A PROFILE OF SOPHIE SHEPPARD
by Heinrich Saint-Germain
As soon as the initial Curves in Couture press release appeared, the anticipation began building. The event billed itself as “the first time that a plus-only catwalk show of this prestige has occurred in the U.K.,” and the fact that designers Anna Scholz and Jill Alexander (the latter having most recently presented a stunning collection at Full-Figured Fashion Week) would be participating testified to the calibre of the talent involved.
A high-fashion plus-size runway extravaganza in Britain: the very thought of it was thrilling.
Better still, the release noted that the event would be featuring models in sizes 14 to 18—a unique development in England, where faux-plus parameters still hold sway.
As soon as I learned that this show would be welcoming professional full-figured models, and legitimately curvaceous ones at that, I immediately thought of one name:
All year, the Australian expat’s successes in Britain had been causing a sensation, from her astoundingly gorgeous test shoots to her celebrated appearance in Vogue Italia. Would this event provide an opportunity to see her on the runway? It was too exciting a prospect to contemplate.
I immediately placed a breathless call to Angel Sinclair, urging the visionary head of M.O.D. (the organization that was staging Curves in Couture) to include Miss Sheppard in the show’s lineup. To my amazement and delight, Ms. Sinclair asserted that Sophie was already booked to appear. “I’ve got her,” Angel told me, with no less excitement in her voice than I myself had expressed. “I’ve got her.”
I announced the news on the forum, but cautiously, wary of the fashion industry’s propensity for cancelled bookings and schedule changes. Furthermore, I knew that Sophie was in Germany, under the auspices of her continental agency, Okay Models. Would she come back just for this show? Only time would tell.
One thing was certain, however: on the off chance that Sophie actually would walk the runway at Curves in Couture, I had to be there. I had already been contemplating a trip to the British capital to see Apocalypse, the Tate Gallery exhibition of the work of John Martin—the greatest of all Romantic painters. With Sophie’s participation, I knew that Curves in Couture could be the supreme visual expression of the aesthetic of the Beautiful just as much as the John Martin exhibit would be a definitive expression of the aesthetic of the Sublime. Both were once-in-a-lifetime events, and I couldn’t miss either one.
The fact that Curves in Couture was taking place in the Notting Hill district added to the sense of destiny that surrounded the show. Many years earlier, I had launched my postgraduate European grand tour—a four-month pilgrimage to the Old World—with a week’s stay in London, where I had coincidentally resided in Notting Hill.
Indeed, as I made my way to my London address after jetting across the Atlantic, I was amazed to find myself alighting at the same Underground station (Notting Hill Gate) and proceeding up the same street where I had tramped so many times as a student traveller. In those years of student impoverishment, I had bunked down in a youth hostel called Bowden Court, but remembering the rather spartan accommodations that this hovel had provided, this time I opted for finer lodgings: the Portobello Hotel, a Neoclassical home converted into a lovely auberge in the midst of Notting Hill’s residential district, far from the bustling street and just a short walk from the site of Curves in Couture.
Having arrived early on the day of the show, for which the doors were to open at 19:00 (according to the press pass that I had received), I decided to scope out the location where the event would take place.
The Tabernacle—for so the venue was named—turned out to be a beautiful edifice. Built in 1887 in a magnificent, Neo-Romanesque, historicist style, it was originally an evangelical Christian church, later deconsecrated and converted into a community centre. With its history as a place of worship, it seemed remarkably appropriate as a location for Curves in Couture.
Returning promptly at 19:00, I was dismayed to see that nearly everyone had already arrived. There was obviously some miscommunication on the part of the event’s organizers, for the doors had clearly opened much earlier.
As I entered, one of the show’s nominal plus-size models was having her picture taken by the attendant paparazzi, and I was astounded at how skinny she was. Over six feet tall and thin as a rail, she looked entirely like a minus-size waif. Even the adjective “faux-plus” seemed too generous for her lanky frame. No one on the planet, other than a fashion insider, would ever have believed that she was a working plus-size model. There was simply nothing plus about her.
After a quick look at the pub-like restaurant area on the lower floor, I proceeded up the stairs to the loft, where the fashion show was to take place. The press was seated on the upper-floor balcony, while the majority of the audience was arranged on either side of the catwalk. It immediately occurred to me that, owing to the confines of the space, the runway was much shallower than that of Full-Figured Fashion Week, but much wider as well. I was curious to see how the models would negotiate such a space.
The event was preceded by an obligatory mix-and-mingle session, during which I made the acquaintance of the wonderful Anna Shillinglaw, who is surely the most genial agent in the fashion industry. I confirmed with her my plan to interview Sophie after the show and asked the Milk Management owner, with some dread, if she would ever encourage Sophie to diminish herself. To my amazement and delight, Anna stated that she would not, affirming that she considered Sophie to be gorgeous and one of a kind. It was the most reassuring statement about model size that I had ever heard from an industry booker, and suggested that Sophie’s career was in good hands.
