Tracie Stern is changing plus-size modelling—and she isn’t waiting for permission.
by Heinrich Saint-Germain
I am suspicious, of course. Could the message have actually come from Tracie Stern? Plus-size supermodel, Irene Marie’s shining star, the face of August Max Woman, cover girl for Ulla Popken, J.C. Penney, and many international clients—could she actually have written to me? I have my doubts, but if there is even a chance of this being genuine, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up.
The meeting is set for three o’clock, and I walk through the door precisely at three. Tea time. The café is empty except for a bored-looking waitress, and…three people off to my right.
There is a man, thirtyish, as well as a woman of indeterminate age. And her.
A shiver runs up my spine.
It’s really her. It’s Tracie Stern.
She gets up from the table, shakes my hand, and asks me if ‘HSG’ is my real name.
“No,” I admit readily, and reveal my true identity. There will be no dissembling with her.
I sit at the table opposite her, and in an instant I realize that everything I have ever said about plus-size models is true—about their being living goddesses, classical beauties, the kind of women who, in another time, inspired the creation of great works of art. Her hair, a pure natural blonde, would have compelled a Renaissance poet to compose a sonnet comparing it to spun gold. Her skin is more perfect than any I have ever seen. It’s as smooth as a baby’s, but tanned like an athlete’s. The makeup, if she has any, is invisible. There is not a single line in the face. What kind of human being looks like this?
Even as I am marvelling at her appearance, I am keenly aware of her companions, especially the man sitting at the table to my right. I nod in his direction and ask, “Bodyguard?”
She smiles, and says, “A friend.” He looks as impassive as one of the Royal Guards at Buckingham Palace. Did I just see him flex his neck muscles?
I make a mental note to avoid any sudden gestures.
At first, the conversation is a bit awkward. I am astonished to find that I am nervous. Then I remind myself that this is a woman who makes thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars per hour on a shoot. I have only a few moments here, and I had better make them count.
We begin by talking about her early career. I mention that I first remember seeing her in a campaign for a local plus-size clothing retailer some seven or eight years ago.
“Yes, I started my career in 1994. I was 21 at the time. You know—‘Oh how cute’.”
She smiles, and there it is—that famous Tracie Stern smile, the one that I have seen in so many August Max Woman images. It’s a smile that says, “All is right with the world.” It puts me at ease, even in this surreal moment, and I realize in a flash why she is the definitive catalogue model.
“Actually, I’ve been modelling since I was about five,” she reminisces. “I started in children’s clothing stores, and continued until age 13, when I joined the Air Cadets just as my brother had done three years earlier. Then I transferred into Army Cadets—”
She stops, seeing the look of astonishment on my face. “You were a cadet?” I ask.
“Sure. I joined to follow in my brother’s footsteps, and it came at a time when I was an extreme tomboy. Also, I was a big kid, about 150 lbs. at the age of 13, and the world had never heard of a plus-size model. I stayed in the Army Cadets until I was about 16 or so.”
My impression of her changes from Greek goddess to Nordic Valkyrie. I later ask a friend how to explain a “cadet” to an American audience, and I am told that it would be best call the cadets a co-ed boy scout organization, but with a military basis, rather like a junior army/air force, or a junior ROTC.
In other words, the last place you would expect to find a future supermodel.
I ask her the obvious question. “How in the world did you go from being an army cadet to modelling?”
“Well, I moved to Ottawa in ’92, and was attending university there, taking linguistics and Criminology, when—”
I have to stop her again. “Linguistics and criminology? That’s quite a mix.”
“Oh yes. My father was a Mountie, and I admired his career. I loved the life of a cop, and so I was studying to follow in his footsteps, hence the criminology courses.”
The bodyguard seems increasingly unnecessary. It occurs to me that Tracie could make short work of any “fan” who got out of line with her.
“And as for linguistics, I had just returned from a year as an exchange student in Sweden, and I had seen how people’s faces lit up when you could speak in their native tongue. I never wanted to experience the language barrier again. But while I was at university, a lot of people started asking me if I was a model, and telling me that I should be, because of my height. So I did a test—which I still have somewhere, with big eyebrows and multiple ear piercings!”
