Name: Leah Vernon
Agency: Seeking Representation
Claim To Fame: Not only has she been in ads on two continents Vernon has been featured in Cosmo, Buzzfeed, Yahoo Style, and The Detroit Free Press for her fashion sense and activism.
When Leah Vernon was growing up in Michigan admiring the women presented as the height of beauty on the glossy pages of magazines, she had no idea she would one day be among them. The plus-size model, author, body-positive activist, and Muslim feminist didn’t see a clear path to the spotlight for a person who looked like her.
“I was never represented so I thought it was impossible to be a model,” she told Hello Beautiful in an exclusive interview. “They would be thin and white with the long straight hair like you know really skinny very high fashion, and there wasn’t anybody who looked like me doing it.”
The media taught her that “my body doesn’t fit the standards,” but that did little to restrain her “obsession” with the fashion industry. She wanted in and if being on the catwalk wasn’t an option, she would look to the other careers displayed during the hours and hours of television programming she was consuming on the now defunct Style Network.
“I was like okay I’ll never be a model, so I’ll style skinny people and that’s the only way I’ll be able to be in the industry is by being behind the scenes.”
A Detroit native with a noticeably eclectic style Vernon was ready to apply her ability to study and interpret trends to styling. She kept up to date “by looking at fashions in Europe or fashion in New York.” She said “I was heavy into Gwen Stefani at the time and the whole punk culture. I took inspirations from a little bit of everywhere.”
She felt boxed out professionally, but social media and the rise of blogging introduced her to a way she could strike a pose for fun. Writing was cathartic and shooting was a way to express her creativity. “I did two photos shoots just for fun because I wanted to be a blogger, and I discovered the hashtag #plussizemodel. I was like there’s real plus size models out in these streets? So, and then I was like I’m gonna do two photoshoots and see what happens.”
What happened was thousands of women who also didn’t see themselves represented flocked to the images Vernon posted. As she became more transparent and connected to her body and spirit, they became more interested. As of publication Vernon has amassed more than 40,000 Instagram followers by simply being herself. “So, after that I kind of just like fell in love with what modeling meant or what it actually means which is showcasing beauty. I just started modeling and posting on Instagram and talking about cool shit and people started fucking with me.”
She explained that her friend’s deception actually led to her first gig. “My friend actually ended up tricking me into modeling the third time she was like ‘Can you come to the store and style my models?’ I was like ‘Fo sho!’ So, I get there, and I bring all my shit and I said, ‘Where are the models?’ She’s like ‘You ARE the model.”
Afterwards, she applied her stylish instincts to dressing in a way that aligned with her faith on and off the set. She maintains that she is “just as Muslim without” her hijab but after exploring what it meant to her, she decided to observe the tradition. “It took a long time for me to figure out what the hijab meant to me and it’s definitely a choice. I’ve come to terms with it. The hijab reflects who I am whether I wear it or not I’m still Muslim and its definitely not oppressive to me. It’s actually like my crown and I rock it hard.”
Like other modern Muslim women, she has found a way to express her style with her hijab, but no number of sequins or other adornments will stop people from having their opinions about the practice. “Some people it doesn’t matter what you do to a hijab they’re still going to be offended by it because hijab means oppression to them for whatever reason even though they’ve never talked to an actual hijabi before,” lamented Vernon. But as a grown woman who has found her place and makes her own choices, she isn’t intimidated by others’ prejudices.“People are going to say what the fuck they want to say about what you’re wearing so you might as well wear what you want to wear.”
Interest in her style has prompted productive dialogues in the media and on her website Beauty and The Muse about femininity, individualism, sisterhood, and self-image. Her DMs are full of people wanting to know more about her decision. She can’t connect personally with each person but she encourages those she can to make their own choices and come to their own conclusions. “You definitely meet a lot of people who just are curious about it. So, it’s been cool to educate about it.”
While she’s glad to be able to educate people it’s not always comfortable for her to do so in professional settings. “When I do ads a lot of people are not necessarily hip to Islam or what exactly my limitations are as a model. I was on set recently and I took off my hijab to put on another hijab that matched the outfit and this girl was like ‘You look cute. Why don’t you just model like that?’ and I was just like ‘I can’t do that I’m Muslim’ and she was like ‘I guess.’ It’s hard to not be offended sometimes.”
It’s even harder in an adolescent body positivity movement straying further and further away from the roots that drew Vernon into the space. Once a force that threatened the ideal of visual hierarchy the community that overthrew the supremacy of Victoria’s Secret has now been infiltrated by quests for engagement that often include baring it all. “I’m not throwing shade, but I feel like some of them are doing that not necessarily for body positivity they’re doing it for likes and engagement,” said Vernon of the behavior that led Allison McGevna to ask if “plus size bodies can only be recognized and celebrated” when they are sexualized in Plus Model Magazine.
She has no problem with people making their own choices as long as they’re examined ones.“I want to see liberated bodies if they’re covered or not,” said Vernon.
Fortunately, she can always look in the mirror.