes.
HSG: Ah, art history! So you know that the full-figured ideal was dominant in every century prior to the twentieth.
MICHELE: I also knew that fashion was fashion. It so did not require that you had to be a certain size. Beauty was for so long celebrated just as beauty is, and that’s what was brilliant about what we had before, and so, when you really can see that, you’re willing to fight for that one. And that’s what we did. As I said, we were so lucky to be with a group of publishers and owners who just got that it was possible to look at women and beauty in a bigger way.
HSG: It was so exciting at the beginning. There was even talk of "MODE TV."
MICHELE: Oh, yes. There were a lot of things in the works. That’s why it was such a shame when…
HSG: Big question, okay? Why does the media resist plus-size beauty?
MICHELE: Oh, because they’re scared. Because they’re scared. And then, we have role models and celebrities and everybody keeps saying, you have to be thinner. So when are women going to get a break? When are women going to get a break? I mean, really.
HSG: But who’s at fault? I’m sure you’ve followed the size-0 debate. It’s not a trivial issue. This is a matter of great consequence. Apart from the question of why the fashion industry is even allowed to promote an anorexic standard, why do the industry’s power brokers—the Anna Wintours, etc.—even adopt this standard in the first place? Why size 2 instead of…MODE size?
MICHELE: Oh, that’s their choice. Because they like hangers that they can hang anything on.
HSG: The clothes, not the figure?
MICHELE: That’s also… You’re going back to the designers. What do they want? And that’s a real tough one. I just find it very non-helpful that they don’t get that it’s a lot of different sizes. But when they do get it, you find… You get to see that even photographers like Steven Meisel love shooting, but certain plus-size girls. Very limited, a very limited window. I took Kate out first because she knew exactly what I needed, and wasn’t as scared, and didn’t think that she has to be in a certain position or place. She’d already gone through all the craziness.
HSG: Well, that’s interesting, because indeed, many of the most popular plus-size models began as straight-size models first. That was Shannon Marie’s circumstance too.
MICHELE: It was my job also to find new faces, and I did a lot of that.
HSG: You mean, actually finding new girls to—?
MICHELE: To come into modelling, yeah. They were normally models within other cities when I was doing MODE. There just was something about them. I mean, for me, that’s normally what happened, is there was something about them that was special.
HSG: An X factor.
MICHELE: Yeah and I think that’s important. There’s something about them that’s special. You just went, “You know what? You would do really well in the business.” I loved Liis, who I actually just had… Liis is doing great things. She’s doing a calendar.
HSG: Yes, we saw that. The first one was so-so, but it’s an interesting idea, and we’re hoping for better results next time.
MICHELE: Yeah, I thought it was really fun. We talked, and I said to her, I bet you it will be more men who will buy this calendar than anyone.
HSG: Yes, but MODE’s shadow still looms large. That calendar was unfavourably compared to the first great Bahamas swimwear editorial in MODE—
MICHELE: The one that we did, right.
HSG: Again, quality matters. Only one company ever faithfully followed MODE’s approach, and that was Elena Mirò, when it produced its Barbara Brickner calendar for 2001. That calendar was “MODE Extra,” because they echoed MODE’s approach. I think they saw your magazine, and knew that this was the right way to proceed.
MICHELE: Elena Mirò has been around a long time. I mean, I love Elena Mirò. We think that their clothes are coming to America this year, which would be great.
HSG: Yes, they’ve changed visions though. It’s another example of that sickening diminishment phenomenon: They used to use size 14-16 Barbara Brickner, now they regrettably use 10-12s. It’s very disappointing.
MICHELE: And please don’t think that I’m not hearing you. It’s just such a hard dance, because I still think we have a lot of power to be able to make a dent in that, as women, in buying things, and saying what is beautiful.
HSG: There is that power, but my impression is that individuals in positions of creative control have a stubborn belief in their own aesthetic predispositions, and it’s hard to budge them, isn’t it?