Now it was show time. First up was the Anna Scholz presentation, one in which I was sure that Sophie would be participating, given that she had already shot for the label’s forthcoming spring catalogue. The models engaged in creative choreography during their runway appearances, walking to the end of the catwalk, rotating, returning, then doing another turn, and proceeding once more to the runway’s end before finally exiting stage left. It was a clever use of space, making the most of the abbreviated stage, and it gave the audience multiple looks from numerous angles at every outfit.
Never having seen Sophie in real life, I wondered if I would be able to identify her. As each blonde model passed by, I looked closely to see if it was the curvaceous Australian goddess. In several instances, I was left wondering, “Was that her?” but concluded that it was not.
When Sophie finally did emerge, there was no mistaking the size-18 stunner. Outfitted in a form-fitting dress that lovingly embraced her every curve, she was, unmistakably, a plus-size model, in a far more visibly luscious way than any of the other girls in the show. She was astoundingly gorgeous, even more beautiful than any of her images had led me to believe.
As she sashayed down the runway, she exhibited a wealth of fullness in every aspect of her figure, from her buxom contours to her generous reverse-view curves. Her expression radiated utter self-possession and effortless confidence—the kind of confidence that is innate and genuine, not forced. It occurred to me that I was seeing the most attractive woman I had ever viewed in real life. Her loveliness was so astounding that it could captivate anyone—and critically, she coupled such beauty with a generously proportioned figure. She was a one-woman subversion of the entire fashion industry and its misguided androgynous aesthetic. If ever someone had imagined what a goddess in a Titian or Rubens painting would have looked like as a mortal woman, Sophie was the answer.
After a series of intervening presentations, the Jill Alexander segment commenced. Prior to the show, fans had commented that Ms. Alexander had already featured Katherine Roll, Kelsey Olson, and Lindsey Garbelman in her fashions on the FFFWeek runway, so if she enlisted Sophie for this event, she could boast of having had all of the world’s loveliest plus-size goddesses model her designs.
And that is exactly what happened.
Even her seductive appearance in the Anna Scholz dress didn’t prepare me for the sight of Sophie in her form-fitting, sleeveless Jill Alexander masterpiece. Jill’s collection was billed as a tribute to Latin America, with outfits in a host of vibrant, natural colours, from lush greens to citrus yellows. But when Sophie emerged, she was outfitted in a bright, juicy red hue, which made her seem like the flower of the collection, the bloom amid the vegetation, as much a fragrant blossom as the other model’s looks constituted stems and leaves. The tropical flower that she wore in her blonde tresses added to this impression, and the way in which the dress embraced her figure, defining her succulent curves, created an overall presentation of luscious fecundity.
As Sophie departed from the runway, I surveyed the interior of the Tabernacle, with its Gothic-timbered roof and the Romanesque alcoves along either side, as well as the lofts where the pews of this deconsecrated church had once stood. That night, the edifice had once again become a place of worship, a temple of beauty. Just as the pagan shrines of Rome, such as the Pantheon, had been repackaged as Christian churches in the later years of the empire, and were now secular tourist attractions, so this edifice had experienced a reverse metaphysical transformation, from Christian to secular to Classical. Miss Sheppard’s presence had made it a veritable Templum Veneris, a Temple of Venus, for surely no one more closely embodied the goddess of beauty than this curvaceous Australian vixen.
And perhaps this was what the minimalist-loving, materialist-oriented postmodernists found so troubling about plus-size beauty, a concept that Sophie so ideally incarnated in living flesh. It was too pagan, too elemental, too much a blending of fleshy womanliness with celestial glory. Sophie exhibited a well-fed abundance that betokened a love of physical indulgence, yet simultaneously exuded a divine, transcendental loveliness, as epitomized by her dazzlingly fair complexion, her sky-blue eyes, and her radiant tresses, which shone with an angelic luminance in the runway lighting.
After the show was over, I waited patiently in the press gallery for Sophie’s appearance. When she emerged, she was accompanied by several other models who had walked that evening. Even in the midst of this august company, Sophie stood out as the reigning princess, with her golden tresses, full facial features, and curvaceous figure. She was dressed head-to-toe in black, with a black jacket over a fitted black top which disclosed a modest expanse of her décolletage.
Summoning up my nerve, I introduced myself, hoping that my affected calm seemed genuine. Sophie expressed genuine delight at making my acquaintance and thanked me warmly for crossing the Atlantic to meet her. I was entertained to find that she was under no illusions about what my prime purpose had been in attending Curves in Couture. Sophie knew full well that I had made this journey expressly to introduce myself. There would be no deceiving her.
