The Making Of A Plus-Size Model: Mahalia Handley On Breaking Boundaries And Being The Next Ashley Graham

Mahalia Handley has got goals. Starting with appearing in Vogue. “I was telling my agent that I’m getting in that book this year and she laughed. But, I was like ‘I’m not lying, its happening.’”

We don’t doubt it because so far everything the 23-year-old model has set her mind to has been ticked off the must-do list. From her dogged determination to break into the modelling industry despite an absence of curvy and mixed race role models paving her way, to being the first plus-size model to land a major ad campaign for Selfridges. It’s little wonder those ‘Next Ashley Graham’ comparisons have already been drawn, particularly as Mahalia shares Ashley’s fierce determination to normalise diversity in the fashion industry. “I’d just like to see us not even fighting to raise the issue of being diverse,” she says of the subject.

Until then, Mahalia will just keep spreading a little body positivity everywhere she goes. Oh and continuing on her path to world domination. She took time out of her busy schedule to give us a little bit of lifespo…

Never take no for an answer. I grew up in a small town in Australia called Darwin, its not really accessible to opportunities in the fashion industry. So at 18 I moved to Sydney to try and make it in modelling. I approached the agency, who now represent me, with about six photos I had in my pocket and just basically stalked them until they gave in and met me. It’s been kind of a work in progress ever since.

Push yourself out of your comfort zone. The Australian market was going progressively well for me, I did a lot of commercial work, which is where the money is but not where my heart was. It would have been easy to stay, but I decided to make the next move in my career I needed to make the big leap overseas to London. It was pretty daunting because I knew nobody here, but I love the vibe in London and how accepting it is of curve models and diversity. I’ve been here almost a year now and haven’t looked back.

Follow your dreams. I’ve wanted to model since I was little, but at school when we got asked what we wanted to be, I put down a completely different answer because I didn’t think I could aspire to being something like that. And there weren’t really any curvy models I could look up to. So I thought if I can’t see it, then I’ve got to kind of become it. When I started I always knew I was never going to be the girl who got picked because of my diversity and was always going to have to really fight and push the envelope on that.

Don’t let being different hold you back. When it comes to diversity in the model industry I feel like we’ve made such huge progress in a few short years. On social media and in magazines there are much more representations of different models which is great. Its definitely changing, but we’ve still got such a long way to go. I like to say that I’m challenging the fashion industry. It’s a bold statement to make, but there are some brands and designers who are ready to take on that ideal and push it out and hopefully they are looking for a strong candidate and I’ll put my hands up. Actually I wouldn’t put my hand up I’d probably barge in front.

Find your inner confidence. My body confidence didn’t settle in until I was about 20. From 16-20 I was literally every single different body shape. As a teenager you go all over the place with self-doubt and feeling like you have to do something about your body. But by the time I got to 20 I thought, well, my body is gonna be my body. I do wonder if I had grown up in an environment with more curve or body diversity would I have gotten to that place sooner.

Enjoy your success. Every time I’m on set I think ‘I cannot believe I’m here’. Every time I see a poster of myself or I read something on myself I feel proud. It’s such a confidence boost. The Selfridges campaign has been my proudest moment so far, but I’d love to shoot for High Street brands like New Look and River Island.

Inspire others. When I was younger I was bullied. It wasn’t always directed towards my weight, but it was an aspect of it. It gets to you, and that, and the lack of diversity in the media fuelled self-esteem issues. I remember looking in magazines and thinking I’m not beautiful because I don’t look like that. Growing up I didn’t feel like I had a crusader who was going to fight or at least represent my issues where I could say, look at this girl, she’s doing it. So, now, being that person for a younger generation is a big thing for me.

Don’t let haters get you down. When I was younger I probably would have read something nasty about myself and broke down. When I first started modelling I would read all the comments. But then I figured there is no point in giving myself this negative energy, because it’s only going to bring me down. Nowaways I just shrug it off because I understand that I’m never going to please everyone. I’ve seen comments where someone was angry because I was too big, and then another one where they say I’m too small. I see comments all the time complaining that ‘she’s not plus-size’ ‘she doesn’t do any exercise’ and I’m like you don’t know my daily routine, you’re making a judgement on a perceived image. It’s better to just shake it off because if I feed into that negative emotion then I’m never going to get anywhere with what I want to do.

Break down boundaries. I love being compared to Ashley Graham. She featured as the first plus size model on Sports Illustrated and is literally breaking down all sorts of barriers and that’s something I aspire to do too. I love the thought that I could be another upcoming model on the block who can take it on with her, like superheroes side by side.

Love who you are (and take labels with a pinch of salt!). I don’t like the term ‘plus size’ because I think when you put a label on anything it can bring negative connotations towards it. By definition anything from a UK size 10-12 is plus size, but they don’t brand that. It’s just the measurements per garment and that’s what plus size is, how many more cms is this from the other one? Really it’s got nothing to do with size and everything to do with cm. I would really like to see the term dropped. All size is beautiful should be the message that comes across. Acceptance of who you are is so important. A hashtag I like to use all the time is #healthnotsize and that’s what it is, acceptance of whoever it is. Yep they’re rocking it, they’re doing their thing.

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