A PROFILE OF SOPHIE SHEPPARD

Templum Veneris: A Profile of Sophie Sheppard

Part II: Departures

Test photograph by Natalia Ilina

by Heinrich Saint-Germain


(Continued from Part I.)

Thanks to an exciting message that Chelsea Bonner, of Bella Management, had sent me prior to the show, I knew that Sophie had been selected for a major Penningtons campaign and had enjoyed a week-long shoot. Miss Sheppard was surprised that I knew her Australian agent, so I told her that I had been corresponding with Ms. Bonner ever since she had ventured to New York to try own her hand at modelling in the U.S., and that I had always expressed a hope that Bella Models would produce Judgment of Paris favourites. I informed Sophie what a splendid, size-positive client Penningtons was, and asked how the shoot had gone. Her response was no less enthusiastic than her description of the Vogue Italia experience.

Modelling for Penningtons, Spring 2012

      “They came to London and went to Germany to get new girls. I was lucky enough to meet them in London, and I got booked, and I spent ten days in Miami with them.”

      “Ten days!?”

      “Well, it was seven days shooting,” Sophie qualified. “They’re such a fantastic client. They’re Canadian.”

      “Yes, I know,” I mentioned, grinning.

      Sophie laughed and continued, “So, yeah, they’re a fantastic client. I loved, loved, loved, loved working for them, and they had such a great crew, from hair and makeup to…everybody, everything. It was so fantastic. So I hope I get to work for them again.”

      “You’re also represented by Okay Models in Germany,” I observed. It seemed terribly appropriate that this definitive Nordic beauty was represented in the homeland of the Teutonic peoples. However, knowing the notoriety of German clients for preferring faux-plus models, I wasn’t sure how active the partnership was. “What’s that relationship like?”

      “I got signed to Okay when I did a Neckermann shoot back in 2006 or something,” Sophie recalled. “So I got signed to Okay from that, and to be honest, I didn’t know I was still signed to them. They didn’t know I was still modelling, because I kind of had that down time with university and everything. Then I popped up on the Milk board and they said, ‘What? She’s back!’ So I’ve been to Hamburg, and I’ve met with that team there, and they’re lovely, Maggie and the crew. I love to be there as well, so fingers crossed.”

      “Did they get you any jobs? Did they get you anything?”

      “Yeah, I worked for Galeria Kaufhof,” Sophie answered, but not being a native German speaker, she pronounced the work “koff-hoff.” I couldn’t grasp which client she had in mind.

      “What’s it called?”

      “Galeria Kaufhof,” Sophie repeated. “I did a Web shoot for them in September.”

Modelling for Galeria Kaufhof, Fall 2011

      “You have me stumped,” I admitted. “I thought I knew most of the European clients.” Little did I realize that this campaign for Kaufhof—one of the top department-store chains in Germany—would produce some of the most size-positive commercial images that any plus-size model had ever created, belying the myth about German resistance to size-celebration.

      “I did MS Mode in Holland,” Sophie added. “I did a few jobs with them.”

      “Actually, I don’t know if this would be a bother to you, but if you could just tip me when you have something come out, I would dearly appreciate it. We try to keep abreast of everything—”

      ”You get some of my stuff before I even know its out!” Sophie interjected.

      “Well, the Judgment of Paris was the first to post about Vogue,” I asserted with some pride.

      “Penningtons comes out in spring,” Sophie enumerated. “I’ve done an Anna Scholz. I think that comes out at the beginning of next year as well. Anna’s lovely.”

      As she was speaking, an impression that had been forming the whole night solidified in my mind. While Sophie was certainly a contemporary girl in every meaningful sense, her poise, her sense of class, her refinement, her accent—more English than Australian, at least to my ears—and perhaps even the fact that I was interviewing her in Britain, all presented her as an aristocratic young lady who had stepped out of the pages of a Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë novel, updated for the present day. Her frame of reference was entirely contemporary, of course, but her dignity and polish evoked qualities of propriety and good breeding more associated with another time. If a literary heroine of eighteenth-century literature had stepped into the modern day and donned contemporary clothing, I could easily imagine her carrying herself in a manner identical to Sophie, with the same mixture of self-possession and femininity.

      “Are you going to stay in London, or do you have any plans to go back?” My impression was that Sophie was entirely at home in English society, or at least the kind of upscale English society that one sees in better U.K. filmmaking. As a daughter of the hardy British colonists who had peopled the rugged land of Australia, this flower of empire had come home at last, and was thriving in her native soil.

Test photograph by Rene August

      “Well, I have a visa here till next August, so I guess we’ll just see what happens between now and then,” Sophie shared. “I would love then to go and see some agents in New York. I’m not signed in America at all.”

      “I was going to ask about that.”

      “Yes. So that’s sort of also another goal, to get signed somewhere in New York, somewhere in America, and try and get in to those high-end clients,” she went on. “At the moment I am so happy in London, and I’ve still got another seven months, eight months on my visa, so I’m trying to keep working in Europe and London, and we’ll see what happens.”

      It had always been my intention to put a number of body-image questions to Sophie, but given her gentility and propriety, I wanted to phrase them in as tactful a manner as possible. Yet these were crucial queries, going directly to the heart of how plus-size models relate to full-figured women in general, so I simply had to explore the issues.

