Nancy Upton: Last laugh in American Apparel plus-sized modeling contest

Nancy Upton — like other aspiring models — sent her photos in for American Apparel’s Next BIG Thing modeling contest. Except she’s not a model. Why did her entry create such an uproar?

Nancy Upton American Apparel

Dallas student Nancy Upton doesn’t fancy herself a model; the theatre is more her cup of tea. However, that didn’t stop the 24-year-old from entering American Apparel’s “Next Big Thing” modeling contest.

The company wrote in the contest announcement:

“Think you’re bigger, better and more booty-ful than the rest? Submit a recent photo of your face and physique for a chance to be our Next BIG Thing,” the company wrote in the contest announcement.

That’s right: American Apparel — a company that once told a plus-sized model that larger sizes are “not our demographic” — is launching a size XL for some garments.

Upton hired her photographer friend, Shannon Skloss, to take some “booty-ful” pictures for her entry. The unfortunate part? “I just couldn’t stop eating,” she said. The size 12 Upton posted the photos — featuring her in provocative photos with cherry pie, ranch dressing and chocolate sauce — on her entry, alongside photos of other plus-sized gals in serious modeling poses.

Why? Because American Apparel — known for its pseudo-pornographic ads — couldn’t even hide its disdain for plus-sized women in its own contest copy.

“I had been super ooged out by American Apparel in the past — its sexy-nymphs-in-tube-socks ad campaigns, the skeevy stare of its hipster-hero CEO (the Jane article still haunts me). I just couldn’t get this new stunt out of my head. The company was co-opting the mantra of plus-size empowerment and glazing it with its unmistakable brand of female objectification,” Upton wrote in an article for The Daily Beast.

Except Upton got the last laugh — the contest closed Friday with her entry in the top spot.

“American Apparel was going to try to use one fat girl as a symbol of apology and acceptance to a demographic it had long insisted on ignoring,” Upton told SheKnows.

She did have some dissenters, including a fellow contestant.

“She sent a couple of angry emails and has been very outspoken on some comment threads,” Upton said. “Basically saying that I’ve destroyed the world of plus-sized modeling, betrayed women everywhere, she had pissed off her agents entering a contest that I had destroyed, how terrible a person I am to do what I did.”

Nancy Upton’s reaction

The positive comments far outweighed the negative ones.

“I felt a little bad when I got the first email- like, ‘oh my God, what if she’s right? What if I’m hurting other women?’ Then I got some tweets and a couple of direct messages from a successful plus-sized model who works for a very reputably agency in New York that said, ‘Uh, if I had thought my agency wouldn’t have dropped me, I would have loved to do what you did. I’m glad you exposed how disgusting that company’s behavior is.'”

She didn’t really expect to collect her winnings from American Apparel.

“Well, when you entered the contest, you were required to read a very long piece of legal gobbledygook that basically said they reserved the right to pick whomever they want and that the results of the voting aren’t binding. So, while I got the most votes, it doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll ‘win’ the contract,” she said.

And of course, she didn’t.

American Apparel’s response

American Apparel demographic

Upton received an email from American Apparel’s creative director Iris Alonzo that both insulted Upton and patted the apparel company on the back.

“It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that ‘bootylicous’ was too much for you to handle. While we may be a bit TOO inspired by Beyoncé, and do have a tendency to occasionally go pun-crazy, we try not to take ourselves too seriously around here. I wonder if you had taken just a moment to imagine that this campaign could actually be well intentioned, and that my team and I are not out to offend and insult women, would you have still behaved in the same way, mocking the confident and excited participants who put themselves out there?”

Maybe you’ll find it interesting that in addition to simply responding to customer demand and feedback, when you’re a vertically-integrated company, actual jobs are created from new size additions. In this case, for the XL women who will model them, industrial workers that make them, retail employees that sell them and beyond. That’s the amazing reality of American Apparel’s business.

…Oh — and regarding winning the contest, while you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company.”


Not like it really matters to Upton. She wasn’t actually looking to win the contest — she just wanted to create a dialogue.

“With this, I’m just really glad to have stirred up some discussion on the topics of size, beauty and women being outspoken,” she said.

And we think you’re amazing, Nancy.

Image courtesy Nancy Upton/Extra Wiggle Room

TELL US: Which side are you on: Nancy Upton’s or American Apparel’s?


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