MICHELE: Very hard, but sometimes you can. Bill Swan came from that world, and he did a great job. As the Photo Director, he did a lot of the photography stuff for us. During the first year, he brought in lots of new talent: photographers, hair & makeup, and also found locations and models, as we grew. I worked very closely with him for a long time.
HSG: It’s a matter of finding the right individuals who can modify their vision. Tell me about Evans.
MICHELE: It’s a line for women with curves that… They really started to redo things, you know, at the end of 1999/2000, which is, you know, I think that that’s important.
HSG: In one of your TV segments showcasing Evans, you referred to one of the models as having “a luscious body,” and I thought—
MICHELE: She does. She’s young, and she’s got great curves, and great hips, and it was so—
HSG: See, that’s MODE.
MICHELE: I agree with you.
HSG: Even the word you used, “luscious.” Luscious is such a MODE word.
HSG: Here’s something else that was wonderful about MODE—it was politically neutral. Perhaps alone among women’s publications, it was politically neutral. It didn’t make any enemies.
MICHELE: Not necessary.
HSG: But why did you get that, when no one else does?
MICHELE: Ah, I tell you again, we had an amazing staff, and we just talked those points through. We had to decide what we were going to stand for, and the owners really were behind that.
HSG: I don’t think anyone realized how right your choices were until they saw other people making different choices.
MICHELE: I know. Isn’t that funny? It really is. I think it’s important that we all look at that. That we really recognize that there are different ways to do things.
HSG: If someone were starting a new magazine for plus sizes right now, do you think it would be harder for them to attract advertising? Because MODE had Revlon, Estée Lauder, Lancôme—
MICHELE: That’s Julie and Nancy. I mean, they were brilliant at that. They did it for years. Brilliant. They know to talk to them.
HSG: So without that special gift of theirs, you think it would be harder to get mainstream advertising?
MICHELE: It is hard. Yeah, I do. I think that they knew how to do it. And you have to have somebody who’s going to fight the fight, and they were always willing to stick their necks out. I mean, that’s why… That’s why they’re Julie and Nancy.
HSG: Since you’ve talked them up so much, where are they, and how can readers get them to start up again?
MICHELE: Oh, no—
HSG: They’re done?
MICHELE: They’re doing other things. Julie is doing some not-for-profit… Actually, she’s doing some health stuff. Nancy has a teen store and she has a young daughter, and she’s out in Connecticut. Nancy, I think, is the only one who really has still been working on things for magazines. They did it for years. It was certainly not a causal moment.
HSG: It would seem that they—in fact, that the whole MODE team—is lamentably irreplaceable. And on that note, are there any prospects for a MODE-quality magazine to come out in the near or distant future?
MICHELE: Why not?
HSG: But realistically, are there any chances?
MICHELE: As I said to you, what do we need? We need money. We need money, and I think that that’s really important. We have to have people who are willing. A number of us have spoken to people over the years, and it just hasn’t stuck. And nothing would make me happier than to do that again.
HSG: Pity. There was a fellow here in Canada who wanted to launch a plus-size magazine. He had all the right ideas, but there are only three ad agencies in Canada, and when he approached them, they apparently said, “Oh, plus sizes? No thanks,” and turned him away.
MICHELE: And again, you’re also talking about how they go about it. Those women [Julie and Nancy] had a major pedigree in them.
HSG: They had a background, as you said. It seems to be essential. Do you think things are getting better or worse, fashion-wise, for full-figured women?
MICHELE: I think it’s getting better, but I think that they’re pulling away from some things, which really concerns me.
HSG: Do you mean the situation with Old Navy, or in a more general sense?
MICHELE: Yeah. I want to see it keep growing. I think it’s just really important to keep growing it, and that’s a tough one. You’re asking a very important question, actually. I want it all to work. I want to see another magazine. I think that it is necessary. I think that there is a point of view I agree with you, and I would like to see that occur next. I mean, nothing would make me happier than that.
HSG: It seems to be extremely beneficial, indeed essential, to have that “spine,” that one magazine out there providing the focus, producing guiding images for the industry, and the absence of such a magazine holds things back.