      “How would you describe your body image?”

      [AUDIO] “My body image? I have a really good body image,” she volunteered. “I have a really good relationship with my body. I mean, I’m happy with my curves. I eat well. I do everything, just like every other person, and I’m proud to be curvy. And hopefully, I can keep working as a plus-size model and doing well and…” The sentence trailed off with a laugh.

      “You’re a little curvier (and therefore more beautiful) now than you were before,” I began, having in mind how Sophie had blossomed into not only the most gorgeous model signed by any major British agency, but also the most legitimately full-figured. “Are you okay with that? Do you feel good about yourself?”

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      “Yeah. I mean—”

      ”There’s only one right answer to this question,” I followed up with a smile. “You know what answer I’m expecting. If you say, ‘No, I’m ashamed of myself—’”

      “I hate myself!” Sophie facetiously bemoaned, happily playing along.

      “Delete! Erase!” I exclaimed, delighted that she knew exactly what I had in mind.

      “No, of course I’m really happy with myself.”

      “You are so wonderful!” I gushed, “You’re not faking it when you say that. Or you’re faking it so well that you’re convincing me.” It was true. Sophie asserted her self-confidence in a way that seemed entirely natural and genuine, without any of the forced bravado that betokens an attempt to convince oneself of a doubtful premise.

On ITV's ''This Morning'' program, March 30th, 2012; click to play

      [AUDIO] “You have to be happy with yourself,” she reaffirmed. “If you are not happy with yourself, it’d be horrible. I mean, there are days that I don’t like something, or feel off in an outfit or whatever, but that’s not just me. Everyone has that, no matter what size you are. And I think that’s such a normal thing for women. There are days that you don’t feel your best, and there are those days that you do feel amazing.”

      “Was your family supportive of you being curvy, or did you face any pressure at home to diminish yourself?”

      “No, my family is so supportive of my career,” she beamed.

      “I thought so.” I wasn’t at all surprised. “Most of the models I interview are genuinely full-figured, and the common thread which links all of their experiences is a supportive home environment.”

      “It’s such an important thing,” Sophie resolved. “If your family is not supportive of you, it’s like… I just couldn’t imagine. My family is so supportive of me, so happy. Whenever I get a job, the first person I call is my mom. I say, ‘Mum, guess what?’ They get so excited, and they get really happy. I mean, I’m living on the other side of the world. They do want me to come home, but they support everything I’m doing, and they’re really happy that I’m doing so well.”

      “They believe in what you do. They recognize that you are important. But then, many people respond to your images,” I pointed out. “You see the effect that you have. That is gratifying, isn’t it?”

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      [AUDIO] “It is. I love to think that people love the work I’m doing and support plus-size.” Sophie’s reply graciously shifted the nature of the enthusiasm from praise of her own work to advocacy of size-celebration in general. “I love to hear that people support plus-size. There’s so many people who ‘support it, but it shouldn’t be in fashion,’ or ‘support it, but they can’t do this,’ and I think that’s rubbish. And there’s still so much that plus-size models are still excluded from. I’m so happy that people are supportive of being plus-size.”

      “I was going to ask you if your body confidence has improved, but it was always good, yes?” The quiet self-assurance that Sophie had demonstrated during the show and throughout the interview practically rendered the question moot. But now I wanted to know how she had achieved such aplomb, which was quite different from the hard-won confidence that models like Kelsey, Kailee, and Lindsey had expressed, girls for whom positive body image had been, at times, a struggle.

      “Yeah, I’ve never really had…” Sophie commenced, but perhaps sensing that her intended response would have sounded too vain, modestly attributed her confidence to her upbringing. “Growing up, and in school, I always had an amazing group of friends and an amazing family.”

Editorial layout in Myer Australia's ''Emporium'' magazine, Spring 2012

      The reply was, in fact, just what I had been hoping for, because it opened the door to a follow-up query about her school life. “See, that’s something I was going to ask you. What was your social standing in high school?”

      She knew immediately what I had in mind. “Was I popular?” she asked with a laugh.

      “Yes!” She had read my thoughts. We both had in mind the tropes of high-school films, with their popular cliques and outcast groups. These movies were familiar to every young person in the English-speaking world.

      “Well, I think Australia is quite different,” Sophie speculated. “In terms of American movies, you see different groups.”

      “That’s right.”

      “I mean, I went to an all-girl private school, so—”

      ”Really?” My ears perked up at this. Had Sophie Sheppard, the most gorgeous of plus-size models, possibly been the queen bee at an elite, all-girl private school? It fit in perfectly with her poised, aristocratic character. A multitude of fantasies came to mind, fuelled by my own Catholic-school upbringing, as well as thoughts of the pulchritudinous Blair Warner on The Facts of Life.

      I had to ask the irresistible question: “Did you have a uniform?”

      Laughing, she disclosed, “Yeah, we had uniforms.”

Test photograph by Natalia Ilina

      “Are there pictures of you in one?” I blurted out, then quickly backtracked with a dismissive, “I’m just kidding,” in case it seemed too obsessive a question to ask.

      [AUDIO] “I always had a fantastic group of friends. I was one of the people who was friends with everyone in my year, and I still am,” Sophie shared. My picture of the model as the reigning Miss Popularity of her school was being confirmed. “So many of my friends, even today, are my school friends. All of them are my school friends. Yeah, I had a fantastic school time. I was a captain in school, and just… I loved school.”

