Born in Miami Florida in 1987, Crystal’s connection with the modelling industry began when she was just 14 years old. She was approached by a model scout and asked if she had ever considered a career in fashion. At 5’9” and a (British) size 18, Renn had assumed that being a model was not a realistic goal.
In her biography ‘Hungry’, Renn describes how the scout showed her pictures of Gisele Bundchen and other models that were just beginning to break into the fashion world. With a little work, it was implied, Renn could have a career just like them. Renn was told that to succeed, she would need to lose weight.
Crystal went on to lose a massive 40% of her starting body weight, doing so by adopting a dangerous regime that equated to near-starvation. She began to work, but the career that was promised to her, never materialised. On the fringes of fashion, Crystal found that maintaining the massive weight loss was an all-consuming struggle. Just getting out of bed, let alone attending go-sees every day, presented an almost overwhelming daily challenge.
It was becoming clear to Renn that things were not progressing the way she’d hoped. Her body, existing on a tiny amount of calories just to survive, eventually rebelled. Crystal experienced a health crisis and rapidly gained 70lbs.
After her health had stabilised, Renn found herself at a size 16. Her career as a ‘regular model’ was over. Instead of giving up altogether, Renn reassessed her priorities. She still wanted to model, and be part of the fashion world, but not at the expense of her health.
Renn made the decision to reposition herself in the market as a plus-size model. In America, the plus-size industry is very well respected – and potentially extremely lucrative for girls who happen to have the right look.
Renn, already a fashion insider, discovered that plus-size work demanded the same stringent adherence to focus and discipline as regular modelling. At 5’9”, with excellent photogenic features and a toned, well-proportioned body, Renn was exactly what the plus-size industry was looking for. Returning to modelling in 2004, Renn signed with Ford Models – an agency that is known for supporting the careers of plus-size models. With Ford behind her, Renn found to her amazement that work began to flood in.
In 2006, Renn was invited to walk in the ready-to-wear show for Jean Paul Gaultier. A plus-size model in a show of regular-sized models, Renn was not the politically correct token gesture. Gaultier, interviewed later about his choice, simply responded that she had been picked for the show because she was beautiful. Renn’s appearance caused a sensation, and this kick-started her new career.
If Renn ever had any doubts about moving to the plus-size sector, her fears were allayed when offers began to pour in. High-street names Mango and H&M signed her up for campaigns, plus cover shoots with Italian Elle (December 2008) and Harpers Bazaar in Russia (December 2006). Renn made history by becoming the first plus-size model to feature on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.
The accolades didn’t stop there. She scored lucrative, long-standing campaigns with high-end department store Saks 5th Avenue in New York, and British plus-size retail leader, Evans. In Britain, she racked up considerable press attention by becoming the face of Evans. It is a brand that has not received much attention in the popular press, but Renn’s appearance on its shop fronts triggered a revival of interest in what plus-size fashion has to offer. By hiring a model of Renn’s calibre to represent them, Evans suddenly got taken a whole lot more seriously. Plus-size modelling had just found its first supermodel.
Image is central to the fashion business, and Renn gave plus-size fashion a much-needed editorial edge. Blurring the line between ‘beauty’ and ‘size’, Crystal Renn exploded the myth that plus-size fashion had to be a compromise. By choosing Renn to represent their brands, these high-street names were giving power back to the consumer, by giving them choice.
By employing models like Renn who apply the same work ethic to a plus-size brand as they would a cover try, retailers took a massive step forward, persuading consumers that they were also being taken seriously. There is serious money to be made for those who get plus-size fashion right, and in these difficult times, failing to connect with potential customers is no laughing matter.
The increase in fashion literacy over the past decade, has seen a significant change in how the public approach fashion; what they buy, and what they don’t. There is a definite shift occurring in how fashion – for all sizes – is being designed, made and sold. Attention to detail and catwalk influences have never been more important: striking the right note can mean the difference between survival and extinction.
Where Crystal Renn fits in is with the overall perception of the plus-size industry. Image is central to fashion, and for too long, plus-size fashion had fallen behind the times. Not only did plus-size stores have to revamp their stores and merchandise to offer a shopping experience comparable to other names that has also upped their game: in order for plus-size to operate on a level playing-field with its competitors, it needed a revolution, and every revolution needs a figurehead. Plus-size fashion needed someone fashion-forward, relevant and above all, aspirational. That is why Crystal Renn’s career has gone from strength to strength. She is the face of a new generation who are refusing to see beauty in narrow, definitive terms.
The idea that only thin can be beautiful is just as dubious as the popularly trotted-out line that only ‘real women have curves’. These ideas are old-fashioned at best, and at worst, unhelpful and divisive. Beauty is not an ‘either / or’ scenario, and approaching it in such linear terms helps no-one feel better about themselves.
Fashion is often painted as the ‘bad guy’ of body politics, creating impossible standards for ordinary women to live by. Leaving aside the issue of lighting and airbrushing (even Gisele doesn’t look like Gisele when she gets up in the morning), the beauty of models such as Renn is that they pose a direct challenge to our own ideas about what constitutes beauty.
It is an important lesson for any woman at any age. Beauty is about more than numbers –when it works, it works, but trying to explain how or why – that’s another challenge altogether. There is a long way to go, but modelling is endeavouring to move forward in a more inclusive way in determining what is beautiful – now.
The weight gain that Renn had seen as being so catastrophic to her career was in fact the very thing that saved it. By learning to live with her body, Renn’s face made her name and her fortune.