When you’re the world’s first full-figured supermodel chosen as People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, not once but twice, you have earned the right to be known by a single name — Emme.
I talk with the brand spokesperson, television personality, podcast host, author, first full-figured Revlon spokeswoman, keynote speaker, coach, and clothing line creative director about her early modeling career, increasing our self-esteem, and how to make ourselves a priority.
Emme also talks about how using our collective voice can make an impact and shares her new ventures, including coaching women through body confidence and her initiative, Fashion without Limits.
Pitfalls Faced as a Young Model
For three decades, Emme has made it her mission to break down barriers and fight for inclusivity in the fashion and beauty industries. But it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows at the beginning.
Emme: So, going back into 1989 and early 90s, it was waifdom; every model that was on the covers of the magazine and working within the industry, they were young ladies that were either 5’10 or taller. Very few, like Kate Moss, were 5’7, 5’8, but they were all size-zero, double zero (00), or even sometimes a 2.
I came onto the scene as a rower, an athlete, and not particularly wanting to be in modeling, but my girlfriend’s brother was dating a woman in the full-figured modeling industry. She looked like me; she was size 12 and healthy-looking. People have always said, “Why don’t you get into modeling?” So, I left my reporting days, returned to New York, and walked into an agency.
That was the easiest part. When I went over to Ford Models, many photographers in the major fashion magazines did not want to work with anyone that was not the type of model they were used to working with. They were scared that their work would be affected. It wasn’t a matter of making money. It was more about reputation.
My body type was very proportionate and I had curves in the right places, but I was fit, fit with curves. ‘Athletic curvy’ is really what the term is today. One thing led to the other, I started booking big campaigns. One of the very first campaigns that I had, the photographer was one of those esteemed photographers, and I was so excited. When he walked into the room after my hair and makeup were done, and my curlers were in my hair, he looked at me and said, “I’m not going to shoot this fatty,” and turned around and walked out of the studio, slamming the door. I called my agency. “Listen, I’ve never been spoken to like this before. I don’t think that I really need to be in this industry. You know, truly, it doesn’t make any sense to me.” I was told to stay. It was an advertising job. It was a big deal.
When he came back, the light had changed. The set had to be completely altered. He said, “Well if I’m going to shoot you, I’m going to shoot you sexy.” Ugh, icky. He took my boat-neck top, and my shoulder fell loose. It was the first jeans ad ever with a full-figured model.
As Emme shared when she began her modeling career over 30 years ago, she faced judgment, criticism, and body shaming, but it wasn’t long before those who shunned her began to change their tune.
Emme: Then People magazine came onto the scene with 50 of the Most Beautiful People. And, I mean, People magazine doing a double-page spread in the nude. It was beautiful, but little did I know that this particular photograph would shoot me worldwide.
I met that photographer again two years later when I was modeling in Miami. When I walked outside, this man looked cleaned up. He didn’t look like he had rolled out of bed or had a very long weekend. I didn’t exactly know what to say. He beat me to it. “Emme, right? We’ve got to work together. You’re all over. This is wonderful, such fantastic new things.”
I’m thinking, ‘is this truly a real thing happening here? Is he faking it or what?’ So, I said, “I want to let you know that we have actually worked together. I want to thank you. You solidified my place in what I was doing.” It taught me that people who are not self-assured with either their own bodies or their own ideas of what is healthy or the value of a human being will project and reflect those negative feelings; and, quite frankly, touch the line of being a bully.
It wasn’t all, you know, yippee ki-yay, this is great, but I had so many wonderful experiences having my commercial run at the Academy Awards for Revlon, being a Revlon girl, traveling around the world. Opening markets and opening hearts and minds that beauty is not just one particular way. It’s an array of beauty. It’s a bouquet of beauty.
Jackie: Did you know back then, while you were going through this in those first years, you would make such a lasting impact on a generation, multiple generations?
Emme: No, absolutely not. I just couldn’t. My background was in reporting. I was a page in NBC, in LA, and I had all the gumption that I would be in TV. So when I fell into the industry and started having success in booking multiple bookings over and over, it was all perfectly aligned. Little did I know back then, the kind of career that I had.
I could have given up because of that photographer; I was very close to just walking away and saying, “How dare you?” The ego was just a little bit irritated. And, if I had let that happen, I wouldn’t have had this magnificent, rewarding career being an advocate, being a disruptor.
Jackie: What did that feel like? I mean, you were still pretty young. What did it feel like having women all over the world feel represented?
