The painfully hip New York hotel bar in which I am supposed to be meeting Crystal Renn is full. The skinny young host (fashionably draped in black and looking like a medieval pageboy) assures me there is not a table to be had for love nor money. But when I mention that I'm going to be interviewing the world's most successful plus-size model, he manages to squeeze us in.
Crystal Renn has been in Vogue; she has been in catwalk shows and ad campaigns; she has been photographed by Steven Meisel, Craig McDean and Patrick Demarchelier. She is the commercial face of high street chains Mango and Evans. She has written a book. In short, she has done everything that aspiring Naomis, Kates and Agynesses dream of, but she has done it (shock! horror!) as a UK size 16. In an industry where most mainstream models are no bigger than a size eight and anyone bigger than that is lucky to get catalogue work, this is simply unheard of.
Renn, 23, isn't exactly a new face. She's been modelling for nearly 10 years, but she is the new face of something. Some call it a movement or a revolution, others a long-overdue adjustment, but Crystal Renn is certainly having what fashion types like to call a "moment". On Saturday, she will model in designer Mark Fast's show at London Fashion Week. Fast grabbed headlines last season after he used plus-size models on his catwalk; his stylist supposedly walked out at the eleventh hour, claiming unfeasible working conditions, and the whole size zero debate was opened up once more.
"I don't know if I'm the first," she replies modestly, when I suggest she has blazed a trail out of the plus-size commercial hinterland and into the most prestigious editorial pages of fashion magazines. "I wasn't like 'I'll be the first', because I wasn't really thinking about anything except the fact that I would do editorial. My size was irrelevant. Throw size away. I am capable of the things that were promised to me when I was 14."
This was the age at which Renn was discovered at a Mississippi charm school by an agency talent scout from New York. He told her she could be the next Gisele Bundchen – if she slimmed her hip measurement down to 34 inches. Renn made up her mind to do so – "I've always been extremely driven" – and lost the requisite 9in. It meant dropping nearly 5st, or 42 per cent of her entire body weight.
"I thought, 'I'll eat healthy and I'll just be a size zero like models,'" she remembers. "I dropped about 35lb in three months and I realised it was not going to be so easy. I had some weight to go. So that's when things took a more extreme turn. That's when the calories came down and the exercise went up and the absolute obsession took hold – of all parts of my life."
Renn's memoir, Hungry: A Young Model's Story of Appetite, Ambition and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves, which was published in September, is a powerful account of what she went through to become a model. It's chatty and funny without being too light, and it's intelligent, steely and incredibly affecting. "People need to hear this story because it's their story," she says. "Women deal with this all the time, and I think most of them can relate to this story in some way."
On shoots and at interviews, most models instantly stand out as the anti-elephant in the room – the girl who is noticeably different from everyone else, because she is a size that very few people can maintain. That is not to say she looks ill or famished or as if she's about to topple over, merely that she is someone who looks a certain way for a living. Renn and I meet in New York a few days before Fashion Week kicks off there, and the city is littered with long-haired, leggy types in leather trousers and platform heels. Noticing them is like playing a game of I-spy.
But Crystal Renn looks like a normal person, albeit a very beautiful one. And she doesn't look like a size 16. She hears this a lot. In her book, she describes the constant trills from editors and stylists that she meets who tell her, by way of a compliment, that she doesn't "look fat". "It's simply bizarre," she writes, "that 'normal' is the new overweight." With her abundant hair, flawless skin and fleshy curves, in her shoots Crystal Renn brings to mind a classical statue or a Rubens, perhaps even Jennifer Lopez. In person though, she is almost unobtrusive: tall and striking, yes, but when we first pass on the stairs I have to check twice that it's her.
She certainly doesn't resemble the kind of model who does simpering mail-order catalogues. Dressed in black, she looks high fashion, through and through: a Viktor & Rolf blazer with Ann Demeulemeester leggings and Rick Owens wedge-boots, carrying a Balenciaga handbag.
But in glasses and with straight hair, she also looks like a very pretty sort of law student – a career path she once thought of following. "I was a girl living in the middle of nowhere, Mississippi, in the middle of America," she recounts. "I dreamed of being a lawyer and going to Yale, it's what I wanted to do. But how am I going to get to Yale without the $300,000 for the education? How am I even going to get there with no plane ticket? How I am going to do any of the things I want to do stuck in this small town? What the fashion industry allowed me to do was – and yes, I suffered greatly because of my decisions – at 16, I took off and I saw the world."