We discussed where the interview might take place, ultimately deciding on the lounge area downstairs. I asked how she had enjoyed walking the runway, and she ventured that while she had been very nervous beforehand, she had loved the experience.
We sat ourselves down at a corner table, and as I produced my prodigious stack of material for the interview, Sophie’s lovely blue eyes opened wild and wide.
“Are those your notes for me?” she asked, evidencing a mixture of bemusement and apprehension.
“Yes, of course,” I responded.
“Oh, my God,” she uttered with a laugh.
I promised that I would make the interview as short as possible.
“No, it’s fine,” she reassured me. “Ask as much as you want.”
Since Sophie was still visibly excited about the show that had just taken place, I inquired what the experience of participating in Curves in Couture had been like.
“I had a really good experience,” she began. “I loved walking in the show. I think it’s such a great cause. All the designs were amazing. All the girls involved were amazing, and yeah, I was really glad to be involved. As I said, I was very nervous, but it’s such an exciting project to be a part of. I loved being in it. I think curves definitely have a place on the runway. Curves should be in the runways around the world: New York, London Fashion Week. So I was just really happy to be a part of it, and it was a just a great experience from start to finish.”
“Was this your first runway show?” I asked.
“No. I’ve done a few runway shows in Perth, my home town, for companies such as Myer, which is a big department store,” she related. “But nothing on this sort of scale. This is my first one with this much international press. So it was just really exciting.”
My next question was one that had yielded interesting responses from the models at Full-Figured Fashion Week, as it revealed personal taste. “What was your favourite look of the night? You wore two, right? You walked for Anna Scholz and for Jill Alexander.”
“I can’t compare. I love them both,” she determined. “I thought that they were both really different. My outfit for Anna was sort of very in at the waist, and below the knee, and massive jewellery. And my one for Jill was a bit more fitted. So they were completely different, but both equally stunning.”
“Would you wear them in real life?” This question was intended as a lead-in to a follow-up query that I wished to put to her, given her midnight-hued attire.
“I would, definitely,” she enthused.
“Good, because I’ve noticed that in your tests, and even in your outfit today, you like black.”
“Yes,” she replied, laughing.
“You wear a lot of black,” I reiterated, “yet you look so good in colour.” The bold fabrics that she had worn on the runway had richly celebrated her sumptuous curves, and I wanted to convey her fans’ enthusiasm for the more colour-oriented images in her portfolio.
“I have a lot of colour,” she stated. “I like to keep it quite simple and add a pop of colour with either a lip, or I’ve got some bright-coloured blazers. Things like that.”
Returning to the topic of the runway show, I asked what she had enjoyed most about the experience.
“I always enjoy working with other models. For me, that’s such a good thing. And we had Robin, and Toccara, and Lizzie fly over from New York. So working with them was great,” she attested. “And also the designers. I mean, Jill has come over from the States. All these local designers. I think it’s a privilege working with everyone. And I think that’s what I have enjoyed, just meeting everyone in the industry.”
As she was speaking, I caught a whiff of the loveliest scent imaginable. I had no idea what manner of fragrance it was, but never before had I inhaled any aroma quite so enchanting. It had a touch of citrus freshness about it, but it also carried a quality of mature, full-blown richness. The intoxicating redolence of her perfume associated the model with a floral blossom, or with the sweetest of fruits, just as her luscious appearance in the Jill Alexander collection had done.
Sophie’s makeup was minimal, but she was wearing a rich, berry lip colour, mostly red but with an undercurrent of pink, like a ripe strawberry-raspberry mixture. The colour stood out vividly against her flawless, alabaster complexion. The perfume harmonized with the lip colour, further relating the model to the juiciest splendours of the natural world.
It was with difficulty that I refocussed on the questions that I had prepared, after imbibing such heady impressions. “When did you first begin to think about pursuing modelling? What gave you the idea to do so? You were scouted, yes?”
[AUDIO] “Yes, I was scouted when I was sixteen,” Sophie recalled. “I was shopping in Perth, my home town, and I got asked if I had ever thought about doing modelling. And I had been asked that before, and I had always sort of thought, ‘Oh, no way. I am not a size 6. There is no way I could every do that.’ But they took me into the agency, and it sort of went from there. And I got signed with Scene in Perth, and then got a few jobs, and then got signed with Bella in Sydney, and then it’s just sort of come in leaps and bounds, I guess. And now I am with Milk in London and Okay in Germany.”
I could no longer suspend my curiosity. “Okay, the next question that I have written down is: ‘What perfume are you wearing?’”
She reacted with a look of utter surprise.
“I’m kidding.” I quickly clarified. “That’s not written down.”
“I’m just taken by the scent.”
“Marco Polo,” she revealed, and added, with a laugh, “It’s very Hollywood.”
