“I didn’t realize until coming to New York how Kimmy Schmidt I am,” rising model Liz Harlan tells me, offering up an infectious laugh. Harlan moved to New York City just a few years ago to study photography at SVA, and to also “just get out of there”—there being a “super rural” town in Massachusetts where she spent her formative years. She didn’t exactly fit in.
“I read a lot of fashion magazines and was super-esoteric and stuck out like a sore thumb,” she says. “It was too much! I was like, I need to express myself!” Well, mission accomplished. Harlan, whose first love was photography, admits she hasn’t picked up her camera in a while: “I graduated and then Instagram was happening and it was like, ‘Oh, my photography skills are useless,’” she says. Instead, she’d soon find herself on the other side, starting off as what the fashion world considers to be a plus-size model. As a symptomatic result of a celiac disease diagnosis, she dropped down to a size two, suddenly finding herself in a totally different part of the industry. She now speaks out about (a lot of) fashion’s bullshit size issues and has become a role model for many.
Kicking off 2019 by signing with Elite Model Management, the much-buzzed-about model has a lot to be excited about. Below, we caught up with Harlan on-set on the Lower East Side, where she arrived wearing fishnet arm warmers, a Victorian-goth baby doll dress, and aquarium-blue hair. Like we said, there’s a reason people are into her.
You penned a powerful and filter-free essay for VFILES about the fashion world’s ongoing issue with not fully embracing all body types. What made you speak out? Can you talk more about your modeling journey?
“I started out as a plus-size model for like a year and a half. Then I went through a bit of a weight loss because of celiac disease. I learned a lot, like how women outside of a certain size range in fashion aren’t considered, which is really messed up. The majority of the population in America is over a size 14. People want to see people they can relate to in the media and in clothes they’re going to buy and wear.
“It was such a crazy perspective shift to lose weight and have this really editorial look. I was suddenly in that realm. I was a size two at the time—I’m not now. I was just like Wow, this is so different than what it is for plus sized models. It’s really sad, because they’re way more brilliant in the sense that, the ones that are successful, they have created these online user platforms to really sell themselves as a muse. I always deeply admired that. They make themselves into icons. I’m like a size six right now, and I wonder sometimes, did I not get booked because of my body? I still have those lingering thoughts, but I’m just trying to work through them. I’ve noticed that a lot of girls that are above a size four are working a lot harder. They’re hustling and finding ways to make themselves be seen in that light.”
That’s the cool thing about Instagram, you can have control of what you post and how you wish to present yourself to the world. What are your thoughts on models being discovered and sought out by agencies because of their Instagram posts and follower count?
“You see the fans interacting on people’s pages and it just shows who people are responding to. And, by default, those people end up making it. It’s really cool. People are being seen and being put in high-fashion campaigns and editorials that we wouldn’t have seen five years ago. It ultimately has to do with the mind of the user and the messages they’re sending. I feel like positivity gets the best response and that’s what people wanna see. But it’s definitely a weird time to be in the industry. You have to constantly reinvent yourself but somehow also stay consistent. But I feel optimistic.”
How has it been for you since getting signed to Elite?
“They really get me. They get the vision of what I want out of my career, so I’m really excited for things to progress. I’m not trying to change anymore. My agency just wants me to be at my best, healthiest, happiest self.”
How do you maintain a lifestyle and mindset that supports you being your best, healthiest, and happiest self?
“I’ve been on a wellness journey ever since I started modeling. It’s been kind of the biggest blessing in my life, to have to be very conscious of how I’m taking care of my health. It’s an uphill struggle, but you have to take care of yourself and love yourself or the industry will get to you. I just think practicing self-love and being compassionate to myself is the way I stay sane.”
You have a lotus flower neck tattoo, which is hugely symbolic in Buddhism, how they grow in muddy waters and eventually bloom. Where were you in your life when you got it? Are you spiritual?
“I’m definitely a spiritual nut. I have different spiritual beliefs, but I practice some Buddhism. I also meditate, and I’m entering a yogi journey too. But my lotus tattoo was my first tattoo. I grew up in a strange upbringing and I’ve had to overcome a lot of challenges in my life. That tattoo is just a nice reminder that sometimes, in order to flourish, your darkness is what fuels you. But ultimately, it’s going toward the brighter things, and it makes you expand. I really connect with the symbolism behind it.”
Where do you want to be in five years?
“I just want to see myself happy. Hopefully creating for a living. I want to be using whatever gifts I’ve been given in this lifetime and putting them forward and contributing to positive things in the world.”
Let’s talk about your style. Where do you get your shop on in the city?
“I live a fairly sustainable lifestyle and I mostly thrift. Or, it’s like, the 99 cent store. I bounce around to different spots. I’m such a bargain hunter where I’m like, Wait, people will start overpicking the thrift store when the word gets out that it’s good. I found a new one recently, but…”
If you could raid any of your style icon’s closets, whose would it be and why?
“I mean, Rihanna’s! Duh! She’s literally setting the pace of this entire era. She’s fantastic. She’s brilliant. She’s more than an It Girl. I hate saying trendsetter because it just reduces her to what she’s doing—she’s truly a fashion historian. She’s gonna be like…our Audrey Hepburn. Seriously. She’s phenomenal! Does she sleep? It’s really amazing what she’s done for diversity and diversifying representation of women. Fenty is my dream. I wanna work with Rihanna so bad.”