Renn describes her school-aged self as "the goth girl, the weird freak", but she was in fact a bright and well-read teenager, a cheerleader with an interest in Shakespeare and an extra-curricular line in martial arts. Raised by her grandmother, a cosmetics saleswoman, whom she referred to as "Mom", Renn lived in Florida until she was 12, when the pair moved to Mississippi – at Renn's insistence – to live with her biological mother. "Lana", as she is referred to in the book, suffered from unspecified drug addictions and mental health problems during Renn's infancy, but later settled with a husband and had two other daughters. Renn is no longer in close contact with her mother.
But far from being a victim of a dysfunctional childhood, Crystal Renn is a poised, articulate and thoughtful young woman. She gives the impression of deep self-knowledge, which gives her the confidence and drive to focus on what she sees as the important issues. "My passion doesn't go away," she says. "It keeps gaining momentum. I'm fighting for a cause: women hate themselves. That is so sad. There are so many people out there who could change the world, but they're consumed with self-hatred."
Indeed, Renn herself has blossomed since the day she took the decision to become a plus-size model. Her "epiphany", as she calls it, came shortly after she was sent home from a catalogue shoot for being too large. She was a size eight. "I went down to 6st and then luckily – although at the time I didn't think I was very lucky – my body rebelled. I would be eating only vegetables and exercising up to eight hours a day, but my body went up to a size six [a UK 10] and my agency was all over me about it."
Renn was called in to see her agent and spent the weekend before the meeting surviving on chewing gum and working out. She had joined two different gyms so she could spend as much time as possible exercising without raising suspicions, and in the book describes herself hobbling home, "like an elderly woman, holding on to brick walls, lampposts and fire hydrants". To this day, she has a recurring hip complaint, a "grinding noise" as she calls it, caused by spending too long on the treadmill.
At that fateful meeting, Renn was told she was too large and that she needed to lose more weight. "I was done," she writes in her book. "I was dying. I didn't want to die." So she opted for plus-size, a chance to earn a living at a weight that came more naturally; she transferred agencies and spent months recovering, going up to a size 20 before eventually settling at the 16 she is now.
She is more successful now than she ever hoped or managed to be during her anorexic years. "I feel more accepted than ever before," she says. "I was never comfortable in my own skin until I recovered from anorexia and became the weight that I am now. It's about a healthy diet, it's about exercise, it's about moderation most of all." In her book, Renn quotes an average day's consumption: breakfast is two eggs with toast, an avocado and orange juice; lunch is salmon and brown rice with vegetables; dinner some duck gnocchi with salad and a crème brulée. "Just because I'm a plus-size model doesn't mean that fast food is my daily diet," she says, countering many leftfield claims that she is an unhealthy role model for women in an age of rising obesity levels.
Doesn't she ever get sick of talking about food and her body? "Sometimes I'm exhausted by everything," she admits. "I just want to lie down in a padded room. It's more exhausting because I'm so passionate [on the subject]."
One might expect Crystal Renn to have become disillusioned with fashion. But her book also discusses her career since she recovered from anorexia. Her enthusiasm for modelling and for fashion is undampened. "I model for women," she asserts. "The clothes, the fantasy, it's for them to feel inspired. I discover something about myself after every shoot. Some might laugh, 'Oh, a model and her craft,' but you know what? Get in front of a camera and find enough confidence to perform: it's not easy." She laughs and then looks serious. "I love what I do."
How then does she reconcile this dream job to the one that made her so ill, so desperate and so weak? "The fashion industry didn't chain me to a treadmill," she reasons. "They didn't stuff vegetables down my throat, they weren't there when I was exercising for 16 hours. I do not blame the fashion industry for my eating disorder, it was my decision. The fashion industry actually offered me some of the greatest opportunities of my entire life."
But for someone who has experienced so severe an eating disorder, one can imagine the constant scrutiny and criticism that comes with modelling – or indeed any public role – could be seriously damaging, and potentially even bring about a relapse. "Of course, it hurts," Renn concedes. "They'll manipulate the pictures or use an unflattering pose. There's a lot of talk on the internet of 'oh, she's a 4' [UK size 6] or 'oh she's a 16' [UK size 18]. Hey, I do fluctuate. I find the scrutiny of my body sometimes very difficult to deal with, but I'm not going to be smaller for you. And I'm not going to be bigger for you either. But people go insane trying to dissect my thighs and I think it just shows where people are. They are hungry to see something new, and I think they just want something they can relate to.