“Good answer,” I observed, then proceeded to ask about the origins of her career. “So you were put in the plus-size division. You didn’t start as a straight-size model?”
“No, I never started as a straight size. I have always been a plus-size model.”
Somehow, I found this answer extremely pleasing, as it negated the likelihood of straight-size recidivism, a phenomenon that had tarnished the legacies of numerous former plus-size models. “Did you approach Bella, or did they see you on the Perth board and say, ‘We need that girl, now.’?” I could well imagine that one look at Sophie would compel any plus-size agency to fall over themselves in an attempt to represent her. Her beauty staggered belief.
“I did a campaign for a catalogue that was that put into a women’s magazine,” Sophie recounted, “and Bella saw the advert and called up all the agencies, and found me in Scene, so—”
”A-ha, so it was a case of, ‘We have to have that girl.’” I was pleased that my surmise had been correct. “That’s very interesting. I’m not surprised.”
Knowing the relative isolation of Perth, a lone outpost of civilization along Australia’s west coast, far removed from any other metropolis, I queried whether Sophie had enjoyed a flourishing modelling career in her home city, or had travelled elsewhere to achieve success.
“There is not a really huge plus-size industry in Perth, no,” she confirmed. “It’s more sort of in the shopping centres, little catwalk shows and things, so I had to travel quite a bit to Sydney. That’s where the action is.”
I mentioned that Perth had been described as the remotest big city on the face of the earth.
“It is,” Sophie assented, but in a tone that expressed pride in her native town, as if the very isolation of Perth lent it a distinguishing character. “It actually is the most isolated city in the world. That’s a fact. So I had to fly a lot, out east, for work.”
During both of her turns on the runway, earlier in the evening, I had marvelled at the polish and professionalism of Sophie’s runway walk. She had not only been the most gorgeous model on the catwalk, but also the most proficient in her technique. One model had even suffered a visible stumble, but not Sophie. This led me to ask if she had ever received any formal modelling instruction. “Because your posing is so professional,” I gushed. “We got to see it in the Vogue video. Were you trained, or did you just—?”
[AUDIO] “No. I guess the more work you do, the more confident you get in front of the camera. So I’m sure my first job wasn’t too good,” she said with a laugh. Despite this comment, however, I hadn’t discerned as much self-deprecation in Sophie’s assessment of her talent as I had in other models.
“Over the years, you just learn what angles suit your body and how to move,” she continued. “I pick up a lot from other models as well—watching other models work, or watching things like the Vogue video. Watching how they move, you sort of take a few notes for yourself.”
At this point, I showed Sophie a copy of one of her early editorial appearances—the image that initially attracted my attention to this Australian goddess—and proceeded to question her about it. “The first place where you were discovered worldwide (or at least, this was the first place that the Judgment of Paris learned about you) was in Australian Cosmopolitan—”
”Cosmopolitan,” she echoed, laughing. It wasn’t the first time during the evening that she had completed my thought, nor would it be the last. We were very much in synch.
“Is that right?” I asked, delighted that I had correctly identified the source of the image.
Suddenly, the voice of Anna Shillinglaw rose over the increasingly distracting din of the lounge, where everyone from the show, it seems, had congregated. “Someone’s done their research,” she said merrily, in her sweet, charming voice.
Until this point, I had been utterly engrossed in Sophie, but looking around, I discovered Ms. Shillinglaw seated at a table just across from us, closely observing the proceedings. Furthermore, I noticed several of Miss Sheppard’s modelling friends in the immediate vicinity, along with designer Anna Scholz just a table away. A scene from the movie The Godfather came to mind, in which the young Michael Corleone goes for a stroll in the Sicilian countryside with a pretty girl from the local village, followed closely her family, her friends, and well-nigh the entire population of her town. Never before had I conducted an interview with so many de facto chaperones. It intimidated me for a moment, but also reassured me that Sophie—half a world away from home at the tender age of 22—was being very carefully minded. Ms. Shillinglaw was clearly a loving stepmother-agent, if ever there was one.
“Well, when you fly to England, you have one shot, so you have to make it count,” I explained to Anna, somewhat sheepishly. It occurred to me at this point that I should have arranged the interview directly with Milk Management, so that I could have warned them about how extensive—indeed, exhaustive—my interviews inevitably were.
Refocussing on my notes, I pushed on. “At the time that this editorial was published, plus-size models rarely appeared in mainstream magazines. So how did you feel about the fact that you were going to be in Cosmopolitan?”
[AUDIO] “That was my first big job, Cosmo magazine. I did it with Abby, who’s now with Ford in New York,” Sophie recollected. “I was 17, I think, and she picked me up, and took me from the airport and everything. So I think it was great. I mean, it was a really good opportunity for me, in Sydney. It was my first job. It was with Cosmo, which is, obviously, a major magazine in Australia, and I was doing it with a real pro. Abby is amazing. She really helped me.”
