Paloma Elsesser was the first plus-sized Model of the Year; then the haters, including Kanye, came for her

Paloma Elsesser opens up about winning Model of the Year and how she regrouped after the backlash.

Paloma Elsesser, Model of the Year, British Fashion Council, Paloma discusses backlash, Black plus-size model, Kanye West,
Paloma Elsesser attends the #BoF500 Gala during Paris Fashion Week at Shangri-La Hotel Paris on Sept. 30, 2023, in Paris, France. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images for The Business of Fashion)

When Black plus-size model Paloma Elsesser won the British Fashion Council’s Model of the Year award in December 2023, she expected some backlash. So much so that she had initially hoped she wouldn’t win.

“I was on my hands and knees … praying,” she wrote in an essay for New York magazine

Elsesser, who was born to an African-American mother and a Chilean-Swiss father, was part of the award’s most diverse pool of models to date. Nominated alongside Anok Yai, Liu Wen, Alton Mason, Mona Tougaard, and Kai-Isaiah Jamal, the six 2023 nominees represented Black American, African Asian, mixed-heritage, and queer and trans identities. But immediately following her win in December, Elsesser’s worst fears were confirmed by an onslaught of hateful trolls — including Kanye “Ye” West, who posted a TikTok in which he included Elsesser in his condemnation of “part of a vast conspiracy to ‘push obesity to us.’”

Notably, this is not the first time Kanye has used social media to target a Black, plus-sized woman. As previously reported by theGrio, in 2022, he infamously attacked Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, Vogue’s former global fashion editor-at-large, after she dared criticize his use of the slogan “White Lives Matter” in his Yeezy presentation during Paris Fashion Week. As with Elsesser, he used his platform to denigrate Karefa-Johnson’s appearance and rally his followers to do the same.

As Elsesser explained, the abuse was devastating to her mental health. “Every doubt I had ever felt bubbled and spat like oil on a pan; my self-esteem was eviscerated. It felt as though my intrusive thoughts had become the subject of discourse for every rando on the internet (zero posts, zero followers, with handles like “fashionluvr2002”),” she wrote.

Two months later, Elsesser is opening up about the experience and declaring why she refuses to allow any of it — including holding the line when it comes to her beliefs on the Israel-Palestine conflict — to get to her anymore. 

“I’ve learned to be okay with pissing people off, even if it means losing opportunities,” she noted.

She also noted that, in what increasingly seems to be a backlash against the body positivity movement, her treatment was part of a larger, pervasive problem. “This narrative has long followed me and many in the public eye whose bodies aren’t thin. Yet over the last few years, fatphobia has become acceptable again,” the model explained.

What’s worse, she said, is that the effort it takes to be the “first” to accrue milestones like the BFC award or numerous covers of fashion magazines doesn’t always feel like it’s paying off. 

“The industry may carve out space for a select few names like mine, but it firmly shuts the door on countless others,” she continued. “The pride in being part of a list of ‘firsts’ is fading; being the first curve model for a campaign loses its significance when the brand fails to open its doors to the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh.”

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However, she says she’s found resolve in reclaiming her initial “why.” Elsesser famously got her start when legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath noticed the then-college student on social media and reached out with an offer that changed her life. Since then, Elsesser has spent the past decade pushing the boundaries of representation in the fashion industry. She’s appeared on the cover of British Vogue several times (including as part of the March 2024 issue), walked runways worldwide for luxury labels, and led major campaigns. 

While she took two months away from social media to process the win, the backlash, and to regroup, Elsesser now says she’s not going to “hide away” any longer. 

“Yes, I face criticism and doubt, but I keep going because it matters,” she said. “I continue because it matters enough to me and because the people it impacts matter enough to me.”

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