Another image. Punk Tracie. Aphrodite for Generation X. My preconceived picture of Tracie Stern as an embodiment of delicate feminine grace is beginning to fray at the edges.
“At that time, you usually needed to be a 16 or larger to do plus sizes,” she recalls, “but I took my test to an agency, and they offered me a contract on the spot. It took a while before I was comfortable with the fact that I was a plus-size model, as I had always envisioned myself as Barbie, but once I saw the reaction it produced, well, here I am today.”
I make a joke about Tracie inspiring the creation of a new “Air Cadet Barbie” doll, which gets a polite laugh. If Tonner ever makes a Tracie Stern doll to compliment their Emme doll and Sophie Doll, it will have to come with a unique set of accessories.
But if she did her first campaign at 21, then how, I marvel, could she still look so young? Sitting across the table from me, Tracie looks like a woman of twenty. I ask her to divulge the secret of her fountain of youth.
“My family has good genes.”
“Are you sure that’s it? Or is this a Dorian Gray situation?”
“You mean, is there a tear sheet somewhere getting old and wrinkled while I stay the same age? I hope not!” she says with a laugh.
She knows the reference. That does it. I can no longer be objective about her. I have become a full-fledged Tracie Stern fan for life.
While I am realizing this, Tracie makes a motion to remove her jacket. Crisis time. What do I do? I can hear my mother’s voice telling me to be a gentleman, for heaven’s sake, and help her with her coat. But then I cast a glance at Tracie’s stone-faced “friend,” who hasn’t budged an inch since the conversation began, except for the neck flexing. I wonder how many techniques he knows for disabling opponents with one blow. I decide to sit very still, keep my hands on the table, and wait for Tracie to take her jacket off by herself.
The conversation turns to the events of the past few months. I mention how surprised everyone was to hear that Ricardo Alfonso retired, and that she then moved to Elite Miami, after having been the jewel in the crown at Irene Marie for many seasons.
“When Ricardo retired, the industry lost an amazing booker. But Ricardo is one of my best friends, so we continue to talk on a regular basis.” [NOTE: Tracie has recently returned to Irene Marie.]
“Did you have a chance to attend the Lane Bryant show in February?” I ask.
“They only used New York girls, but I ‘crashed’ it, as I like to say, with my agent, and with Kati Kochanski and Courtney Hanneman. The girls in the show came out from behind the band and walked, then returned, flirtin’ or rockin’ with the guys. It was like a Kiss concert with a bunch of half-naked, sexy women walking around. What more could you ask for?”
Several responses come to mind, each more perilous than the last. I keep them to myself.
“Backstage, I chatted with Kate Dillon,” she recollects. “I’ve known her for about five years, and she is still the most humble, sweet, and truly genuine person in this business, next to Barbara. After the show we crashed a Ford party at Serena at the Chelsea Hotel…”
Tracie notices how I start at the reference to Barbara Brickner. She goes on to tell me that Barbara is so beautiful in person that she can stop traffic in the street. Literally. (“I’ve seen her do it!”) And this makes me realize another quality of Tracie’s that I would never have believed of anyone, if I hadn’t witnessed it myself. She is incredibly generous when she speaks about other models’ talents and abilities. She is lavish in her praise for any girl of quality.
In May, Tracie went on an “exchange program” arranged by Elite Miami with the Australian Big Gals agency, shot for several high-end catalogue companies, and participated in the Sydney Fashion Week. According to Darrianne Donnelly, the director of the Big Gals agency, “When Tracie and Nat walked down the runway, the whole audience was on its feet, clapping and cheering!”
I ask Tracie what outfit yielded such a reaction, and her response is typically frank: “Tight, tight denim pants, and a pink, Moroccan sheer blouse. With nothing underneath.”
I am beginning to suspect that Tracie enjoys throwing me off track. She does it so effectively.
“On the way back from Australia,” she continues, after I can breathe again, “we stopped off for a little vacation in Hawaii. We enjoyed lots of dining, dancing, sunbathing, and even did a little drag racing.”
“Did you win?” I ask.
“Well, I don’t like to brag.” There’s that smile.
Now she seems like the jet-setting celebrity again. Or does she? Because all through this discussion, I haven’t been able to find a trace of pretense about her. When she travels, she probably checks into the poshest hotels and eats at the finest restaurants, but I have a feeling that she could just as easily be a backpacking student staying at a hostel, like the many adventurous free spirits I met during my European travels.