“It’s quite intriguing, because it’s not the usual ‘edgy’ editorial.” I noted how much more attractive this 2006 layout had been compared with recent plus-size-model appearances in mainstream magazines, which tended towards an uglier aesthetic. “It’s a very pretty.”
“Soft, feminine yes,” Sophie concurred.
“Do you like that style?”
“I do. I love that style,” she professed. Seeing the intense delight in my reaction, and perhaps realizing that I was preparing to cast her as a quintessentially girly girl, she quickly followed up with, “I like both. I like doing both. I love doing a bit more funky, editorial, you know, with cool make up, but also the sort of natural look, or both. They are both equally cool.”
“I just think it’s so pretty,” I mused. “You’re on a swing, as if in an Victorian postcard.”
“I know! Well, that swing, actually we had to… It was wet,” Sophie commented, disclosing how a winning pose is sometimes created out of practical necessity. “We couldn’t sit on it, so we were sort of pushing up, perched.”
“Then you were out of the limelight for a little while,” I lamented. Sophie’s near-total absence from modelling for many years after her auspicious debut was a genuine puzzle. “Were you busy with school, perhaps?”
“Yes. I got asked to move to Sydney, but I made the decision to stick with my school and finish high school,” she explained. “And then I actually went to university—”
”What did you take?”
“I studied media, so I studied journalism, radio, and television.”
“Oh, really?” I asked, remembering that Barbara Brickner has originally ventured into the same field. “And now you’re here, perennially on the other side of the camera. I hope you’re not grading me on my interview skills.”
“No,” she laughed. “But that’s what I did, and that’s what I was hoping to get into: presenting in front of the camera. But then this came along, and it’s been a go.”
“What was this?” I asked, showing her a mysterious, lovely tear sheet which dated from Sophie’s lost years.
“That was My Size, in Melbourne.”
“Okay, because it was one of the few things that turned up during your ‘lost years,’ until—and this deserves a drum roll—until this happened,” I declared with all the drama I could muster, showing her the image that had immediately made her the most eagerly followed model in the industry. “When that image debuted, the post that I wrote on the forum read, ‘There is no model on this planet who is more in dire need of further testing than Sophie Sheppard.’ This earned you a gallery at the Judgment of Paris. This made you a favourite on the site. This is amazing. All of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, there she is: the world’s most beautiful plus-size model.”
“It was for the Bella web site,” Sophie pointed out.”We did kind of a great photo, which is on the Bella site, and we each had head shots on the day, so it was a really good day. It was the first time I met a lot of the girls I now work with.”
“Did you choose the lip colour, or was that chosen for you?”
“No that was the makeup artist. I had nothing to do with it.”
“It’s just that this frost-pink lip colour is very appealing,” I rhapsodized. Enchanting as Sophie’s berry tint was, there was no lip colour on the planet as irresistible on a fair-featured model as the frost pink that she wore in her Claudio Raschella portrait.
Oddly, though, Sophie’s own enthusiasm for the image seemed muted, and I couldn’t comprehend why. “You do recognize why the public loves it? It’s not inappropriate for me to say that you look beautiful, and you also look plus-size,” I put to her.
“Yeah. And that’s what I think. I think I am a true plus-size model,” she uttered with a sudden increase in confidence. Perhaps she had realized that she was speaking to a member of the pro-curvy public, not a tepidly diffident client. “I’m not false-plus. I’m a size 16/18 U.K., I’m a size 16 Australia, and so I’m definitely…yeah.”
“So you have heard how much the public is clamouring for fuller-figured plus-size models.”
[AUDIO] “Well, I’m glad. I think plus-size girls should be used for plus-size fashion,” she stated with growing resolve. “I mean, I don’t see the point in getting skinny…not even skinny girls, and padding them out—which actually happens in the industry.”
“So you’re against that?” I prompted her. To hear Sophie enthusing about being a true plus-size model and, better still, decrying the use of padding, was too good to be true. However, in her follow-up response, she characteristically ventured onto a more diplomatic path.
“Well, I’m not against it, but I think—”
”But you wouldn’t do that?” I jumped in.
[AUDIO] “Well, I wouldn’t need to pad out,” she reasoned with genuine satisfaction. “I’m actually plus-size. So I think if you’re a plus-size label promoting size 20 and above, use a size-20-and-above girl. Don’t use a size 14 and pin the dresses so they fit her, and pad her.”
It was music to my ears. “So why do they do that?”
“Good question! I have no idea,” she exclaimed with a laugh. “I don’t know.”
“But you do know why, don’t you?”