      “All the other girls wished that they could have been you,” I suggested.

      “No, nothing quite like that!” she avowed. “But yeah, I had a great school life.”

      It struck me how diametrically opposed this account was to the pictures that Kelsey and Lindsey had painted of their high-school experiences, which had been as unfavourable as Sophie’s was positive. All three girls were curvaceous and beautiful, yet they had come away with vastly different impressions of school.

      I was very curious as to how she would respond to my next question, which, I hoped, would determine why her school experience had been so favourable. “In that environment, growing up in high school, were you consciously aware of being attractive? You know what I have I mind. Did people respond to you aesthetically?”

      [AUDIO] Sophie’s answer was careful and measured, but sincere. “Obviously I was curvy all through school and everything. I don’t know. I think school… There’s a lot of pressure on girls who are in school to look a certain way or be a certain way. I mean, I never really experienced any of that pressure. I always sort of was confident with myself. But, yeah, I was happy with the way I was in school. I had lots of friends, and I was good friends with lots of guys, and I just sort of got along with everyone. I’ve never really sort of thought, ‘Oh, I’m great looking.’ I don’t think anyone walks around thinking, ‘I’m amazing looking.’”

      “Well if you don’t, then no one should,” I quipped.

      She chuckled at that. “Yeah, no one really walks around thinking, ‘I’m so great, I’m so great.’ So I guess that, like I said before, sometimes you have off days, and you think, ‘Oh, God, I need a paper bag,’ and other days, you’ll be, ‘Yeah!’ You know?”

Modelling for Galeria Kaufhof, Fall 2011

      The answer spoke volumes. It was as if, for one moment, I was receiving genuine insight into the mindset of someone who had gone through the high-school experience as an the quintessential queen bee, the girl whom everyone wanted to be—or at least befriend. The reality couldn’t have been more different from American film clichés. Sophie was gracious, and while modest, it was the modesty of magnanimity, not the humility of lingering self-doubt.

      To further explore Sophie’s awareness of her own allure, I began my next question with a gentle imperative: “You have to answer this. What would you say is the most attractive aspect of your appearance?”

      “Of my appearance? Oh, God, I don’t know.”

      I knew it would take a moment for her to acknowledge her own beauty. “What?” I gently prodded her.

      [AUDIO] “I don’t know. I like… I like my hair. I’ve always had thick hair. Yeah, I have always had a lot, a lot of thick, blonde hair, so that’s been such a huge asset.” As she continued speaking, she quickly warmed to the topic. “I’ve never needed extensions, or I’ve never needed anything like that, so I’m all real. Everything’s real. So, yeah, I love my hair. I like my lips. I like having a ‘trout pout,’” she said with a laugh, then added another comment, which she subsequently retracted.

      “This is my favourite question,” I sighed, putting my head in my hands, lost in reverie. “You can keep going.”

      “I don’t know,” she claimed, a little flustered. “That’s it. I don’t know.”

      “See?” I remarked, grinning, wanting to put her at ease. “This is the kind of question that you only get from the Judgment of Paris.”

      “I know,” she exhaled, pleased that I was letting her off the hook and not pressing the matter. “I’m, like, ‘Oh, no.’”

      “Okay I’m going to ask a follow-up to a question that you answered for Vogue Italia—and your response to this Vogue question may have been the most wonderful reply that any plus-size model has ever given to any question that has been ever asked of her in any interview. My question is, ‘Are you a gourmand?’ Their question was ‘What’s your favourite food?’

''Vogue Italia'' (Italian Vogue) video, July 2011; click to play

      Sophie began laughing, knowing full well to which answer I was alluding.

      “Pause, pause, pause,” I uttered, as if building up tension for a dramatic reveal.

      “Chocolate!” she sang out, quoting her own answer.

      “Oh!” It was music to my earns.

      Laughing merrily, Sophie recollected: “I didn’t know. I was like sitting there with Vogue, and I thought, ‘What do you say to something like this?’”

      “Do you recognize how perfect that answer is?” I pressed her. “I realize that it was a genuine response, but it couldn’t have been more perfect it had been scripted. You do realize why, don’t you? It’s so encouraging for young girls to hear a beautiful plus-size model in Vogue saying that she loves chocolate. Do you see how that overturns the stigma that curvy girls have about enjoying food?”

      [AUDIO] “I know. Well, I think people who say, ‘My favourite food is lettuce,’ are lying. Are lying!” she repeated for emphasis. “I know they’re lying. But who doesn’t like chocolate? Every girl loves chocolate, and if you would be stranded on an island with one thing, you would take chocolate. Obviously I don’t eat chocolate for every meal, but I do love chocolate.”

      Her answer had been so wonderful that I was practically ready to swoon. (As it turned out, it also provided a wonderful next-day coda to the interview.) Sophie chuckled at my delight.

Modelling for Galeria Kaufhof, Fall 2011

      “And now we come to my own question for you on the same topic. Are you, in fact, a gourmand? Do you enjoy food?” I was dying to hear her answer, and Sophie did not disappoint.

