What does it take to be the first? From the numerous interviews we’ve conducted with successful disrupters, there seems to be a formula of key attributes, personality traits, and, yes, failures that pave the way for female pioneers, or as we like to call them, Womaneers. By definition, she’s a woman who defies societal norms with heroism and tenacity to become a pioneering voice in her field. Each month, we will share a new womaneer’s story to uncover their vision, grit and drive to keep going despite the odds. The time of the womaneer is now.
It’s obviously not uncommon to feel lonely or out of place in high school. However, we imagine it’s a bit less common to go from outsider to superstar model—one who’s starred in campaigns for some of the most well-known names in the biz. Yet that’s exactly what happened for L.A. native Paloma Elsesser after she moved to New York City and somewhat serendipitously stumbled upon a modeling career.
Since then, she’s pushed boundaries in the often narrow industry and has been an active, encouraging voice in the body-inclusivity movement. Just in the last year Elsesser has walked in Rihanna's first Savage x Fenty lingerie runway show, graced Glossier billboards completely naked, and was the first campaign model to represent 7 For All Mankind's new extended sizing line. Read on to find out how Elsesser broke into modeling and why she believes her mission is to be of service to other women.
What was your childhood like? How did it define who you are today?
To be fair, I grew up in L.A. going to affluent, predominantly white private schools. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with immense privilege that was incomparable to many other places. My home life was pretty holistic, in a way. My parents were very spiritual and open, and really nourished the creative side of me and my siblings. I think it’s informed this “confidence” people ask me about. My parents always told me I was good at other things separate from my looks. My mom always told me “You’re really smart,” or “You’re a nice sister,” or “Wow, you’re good at coloring”—these little tokens and compliments that made me feel like I had something to combat the negative thoughts.
I had a pretty good group of friends. I always felt like an outsider, but on a deep, existential level. I did realize early on that there are people for everyone. When I wasn’t the popular girl, I still had people who loved me. I wasn’t incredibly bullied, and I kind of always had friends, but it all felt very performative. I felt very alone and very insecure, and I wanted to subscribe to the “I’m cool with being the big girl, or the funny girl, or the what-a-pretty-face-you-have girl” mentality. I played into that, but it left me still feeling very alone. But just as time shifts, I didn’t feel like I had a peer group that could entirely identify with all of the nuances of my identity. Now that I’m older, I can connect with so many of the girls who work in my industry.
What’s it like going from not feeling sure of yourself to being the face of some of the biggest brands in the industry?
It makes me feel incredibly excited about the future. It makes me feel validated in a way that doesn’t feel dark. I didn’t have to be thin or be white or somebody’s daughter to be of value to someone.
How did you get into modeling?
My modeling career wasn’t intentional. I was living in New York, and there were a few different people who spurred me to do it. I was asked to do some shoots here and there. I had a friend who was a fashion editor at a prominent magazine, and she told me things were evolving. At the time, I was walking around in a big hoodie. I was into fashion to a degree—I was into style. I didn’t know the ins and outs of the industry even remotely as well as I do now. I didn’t feel invited, so I never participated. I did my own thing, and was influenced by publications and images throughout the years, but I never felt this deep attachment or like I could participate in this way. I could never afford the stuff either.
How has social media played a part in your career?
Social media—especially in its early inception—created a really rapid, accessible form of visibility. It was a really powerful tool in casting and all sorts of different things. It allowed marginalized people to have a space, to have access, or to become visible separately from walking on the street. It was something where you could reclaim how you wanted to be portrayed. I realized certain people appreciated my Instagram or were excited about things I was sharing. I wanted to incorporate that kind of nuance of identity.
What message do you hope to share with your followers?
To be plus size, to be a woman, to be mixed, or to be brown—I want to be all of these things that are missing in the visuals. I want to be a girl I didn’t have in this way, and use Instagram and modeling as the vehicle. The classic plus-size woman is a gorgeous bombshell—a sexy girl. I never really felt that way. My aspirational attitude doesn’t veer sexy because I don’t really identity with that.
There’s such a spectrum. I feel like for this specific [body] identity, that’s all that’s being showcased. What about that girl in South Carolina in a tiny town who feels like that outsider? Who says "I’m fat, I’m brown, and I’m broke,” and who doesn’t want to participate in the normative description of what’s around her? What if she can have access to Who What Wear or pictures of me doing whatever I’m doing and can relate to that?
So what’s next for you?
I’m doing some columns for some publications and working on a podcast. In essence, I want to create more spaces for people to feel involved.
Read more stories about inspiring Womaneers.