Emme: I didn’t understand the impact at first. Then I would travel on a train from Milan to Venice with my daughter, and I’m looking for a seat and say, “Excuse me, is this taken?” And, a woman from Germany, I thought she was having a heart attack. I almost went into CPR with this poor woman. But she goes, “No, no, no, please sit. Are you Emme?” And, I’m thinking, ‘how crazy is this, that you’re in another part of the world, different places, and that happened?’
Emme’s message remains clear; self-esteem should not be decided by the number on the scale. Something women over 40 struggle with on a daily basis.
Emme: There’s not a lot of societal uplift for anyone above 25 or 30 years old. I always think that that’s a loss in our society that we don’t honor the graceful aging of all men and women, more so women. It’s our responsibility to come together and be able to share our feelings and our thoughts and find opportunities to make something happen. It’s a slow process. When I look at myself, for example, my body is very different from what it was when it was in my 20s. I’ve given birth to a child. I was pregnant, and I thought, ‘my God, this is quite amazing that another body is growing inside of me.’
I also started thinking as I’m aging, my heart ticks, no matter how much I put it down, my cells emit toxins, and yes, I have a little more wrinkles, and I have a sag here, or I don’t have the kind of firm legs because I’m not an Olympic-trained athlete. Do I want to be that? No, I don’t. I want to just appreciate what I have, and if anybody has anything to say about it, really, it’s not my issue. And, when I do have a Sundae, or cookies, to eat them with vim and vigor, to not feel guilty about it. It’s true, I don’t want to die and be like, ‘I should have had the cookies.’
I want to break bread. I want to have dinner parties with people who feel more about the conversation than fear the calories going into their mouths. If we lean on our society to lift us up, we’re going to be shortchanged. I just want to feel free. I want to be uplifted. And, if I have to do that heavy-lifting well, then that’s what I’m going to do.
Jackie: We can’t go back and reprogram what we’ve been through, all the messages that we’ve gotten, whether from family or the media, but we can take responsibility for ourselves today.
Emme: The good, the bad, and the ugly got us to where we are today. We have to be proud that we are here. Especially after the two years that we’ve just gone through. If we live in the past and try and figure out why it might take some time. So, you’re here now; ‘Where do you want to go? Where’s your vision? What’s going to make you feel good in your work? What kind of work do you want to do?’ Do you need multiple jobs and work yourself to the bone? Do you really need to do that? It’s a shift when you’re a Grown-Ass Woman.
Jackie: How do we Grown-Ass Women help ourselves start stripping away those messages that our self-esteem is tied to a number on a scale? Creating better self-esteem in the girls who come behind us?
Emme: Good question. We got to take a look at our list of values. Build the way you see others, especially a child. What girls are going through, boys have been going through for a long time. If you have a girl and a boy in the house, around dinner time, when somebody’s hungry, allow them to eat; when they’re not hungry, allow them to not finish the plate.
If there’s such a focus on food around the dinner table; and there’s strife, and you can feel it in your stomach, serve the food and then talk about, ‘I’m really proud of the way that you were compassionate with your girlfriend, tell me more about where you’re learning that from?’ Or, ‘I really appreciated your helping me without even me asking you.’ Work on the value, the real true value of a human being; your generosity, thoughtfulness, uniqueness, and characteristics. Talk about those things and be there during those kinds of conversations. Our bodies change. Whether we shrink down or go up, if we can see our bodies as our best friends instead of our worst enemies, our life will change, starting each day with a body blessing that you are actually taking care of my journey as a human being. Imagine what we could do no matter what color we may be, no matter what gender, fluidity, or age, if we’re all in alignment and feeling good with the skin that we’re in.
One voice is powerful; many voices together, that’s a movement.
There’s no doubt about it, Emme was making an impact worldwide during her modeling career, but even then, she knew that if we were going to create a ripple effect, positive change, we would need to empower one another to stand up and be heard.
Emme: I always had conversations with my dear friends; it’s teamwork. What you hear, if it touched you, don’t let it just end there; figure out your own way of using your voice. I have in my coaching program, ‘power of the purse.’ The power of the purse is the most important thing that we can have as women.
If we don’t like how our personal care products don’t honor our bodies, then the power of the purse is going to take us elsewhere, where there’s no bleach in our products; and there’s no, this, that, and the other thing that could be harmful to our bodies. You better bet companies are noticing when there’s a shift in income. So if you’re going to write a letter, start with a compliment and end with the room for improvement; don’t stop writing your letters.