      [AUDIO] “I do. Actually, I really enjoy food, and I enjoy being able to travel with my job and being able to travel for six months. I really enjoyed trying different cuisines and… Yeah, I do. I love food. I cook when I’m home, me and my housemates cook. And I love Japanese food. There’s a lot of that in Australia, so I love that.”

      I was in sheer ecstasy. Sophie’s comments were better than any fictional account I could have created. The reference to her housemates expanded the princess fantasy that I had been weaving around her, and I confessed aloud that I was forming a mental picture of her sitting on a sofa while they fed her the richest delicacies.

      “Nothing quite like that,” she admitted with a laugh, to which I reiterated that the idea was a product of my fondest imagination.

      At this point, Anna Scholz, who had been sitting a table away, asked if she could interrupt. I had previously requested an interview with the designer, but the Sophie interview had absorbed my full attention, and Ms. Scholz commented that she would soon need to depart.

      I did, however, take the opportunity to thank Anna for recruiting Miss Sheppard for her runway show and forthcoming spring campaign.

      “Sophie is such a lovely lady,” Ms. Scholz enthused. I told her excitedly how much publicity Anna Scholz would get with Sophie in a campaign.

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      “Is it only pictures of Sophie, then, that you got obsessed with or love?” she wryly asked.

      “Well, tonight you had a runway show just with Sophie,” I deadpanned. “At least that’s what I saw.”

      Miss Sheppard could hardly endorse my singularity of focus, even in jest. “No, all the girls looked stunning tonight!” she exclaimed.”They looked amazing.”

      “That’s true. All the Sophies looked amazing,” I said with a straight face. It earned a chuckle from both ladies, but I didn’t want to extend the joke past its lifespan. I told Ms. Scholz how eagerly everyone was looking forward to the photos, and chided her for the endless months that fans had to wait before the images would emerge.

      “I have to wait,” Sophie lamented. “And I’m in the pictures.”

      “We all have to wait,” Ms. Scholz pointed out. “Unfortunately, it’s always a bit secretive.”

Walking the runway for Anna Scholz at ''Curves in Couture''

      I knew that my time with Miss Sheppard was precious, but I had to ask the designer what she thought of Sophie’s appearance, in her dress, on the Curves in Couture runway.

      [AUDIO] “I think she looked gorgeous and curvaceous and beautiful, as always,” Ms. Scholz gauged. “She’s a fantastic role model for us, definitely.”

      Remembering the designer’s past laments about the lack of authentically full-figured models, I asked her, “Isn’t it wonderful to finally have, not just the most gorgeous plus-size model in your clothing, but one who is genuinely curvaceous as well?”

      “And a sweet personality, you know,” Ms. Scholz reminded me. “That helps.”

      But I refused to veer off the point. “Because you have tweeted before—I know, because I re-tweeted your tweet—about the lack of fuller figured plus-size models.”

      [AUDIO] “Absolutely. Absolutely,” the designer acknowledged. “I know my customers completely…respond really well to women who are properly curvy. They get really upset if I use girls who go too thin.”

      “With justification, wouldn't you say?” I pressed her.

      “I’m always trying to find somebody who actually carries their curves in such a beautiful way,” Anna cooed, putting a loving, exaggerated stress on the word “beautiful” while physically embracing Sophie. They both began laughing.

      “It was so worth coming to England,” I sighed, which generated even more good-spirited laughter on their part.

      “Did you enjoy yourself?” Ms. Scholz asked.

      “This is a dream,” I rambled. “I’m going to wake up in a few moments and realize, ‘Ooh, that couldn’t really have happened.’”

      To this, Sophie and Anna breathed an ever-so-cute “Awwww” in perfect unison, as if it were a scene in a television program. Both laughed at the serendipitous timing.

Test photograph by Natalia Ilina

      “And you know, she is such a nice person too,” Ms. Scholz added. “It’s not only about the looks, but it’s the woman behind it.”

      I told the designer how much I hoped she would book Sophie again, and even joked about going half-and-half with her on the modelling fee—then quickly felt compelled to add, “I’m kidding,” lest my proposal be taken seriously.

      Both ladies chuckled, and Anna added, “You can sponsor her anytime.”

      “Yeah. Feel free to sponsor me whenever,” Sophie chimed in, a little too emphatically for comfort. “I’m just joking!” she quickly added, upon seeing my look of astonishment. She had gotten the better of me.

      “See, you pretend to be this nice girl,” I facetiously scolded her, “but really—”

      ”Money hungry,” she completed the thought, smiling.

      “Well, you know, business sense is very sexy,” Ms Scholz ventured. “I’m there to make money and sell my clothes too. But I can enjoy and love what I do, and I love dressing curvy girls to make them feel beautiful. ”

      It was a pleasure to be holding this two-on-one interview, but I was becoming concerned about how much time I had left, given how many questions I still wished to put to Miss Sheppard. Seeing my restlessness, Anna sardonically commented, “But I know Sophie is much more important than I am.”

      “No! You’re the designer,” Sophie quickly interposed. “If it wasn’t for you—!”

      “I knew she would take up a lot more of your time,” Ms. Scholz continued.

      “I’m only in England a few minutes!” I pleaded with her, then shifted back to a more serious tone. “But really, congratulations on the fantastic show. And I love the fact that you gave Sophie a form-fitting dress, not a sack.”

