Discovered on Instagram in 2015 by legendary British make-up artist Pat McGrath, Elsesser has since fronted campaigns for Savage x Fenty, Glossier and Victoria’s Secret, and appeared in the Safdie brothers’ movie Uncut Gems. Last month she featured in TIME magazine’s 100 list, with fellow plus-size model Ashley Graham gushing: “You don’t know cool until you’ve met Paloma”.
But her career highlight has to be bagging a solo cover of US Vogue, shot by Annie Leibowitz, in December. “A truly monumental moment,” she says. “When I’m 50 I’ll be like, ‘Oh I was on the cover of American Vogue by myself’.” Or as she put it on Instagram, to her 360k fans: “I’m shooting an american vogue cover as a chubby, short, mixed race womxn who never imagined this would be her reality.”
She was recently interviewed by activist and author Meena Harris, Vice President Kamala’s niece, for the Conversations with Coach series on ‘Gamechanging Women’ (you can watch the full conversation below and on YouTube). “Representation not only feels good, it’s imperative… There’s still so far for us to go, and I don’t believe that it stops with me. It better not,” Elsesser tells Harris and singer-songwriter Yuna in the clip.
The conversation also hears Harris talk about her children’s book, Ambitious Girl. “What inspired me initially to write books was really just appreciating that [idea of representation] first-hand with my daughters… Not only did I understand that you can’t be what you can’t see, but further, when we’re reading books or see other images out in the world, they want to be what they see.”
Elsesser says that growing up in LA, she wishes she’d had more diverse children’s books like Harris’. “When I was young I had to go into my own imagination because I didn’t see myself reflected in books and television,” she says. “I’ve always felt like an outsider. I had to rely on fantasy to find myself. At school I didn’t see my financial experience reflected and then not being thin or white… I always felt weird.”
Today Elsesser is speaking to me via Zoom from her New York apartment “drinking coffee with a hair mask on my head, listening to a lot of podcasts about imposter syndrome and how it manifests in my life.” Given how body confident she appears in her work and on Instagram, it’s surprising to hear she doesn’t always feel the self-love she inspires in others.
“I’m in my late-20s now and I’ll catch myself hating on my face some days, I’m only human,” she says. “I don’t wake up and think ‘everyone wants me to change but I’m like f**k ‘em’. There’s only so much acceptance you can have for yourself when withstanding these prescriptive ideas of beauty and femininity. It’s not this sudden arrival of ‘I remember when people used to want to change me but now I don’t want to’. It’s more that I’m still susceptible to feeling like I want to change for other people, but I have much better and gentler ways of navigating it now.”
Although it’s become trendy to pay lip service to activism on social media, Elsesser is the real deal – marching during the Black Lives Matter protests and helping to set up a community fridge in her New York neighbourhood during the pandemic. She prefers the word ‘advocate’ to activist, but says her strong sense of social justice goes hand-in-hand with her modelling.
“I wouldn’t be able to model if I wasn’t centred in some level of expanding or changing things,” she says. “Although I wish I didn’t always have to speak up on everything all the time. I’m like ‘Can’t I just come and model?’” she laughs. “Sometimes I go to sleep and I think ‘I wonder what it would be like if I had a podcast that talked nothing about my body and nothing about my ethnicity, wouldn’t that be cool too? If I could just be the freak who liked poetry and had a podcast about the Cocteau Twins and Kate Bush? That should be possible!”
Politics has been a part of her life from an early age – her Swiss-Chilean father having sought refuge in London after fleeing Pinochet’s coup (her mother is African-American). “I was born in a bath tub in Kentish Town,” she laughs. “We moved to the US when I was two but I still have my British passport. I was just messaging my London team to say ‘I really miss London’. I feel like my stride is strong in London. I love the energy and creativity and scrappiness. London calls for more intimate relationships and really spending time with people and making lunch on a Sunday. A lot of my friends live in east London and we would go out and then end up eating Lebanese food at like 3am. I’ve got to shout-out Nandos, too.”
Last month Elsesser walked for Gabriela Hearst at New York Fashion Week alongside stars including Kamala Harris’ stepdaughter Ella Emhoff and has said in the past that she can sense “ogling” as the only plus-size model on the catwalk for Fendi, Lanvin, and Alexander McQueen.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, I put a lot of pressure on myself around what it means for me to be in the show,” she says. “Sometimes I’m the only one of my body type or height so I feel like there’s a lot riding on it. If I do the show, then a sample is created in my size so more girls in my body type can be shot in it and have more options than just a jacket. It’s more than just representation. But it’s also stressful, it’s the time I’m surrounded by the more jarring elements of my industry. It’s where you see the tallest and the thinnest and the youngest models.”
No doubt it’s a flashback to how she felt when she first started modelling at 21. “There was no one in the industry who I could look to,” she says. “Of course there were amazing plus-size models but I couldn’t identify with their experience or image and that was very scary for me. But then I thought maybe I can create more space for someone else to look to me as the example and open up more doors for other people.”
And it’s working – she takes out her phone to read me a message she received on Instagram yesterday. “‘You have no idea how you’ve helped me through your self-love journey… whenever I feel bad about myself I watch your interviews…’”she reads. “People are so nice.”
Elsesser says she hopes the current trend for diversity will lead to lasting change. “Fashion exists in cycles and at the minute we’re in an inclusion and representation cycle and I hope it remains,” she says. “As much as I can say ‘Why am I the only one here?’ there has to be tokenism for normalisation to exist. It has to be done for the first time at some time.
“We’re still in an era of so many firsts. Until we’re seeing diverse bodies, plus bodies, mid-size bodies in every publication and campaign it will be like they’re just ticking the box. There’s definitely tokenism, but what’s the alternative… just not do it? People who look like me on magazine covers is just the start.”
Elsesser’s full Coach Conversation with Meena Harris and Yuna can be watched here on YouTube. Stuart Vevers, Executive Director Coach, says: “Coach Conversations celebrates something I’ve always believed about fashion: that it should be about community. It features conversations with our Coach Family and friends—individuals like Paloma, Yuna and Meena who are authentically living their values every day. They are the perfect ambassadors for our conversation about women who are breaking barriers in their respective fields, and who inspire others to do the same.”