“Well, I think they believe the clothes sort of fall better on a skinny—”
”These industry professionals can’t rid themselves of their thin-worshipping aesthetic preferences, so they want models who are only technically plus-size, but with straight-size features,” I elucidated. “Whereas in your case, it’s plus-size on its own terms.”
“Yeah, and I mean, it’s not for every client,” Sophie responded in diplomatic fashion. “Not every client is going to want a full figure.”
“But they should!” I actually thumped the table for emphasis.
“I agree!” Sophie granted, smiling. My intensity was rubbing off on her, at least a little.
This provided me with a segue for asking Miss Sheppard the question that usually opens every Judgment of Paris interview: Would she ever betray the cause of size celebration by appearing in a diet ad or weight-loss commercial, or by diminishing herself? “There’s only one right answer to this,” I cautioned her.
“No,” she began in earnest, then yielded to the impulse to give her reply nuance. “I mean…no. I would probably—”
”Your answer should be truthful,” I granted. For all my propagandistic intent, this was a question that needed a sincere response. All too often, full-figured women had rallied behind role models, only to be disappointed when those models subsequently sold out and diminished themselves. “Would you do this?”
[AUDIO] “No. I mean, I don’t think so. I have no intention of dropping to a size 8 or a size 6 or anything like that. I’m talking U.K. sizes, Australian sizes,” she specified. “I have no intention of becoming a straight-size model. I’ve never been a straight-size model. I’ve never been asked to be a straight-size model. I kind of made it as plus-size model, and I was the first girl in my Perth agency who was plus-size. And there’s a market out there. Why would I change?”
It wasn’t quite the ironclad statement for which I had been hoping, and I noted that Sophie had carefully specified that she would never become a minus-size model, but had avoided the critical issue of whether or not she would diminish herself into a lesser plus size. However, there was no point in belabouring the matter. Fans would simply have to hope that this Australian-born goddess would retain her genuinely full-figured beauty and resist the notorious industry pressures to shrink into faux-plus fraudulence, as so many of her peers had done.
“I met Anna Shillinglaw just prior to the show, and there was one question that I put to her right away,” I revealed to Miss Sheppard (forgetting to check whether the mindful agent was still attending our conversation), “and you may guess what that was: ‘Would you ever tell Sophie to diminish her beauty?’ And I have her on record saying that she would never ask you to waste away. I hope you never do. Please retain your curves. Because the key to the subversion of the androgynous, emaciated, modern paradigm is the beauty and the curves, put together—”
“Put together,” Sophie eagerly interjected, once again echoing my words, as if the phrase had simultaneously occurred to her. She added: “That’s what a plus-size model should be: beauty and curves put together.” The idea clearly had traction with her. I hoped that it would help bolster her resolve to maintain her genuinely full figure.
It was time to change topics. I inquired as to what had persuaded her to try modelling in the U.K. at the tender age of 21.
“I’m 22 now,” she disclosed.
“That’s a big deal for—”
”I know. I made a big leap, I guess.”
“Yes. Not everyone just wakes up one morning and says, ‘I’m going to move to England.’”
[AUDIO] “I know. I know. Well, I was in Perth, which, as you said before, is a very small-town city, and I had finished my schooling, I finished my university,” she reminisced. “I had been studying for fifteen years, when added all up. I thought, ‘Right, I want to travel.’ And my plan was to travel for six months and go home and then move to Sydney and work with Bella. And I got over here and travelled and really just loved travelling the world and doing all this, and decided it would be a good idea to maybe live in London for six months. I was not even going to do modelling here. I was working in a bar,” she admitted with a laugh.
“Really?” I asked, genuinely surprised. With her elegant, aristocratic manner, I couldn’t see Sophie in such an environment.
“In London, yeah,” she acknowledged. “And my agent, Chelsea Bonner in Sydney, said, ‘I really think you should take a chance and go see Anna with Milk.’ And I said, ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ and she said, ‘No, just go. You know never what will happen.’ So I thought, ‘Right.’ I went and saw Anna and got signed, and I’m so glad that I did, and now I am sort of based in the U.K. I’m glad I went to Milk. They’ve been amazing.”
So the true motivational force behind Sophie’s career, even here in London, was still the brilliant Chelsea Bonner, her agent at Bella Models. I made a mental note to thank Chelsea profusely for having the foresight to encourage Miss Sheppard to pursue modelling in Europe.
“Yes, Anna sounds very enthusiastic about you,” I agreed, then tried to wrap my mind around the staggering idea that the world’s most gorgeous plus-size model hadn’t even intended to continue modelling while abroad. “So you didn’t move here to model. That astonishes me. That’s amazing. But I am glad that you decided to pursue it.”
“I was never against it,” Sophie elaborated. “I just never thought… I wasn’t moving here with the intentions of…”
“But you career has taken off.”