Modelling for Anna Scholz, Spring 2012

      “No, we are all about enhancing curves,” Ms. Scholz avowed.

      “No one wants to wear a sack, no matter what size you are,” Sophie seconded. “And that’s what’s so great about Anna’s clothes. They’re fitted. They show off your cleavage; they show off your hips; they show off your waist.”

      I was thrilled to hear Miss Sheppard speaking so enthusiastically about wearing attire that embraced her figure. Given the amount of black that she wore, and the fact that her tests were not universally figure-revealing, I had gone into the interview wondering how well developed her body confidence actually was. But her assertions and demeanour throughout the interview had reassured me that she genuinely embraced her curves and was proud of her figure.

      Anna’s parting comment, as she took her leave of us, was delightfully witty, but embarrassed me a little as well. “Anyway, I will let you two lovebirds get along,” she mischievously quipped. “Thank you so much for coming.”

      Only my certainty that Sophie was under no illusions that I considered myself in her league prevented me from breaking out into apologetics. But I tried to retain a cool, collected manner as I congratulated Ms. Scholz once again on the success of her show and told her what a pleasure it has been to meet her.

      “Lovely to meet you,” she responded, as she went on her way.

      “She’s great,” Sophie affirmed as Anna departed. “I had a lot of fun working with her.”

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      Though the two of us were still hardly alone—we were still surrounded by half the working plus-size models in London, not to mention all three of Sophie’s Milk agents—the designer’s exit gave our conversation the illusion of intimacy, so I took the opportunity to pose a few questions intended to flesh out her personality.

      “What do you like to do in your spare time? I know you enjoy romantic comedies.” Sophie had expressed this preference during her Vogue Italia video.

      “I love watching movies. I go out for a coffee and just hang out,” she related. “I talk to my family. When I’m back in Australia, I hang out a lot with my family. Over here I just hang out, have fun.”

      Earlier, Sophie had mentioned how supportive her family was of her career and of her curvy identity, so I wasn’t surprised to find that the Sheppards were close-knit. However, I still wished to know more about her body image and how it related to her fashion choices, so I followed up on another comment that she had made to Vogue.

Test photograph by Natalia Ilina

      “You mentioned that when selecting clothes, you don’t so much follow the trends as what suits you and your body shape. So what do you think suits your body shape?”

      “Like I said before, I don’t wear sacks,” she maintained. “I mean, no one wants to wear a sack, no matter if you’re a size 8.”

      “Unfortunately, some women do, though.” How I wished that Sophie’s confidence was shared by all full-figured women. “Some women suffer from such body shame—”

      ”That’s what I am saying,” she rejoined. [AUDIO] “And that’s so sad. I mean, I think there’s nothing… You shouldn’t hide your body in a sack, no matter what size you are, and there are so many amazing clothes out there. Anna’s brand is available to full-figured women of so many different sizes. And they show off your cleavage, they show off your waist, they show off your hips. That’s fashion. I wear a lot of jackets, a lot of blazers, that kind of thing, so I might wear something form-fitting with a different something…”

      Recalling the sensation that Miss Sheppard’s portrait in white had caused, with her sleeveless top baring her full arms, I had to inquire about her feelings regarding this aspect of her figure. “Are you completely okay with…” I began, but interrupted myself to first provide the basis for the question. “And this a big issue for some women (needlessly so), which is why it has become something of an agenda for the Judgment of Paris.” Finishing the setup, I completed the question: “Are you okay with sleeveless?”

      “Sleeveless?”

      “Yes.”

      “Yeah,” she attested with a chuckle.

      “Good. Good, because again, many women are very self-conscious.”

      “Oh, I know,” she concurred. “And still sometimes, I am like that. I wear—”

Walking the runway for Jill Alexander at ''Curves in Couture''

      My look of dismay stopped her short. I’d hoped that her confidence was rock-solid and impregnable.

      “I’m telling you the truth!” she vociferated. I acknowledged that it was better that she did so than if she were to make false claims of complete self-assurance. “Sometimes I wear blazers, and I love different fashions, different dresses. But I wore Jill Alexander’s dress today, which was above the knee and sleeveless, and I had no issues.”

      I quickly jumped ahead in my notes, hoping to cover as many topics as possible in the time allotted. I recalled a particular issue that had worried me, in terms of Sophie’s career advancement. “From a model’s perspective, how would you compare the Australian plus-size industry to the British and German industries?” Before I let her answer, I provided some background as to the nature of the query. “When you appeared on the Milk board, I was delighted but concerned, because I thought, ‘Britain is conditioned to accept nothing but faux-plus models, which leaves you in this abattoir where they are going to grind you up, and you are going to emerge a size 6. That, or you’ll simply never work.’ (Yet, much to my delight, you have worked.) But how would you characterize the difference in the industries?” With a grin, I added, “Or are you just so good that the usual strictures don’t apply to you?”

      “No. Oh, my Gosh, no,” she modestly denied. “I think I didn’t work a lot in Australia. I mean, I worked, but not a lot. So I found the British… I’ve got a lot of work since I’ve been here. So I think the fashion industry changes.”

      I could see that Miss Sheppard had more to say on the topic. However, at this point, her friend Harriet—who had pointed to her watch on numerous occasions throughout the interview—made it quite clear that it was time to go. I realized with dismay that in the course of interviewing Sophie, I had indeed been holding up everyone else’s evening, for the girls clearly intended to depart as a group.

