Gown: Michelle Mason Heels: Oscar de la Renta
Clutch: Kotur Cuff: Edge of Ember Earrings: Souksy London
Once in awhile, a model comes along who is so extraordinary that he or she sets the industry alight. Iskra is a plus-size model and activist with over 3 million followers. Through social media, a powerful speech at Harvard and her work as an ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), Iskra is revolutionising the fashion industry and promoting diverse representations of beauty.
In the past, trailblazers such as Sophie Dahl and Crystal Renn have challenged the industry’s expectations of beauty. In 1999, supermodel Sophie Dahl became a household name after she was the first plus-size model to be featured in the coveted NSFW Pirelli calendar. In 2009, Crystal Renn gained a cult following after the release of her infamous memoir Hungry, in which she spoke out about the pressures of the modelling industry. In 2010, in a groundbreaking move for the house, Renn became the first plus-size model to walk the runway for Chanel.
Social media has become an integral part of how we communicate as a society. In June 2016, Instagram celebrated 500 million active members each month and 95 million pictures or clips and 4.2 billion likes shared each day. Social media is a powerful tool that offers the opportunity to reach an audience that extends beyond anything we have had access to before.
British model Iskra has gained stratospheric popularity on social media due to her unrelenting discussion and challenging of self-empowerment, body image and the politics of being beautiful for a living.
The venue of our cover shoot was Le Salon Vert, an opulent private dining room at L’Escargot, the oldest and most celebrated French restaurant and members club in London. It was an elegant pear green room, bathed in natural sunlight. There was a decadent 18th-century ceiling from which hung an elaborate gold chandelier. If these walls could talk, it would have anecdotes to last a lifetime. It has hosted the most iconic figures in history, including Coco Chanel, Mick Jagger and the late Princess Diana.
Dress: House of CB Cluster Ring: Caroline Creba Thin Ring: Swarvoski
Amongst this magnificent splendour sat Iskra, dressed in a black vest and yoga pants, her blonde hair tightly curled in pink rollers. She was surrounded by Arcadia’s efficient team that included: photographer, stylist, hairdresser, makeup artist and creative director. Amidst the organised chaos, Iskra’s focus was solely on the generous portion of Eggs Benedict that sat in her lap.
Iskra has a rare beauty that is even more astounding in real life. She looked like a delicate Russian doll. Her face was makeup-free, revealing a radiant complexion. Her cheeks were flushed rose, and her dreamy baby blue eyes were framed with black lashes. She had impossibly white teeth that were hidden by full pink lips until she smiled, a smile so genuine and infectious that it lit up the room every time.
Her world-famous UK Size 14 figure, has caught the attention and adoration of millions. Her gym-honed stomach was washboard flat; the gentle curves of abdominal muscles were visible under her vest. Her thighs were shapely, and her bottom curved dangerously, a natural asset that people pay thousands to try and obtain. What was most attractive about Iskra was her confidence. She radiates an impenetrable boldness that I would later learn can only be built when faced with adversity.
Iskra’s first experience of modelling came at 13-years-old when her mother entered her into an Elle Girl modelling competition. This exposure led her to be scouted and signed to a top modelling agency.
Her experience with the agency was short-lived. Her body began the natural transformation from a girl to a woman, and she no longer fit with the agency’s vision.
Bodysuit: Fleur Du Mal Skirt: Miu Miu Heels: Christian Louboutin
Iskra put a forkful of Eggs Benedict in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. She said: “I can’t remember their exact words; I was young. It was a lot to deal with at the time so I blacked it out. It was along the lines of me being ‘too commercial’, whatever the hell that means. They said my shape was too mature for my age, which effectively means my breasts were a D cup.”
She sighed, then continued: “I remember just not feeling good enough. I had had a taste of this dream and to have it snatched away was awful.”
Iskra approached other modelling agencies, but she received the same feedback from all of them. After a series of heartbreaking rejections, Iskra began to internalise her frustration.
She rolled her bright blue eyes in disdain, then said: “When you keep getting told that you are not right, you start wondering why you are so wrong. It was a toxic time; I would compare myself to other models and would get upset that my body wasn’t like theirs.”
Iskra was at crisis point – flight or fight; Iskra chose the latter. She revealed: “Rejection led me into a dark and destructive battle with my body, but then I moved to New York and discovered plus-size modelling; it changed my life.”
