Culture


“Do you need a cheerleader?” asks Ashley Graham, standing outside the celeb-friendly Dog-pound gym in downtown New York. I’ve joined the supermodel and body positivity activist for her typical “off-day” morning routine: workout, breakfast, then another sweat session at an infrared sauna. I’m staring at a weighted sled outside the gym, aware that I’m supposed to push it down the street but wondering how, exactly, I’m going to accomplish this task. Graham, in leopard-print leggings and a crop top, starts jumping up and down, amping me up like a defensive coordinator on the sidelines. “Go, go, go!” she cries, and then, somehow, I’m doing it. “I told her not to go too hard on you,” she says, giggling and pointing to her trainer, Dara, who has devised today’s workout. “I want you to be able to sit on the toilet tomorrow.”

Ashley Graham, it turns out, is really funny. The 31-year-old model, who was discovered at the Oak View Mall in her hometown of Lincoln, Nebraska, when she was 12, has made a name for herself primarily as an outspoken advocate for body confidence and inclusive sizing in the fashion industry. In 2016, she became the first curvy model to appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and in 2017, she became the first to walk in the Michael Kors show at New York Fashion Week. In the past year, however, she’s branched out into all kinds of media, sending the message to her 7.8 million Instagram followers, and the world, that she has more to talk about than just size.

Preciosa crystal net top, Christian Cowan and her own hoop earrings.

Carin Backoff

She’s launched her own podcast, “Pretty Big Deal;” has begun filming the feel-good talk show “Fearless,” for Ellen DeGeneres’s digital network; and has become the newly minted host as well as an executive producer of “American Beauty Star,” Lifetime’s reality-competition show that pits top hair and makeup artists against each other in a series of challenges, à la Project Runway. “There was only one person we wanted to host the new season of American Beauty Star, and that was Ashley Graham,” says Gena McCarthy, executive vice president and head of programming for Lifetime Unscripted and FYI. “Her charisma and confidence are unmatched, and her infectious personality is always inspiring.” Graham’s co–executive producer Ross Elliot sums it up thusly: “It’s the Oprah factor.”

Graham admits that she’s heard the comparison before. After our workout, we head to a small Greek restaurant for breakfast, where she tells me that she grew up wanting to be Oprah. She’s since adjusted that goal, slightly.

Last summer, she visited the Ashram, a hardcore wellness retreat in Calabasas, California, where she had one of those Oprah-patented breakthroughs. “I was hiking and listening to one of her podcasts,” she says, pulling a small spray bottle of rose water out of her navy Dior saddle bag and offering me a spritz. “One of her producers was on, talking, and she was like, ‘If I had a dollar every time someone said, “I’ve got the next Oprah,” I’d be filthy rich.’ She was like, ‘Nobody’s gonna be Oprah, because Oprah cornered a market in her time…. Nobody was talking the way she was talking on TV.’ ” Graham was powering through her twelfth mile on the trail, sweat pouring from her brow, and a tear rolled down her cheek, she says. “It was my aha moment. People have always put me in this box of Oprah, or Ellen, or whatever. I was like, I’m not gonna be Oprah. I’m gonna be Ashley.”

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Photographed by Carin Backoff, Styled by Anna Trevelyan

Luckily, people want Ashley in their lives. Over the last few months, she has been on a promotional tour for her new podcast, cracking up everyone she meets with unfiltered stories and advice. On a recent appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, she freely divulged the time Kim Kardashian West picked spinach out of her teeth at the Met Gala. Then she went on Gwyneth Paltrow’s typically sedate Goop podcast and told the lifestyle mogul that praying with her husband makes her horny. Within an hour of meeting me, she explains, unbidden, exactly what happens when you get a colonic, and then casually reveals how often she poops. (Regularly, now, thanks to the colonics.)

People have always put me in this box of Oprah, or Ellen, or whatever. I was like, I’m not gonna be Oprah. I’m gonna be Ashley.

So podcasting is just about the perfect medium for her. Graham films all her episodes for YouTube, so you can still stare at her while she talks, if you want. But her booming voice—and that unmistakable laugh—is ideal for an audio format. “I think that for my generation, podcasts are the new TV,” she says, picking at her avocado toast. “They are the new daytime TV. I’m carving out my own thing.”