“We climbed Diamond Head, which is an extremely large hill and a little rough. It has about 150 stairs, not to mention the climb to the stairs, so I have buns of steel! Great for lingerie work.”
My teacup rattles in its saucer for some strange reason. I search for another neutral comment. “You must spend a lot of time away from home.”
“Yes, but I always make time for my family. For Easter, we had friends over for a traditional family dinner, complete with strawberry/pineapple shortcake. Home-made, I might add.”
This is too much. “Don’t tell me that on top of all your other talents, you cook as well?”
“Of course I do. I do my own laundry, too.”
“You do not!”
“Oh, sure. It helps keep things real. Besides,” and here I see her Cheshire grin again, “I could never trust someone with my laundry. Too personal.”
Once more, I find myself unaccountably befuddled. My tea has been steeping for a half-hour now, and I drink the whole cup of black tar at once, endeavouring to compose myself. But if Tracie notices my distracted state, she doesn’t mention it.
“Like I said, I grew up a tomboy” she reminds me. “A lot of the girls in the business are like that. And you really have to be, because you never know what conditions you’ll be shooting under. I mean, you’re lucky if you get a toilet on some jobs.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“My jobs for Quelle in Greece. One time we had a shoot three hours outside of Athens, so we got up at five in the morning, drove to the location, and discovered that it was a salt mine. And a salt mine is not catered to women. It is not catered to humanity. The only thing there, besides mountains and mountains of salt, is a little building with a bathroom which is basically a hole in the ground.”
“And this was someone’s bright idea to shoot there?” I ask. My own impulse would naturally have been to take the models to the Parthenon.
“Oh yeah, because when you photograph on salt, it photographs as snow.”
This elicits an “Ooooh” of amazement from me. I would never have thought to substitute salt for snow, but it makes perfect sense.
“And when you’re shooting off season,” she continues, ”unless they fly you to the mountains of Austria, and the cameras freeze, you’re not going to get that look. So they shoot at a salt mine, which gives the facade of snow. Mind you, it’s about forty-five degrees Celsius—a hundred and ten degrees Farenheit—outside, and you’re not supposed to sweat, and you have to open your eyes, even though there’s a blinding white glare everywhere around you. And you’re supposed to look happy about it.”
In a half-hour, Tracie has turned my outsider’s view of the modelling business upside-down. It doesn’t sound at all like I imagined it—a halcyon world populated by genteel young ladies creating images of idyllic beauty. It sounds more like a war zone. Perhaps the cadet training was a good modelling school after all.
But I don’t want to give up my idealized vision so easily. I mention to her that I’ve seen a change in her more recent work. Her expressions, I suggest, have evolved beyond “girl next door” looks, and are now more boldly sensual. I ask her if this reflects a new attitude on her part, or a change in the industry.
“Both,” she replies. “When I finished a recent shoot, I put on my clothes, with my personal taste, my sunglasses, my attitude, and the photographer looked at me and said, ‘This is what clients need to see. They need to see how you dress in real life, where you buy your clothes, because that’s the way more women need to learn to dress.’ I tend to shop in stores that carry junior lines in plus sizes, because those are the clothes that suit my personality.”
The reference to junior lines ties in with something I’ve noticed myself, and I remark on it. I suggest that the older generation of full-figured women appears to be more conservative in its attitude and attire generally, whereas the younger generation prefers clothes that are more fitted and feminine. Her attitude, I suggest, is ahead of her time, and puts her more in line with current tastes and sensibilities.
“Even when I was in my teens,” she asserts, “I wore midriff shirts, and I wore body-conscious clothes. And the older generation is more conservative, they’ve conformed to societal tastes. They’ve said, no, we can’t show our midriffs, or no, we can’t show our cleavage. But that’s changing.”
“And you’re helping to cause that change,” I tell her.
Tracie also mentions how some clients’ attitudes have evolved, taking the case of Vanity Fair Woman lingerie as an example. Tracie describes her first shoot for them as a “traditional, structured” affair. But for the next shoot, she says, “They kind of went, ‘Let’s do the hair a little bit tousled, which gives it more sexiness.’ And now, the most recent shoot I did for them, that was even more me. Without direction. They said, ‘Here’s the lingerie, here are the props, go for it.’ I’m anxious to see how those turned out. It was far sexier than what we did before. I felt sexy. They let me project it.”