As a child, Iskra swam competitively; she strongly credits swimming for instilling in her the motivation and commitment to succeed.
Bodysuit: Balmain Skirt: Kelly Simpkin Earrings: Annoushka Cuff: Edge of Ember
She said: “Before every race, I would visualise myself winning and every time I did this, I won. It gave me a sense of competitiveness and drive, which I have applied to all aspects of my life.”
In 2014, world-renowned lingerie brand Aerie announced that, in an effort to present more realistic role models, it would no longer use Photoshop to retouch images for its new Aerie lingerie campaign #AerieREAL. In February 2016, Aerie revealed Iskra as their newest spokesmodel. As an #AerieREAL Role Model, Iskra appears in groundbreaking campaigns for the brand as well as featuring in Aerie stores across the United States to promote body positivity.
Iskra said frankly: “I don’t have an issue with the use of Photoshop, as long as the viewer is informed that the image has been altered. They need to know it isn’t real and should not be aspired to.”
She sighed deeply, then added: “I love that fashion can be an art and a fantasy, but in the past, I have been Photoshopped beyond recognition, and it has given me complexes. Unrealistic images can be very damaging to your self-esteem, perfection doesn’t exist.”
She continued: “On my Instagram, I try not to post unretouched images because I feel more confident as the real me. I want others to know that they are good enough, just as they are.”
Bodysuit: Fleur du Mal Necklace: Rococo Jewellery
Suddenly, Iskra’s eyes shone with tears; her lower lip began to quiver, and she vigorously tried to wipe her eyes before admitting defeat and allowing tears to stream down her cheeks.
She dabbed her eyes with a napkin, shaking her head in disbelief as she did so. Her voice was wrought with emotion; she said: “I’m sorry, but I still can’t believe that after so much rejection, Aerie took a chance on me. They had never shot anyone my size before; they had no idea what the reaction was going to be.”
She added: “To have people telling me that I’m not good enough for so long and then to see myself on a billboard in Times Square was unbelievable. It was the first time that someone wanted me for me.”
Iskra’s eyes widened in disbelief; then she said: “Girls have walked into the Aerie store and burst into tears when they see my pictures. It is the first time they’ve seen a girl that size with cellulite and imperfections in lingerie.”
Aerie whisked Iskra to Costa Rica to shoot the #AerieREAL campaign. Iskra revealed how the trip profoundly changed her life.
She sobbed gently, then said: “Oh, you’ve really made me cry now! I remember standing on a mountain top in Costa Rica, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and I thought ‘I’ve made it.’”
She added: “I wish my 13-year-old self could’ve seen me. In fact, I wish all girls and boys could have shared that moment with me. That moment was for every teenager that is sitting in their room, hating what they see in the mirror. You are not defined by your body.”
Social media is offering a new level of exposure for the modelling industry. With more access than ever before, being beautiful is just the beginning. Having a powerful voice has become as important as aesthetics.
This new generation of ‘Social Media Supermodels’ are taking their careers into their own hands and redefining the business of being beautiful. Iskra is at the forefront of the movement to inspire change in the industry. She uses her social media to promote self-love and body positivity in a voice so loud that it has destroyed the tired notion that models should be seen and not heard.
She credits social media for helping to change her life personally and professionally.
Top: House of Holland Skirt: Roland Mouret Earrings: Noir
Cuff: Edge of Ember Rings: Stylists’ Own
Iskra nibbled on her full bottom lip, lost in thought for a moment. She said: “Through social media, I have been given the opportunity to be more than just a picture or a set of measurements. When people meet me, they very rarely comment on my face or body, in fact, they praise my message to love who you are.”
Iskra’s social media presence has skyrocketed in the past year, largely due to her approach of promoting body positivity and health on a deeper issue than just size.
She revealed: “It has been a whirlwind. In March 2015 I had 8,000 followers, and I remember my booker telling me that I should aim for 10,000. I did some research into my target audience. Who do I want to speak to? How can they relate to me?”
She continued: “In the summer of 2015, I got to 13,000 followers, and I remember everyone being impressed, including me! Like I used to do when I was a professional swimmer, I visualised myself being on 100,000 followers by the end of 2015. By New Year’s Eve, I had over 1 million followers.”
As of August 2016, Iskra has over 2.5 million followers on Instagram alone. She also gets more likes per picture than Kate Upton, Naomi Campbell and Stella Maxwell combined.