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      “She hates me,” I muttered, as Harriet moved away. “I’m sorry.”

      “No,” Sophie kindly began, but she was obviously feeling the pressure from her peers.

      “I truly apologize,” I repeated. “I only have a few more questions.” Actually, I had many more, but the clock was unmistakably ticking.

      “He’s just got a few more,” Sophie relayed to another lady who looked in on us.

      Amazed at the number of people whose evenings were being impacted by the interview, I bemoaned, “Oh, they hate me. They all hate me.”

      “That’s Sarah, my other agent,” Sophie identified.

      Though the agent was now out of earshot, I half-heartedly called out, “I’m trying to get her work. I swear. Please forgive me.”

A shoot for Perth's ''Sunday Times'' newspaper dated March 24th, 2012; click to play

      “I appreciate this,” Sophie reaffirmed, as a way of mollifying my concerns. “Thank you so much.”

      It was very gracious of her to say so. “I appreciate your patience,” I responded, then promised to pose just two more questions.

      “Do you feel that images of gorgeous and generally full-figured plus-size girls can undo some of the damage that the minus-size industry does to women’s self-esteem? Because many studies indicate that women do develop eating disorders from seeing a non-stop barrage of anorexic models, so can images of gorgeous plus-size models undo this damage?”

      “Well, I hope so,” she speculated. “I mean, I hope we can, if not undo, then just sort of try to improve ideas. I think that’s what it is. Straight-size models are always going to be there. That’s fashion, and they’re going to be there. It’s more letting people know that you can be beautiful and be over a size 6. And that’s the great thing about our job, is that we’re hearing good stories from people all the time, who really appreciate the work we do, and really love seeing girls like themselves in the magazines and in the catalogues. So I think it’s a good thing. And beauty can be at any size. It really doesn’t stop at a size 16.”

      “Last question here,” I promised her. I intended to conclude with my core query, the question that I inevitably put to everyone whom I interviewed. In retrospect, however, I wished that I had posed it earlier in the evening, when the time pressure hadn’t been so onerous, so that Sophie would have had a more leisurely opportunity to formulate a thoughtful response. “Why does the media resist plus-size beauty?”

Editorial layout for ''Vogue Italia'' (Italian Vogue) magazine, July 2011 issue

      “I don’t know,” she admitted. “Some may believe that plus-size promotes obesity, and as I said, it’s nothing to do with that. I think that the fashion industry is starting to come around, a little bit. Shows like this help publicity. Vogue having Vogue Curvy…”

      Sophie’s friends were back. There was no way around it: the end had come. Or so I thought.

      “Thank you very much,” I said—and meant it.

      “No problem. Thank you.”

      “Are you done, Sophie?” Harriet interjected. She looked quite relieved when Sophie answered, “Yes.”

      “I’m sorry,” I whispered once more.

      “No. Thank you!” Sophie exclaimed quite earnestly. “Thank you so much for coming.”

      “It was a great pleasure to meet you,” I told her. “Thank you for this interview.”

      “No worries,” she replied, leaving me delighted to hear a quintessentially Australian phrase escape Sophie’s lips.

      “Good luck with your career,” I offered. Though sincere, it seemed an inadequate statement. I hoped she realized how many people around the world earnestly wished for her success.

      “Thank you so much for everything,” she repeated.

      And then she was gone.

* * *

      Even as Sophie and the other models departed, I noticed that Anna Shillinglaw, Sophie’s mindful agent, was still nearby. I inquired whether I could ask her a few quick questions, and she happily consented.

      I began by complimenting Milk for representing, in Sophie, a genuinely full-figured model.

      [AUDIO] “It’s good, on your board, to handle different sizes, and it’s really good to have girls who are Sophie’s size, because some clients want one thing, some clients wants another, and it fluctuates,” Anna explained. “It’s good to have a variation of sizes. It’s good to represent… Because there are women who are Sophie’s size, a U.K. 18, but there are also women who are a size 12, 14, 16, so we need to represent all those sizes.”

Test photography by Julian Marshall

      I was tempted to ask where, then, were the models who represented women larger than Sophie, above a British size 18. But it seemed ungracious to do so. Instead, I shared with Anna my initial fears about Sophie’s prospects in England, given the U.K.’s notorious preference for faux plus-size models. “Historically,” I reminded her, “the British industry has been even worse about accepting fuller sizes than the American industry.”

      [AUDIO] “Oh, they are worse,” Anna confirmed. “A lot of the sample sizes are smaller, and that is very frustrating for us as an agent, because there’s only so much that we can do, in a way. And I literally sent [Sophie’s] Polaroids—(She hadn’t even done a test.)—I sent her Polaroids to Marlena at Italian Vogue, and she immediately e-mailed back, and then we booked her on that, and I thought, ‘Yes! Someone sees what I see!’ But I wish I could do so much more with her, but sometimes it’s not our fault. It’s literally the samples. And it’s really annoying, because look at how amazing she is. She should be doing so much more, but it’s just difficult. It’s frustrating, because she is incredible. She just did a great test with Julian Marshall. The new pictures are on the Web site. And I just mailed them out to all the clients again, saying, ‘Hello. Look at this girl. She’s so great.’”