"I don't believe that all models should be size 16s," she continues. "That's discrimination the other way. And I don't want things to change overnight – that would be a trend. I do however believe we should have a variety of women. I'd like to see a similar thing to the Eighties: real women, personalities, beautiful!"
There have been calls for such a thing from many camps previously, but it isn't until the industry leaders – that is, the high-end brands, the directional labels and the creative innovators – get on board that much attention is paid. Otherwise, it is seen as the PC lobby trying to make fashion mundane.
It's true though that there has been some movement in the past year or so, from the un-airbrushed picture of model Lizzie Miller in US Glamour, whose slightly-rounder-than-usual stomach (for a glossy magazine) caught the media's attention last September, to Beth Ditto's naked cover shoot for the very first issue of Katie Grand's Love, and German magazine Brigitte, which has pledged to shoot clothes on ordinary women. British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman recently penned an open letter to designers, asking them to make samples larger so that models could be bigger, and claiming that many models in the magazine actually needed airbrushing to make them look less thin.
Renn herself features in a shoot this month by photographer Terry Richardson in high fashion bible V magazine, wearing the same designer looks as catwalk model Jacquelyn Jablonski, and striking similar poses. Billed as "the size issue", the magazine and its creative director Stephen Gan has succeeded in raising a few industry eyebrows. Add to that Mark Fast's efforts to use larger sizes at his last show and his next, and there seems to be change afoot. "[Fast's] clothes look beautiful on all shapes and sizes," says Renn. "Maybe he just thought 'I'm going to start giving my customers what they want, they need to see the clothes on their bodies.'"
The furore with Fast's stylist last season hinged on one of fashion's main objections to plus-size models on the catwalk: that because they are usually only booked for catalogue (ie photographic) work, they do not have the requisite experience to walk on the international runways. "Teach them!" screeches Renn. "The 15-year-old from the Ukraine who doesn't speak English somehow managed to do it, it took her five minutes to learn. I ended the Gaultier show in 2005. What, because someone's big they can't walk in heels? That's insane. Plus-size models don't know how to walk. But they don't have the opportunity to practise! Shame there!"
The other barrier, I suggest in my role as Prada-wearing devil's advocate, is that models are required to be as close to a walking clothes-hanger as possible to show off the clothes in their purest state. Which means no wobbly bits and nothing, absolutely nothing, that could count as vaguely erotic, thereby rendering a sheer chiffon blouse obscene. "If I wanted to see them on a hanger, I would just look at the garments in my closet," Renn counters. "Those clothes are going to be on these women." She gestures around the packed bar which, although full of fashionably thin types, is also host to a full house of different silhouettes. "These aren't hangers. They should be able to see variety up there and get an idea of who they are, and not feel pressure to change. It would be a huge boost economically – the amount of money that could be made from women feeling empowered and beautiful? I think it would start a surge of shopping."
So why haven't things changed before now? "If you see human heft as déclassé," Renn writes, "as a sign of tackiness, then extreme thinness can be a way of distancing yourself from and seeming more high-class than the people you scorn." Brands rely on perpetuating an aspirational, often unachievable, sense of luxury and perhaps thinness is something that goes hand-in-hand with that. When I mention this during our interview, Renn refers once more to the economy; given the slew of fashion bankruptcies this year, perhaps these ultra-exclusive labels will need to worship Mammon more than they worship thin. "Designers sending one type of girl down the runway is saying, 'This is the only thing that can be beautiful,' " intones Renn in a mock-serious voice. "'And you, you fat consumer, will never be beautiful, no matter what you do. And you will also not be able to wear my dress.'" She shrugs.
Fashion's cult of thinness is one thing, but its cult of appearance and self-improvement is another. Few sufferers of eating disorders blame their illness on pictures of skinny models; it is more the pervasive and defeating sense of perfection that one can never quite live up to which causes anxiety and self-hatred. While Crystal Renn is a size 16, she is no lumpen hag. There is a difference, I suggest, between being beautiful and feeling beautiful. Some people will always look better than others, and some people will feel that more keenly. "Oh, that's life!" She laughs. "Sorry! It was hard for me too when I learned that! Thank you very much, but you can go into a blog about me and it'll [read] 'Look at her fat ass,' 'Who does she think she is?' Someone else over there is saying, 'She's hideous.' If you look to others, there'll always be someone prettier. Look to yourself.
"Women have come so far," she carries on. "We've come oh-so-far, but not as far as we could yet go, because our vanity worries take up most of our time mentally and it's holding us back. If we throw away the idea of obsessing about calories, imagine how much your mind is freed up. I certainly found that to be the case."