Kate Dillon
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Kate Dillon

With three MODE covers, a clothing contract with Liz Claiborne, a cosmetic contract with Isabella Rossellini's Manifesto line and speaking engagements at forums such as Harvard University, Kate Dillon is one of New York's top plus-size models. At size 14, she has what most fashion models don't - a voice.

Groomed to be the next Cindy Crawford, Kate once took drastic measures to be what she thought was the ideal of perfection. At 5' 11" and a bony size six, she lived many young girls' dream. Contracted with New York Elite Models at age 16, she appeared on a succession of covers, such as Mademoiselle, Australian Vogue and Italian Glamour. Nearly every fashion magazine featured Kate in its editorial pages. She had prestige, but it foreshadowed a more dramatic story.

While she appeared normal and healthy, by her own admission she was anorexic. She ate less in one day than most people eat in one meal. "Starving myself was how I dealt with wanting to be perfect. I desperately wanted to fulfill what I believed to be the socially accepted size and presence."
Repeatedly falling ill, she sought advice from a nutritionist who guided her to eat properly. Kate quickly gained 15 pounds and went from size 6 to size 8. Her clients started to complain. "That's when I began thinking this is a hunk of crap. I was finally starting to feel physically better and instead of people saying, 'great, I'm glad you're healthier' they instead suggested I go to a fat spa."

Kate tried to lose the weight but with little success. When her agent accused her of not trying hard enough, she had a simple, but life-altering realization. "I don't have to do this." She quit modeling and moved back to San Diego where she blossomed to a size 14. "One minute I was working in Paris, New York, Milan and the next I was this big nobody - or that was the perception - and I felt horrible. Every pore of my body was filled with fear. I had been so worried about what other people thought of me that I had no freedom of movement, no freedom of thought."
It was during this period she struggled against self hatred for the way she looked. Once at the crossroads of fame, she found herself working at odd jobs. For nearly two years, Kate avoided fashion magazines. She sought therapy for her eating disorder and won the battle. The healthier Kate discovered a simple truth. She didn't have to please others. Her newly adapted attitude proved to be a major turning point in her life. "I allowed myself the freedom to be who I was, to be smart, goofy or whatever - the freedom to just be myself."

Moving back to New York, a rejuvenated Kate took the advice of a friend and explored plus-size modeling. Signed on the spot at Wilhelmina Models, she quickly became their top plus model. Within 18 months of her signed contract, she dominated the pages of MODE's premier issue, landed a national Playtex commercial and was featured on a Times Square billboard for Liz Claiborne's Elisabeth label. "It became instantly clear to me that the marriage between plus modeling and me was perfect. I can make some money and have a voice. I could express all these thoughts of fear and body image I'de been thinking and ideally affect some kind of social change towards positive body image." Signifying a major shift in the plus-size industry, Kate was recently photographed by Richard Avedon for Avenue's national ad campaign. Kate is the first plus model to work with him.
Seeing photographers she once worked with, Kate is confronted with some unpleasant responses. "One photographer who I knew when I was a skinny model said to me, 'what happened, did you just keep eating and eating?' And the American in me - who is socially conditioned to think gaining weight was bad - felt a pit in my stomach. Then I realized this person is a fool. He knows nothing of freedom, nothing of life because he is so heavily immersed in the social construct that it is sad and he deserves my pity."

Kate knows of freedom. Earlier this year, she shared her battle with anorexia at Harvard University's Eating Disorder Center. She then traveled to San Diego to speak to her high school and to a troop of Girl Scouts about positive body image. "This country is bent on making people feel bad whether it is size, race or religion. My message to our youth is don't buy into it. Listen to who you are and be yourself," advises Kate. Her work allows young girls and women to see themselves as part of our culture's standard of beauty. "The other day a girl with a similar body type to me stopped on the street and told me that she feels more beautiful becomes of my work. It felt wonderful to hear." Kate has been invited to speak again at Harvard University in the fall.
Continuing to conquer fears and grow spiritually, Kate is nearly a black belt in karate. Two years ago martial arts became one of her passions. Dealing with fear, pride and ego in a physical form, forces her to deal with these issues emotionally. "Martial arts is about moving away from worrying about what others think and instead getting in touch with your own rhythm." She's quick to establish that she isn't someone who has life figured out, but instead is someone who faces its challenges. "I allow myself to change my perception and thoughts and not become stagnant. Earning my black belt is a baby step in a life-long journey and I think it's a lesson in commitment for me because I haven't often completed things that I've started. [Karate] is about discipline."

Although plus-size modeling is increasingly accepted in the fashion and advertising world, it's still riddled with ridicule. Kate reaches out for strength. Seeking wisdom from others who have fought oppression, she is inspired by Maya Angelou. According to Kate, women should embrace their differences rather than struggle to be alike. "Maya Angelou is someone who I have always loved. I find her courageous. Her poem Phenomenal Woman changed my life. I heard it and thought, that's it! That is absolute truth. The first lines read:
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
I say,
It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips,
I'm a woman
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

[Maya] describes the unique and sensual things about herself because she doesn't fit into one mold. That's what it's all about - the individual."