SPIEGEL Interview With Plus-Size Model 'I Was Asking How Many Calories Chewing Gum Had'

She came out of small-town America and made it onto the pages of Vogue magazine. But as one German women's magazine declares that it will no longer use professional models, US model Crystal Renn tells SPIEGEL how she starved herself for success and why she is happy to be a plus-size specialist.

Model Crystal Renn was anorexic but now has a successful career as a plus-size model.

Model Crystal Renn was anorexic but now has a successful career as a plus-size model.

Best-selling German women's magazine Brigitte has announced that it will no longer be using "professional" models, arguing that they promote an unhealthy body image. Brigitte has vowed to employ "normal women" who do not necessarily conform to the fashion industry's skinny sized ideals. Plus-size model Crystal Renn, who recently wrote a book about the fashion industry, opens up about the pressure to stay thin and her own struggle with anorexia.

SPIEGEL: In your book "Hungry," you write about a girl from small town America who wanted to become a supermodel like Gisele Bündchen, who then became anorexic but who is now one of the most successful plus-sized models. Why did you write this book?

Crystal Renn: I want women to finally realize what they are doing when they hate their own bodies so much. I want women to realize that abusing your own body to the extent of malnourishment -- like I did -- just to conform to an ideal can actually be fatal. I was anorexic. I was in hell. Now I eat what I want, and I'm still a model. So you see, it works.

SPIEGEL: What was this hell like for you?

Renn: When I was 14 years old, a model scout told me I could be a supermodel like Gisele -- but only if I lost at least 40 percent of my current weight. So I decided, "OK, I want this, I'll do it." I pretty much stopped eating. I was asking how many calories chewing gum had and I spent eight hours in the gym every day. At 5 feet 7 inches I ended up weighting 108 pounds (49 kilos). It was a constant agony. My hair fell out and I was isolating myself more and more.

SPIEGEL: And this was your own decision?

Renn: Yes. No one locked me in a room and left me to starve. I wanted to be thin. Even though I was so sick I deliberately avoided going to the doctor for three years.

SPIEGEL: And this was all down to you?

Renn: Of course there were other influences; and after all this is why I've written this book. I want designers to change their sample pattern sizes to size 10. In most of Europe this is a size 40. The thin and the more curvaceous models will fit into that group. I no longer want to see 14 girls all the same size on the runway. I want variety. Different sizes, skin colors, hair. Then there wouldn't be so much pressure on models to conform to one ideal. Models should just be beautiful women who inspire others. They won't be starving themselves because they are being accepted for themselves. Any thinner than today's ideals would be impossible. Any thinner means dead.

SPIEGEL: Up until recently this didn't appear to anger anybody that much.

Renn: That's because women are not getting worked up enough about it. But the time is ripe. There have always been trends and preferences in the fashion world. The corset was in a hundred years ago, in the 1960s it was a figure like Twiggy's, in the 1980s there were the Amazonian types and in the 1990s a new wave of very skinny models. Everything changes all the time and it can still change. It is up to women to make demands. At the end of the day, designers also have to sell their clothes. And the magazines are being written for women. So call up the magazines and tell them you want to see more variety. Because I cannot do this alone.

SPIEGEL: How many models have the same experiences you did?

Renn: I couldn't honestly say. I only know there are too many. And it doesn't just affect models, it also affects normal women. Anorexia is a disease that happens to people, mostly women and girls, who have obsessive, perfectionist personalities. The problem is that we as a society simply accept these unrealistic standards: that you have to be thin to be perfect, to be beautiful, to be successful at work and to have a good relationship. And it is making us sick. This self-loathing is crippling women.

SPIEGEL: Why don't sufferers talk about eating disorders?

Renn: Eating disorders are one of the most private illnesses of all. And no one wants to say they hate their own body. Many are scared that if they confide in others then people will look down on them. This is wrong. It's not weak to talk about it. On the contrary. It's the same with alcoholics and drug addicts -- you have to be honest with yourself first. When you have accepted the negatives you can then focus on the positives, like, I have nice hair, nice eyes, great cheekbones.

SPIEGEL: Is it really that easy?

Renn: Yes. I'm not saying that anyone can get through it without professional help. But if you allow yourself to accept help, you can change your thought patterns sooner or later. That's because beside all of the negatives, which you take so seriously, you can also see the positives, upon which you must focus more.

SPIEGEL: At which point did you decide after the torture of years of starvation: I don't want this anymore?

Renn: I had done 16 hours of exercise in a weekend. I could not walk anymore. It felt like my muscles were melting. It took me hours to walk the three blocks home. And later in the agency my agent said: "Hey, you should go on a diet." I freaked out. She then gave me a choice: "Either you stay how you are and are satisfied with just doing catalogue work (Editor's note: this is less prestigious than fashion magazine work and often not as well paid as high profile advertising jobs). Or you become a plus-size model. I know nothing about it except that's for old women." And I said: "OK. I'll do that." And I did, even though I still had a $40,000 job scheduled, for which I had to stay as thin as I was for another week. But suddenly I didn't care any more. I went out, I ate things and I stopped going to the gym. A few days later I changed agencies. I told them, "I want to do Vogue. Can you do this?" They said yes. And they did make it happen.

SPIEGEL: Why do so many women want to be models?

Renn: Ninety-nine percent of girls want to be models because they believe it will mean that they are the most beautiful women in the world. They think that they will wear expensive clothes, makes loads of money, travel a lot and have a rock star for a boyfriend. This never interested me. I didn't want anyone to scream out my name. I wanted to make art, to create an image with a photographer. And yes, I wanted to get out of Clinton, Mississippi -- a small town that was so closed-minded you can't even imagine.

SPIEGEL: Aren't models the most beautiful women in the world?

Renn: Models walking down the street are very rarely recognized as such. It is often the same as it was for me: models were the school freaks. Way too thin and their eyes way too far apart. They were not the ideal. But then they put on fantastic clothes, have their make up done and you have this special beauty. It's a creation. I am a good model because I have mastered my craft. I have accepted my body, I know it well and I know how to move in front of the camera.

SPIEGEL: Do you have anything against airbrushing, against Photoshop?

Renn: No. And this surprises many. But to me Photoshop is an art, and you can do a lot with it. Change the atmosphere through different lighting and make the pictures look more interesting. As long as I'm not made to look thinner than I am, I have nothing against it. Of course I want my skin to look nicer, I want to look good. Everyone should have access to it. Equal rights for all.

SPIEGEL: But back to our discussion on fame and wealth: Is it not true that wealth and beauty often go hand in hand?

Renn: Let me tell you about the prettiest girl in my high school. She is now 22 years old, has had her fourth child and is still stuck in the same town. I don't mean to criticize -- it's her decision. But it just goes to show: The girls everyone considers the "prettiest" are not always the most interesting or ambitious people.

Interview conducted by Felix Rettberg


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