Danielle van Grondelle is living a life that was once thought impossible by the fashion industry and women all over the world. As one of the most successful plus-size models, she flies all over the world for exciting shoots for major magazines such as VogueAvant Garde and Cosmopolitan. Last year she even graced the New York Fashion Week catwalk, the first time a designer used plus-size models only for a show. We spoke to her about her career, her struggle with the industry’s skinny beauty ideal and her mission to make women more confident.

At the time of our interview, Van Grondelle was on a work trip to Europe and had briefly popped home. “If you work so much at this level, it is quite tough because you can’t really plan things. So if these things come up then it is amazing that everyone works together and that I can enjoy my private life too,” she says.

Originally from Rotterdam, she swapped the Dutch ‘Manhattan on the Maas’ for the real Big Apple three years ago and currently lives in New York. By now, Van Grondelle has been a full-time model for 11 years.
Yet with her beaming positivity and confidence, it is instantly clear she still loves her job. With her daily alarm set at 6am, she certainly works very hard for it too. “I work almost every day,” she tells us. “If I have a photoshoot, I will go in to make-up and then we start shooting. By around six or seven we usually finish.” But the work does not stop there. When she is not shooting, she is at casting sessions for new assignments. Van Grondelle explains that this is a very “American” thing: “I’m almost constantly working on my career.”

There are many things she relishes about the job. One of the most important aspects is that she can be a role model for young women. While the term ‘plus size’ might sound misleading, at size 42, Van Grondelle actually has the size of an average woman. “I can show that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. I often get nice messages from girls saying ‘it is so great to see someone I can emulate myself on’, or ‘it is nice to see more curves in the magazines’. You notice this is something that people very much care about.”
But her modelling life has not always been this rewarding, as she tells us about the years of struggle at the start of her career, going to extremes to chase her dream and almost giving up on it altogether.

Extreme beauty standards
Van Grondelle started modelling when she was only 14 years old as a conventional ‘straight-size’ model. But with her curvy hips, she struggled to meet the thin body image required from the industry. “I simply didn’t succeed in getting the right centimetres on my hips. I was super slim but no matter what I did with dieting, I couldn’t get those centimetres down.”
At 93 centimetres, her hips were just three centimetres too wide. By this time, she was dieting to the extreme and it was becoming increasingly unhealthy.“Eventually my period even stopped and that is not alright. As a young woman, if you starve yourself to the extent that your functions stop; nobody should want that.”

By this time, she was devastated and became convinced modelling was not the career for her. She almost gave up on her dream. “It was really hard, I remember one day coming home, completely in tears and my dad said ‘there will be a time when the fashion industry will adjust to you’. I thought my dad only said that to comfort me.” However, in time, her father proved to be correct.
At this point, the agency placed Van Grondelle in the ‘specials’ section, for models with slightly deviating sizes. This usually means there will be less work, but as luck would have it she was sent out on an assignment and discovered how to turn her career around. “I did an editorial and there was a stylist who said ‘if you would gain a tiny bit of weight, you would be perfect as a plus-size model’.”
Sizing up
This was the first time she had ever heard about plus-size modelling and had no idea what it really meant. “The first thing I thought was, ‘but I’m not fat, am I?’ I had no idea that there was this industry and I didn’t really know that I could work really well with my natural size.”

But thinking back to her own childhood, she remembers looking up to models such as Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista,“ models with breasts and bums”, as she points out. “Only with the Kate Moss-era did it become increasingly thin, thinner, thinnest. I could not see myself in that.”

From here, her career suddenly took flight, literally. She says: “Within a week I was shooting in Mexico and two and a half weeks later, I was in South Africa. It went so fast, it was crazy. And I remember being on the cover of Avant Garde, and that was the first time they used a plus-size model!” Half a year later she was getting so many assignments she had stop her other work and turn to modelling full time. Aside from the name, there are other misconceptions about plus-size modelling. While Van Grondelle might not be a ‘size zero’ like straight-size models (the American equivalent of size 34), she still has to work on her body and stay fit. “I do sports and, just like slim models, I need to be in shape. I need to make sure I am the best version of myself.”

Changing the runway
Plus-size models are gradually getting more media attention, and the high-end fashion industry is slowly embracing the curves. Van Grondelle feels like things arefinally changing a little. In October last year she did a runway show during New York Fashion Week. This was the first time a designer at any of the major fashion week events used plus-size models only. “When I heard I was booked, there was a moment I had to pinch yourself and thought‘wow!’,” she recalls. “The audience had no idea this was going to happen. You could feel this in the venue; the reaction from the people, there was even cheering going on.”

Van Grondelle thinks this is very encouraging as it means women and girls can develop a more realistic self-image. But they are also very few and far in between.“It is amazing to experience something like this and that such a statement was made at this level,” she says. At the same time, she feels that the industry is still clinging onto set patterns: “Most designers, to say it in a slightly disrespectful way, want coat racks on the runway to distract the least from the clothes. They want to portray an image with the slimmest models of the straight size.”

Looking forward, Van Grondelle would like to see much more diversity. She hopes for a future where size matters less and in which designers will start sampling in two sizes. “Often, when I do a high-end editorial – which means it will be in a really nice magazine, such as a Cosmopolitan,Vogue or Avant Garde – then I have to squeeze into a sample size zero. So the Chanel jacket I’d be wearing is size 34. That’s why we often wear a bathing suit or something that stretches, because the skirt will never fit.”

Being your natural self
Proudly counting herself among the verytop of plus-size modelling, Van Grondelleis part of a select group of just 20 to 30 curvy models. “We work nearly every day. So you work more than a straight-size model, which sounds strange to many people. Not enough people know they can reach the very top with this size.”

Despite having found success in the industry, Van Grondelle admits that modelling remains a bizarre world where you are constantly judged on your looks and your size. “If I have a period in which I am a little stressed and I lose a bit of weight, my agent will literally call me and say ‘Daan, maybe it’s time to eat a cake again’. So the modelling world is just strange. You are booked for your centimetres, so it is important to maintain those. If a customer books me, they want to see me in a size 42 not size 40.”

Luckily for Van Grondelle, that size works perfectly for her body. The days of having to diet and starve herself are very much in the past. She is indeed very grateful for that, as she would probably struggle to cope with the stresses of the many flights and long days if she could not eat normally. “For me, this is natural, so there aren’t too many things I can’t do. I can have a nice dessert and I can eat my grandma’s cooking,” she says and adds: “Which is fantastic because I love good food!”

Living in the moment
She believes that many of her peers in the industry feel the same way. “Maybe this is why there is less hatred and envy because everyone is so happy. Many curvy models started as a straight-size model because a few years ago it hardly even existed. So we all more or less live the same story,” she says
For the next five years, Van Grondelle is keen to keep on doing as many exciting assignments as possible and breaking more barriers. Living by the motto ‘don’t be your own worst critic and enjoy the moment’, Van Grondelle’s confidence and outlook on life is certainly inspirational. “I think we would all be a lot happier if we are a little less critical of ourselves,” she says and concludes: “Be the best version of your-self and be happy with that, whatever that may be.”

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