Graham’s husband, the cinematographer and director Justin Ervin, came up with the name for the pod. “He said it so practically: ‘Pretty Big Deal.’ I was like, ‘Why?,’ and he’s like, ‘Well, you’ve always been called pretty for a big girl,’ ” Graham says. “He’s like, ‘You’re my pretty big deal, and all the people that you’re gonna be interviewing are a pretty big deal.’ I was like, ‘Perfect. Let’s do it.’ ”

So far, she’s interviewed everyone from Gabrielle Union to the journalist Noor Tagouri to KKW herself. And she’s not afraid to bring up tough topics like tokenism, privilege, and racism. (Ervin is black, and she credits him with helping her become more informed on these issues.) In her interview with Kardashian West, she asked the reality star directly about one of her Instagram Stories in which she and her sisters joked about looking “anorexic.” Kardashian West apologized on-air.

“I had to,” Graham says when I ask if she was nervous to bring up the controversy. “I even talked to her beforehand. I’m not gonna just blindside people in my interview. I was like, ‘Kim, is it cool if we talk about the anorexic comment?’ She goes, ‘Oh yeah, let’s address it.’ Just like that. I let her say what she wanted to say,” she says. “I’m not here to condemn; I’m just here to talk.”

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Photographed by Carin Backoff, Styled by Anna Trevelyan

Before Graham started the podcast, she sought advice from a professional: CBS This Morning co-host (and Oprah BFF) Gayle King. “Gayle King doesn’t know this, but she’s my mentor,” she laughs. “I called her and I was like, ‘Okay, how do you interview people?’ And she’s like, ‘Well, it’s about curiosity. What do you want to learn about this person? Where do they come from? What can you take away?,’ and I was thinking, That’s exactly what I want to do.”

Graham does seem naturally inquisitive. Throughout our interview, she frequently lobs questions back at me, asking what workouts I like to do, where my sisters live, if I have any favorite quotes, if I plan to marry my boyfriend, and where I get my confidence. She says the only questions she avoids asking on the podcast are purely gossipy ones.

“I’m not a tabloid; I’m not trying to get the juicy gossip on something,” she says. “I’m here to talk about what matters in the world. If you happen to have, like, five ex-boyfriends that are mad famous, okay, great. Do you want to talk about one of them? Okay! I don’t care.” She doesn’t give up any juice herself, either. When I ask her about attending the wedding of her friend and fellow Dog-pounder Karlie Kloss to Joshua Kushner last fall (she was one of about 80 guests at the exclusive upstate New York affair), she politely brushes me off. “She’s so sweet. I love her,” she says of her fellow supermodel. “But you know what? I’m gonna not talk about Karlie’s wedding.”

She is more than happy, however, to discuss her own relationship with Ervin. The two recently celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary. I ask how she keeps the relationship fresh, and she grins. “Just have sex!” she shouts, her voice reverberating throughout the quiet restaurant. It’s 9 a.m. “Have sex all the time. Even if you don’t feel like it, just have sex. I have found that if we haven’t had sex, we get snippy, and then if we are having sex, we’re all over each other. For us it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s have sex.’ And then we’re just right back in a great mood.”

Graham and Ervin actually waited to consummate their relationship until after they got married, a decision Graham wrote about in her 2017 memoir, A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty, and Power Really Look Like. They met at church when Graham was 21, and at the time, she felt she had been “giving it up too soon” to other guys. She had already been living on her own and modeling for five years, and “I had seen the world,” she says. “I slept with half of New York City. I had done it all, literally!” So the idea of taking it slow appealed.

“Something that it did for us was build up our friendship, and it also built up our trust and communication,” she says. “Of course we were sexually attracted to each other; we would make out heavily. All those things were there. I wasn’t worried about, What’s sex gonna be like with him? It was more, Do I trust him? Is he someone I want to be with for the rest of my life?”

Graham says the couple’s shared Christian faith keeps them connected. “My husband was raised super-charismatic evangelical, and I was raised Southern Baptist—like, you don’t even raise your hands,” she says, laughing. They’ve found a church somewhere in the middle that works for both of them. Lately, they’ve been fasting together one day a week, she tells me during our car ride to Shape House, a sauna that’s also a celeb haven. “When you fast and you pray, it’s bringing more sensitivity to hear from God,” she explains. “That’s exactly what we wanted; we were like, ‘Okay, we want more sensitivity to be able to hear from God in the big decisions that we’re making.’ We do it together because there’s a verse in the Bible that says, ‘Where two or more are gathered, He is in the midst.’ So as we do it together, it just makes it even stronger.”