      I thanked Anna for her comments, and as the enterprising agent took her leave of me, I thought that my night’s festivities were surely over.

      I felt very privileged to have interviewed Miss Sheppard and thankful that she has resisted the pressure of her friends to depart early, instead lingering for a full hour to answer my questions. I regretted missing out on a longer interview and rued the fact that I hadn’t make better arrangements beforehand. But the discussion had been wonderful. Between seeing Sophie on the runway and meeting her in person, I felt very happy and fulfilled.

Quote

      But as it turned out, my evening was not yet over after all.

      As I was putting away my notes, Ms. Shillinglaw approached me and asked if I wished to join them. And by “them,” I assumed that she meant herself and the two other bookers from Milk Management.

      “Are you sure?” I felt quite honoured by the invitation. She responded with a yes.

      I quickly packed up my notes and went outside, where I discovered everyone congregated in a group, trying to determine where they would go next. Not only were Sophie’s agents present, but so was Sophie herself, her friend Harriet, Lizzie Miller…indeed, practically every girl who had walked in the show.

      To my amazement, I was going to be being taken out on the town with half of the plus-size models in London.

Test photograph by Rene August

      My delight was tempered with an element of concern. I hoped that the agents had informed everyone that I had been expressly invited. I didn’t want to create the impression that I was tagging along on my own initiative. I tried to work in the phrase, “I was invited to come along,” whenever I began a conversation with any of the models, just to make sure.

      After my initial surprise wore off, and as I listened in on the girls’ conversations, it occurred to me how…normal they were. Sophie, due to her astounding beauty, still stood out as an immortal goddess, and her exceptional polish and refinement were very much in evidence, even amid her peers. Otherwise, I reflected that if these girls hadn’t been familiar to me from countless advertisements and photographs, and if I had only bumped into them at random, with no foreknowledge of who they were, they would have seemed like entirely typical young women, perhaps only a bit taller than the norm and rather more stylishly dressed. From their boots to their jeans to their jackets, their outfits were almost universally black. For her part, Lizzie Miller wore camouflage pants.

      The debate among the models as to where to go next continued apace. There was talk of a pub—and in retrospect, if that had been the choice, the evening might have ended well. But several of the girls mentioned that M.O.D. had announced an official afterparty at a locale called the Queensberry Club, so that became the target destination.

      The group divided itself into taxi-fulls of five or six apiece, and to my amazement, I found myself sharing a cab with Sophie, her friend Harriet, Lizzie Miller, and another model from the show. The conversation during the ride to the Queensberry Club consisted of amusing anecdotes about the evening’s proceedings. Harriet bemoaned how the audience had gasped when she made a misstep on the runway. I asked if there had been any pre-show practice runs. The girls laughed, and Sophie mentioned that while there had been some trial walks, the organizers “kept changing the choreography.” The girls also mentioned that the catwalk had been a tad uneven, and that they had been expressly instructed to avoid a specific spot on the runway as a trip hazard.

      These indiscreet examples of “shop talk” greatly enriched my appreciation of the models’ efforts and abilities

Test photograph by Natalia Ilina

      At last, after some meandering around town, we found our way to Queensberry Club. I covered the cab fare—which was the least I could do, given that I had held up everyone’s evening. We then proceeded down a dark flight of stairs into the venue, where I discovered that I had entered the ninth circle of hell.

      Indeed, the horrors of the underworld would have been mild compared to the nightmarish locale in which I found myself. Far from being the posh, quiet setting that I had hoped it would be, the Queensberry Club turned out to be nothing more than a modern dance club, complete with dingy lighting and an all-black décor. All too well did I remember such soul-destroying dens of iniquity from my undergrad days—dark dungeons in which the intolerable modern noise that is ludicrously termed “music” blares out from gargantuan speakers at deafening volumes, making it utterly impossible to talk, think, or exist without suffering acute physical pain.

      Even in the midst of this agonizing assault on my senses, I couldn’t help but remark on the savage irony of the situation: being in the company of Sophie Sheppard and a host of other plus-size models might have seemed, on paper, to have been the very definition of heaven for someone such as myself, and yet I had found myself in the most unbearable environment imaginable, the very apogee of the modern world that I loathed so much. In this torture chamber, I was assaulted by precisely the kind of drumbeat-driven primitive racket that I found intolerable at any volume, let alone at a decibel level that could burst one’s eardrums. It was my own Room 101, and Miss Sheppard’s presence didn’t mollify its horrors one iota.

Quote

      At one point, yelling to make myself heard over the speakers, I asked Sophie if she wanted something to drink—knowing that, dehydrated as I was, she must be thirstier still. She declined, whereupon I realized that she probably thought that I was offering her alcohol, which she would have been right to refuse. “Water,” I specified, and she kindly accepted.

      Apart from that one exchange, there was no point in even attempting to chat with Miss Sheppard, or with anyone else, for that matter. The models formed a group on the dance floor, and communication of any kind was impossible, given the excruciating volume of the noise that was grinding my hearing into oblivion. I tried to stay out of the speakers’ direct line of fire by sitting at one of a series of booths along the wall, where the models had left their coats in the company of their de facto den mother, one of the agents from Milk. Here too, though, sensible conversation was impossible.

