Name: Ilianna Ayala
Agency: True Model Management
“Do you think your parents can pay for it?”
The question shocked a young Ilianna Ayala. Moments before she had just been soaring after crushing her audition for the prominent dance program. After a lifetime of devoting every spare moment after school to movement getting a scholarship to cover the costly tuition of a summer intensive program seemed like an inevitability. She danced. It was what she did. It was who she was. She had just crushed it.
She knew there was no chance she would be getting sidelined after the show she had just put on. The judge’s uncomfortable disposition said otherwise, and soon the grown woman responsible for dashing her dreams was telling a fourteen-year-old Ayala that the ultimate factor in whether or not she would be getting the scholarship wasn’t about her skills, or commitment but the size of her thighs. In an exclusive interview with HelloBeautiful she recalled the incident she says she will never forget.
“The teacher pulled me aside later on and was telling me how great I was I could tell she was pleased with how I was moving in the audition,” said Ayala. That was why she was shocked when the next comment was, “Unfortunately we can’t give you a scholarship due to your thighs.”
“She pretty much like said she can’t give me the scholarship because of my size,” reported Ayala.
More than a decade later the story would stick with her as she peeked into the modeling industry. She admitted that when she entered a modeling competition with retailer Ashley Stewart she didn’t really expect to win.
“I didn’t think I would win,” she said. “But I entered just hoping that I’d have a chance to represent women that look like me.”
Even as an influencer with thousands of followers who clamored for details on her hair and makeup Ayala though her chances were slim.
“My following was growing. I was a natural hair influencer. I wasn’t taking full body pictures or anything so yea I did not think I was gonna win,” she said.
Win she did. Shortly after she was officially signed to True Model Management. “It’s been amazing in the beginning I was very doubtful more so of myself because this is something that I never thought I would be doing,” admitted Ayala.
Despite her doubts she was able to keep trying to take full advantage of the opportunity partially in thanks to her training as a dancer.
“You’re always going to hear no, especially going to auditions and everything that really helped me when it came to modeling,” she explained.
“I love dance so much I knew I was good so I could have let that break me then and there and stopped dancing but instead I went to another school and started dancing there looking back at it I’m just glad that didn’t break me,” she continued.
“When it comes to casting a lot of people think you’re automatically going to get the job because a brand thinks you’re pretty but you’re up against so many other women and its possible that you’ll get a no,” she acknowledged.
“Some girls will be in a funk about it but I knew from dancing and constantly hearing those “no’s” and occasional “yesses” that okay this may be a no but I may get a yes with another brand.”
It was that attitude that allowed her to show up for beauty castings despite the industry notoriously snubbing its nose at plus-size women.
“I would go to casting for other beauty brands and legit think they’re not gonna choose me for the simple fact that I’m plus-sized now that I am in the room like with Covergirl or Buxom Cosmetics and I’m just glad because makeup is a huge industry and I feel like all women should be represented in that.”
She was exposed to diversity in the beauty industry while working at MAC Times Square at 19.
“I really enjoyed that and the artistry. I got to play with makeup and what girl doesn’t like that? I got to learn a lot and I owe MAC a big thank you because they grew me into the artist I am today. I legit worked with so many people from all different kind of all walks of life, MAC is super diverse there was people that looked like me.”
Unfortunately, not many of those people were featured in the glossy advertisements that defined the brand’s character.
“Honestly, plus size women are not seen in beauty brands,” she stated frankly. “I really, really hope that more beauty brands are aware that plus-size women can do beauty. We are beautiful.”
As a proud Afro-Latina, with Bolivian and Puerto Rican roots, who grew up in Spanish Harlem, Ayala grew up with living around talking to and dancing with all types of people. She hopes to use her access and popularity she’s gaining as a model to normalize that kind of upbringing.
She looks forward to encouraging other Afro-Latina women to connect with the entirety of their identity.
“I grew up in Spanish Harlem I didn’t see a white person in my class until I was in high school. I was really raised around black and brown people and ask I got older to know that Latinas didn’t identify as African… I see my grandmother who is dark skin I see my aunts and uncles on my Puerto Rican side who are dark skin, and I knew that came from somewhere,” she said.
Part of how she plans on doing that is using the dual degrees in dance and urban studies she refused to be discouraged from getting to open “a recreational center for the performing arts,” to bring young people together.
“I feel like when I was younger, we were united and then we just started separating ourselves and I just wanna get back to what it was.”