MICHELE: It simply comes down, I think, to… Money is tight. They think that they can do it all with putting it into other magazines, which makes me sad, but they think that they can do it that way.
HSG: You mean, with the occasional token plus-size editorial?
MICHELE: Yeah, in small doses. They do things in very small doses.
HSG: The problem with such token “inclusiveness” is that it’s never truly equal. It always ends up meaning mostly skinny girls, with an occasional plus-size model off in the corner of the editorial, in the back. It’s not equal internally in the magazine, and it’s not equal more generally, because the rest of the industry is relentlessly thin-supremacist. The only way to even begin to offset this is to have at least one magazine which is wholly and completely pro-curvy, which says that curvier is better. I refer again to the contrast between MODE, which created a self-contained alternative reality in which full-figured beauty was idealized, and the Vogue approach, which is, “Okay, we’ll stick one token size-12 model in there, and she’ll look freaky and edgy, but here, in the rest of the magazine, are the ‘real’ models.”
HSG: It just doesn’t have the same subversive effect that MODE had. No matter how joyful, how beautiful, how lovely MODE was, MODE was also very, very subversive—all the more so because it was so gentle about it. It didn’t beat you over the head with its agenda. It was like sugar, it just kind of led you in, and all of a sudden, before you knew it, people were believing in plus-size beauty. What’s your favourite MODE memory? Do you have a single one?
MICHELE: Favourite MODE memory? God, there were so many. I loved doing the cover with the dozen size-14 girls.
HSG: Oh, yes, the Nancy Ganz apparel, from February, 1998. That was Bruno Gaget.
MICHELE: When I raided Nancy Ganz and got all those slips, and everyone was in them. I loved having 14 size-14 women on the cover.
HSG: And unlike most covers, you actually saw that the girls had tummies, hips, full legs, curves all over their figures, generous busts—
MICHELE: It was more fun if they had the more… The more curves and the more size they had, the more fun it was.
HSG: That’s so right! Why doesn’t everyone understand that?
MICHELE: Because they don’t have . . . [we both laugh, as this is her cue to mention MODE’s irreplaceable team again].
HSG: Are you now going to be working with Evans?
MICHELE: We’re working on how we’re going to do that. I think Evans, of all of them, they actually get it. Evans is young, it’s fun, it’s for the 18-45 consumer. They have great trends, they’re right on point, they’re made well for the price that they are, and that’s really important.
HSG: There was a British MODE for a little while—well, not quite as polished as MODE, but better than BBW. It was called Yes! magazine, and it was actually quite good.
MICHELE: Well, BBW was just… I have some friends and acquaintances who argue, “BBW was great at this,” and that’s fine, but it doesn’t touch MODE, because we were doing a high-end. That’s what we were doing.
HSG: You’re very kind to say that.
MICHELE: I don’t have to say anything. I’m saying what I know, and I know that it’s wonderful.
HSG: The Judgment of Paris is something that MODE gave birth to, and I’m pleased to have preserved for posterity many of these images, which are—
MICHELE: Very hard to get a hold of.
HSG: Do you think that online publications can ever take the place of print magazines?
MICHELE: I would say no. Even what we were doing at Amaze, they wanted it in… They wanted to hold it.
HSG: Because there’s still something more legitimate—and I’m saying this as a Webmaster—about a print magazine, more iconic.
MICHELE: Yeah, you know, it’s still… It’s paper, and there’s something special about it, and I agree with you. I totally agree.
HSG: Online advertising has benefitted the cause, because with enough Web images, one can cobble together a…well, not a MODE, exactly, but enough examples of plus-size beauty to create a MODE-like effect of counter-brainwashing. But there’s something about a print magazine that brings it closer to the book, to that kind of permanence, whereas the Web seems ephemeral.
MICHELE: I think people still want to hold certain things. So I still think magazines have their place in the world. Because you want to be able to hold it. You do.