“Well, it’s beginning to,” she consented.
In the course of tracing Miss Sheppard’s progress, we had finally arrived at her most celebrated test shoot, the one that had established her reputation as possibly the most gorgeous plus-size model in the world. I rhapsodized that it comprised some of the most beautiful fashion photos that anyone has ever seen, and asked her who shot it.
To my astonishment, Sophie seemed unclear about the photographer’s name. “Natalia…?” she began hesitantly, then looked over to her agent for further clarification. But Ms. Shillinglaw was unsure of the photographer’s full name as well. “Natalia…” she mused, then added, “She’s a Russian photographer. She’s from Russia.”
Upon my return from England, a bit of Web sleuthing identified the shooter as one Natalia Ilina (www.nataliailina.com), a creative and talented photographer with a visually pleasing style.
I wasn’t surprised to find that Sophie was especially proud of the next photograph. “This is Farrah Fawcett 2011,” I suggested, referring to the famous Bruce McBroom poster of Farrah, which became one of the most iconic images of the 1970s. “This is amazing. Were you referencing anything when you did this, or did you just—?”
“No, I was actually squatting in a car park against a wall,” she said with a laugh, obviously pleased at revealing the prosaic reality behind the superlative fantasy. “And it was just, ‘Quick, do a few.’ But, yeah, that’s one of my favourite photos in my book.”
“What goes through your mind to generate such a look? What do you think about, to create something like this?” It was a question that I had put to other great models, and their Zen-like answers never failed to astonish me.
“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know what I think,” Sophie reflected. “I switch off, I guess. You see the camera there, and you just kind of go into that—”
”You’re doing it right now,” I interrupted her. As she had been explaining her technique, she had narrowed her eyes and emitted a look of such simmering passion, so similar to the steamy expression in her Farrah-esque headshot, that my heart raced.
“Yeah, I don’t know how to explain it,” she chuckled. “You just do it.”
Stunning as her headshot was, for many fans her hands-in-the-hair pose had been the most memorable of the breathtaking images that had emerged during this period. I asked if it had been part of the same test, which she confirmed, and inquired further whether she had referenced another model to create it, or had simply decided to exude untrammelled passion.
[AUDIO] “No, I just was… One thing about modelling and testing and catalogues and everything, you constantly have to move,” she outlined. “You can’t be in the same position, moving your head, that sort of thing. You constantly have to move your body and move around. It’s like you’re being filmed, but they catch that shot. So I think I could have gone to her and said, ‘Fingers through the hair.’ That was the moment.”
”You can keep doing that again and again, if you want,” I broke in. Once again, as she had been describing her technique, she had recreated the pose, plunging her hand into her long, loose tresses. I felt myself drifting into a state of rapture.
“Yeah, it’s just that moment in time,” Sophie reiterated.
“It’s interesting that you should say so, because until I saw a video of Kelsey Olson in action, going through a series of poses, I always thought that for each shot, a photographer required long hours to carefully arrange the model in just the right position, whereupon he would capture that single, specific, meticulously choreographed pose.”
“Sometimes it’s like that,” Sophie acknowledged. “But, no, it’s very much moving around.”
I asked if the shoot had been photographed in England. “This was shot in London, yes,” she attested. “In May of this year.”
“Who selected the wardrobe?” Given that the floral print of the dress and its abbreviated, feminine style made it one of the most attractive pieces that Sophie had ever worn, I was eager to know.
“Me, it’s all my own.”
“That’s a great dress.”
“That’s a very pretty dress,” I repeated with greater emphasis, earning a chuckle from the model. “You have your black mode—”
”But this was outdoorsy,” Sophie interrupted, referencing our previous discussion about the merits of colourful wardrobe as opposed to monochrome black fashion.
“At the Judgment of Paris, we’re big fans of outdoor shoots,” I admitted. “It really adds something. It enriches the photos.”
Sophie, on the other hand, expressed a preference for a mixture of styles. “I’ve got some outdoor,” she enumerated. “I’ve got my studio. I’ve got my paparazzi style from Vogue.”
A-ha, I thought to myself, so that’s what the Vogue shoot was meant to evoke. Sophie’s tearsheets had been stunning, but I hadn’t grasped the theme of her Vogue editorial until the model identified paparazzi photography as a reference point. With her breathtaking beauty, I could easily imagine Sophie becoming a genuine celebrity whose every move would be shadowed by the press. And whatever one’s reservations about celebrity culture, if a full-figured goddess such as Miss Sheppard were on the other end of the long lenses of the paparazzi, this would be a positive development, as the public would come to regard her look as the definitive form of plus-size beauty.
I suspected that my next question would yield a passionate response: “How did you react when you heard that you had gotten a booking for Vogue?”