      Afflicted though I was, I did take a moment to marvel at the sight of Sophie moving in a fluid, sinuous manner on the dance floor. Like all plus-size goddesses, in a tradition stretching back to accounts of Aphrodite herself, Miss Sheppard had a natural affinity for dance. On my forum, I had often remarked on this phenomenon. It had something to do with being physical and sensual, with deriving pleasure from one’s own body. It was a quintessentially womanly quality, and just as full-figured models were particularly feminine in their penchant for self-indulgence, so were they beholden to their bodies in their love of the sensual, physical movements of dance.

Test photograph by Rene August

      I also reflected, once more, on how Sophie resembled an elegant young lady of the 18th century, though transported to the modern age and acclimatized to our own time. In another era, she would have enjoyed minuets or waltzes, whereas in this day and age, she danced in a modern fashion. Yet even in this present-day context, she still preserved a level of elegance and sophistication and poise, avoiding the vulgar motions that commonly demean dance-club partying, simply moving her body to the rhythm in a sensual, languid manner.

      That lone moment’s reflection barely justified the half-hour that I spent in this, my own personal hell. Anna Shillinglaw dropped in for a brief time, then sensibly departed, and when she did, I figured that it was time for me to abscond as well. After all, my invitation to join in the evening’s festivities had come from her, and with Anna gone, I felt that my licence for being among the models had expired.

      There was no point in formally taking my leave, as Sophie and I had said our goodbyes after the interview. I collected my trenchcoat from the cloakroom and strolled off into the blessed silence of the London night.

      Riding the last tube of the night back to Notting Hill Gate, I realized that I shouldn’t rue the disappointing conclusion of the evening. I could still look back on having seen Miss Sheppard walk the runway in gorgeous, form-fitting dresses, and on having personally met Sophie and gazed upon her beauty. More importantly, I had been privileged to conduct an interview with her, which had touched on a multiplicity of topics both professional and personal. All in all, it had been a dream come true.

* * *

      If the Curves in Couture show constituted the ultimate mortal experience of Beauty, then the next day of my London visit offered the crowning experience of the Sublime, in the form of the unprecedented, once-in-a-lifetime Tate Gallery exhibition of the work of John Martin, the greatest of all Romantic painters and the supreme master of the Sublime in visual art.

Modelling for Anna Scholz, Spring 2012

      However, the day also include a coda to the previous evening’s festivities. Given that I owed the entire experience—the interview and the night on the town—to Anna, Sophie’s agent at Milk, I pondered long and hard over a suitable manner in which to thank her. I strolled the shops of Notting Hill looking for a boutique that might assemble a fruit basket or something of that nature. Then, in a flash of insight, I realized what the most appropriate gift would be.

      A tube ride took me to Piccadilly Circus and the central Godiva Chocolate shop in London, where I had the clerk put together a massive coffer filled with samples of every kind of confectionary that the company offered. The receptacle was at least as copious as a large hatbox, and it was filled to the brim with chocolate treats of every description.

      It was late afternoon by the time I made it to the offices of Milk Management, but thanks to the splendidly frantic driving of a London cabbie, I arrived in advance of closing time, and handed the enormous bin of sweet treats to one of Sophie’s agents.

      In an accompanying note, I thanked Anna for facilitating the interview, and mentioned that the present was both an expression of gratitude for the previous night and an apology to her entire board for delaying their partying. I also noted that the gift was a bit of an in joke, which Sophie was sure to get, based on comments that she had made during the interview. (“Every girl loves chocolate,” she had said, “and if you would be stranded on an island with one thing, you would take chocolate.”) And while Sophie may have stipulated that she didn’t eat chocolate at every meal, it pleased me to think that, given the size of the Godiva box that I had presented to Milk, if she had wanted to, she could have, and for a good, long while.

* * *

      Apart from the unfortunate episode in the Queensberry Club, the experience of meeting plus-size model Sophie Sheppard had been a fantasy made real. I had discovered that, yes, Sophie is breathtakingly beautiful, in a way that staggers belief. I had also learned that she is authentically curvy, more than the majority of her images disclose, and that her goddesslike measurements are accurately given.

Modelling for Ann Harvey, Spring 2012

      However, before meeting Miss Sheppard, I’d had no idea of the nature of her personality. As it happily turned out, she was an elegant, sophisticated young lady, mature beyond her years, who was certainly fun-loving, but exuded remarkable poise and class. Furthermore, it was the first time that I had ever met a plus-size model who, in her teen years, had embodied the Miss Popularity archetype so familiar from American popular culture. Yet in Sophie’s case, this meant someone who was refined and polished, yet vibrant and charming as well. Morever, she was kind and thoughtful, as evidenced by the fact that she had patiently allowed a full hour’s interview to proceed, even though it had delayed her night on the town. Miss Sheppard’s beauty, far from being skin deep, went right to the heart.

      In advance of the interview, I had already determined that Sophie was an ideal plus-size model in terms of her physical appearance, in that she was youthful, gorgeous, and genuinely full-figured. However, our discussion had also demonstrated to me that she would be an excellent spokesmodel for her industry and an outstanding role model for curvy girls of all ages.

      I looked forward to the day when the world would be treated to more of her timeless beauty.



Sophie Sheppard Gallery

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