Self-improvement is a big theme in the couple’s relationship. When they got married, “I wasn’t looking at it as settling; I was looking at it as building,” Graham says. “Going into a relationship with Justin, it was like, ‘Okay, what are we gonna build together?’ ” It was Ervin who encouraged her to think beyond her modeling career. “The first year of marriage went by. He would get home from work, and I would still be in the same position on the couch watching Real Housewives,” she says. “He’s like, ‘Is this what you want with your life?’ And I’m like, ‘What do you mean? I’m a model, I’m working.’ He’s like, ‘But don’t you want more? Because it’s not gonna last forever.’ ” Graham arranges her face into exaggerated shock. “It’s not gonna last forever?” But that’s when it occurred to her to ask herself, “What else do I want?”

She started asking her peers about the deals they were making. “As a model, you’re always told not to talk to other models,” she explains. “You can’t talk about how much money you’re making, what jobs you’ve gotten, or what you’re building. It’s always been very hush-hush and competitive. Then one day, a bunch of my friends and I started talking, and we were like, ‘Oh snap, that’s [how much you make]?’ You empower each other.”

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Photographed by Carin Backoff, Styled by Anna Trevelyan

Graham currently has lucrative deals in just about every corner of the fashion and beauty industries. Earlier last year, she landed a major beauty contract with Revlon. She starred in the cosmetic company’s “Live Boldly” campaign and continues to act as a spokesperson.

When she’s not fronting campaigns, she’s designing lingerie for Addition Elle, bikinis for Swimsuits for All, and denim for Marina Rinaldi. But she plans to bring all her de- sign projects “under one house” in the near future. “Having a lifestyle brand is a very big goal for me,” she says. We’re lying side by side in infrared-heated sleeping bags, watching America’s Funniest Home Videos on mute. (Graham especially loves the dog videos.) “That’s what I’m building out right now with my manager.” She began working with Scooter Braun and his team last year. The super-manager, whose clients include Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, sees Graham’s relatability as her best asset. “Within two seconds of meeting her, I knew she was someone I would be friends with,” he says. “Her energy is contagious. If Ashley were to walk in a room, she would give you a big hug and make you laugh.”

Plenty of brands are interested in marketing this kind of authenticity. They approach Graham to promote their products all the time. Graham understands why celebrities might affix their names to almost anything. (“Those Instagram posts are paying for people’s private planes,” she jokes.) But she’s very careful about what she asks her followers to buy. “If I’m not wearing it, if I’m not using it, if it’s not something that’s part of my daily routine, then I don’t want to sell it,” she says.

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Wool blazer, $1,695, trousers, $825, both, Giorgio Armani. Bikini top, LisaMarie Fernandez, $395 (sold as a set). Gold hoop earrings, Roberto Coin, $2,550. Diamond necklace, Pomellato. Socks, Falke, $26. Slingbacks, Giuseppe Zanotti, $650.Beauty Tip: Minimalist nude lips are the perfect match for a minimalist all-black ensemble. Try Revlon Super Lustrous Lipstick in Dare to Be Nude ($5).

Photographed by Carin Backoff, Styled by Anna Trevelyan

When she thinks about building her empire, she idolizes women like Kathy Ireland, the 55-year-old supermodel–turned–lifestyle entrepreneur. And, of course, she looks up to Oprah. She tells me about the one and only time she met her, at last year’s premiere of A Wrinkle in Time.

“It was amazing,” Graham says, her eyes sparkling. “I show up and Gayle’s there. I’m like, ‘Gayle, I’ve gotta meet Oprah. I’ve got to.’ She’s like, ‘Done.’ So all of a sudden I’m standing next to the door, and Oprah’s walking through like”—she sings this part—“aaaaaahhh! I’m like, ‘Hi, Oprah. Hi. You’re on my vision board.’ Oprah was like, ‘Nice to meet you.’ Yeah,” she says dryly, “I met Oprah.”

After our meeting, she’s going back to her apartment in Brooklyn to pack for a rare few days off. She’s flying to Nebraska to visit her sisters, one of whom just had a baby. She’s excited to spend time with her new niece, but doesn’t plan to start a family of her own anytime soon. “For me, being a wife and being a woman, happiness doesn’t equate to hav- ing kids,” she says. “Kids will come when they come. Happiness, right now, is building with my husband and building my business.” And, of course, talking about it all.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of ELLE.

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