[AUDIO] “Oh, my gosh. I got told I was doing the video, and so I got booked for the video, and it was being shot in London, so even that, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, Vogue. Every girl’s dream,’” Sophie began, the words tumbling out of her in a torrent of enthusiasm. “And then I was actually working at the pub, doing my shift, and I got a message from Anna, who is my agent, saying, ‘Don’t freak out, but you may be shooting for Vogue on Monday.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yeah, shooting a video,’ and she said, ‘No, no, no. Shooting, shooting. In Milan. Editorial.’ And I was kind of… I think I cried. I was just, ‘Aaaaaah! Oh, my God!’ And yeah, I just sort of freaked out, and it was amazing. I was so excited, but actually, I didn’t have time. It was such a whirlwind. I found out and was gone that weekend to Milan, and shot, and was back within 24 hours, and it was done.”
Throughout the interview, Sophie had come across as a very poised, sophisticated young lady—which was a rare and admirable persona in this day and age. But I was delighted to have discovered a topic about which she expressed the bubbly enthusiasm of youth.
“You say that being in Vogue is ‘every little girl’s dream.’ Was it your dream? Growing up, did you dream about being in Vogue?”
[AUDIO] “I never, ever thought I would be a model,” she confided. “There are so many girls in the industry. I’ve always wanted to be involved with it. I never thought I could be a model, to be honest, though. I was always plus-size. I’ve never been a stick-thin sort of girl. I’ve always had curves. I never even really knew it was an option. So if someone had said to me, five years ago, that within five years you’re going to be living in London, will have shot for Vogue—Italian Vogue—in Milan, I would have literally laughed and just said, ‘No. Keep dreaming.’ I’m just so fortunate that it has happened. Since being in the industry, that is an epitome. And covers—you know, getting covers—and anything to do with Vogue is just amazing. So I was so grateful and so happy that I was fortunate enough to be one of those girls.”
“And you weren’t just in Vogue Curvy, the online version,” I enthused. “You were in the magazine, in print.”
“I know. I think that was the biggest aspect. I was in the pages. I could go and buy a Vogue, and I’m in it. It was surreal. It was so surreal. I bought about ten copies, and I was just ‘What!?’”
“Well, it goes without saying—and I mean this seriously—that you are the most beautiful girl who has ever appeared in Vogue,” I avowed. “But beyond that, what I love about the situation is that there are many faux-plus models, fake plus-size girls, who would die to have been in Vogue. And yet you accomplished this, not just being more beautiful than the rest, but you did it being curvier than the rest. Doesn’t that persuade you to keep your opulent figure?”
I was hoping for an enthusiastic affirmation of voluptuousness, but Sophie, measured as ever in her response, commented, “Yeah, I have no intention of losing my curves.”
Flummoxed, I steered the interview toward a different topic. “What would your ideal photo shoot be like in terms of wardrobe, theme, setting?”
[AUDIO] “I think my dream job would be to get a hair or beauty [campaign],” Sophie divulged. “That’s still one aspect of modelling that plus-size models are excluded from. We don’t even get to cast for beauty shoots and beauty products, beauty brands, hair brands. We don’t even get the option of being optioned to do it. So I think that’s a huge barrier that I would love to break. I would love to be the face of a cosmetic or something. I think that’s sort of my ultimate dream now.”
“Because, you know, you’ve already appeared in Vogue. Been there, done that,” I kidded her.
Laughing, Sophie replied, “No, I mean, I would love to do another Vogue. I’d love to get a cover. Not even of Vogue, but of a magazine. I would like to get a cover. I’ve accomplished one goal, and there are still so many more boundaries to be pushed and so many more goals to reach.”
After several hours’ worth of watching the Curves in Couture fashion show, then peppering Miss Sheppard with questions, I had become quite parched. I asked the model if she wanted something to drink, even a glass of water, but the line-up at the bar seemed formidable, and I indicated that we might forgo the idea even as I suggested it. Sophie agreed.
As I looked around, however, I noticed that all of Miss Sheppard’s friends—the other models who had walked in the show—were still milling about, and occasionally casting glances in our direction, possibly to catch Sophie’s attention. It dawned on me, with considerable apprehension, that they were all waiting for the interview to conclude, as they likely intended to continue their evening elsewhere and expected Sophie to join them. Would my time with Sophie be circumscribed? Would I be given the opportunity to complete our dialogue? Sophie was proving to be every bit as beguiling in her graceful character as she was in her gorgeous appearance, and I had many more questions to ask.
Little did I know at the time that the interview would be interruped by a surprise guest, and that the evening would end in the most unexpected manner imaginable, in a conclusion that was at once glorious and unbearable, marked by an excess of music, dancing, and…chocolate.
Be sure to read the second part of this interview, coming in just a few days, to discover how it all turned out.
(Continue to Part II.)
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