HSG: Yes, as terrible as it is to say, it would seem to be more important to have individuals who have a professional background in the magazine industry, and can then learn the curvy aesthetic, rather than those who love the curvy aesthetic, but don’t have a professional publishing background.
MICHELE: Very well said, yes.
HSG: My frustration with the fashion industry is that it doesn’t appreciate the curvy aesthetic, but this interview convinces me that, above all, one needs professionals with a technical expertise, or otherwise, it’s all for naught, and you end up with a magazine like BBW—at best.
MICHELE: I mean, I loved doing Amaze, but we never did shoots. We never did editorials, which to me was frustrating. It’s great for getting language out there, and ideas, and information, but you can’t do the visual the way you want to do the visual.
HSG: At some point, you need original content. And for that, you need paid professionals. Money, again.
MICHELE: Pay them.
HSG: That’s right. You will not get quality without—
MICHELE: People need to actually be paid. I mean, you know, [name of online magazine] is doing their thing over there, and I can’t support that because I don’t want everybody thinking that they should be a model. I don’t want you to chase dreams that are not going to be realized. I want you to have the best life. And if it doesn’t work out, then go, move, and have the rest of your life. The girls who were really successful, who were great plus-size models, they had whole other lives. Whether they got married, whether they went into other things. I mean, as I said, Kate’s going to graduate school.
HSG: I sometimes correspond with Dorothy Combs—
MICHELE: We used models from her when we did Florida, when we did iVillage Live. She was super helpful.
HSG: —and I encourage her to try to bring back a certain extremely popular model, but I realize that there is no top-quality magazine for her to appear in.
MICHELE: No, the opportunities are not there. They aren’t there. That’s what we’re looking for, is how do you do that next? There’s so many women who could just be helped with feeling better about themselves, not losing weight. Find what works best for you, and where you feel the best.
HSG: Well, while it existed, MODE certainly accomplished this.
MICHELE: I’m glad. It was an important time. It’s good to hear it from your point of view, from being the Webmaster for what you’re doing, and what you saw; your vision on what we were doing, which is great, which is very important. It’s definitely missed.
HSG: I don’t think there’s every been a publication that, with three great years, and a little more, touched so many people’s lives.
MICHELE: Would you mean ’97, ’98, ’99?
HSG: Perhaps this is coincidental, but when A.G. Britton left the editorship of the magazine and Corynne Corbett took over—
MICHELE: Corynne was our Executive Editor, then became Editor-in-Chief.
HSG: —it started to slip a little.
MICHELE: It’s a different vision.
HSG: It was a different vision. It didn’t have that “More is More” quality, that “The beauty of Kate’s face is that it is full” element.
MICHELE: Abbie was definitely one of the best wordsmiths in the business I’ve ever met or worked with. She had a real understanding, which was very special.
HSG: Well, what about her? Is she gone too?
MICHELE: She has two sons, and she lives in California now, and she’s gone on to do some other things. She’s doing a lot of creative directing, which she had done before. She has a great eye, and that’s what she’s doing. She’s happy, and still using creativity, but not saying she’s actually working with some fashion houses.
HSG: Ah, but when she was working at MODE, she was changing the world. Was there a sense of that, in the MODE offices?
MICHELE: Yeah, that’s what we were doing.
HSG: You did. You had that conscious feeling, that what you were doing was more—
MICHELE: Oh, we knew that. I mean, you know, when I signed on, I said, I think we can do this. And that was a really important part of being on that triptych who started [the magazine], and adding in the people that we did, and finding the people that we did, and pushing the limits of companies and designers.
HSG: Well, thank you very much for your time, and thank you for sending me the link to your TV appearances.
MICHELE: And I always use real girls. You noticed that. I only use real bodies. I don’t have much time for using a size that doesn’t fit into the clothes.
HSG: There’s the MODE approach. I’m glad you’re still out there, fighting the good fight.
MICHELE: Yeah, there’s a couple of us who really see still the opportunity to make a difference. But we have not seen MODE. We have not seen it. We have not.
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