The more I learn about Tracie Stern, the more I realize how aptly her official Web site is named. “Dangerous Curves.” Dangerous Tracie Stern. Its fits her to a…well, to a “T”.
I comment on the fact that while a few other plus-size models used the Web for promotional purposes before she did, she was the first to put her portfolio online; and more importantly, the first to include many test images that were far ahead of their time, and presented her in ways that must have shocked an industry that was still straitjacketed by its own conventions.
“Well, wait until you see the next site.” There is a glint in Tracie’s blue eyes that I haven’t seen there yet. It is more than determined. It is defiant.
“You know W magazine, the layouts that they use, where it’s very dark, and the model’s face is shadowed? That’s what we’re going for. The outfits are very editorial—slashed leather, high boots, Vaseline on my eyelids. Everything.”
I am sensing a theme here. I ask her how important that is to her—to be that “dangerous” pioneer, pushing the limits.
“I like to be the first,” she responds, and I can see that this question has tapped into the very essence of what makes her so unique. “I like to be the first in everything I do. Be it in a relationship, I like to be the first person to take you to a Lenny Kravitz concert, because you always remember your first. That’s how it is, in every aspect of your life. You’ll always remember your first job. You’ll always remember your first paycheque. You’ll always remember your first girlfriend. You’ll always remember your first car, your first apartment, your first catastrophe, your first kiss, losing your virginity. Everything in life, you’ll always remember your first. So why would I want to follow anyone, when I could be the first? You’ll always remember me.”
It’s true. Even in an profession that is controversial by its very nature, Tracie Stern is breaking new ground. My mind is swimming with questions, but I sense that the time is growing short, and I ask her how often she returns to Canada, now that Miami has become her adopted home.
“Hmmm. The last time I was back was a sad occasion. My grandfather had passed away, so I came back for the funeral and to help my mother.”
She shares with me some recollections about her grandfather, and then, something strange and totally unexpected happens. I forget that she is a world-famous model whose every minute is worth thousands of dollars. Suddenly, she is just a friendly, sympathetic person across the table, and I start doing all the talking. I tell her how my own grandmother, my Oma, had passed away at almost exactly the same time as her grandfather did, and how much her passing had affected me. The accumulated sorrow of losing many close family members in recent years pours out of me. This is the last thing I expected to be talking to a world-famous model about, but somehow, with Tracie, it seems…normal to do so.
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss.” she says. “From what I gather about your visits with your Grandmother, she has left her footprint in your sand. I truly believe that people come into our lives for a reason, to deliver a message, to teach us or be taught by us, or in the case of a life-long companion, to explore our inner workings. What your Grandmother shared with you, you will one day pass on, so you were very fortunate for the time you had, although you feel like you’ve missed out, she’s always there when you need her.”
Tracie tells me more to put me as peace with my loss in ten minutes than anyone in my life did at the time that my Oma died. I can’t make the woman-on-the-pedestal image fit anymore. Tracie is a real person, and more than that, she is genuinely compassionate. She has an optimistic world-view, not facile at all, but deeply felt, and informed by both love and loss. If she wasn’t a world-famous celebrity making incredible sums jetting around the world and being seen by millions, she could be a friend from my school days, sharing joy and grief. For a moment, I even forget to be in awe of her crystalline blue eyes.
Before she leaves, she pulls out a present for me from her capacious purse. She gives me a copy of her Elite composite card, which makes this the first time I have ever held a professional model’s comp in my hand. I wonder if she knows what this gift means to me, since I realize that it is not given in hopes of getting work, but as a gesture of friendship.
That evening, sitting at my computer desk, holding Tracie Stern’s comp card in my hand, it occurs to me how much more there is behind those blue eyes than I ever would have guessed.
I lean the comp card against the bust of Nietzsche that sits on my bookshelf, and one of the philospher’s most famous statements comes to mind: “The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment is—to live dangerously!” Tracie is the living proof of the truth of that statement. Moreover, no matter how many times her image is put on film, no camera will ever be able to capture her radiant inner beauty.
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