It’s a group effort. So, these beautiful three decades of seeing change and enlightenment, getting stronger, that next push, not stopping. I love the younger generation coming in and going, ‘well, what are you all complaining about? Of course, all bodies are great.’ So, it’s like, yeah, there we are.
Making Yourself a Priority
Emme says one of those choices we face is the one many of us struggle with: putting ourselves first and prioritizing our needs. It may feel selfish, but it’s self-preservation.
Emme: We can see messages and say, “Why is that? Do I have to be that way?” You can question it. You can turn it off. It’s training yourself on, ‘how do I feel when I’m with this person? How do I feel when I’m in this situation? How do I feel when I’m eating this food?’
You can limit the exposure and who you hang with. Especially as adult women, we need our girlfriends. But are your girlfriends empowering one another? Are they tearing other people apart? When you talk to the younger generation, you want to show them that your girlfriends are the ones that see the brighter side. And yes, you’re there for them when things are really falling apart, but how we choose to live our life is up to us. No one is making any of these choices and decisions; we have to choose. Do we want to live on the positive side of the coin? Or do we want to be on that negative side, where a lot of people are?
I think it’s slowing it all down, not living for others. Is this being selfish? It’s putting your mask on first, and then you’ll be able to give in the way that you would like to give. But if we, grown-ass women, put ourselves at the bottom of the barrel, we will be depleted. It’s time to put ourselves at the top of the heap. When you realize in any kind of change to take place, we have to, in order to give real true, yummy, delicious love to someone else, you better be giving it to yourself.
It takes failing and looking at failure as just an opportunity to learn. There’s no perfection here. None. I bless all the cells in my body, saying, “Thank you for this next day. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to go hiking and walking and starting my day and being with people that I like, and doing the work that I love.” It takes work. It takes practice. It takes feeling really pretty horrible about life and feeling down; so low that you’re like, ‘okay, I’m done with this. This does not work.’ There has to be a better way.
I want to bring joy back into movement. The joy of movement is something that has been mistreated. The joy of movement has been replaced with calories, shape, and all that stuff. So I’m claiming 2022 as the year of the body where we just fill it with joy. I mean, forget about the calorie burn. Forget about the incessant weighing; I’m all into health. But I’m also into joy. I’m not into doing my hiking and my swimming or whatever I do like a crazy person. I do it because it allows me to play, and I have a hashtag called #playsweatwin. When you play, you’re probably going to sweat a bit, and then guess what, you win. You have beautiful serotonin coming to the surface that helps with self-esteem. Movement is really the key to burning off stress, to feeling good. Even when you’re feeling low, you have no energy, and you’re like, ‘I can’t get out the door;’ get your shoes and go because after about a half a mile, you’re going to find that it created more energy within you.
Meditation is a gateway to peace and calm. When I feel frustrated or angry, I either try and lay down for half an hour or get into meditation. Get silent, get quiet, and allow peace. We have to create our own silence sometimes. Everything is so busy; we’re running. Insight Timer is an app that I use.
Making An Impact
Emme talks about her new venture True Beauty Foundation, coaching women through body confidence, and her Fashion without Limits initiative.
Emme: I just founded the True Beauty Foundation. It’s a youth initiative to help with mental wellness. So I’m going to be talking to young people as well as the medical community and educational community. You have to have a full-court press hitting all different points to help the kids feel good in their skin because when they go home, you don’t want them to be faced with ridicule. It might be because they’re saying, “I’m empowered, and this is great,” when a parent who was brought up in the 50s, 60s, or 70s and has this mentality of “you’ve got to be only one way, have a job and find a man.” I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I am finally making it official. So, I’m very happy.
Fashion Without Limits is about diversity in fashion and inclusivity in the sizing of fashion. A celebration of our uniqueness. I believe that this is my last chapter and want to carry on keeping it vibrant, healthy, and fun.
Known for over two decades as the award-winning and groundbreaking American supermodel, Emme was twice selected as one of People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People and named by Oprah Magazine as the “Godmother of the full-figured industry.” Today, she is a trusted voice in the beauty, wellness, fashion and news industries, and recognized globally as a lead influencer for positive body image and self- esteem.
Emme was the first celebrity advocate to speak before a Congressional subcommittee to increase public awareness of eating and body image disorders. As a social reformer, she is a sought expert for TV, Radio, and Podcasts. The author of 5 books, Emme is also a columnist, life coach, and consultant. Her website can be found here.
Emme’s latest mission is the launch of the True Beauty Foundation, whose mission is to provide global programs that cultivate and promote positive body image, self-esteem, and general mental health awareness for girls, boys, women, and men.