Her eyebrows furrowed in thought; she said frankly: “Social media is a powerful tool and should be used with consideration and thought. With most of the pictures I post, I question why I am posting it; there is no point posting something if no one is going to learn or gain something positive from it. If you are going to create, do so with purpose and meaning. We are all worth following, we are all individuals, you just have to figure out what makes you unique.”
Iskra cupped her face in her hands and said bluntly: “There are girls on social media in bikinis showing off their boobs and bums, and that’s fine, but I don’t want to get naked for followers. Let’s be real, I could be a lot more explicit on Instagram and probably have another 5 million followers by the end of the year, but what would that mean? Absolutely nothing.”
She added: “It’s crazy because I get these misogynistic men commenting things like ‘shut the fuck up, turn around and show us your bum’, or ‘don’t pretend you have a brain bimbo’. That’s okay though, I am not here to please them, this is bigger than their small brains.”
Bodysuit: Pretty Little Thing Jewellery: Oscar de la Renta
As articulate, as she is passionate, in March 2016, Iskra delivered a powerful speech at Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. She discussed ideas to help positively impact mental health and the reputation of fashion models.
As part of From the Runway to the Factory Floor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Iskra spoke alongside inspirational women such as Ashley Mears, associate professor of sociology at Boston University and Dr S. Bryn Austin, Professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
When speaking about the great honour, Iskra’s face lit up in awe. She confessed: “I wasn’t invited, I had to make that happen. Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, has always been an inspiration to me. My friend Jessica told me that she was meeting with Sara, and I begged her to take me.”
She continued: “She let me tag along which meant the world to me. It was a humbling experience; I was on a panel with a woman who had worked in a sweatshop from the age of 12. She was discussing her health concerns, and how she had been affected by the fashion industry, I couldn’t believe I had to speak after her!”
Robe: Olivia von Halle Earrings: Vintage
She added: “I felt like my issue wasn’t as important. They made me feel so comfortable and assured me that everyone’s issue deserves to be spoken about.”
Iskra is one of the stars of HBO’s Straight/Curve, a cutting edge documentary about body image and fashion industry leaders challenging society’s unrealistic standards of beauty.
She clasped her hands with excitement, then said passionately: “The Straight/Curve documentary will air next Spring. It is the first documentary to openly discuss health, wellbeing and mental health in the fashion industry from both sides of the scale. They speak to everybody, including doctors, models and bookers. I am so honoured to be a part of it.”
Iskra raised her eyebrows then said quizzically: “I never went to university because I knew what I wanted to do didn’t require a degree. I’ve invested all my time trying to reach my goals and mind blowing opportunities, such as speaking at Harvard which just goes to show that if you really work hard, you can achieve anything.”
Iskra has campaigned vehemently against trolls on social media. Negative comments can have a severe impact on mental and physical health. This led to a desire to eradicate the stigma of eating disorders which resulted in her becoming a brand ambassador for the National Eating Disorders Association, whose mission is to confront serious illnesses with increased awareness, early intervention and improved access to treatment.
Iskra was also the brainchild behind the National Eating Disorders Association ‘NEDA Inspires Seal of Approval’ campaign, which recognises companies and individuals who are striving to challenge the thin ideal and promote diverse representations of beauty in advertising, image and editorial content.
Iskra leant in towards me, her eyebrows furrowed in concern. She said frankly: “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.”
She added: “I feel a real connection with NEDA because of the struggles I have had with my own body. There is still a lot of work to do to but eating disorders and mental health are often overlooked and I’ll do anything I can to help save lives.”
Iskra thought for a moment; then she said: “Don’t compare yourself to anybody else, you can never be them. All that time spent wishing you had someone else’s body, career or relationship could be better spent bettering yourself.”
She continued: “Please, start from today, stop worrying about what anybody else is doing and start working on you. All those special things that make you who you are, no other person can ever have that. There is only one you.”
Suddenly a raucous round of applause erupted around the room. Iskra and I looked up to see that the creative team had stopped their jobs and were staring at us, transfixed, thunderously clapping their hands. I looked at Iskra who had blushed fiercely and joined in with the applause. Only one thought crossed my mind… this girl is going to be a fucking star.
Alice Howlett using YSL Beauty and Claudalie Skincare
Danny Defreitas using Bumble and Bumble, Cloudnine and Kent Brushes
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