The weather outside might be cold and grey, but inside our studio, the magnificent Tess Holliday is turning up the heat as she sizzles her way through a series of sexy moves, proudly showing off her heavily tattooed size-26 curves.
It’s fitting that the music she’s chosen to shake her booty to is Blondie’s Atomic, because Tess, 32, is the woman who has, in the past three years, exploded the myth that only super-skinny girls get to be top models.
“I was a shy little fat girl from Mississippi who dreamed of being a model, but was put down, humiliated and told someone who looked like me would never, ever make it,” she says.
“I was told that big was not beautiful but I made it my mission to change that point of view.
“I was even told I was too fat to be a plus-size model, but even though I was mocked and rejected so many times, a little part of me never gave up believing I could break the mould.”
And Tess – who weighs 20st 6lb – has done just that.
With 1.5 million Instagram followers, ad campaigns for Benefit cosmetics and H&M, and shoots for Italian Vogue and swimwear brand Sea by Monif C, she is the most successful plus-size model in the world.
She was the first woman over a size 20 to be signed to a major modelling agency, her celebrity friends include Kelly Rowland, Amber Riley and Amber Rose, and with offers pouring in from designers and television producers, it’s not surprising her net worth is £2.5million and counting.
But Tess’ rise to the top has not been easy, and it’s not quite true, she tearfully admits, that she’s always believed she was beautiful. Neither would it be right to say that the jibes and the criticism don’t affect her.
When she turns on her mobile phone, a Google Alert throws up a story slamming her for being a dangerous role model by promoting a body size that is classed as morbidly obese. As she got out of a taxi only this morning, a guy leaned out of his car and yelled at her to “move that fat arse out of the way”.
Perhaps even more crushingly, put-downs also come from other celebs – like Miley Cyrus, who she met after one of her first TV shoots.
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Instead of a high five and a friendly chat, Tess got “looked up and down with what I’m pretty sure was disdain”. It must be tough to remain so stoic and self-assured in the face of such contempt.
“Really nasty comments and trolls are pretty much non-stop,” says Tess.
“And if I’m honest there have been times in my life where I just thought I was a mess… and there are still lots of moments now when I just think: ‘Why don’t I give this up, move to a cabin in East Washington with my husband [Nick Holliday] and my two boys [Rylee, 12, and 15-month-old Bowie], and just have a quiet life?
“I’m judged 24/7. But here’s the truth. I’m a working mother who is supporting her family. I’ve not stopped working flat out for two years and at the moment I’ve been racing around surviving on four hours’ sleep a night, and if I was truly unhealthy, I don’t think that would be possible.”
She goes on to explain why size alone doesn’t necessarily tell you everything about a person’s health.
“I don’t believe it’s the only indicator of your health. I do go to the gym to work out when I can, but I believe I’d never have the stamina I have if I was unfit.
“I eat a lot of salads and Asian foods, and my greatest weakness is not cake, it’s soup.
“What I’m saying is you don’t have to be the perfect model size to be beautiful and you should love yourself whatever size you are, whether you’re super-skinny or you have a big fat ass.
“My message is about body confidence and loving yourself as you are, and I refuse to be made to feel bad about myself because I’m fat.”
Does she think fat is a feminist issue?
“It’s a people issue. It’s about prejudice, it’s about thinking you can only be a certain way, and if you’re gay, straight, big, small, transgender, tattooed – whatever you are, you deserve to be celebrated and visible because the world isn’t just made up of one type of person.”
And then she laughs. Her husband Nick, who has accompanied her to today’s shoot, is tickling her arm.
“And that gives me my passion. I just think: ‘F**k ‘em!’ I’m happy. I’ve been through hell to get to a place of loving myself and I won’t be bullied by miserable, judging control freaks who don’t want to allow the world to believe you can be fat, happy and successful.
“I celebrate my life. I celebrate my body. I feel most sexy when I’m completely naked. I’m naked a lot in my home in Los Angeles because that’s how I feel most comfortable.
“I even have a burn mark on my tummy from eating a grilled cheese sandwich naked. And Nick burnt his chest from cooking naked and had to get a tattoo to cover the mark!”
When the trolls get really vicious, Tess has discovered the perfect way to shut them up.
She simply posts naked pictures of herself and sends social media into overdrive.
“Seems like booty wins,” she says. “Boom. The best advice I’ve been given was from Ice-T, who said: ‘Haters hate up’ [meaning trolls only target people who are more successful than themselves]. So make the hate motivate you.”
This feisty attitude and positive outlook are hard won after a harsh upbringing in America’s Deep South, where Tess – born Ryann Maegen Hoven – was so badly bullied at school that she persuaded her mum to let her quit at 16 and study on her own for her exams.
In her compelling new book, The Not So Subtle Art of Being A Fat Girl: Loving The Skin You’re In, Tess details her journey from poverty and obscurity to glittering success; from frumpy teenager to vintage vamp whose body art pays tribute to her feminist icons, including Dolly Parton, Miss Piggy and Mae West.
When Tess was nine, her mother Beth left her violent, womanising father Doug, and moved to a trailer park with Tess and her younger brother Tad.
A year later, Beth was shot in the head by her new boyfriend and left paralysed, but defied doctors who told her she’d never walk or talk again.
She remains, says Tess, “the most stubborn woman you will ever meet – apart from me – and the one who believed in me from the day I was born”.
The trauma of what happened to her mother propelled Tess into comfort eating – with the help of her grandmother’s deep-fried Southern home cooking.
By the age of 11 she was a UK size 16, and a few years later when she hit size 20, her father, who she was still in touch with, paid for her to do Weight Watchers. It made her miserable, and was the first and last time she went on a diet.
“I thought losing weight would make me happier or more popular. But it didn’t,” she says.
Tess lived amid a chaos of rejection, comfort eating and bad decisions, working on the checkout at Walmart and spending all her spare cash on photo shoots she’d post online in a bid to get noticed.
She veered between being bullied and being brave enough to think that she could change the way people saw the perfect body.
Her mother had shown her photos of plus-size models and encouraged her to believe that she could join their ranks. “My mom was my cheerleader. She told me I was beautiful and that I could do it. I entered plus-size modelling competitions and got laughed at. Even my own father told me I was too fat. I was this girl who was constantly told: ‘No.’
“I was always told I had a pretty face, but something deep and stubborn inside me made me think: ‘Well, I’m going to make people respect my body, too.’
“It was hard because the world treats big girls as if they have a problem. I knew I had to love myself first before I could change opinions, and that has been my hardest journey. In my teens and 20s I had no self-esteem. I made bad choices with men who had no respect for me.”
Tess fell pregnant with Rylee at 19 after a one-night stand and no longer speaks to his father.
A year later, she was raped when a girl from work invited her out partying, then ditched her in a house with two strange men.
One of them told her she had to agree to have sex with him or they’d both rape her, before attacking her.
When her friend returned hours later, she laughed about Tess’ ordeal, saying: “Don’t be sad. You know you liked it!”
Traumatised and left with three sexually transmitted diseases (gonorrhoea, trichomoniasis and chlamydia), Tess never spoke of her rape until she wrote the book.
“That was probably one of the worst times in my life,” she says quietly.
“Rape was a dirty little secret I kept to myself until I began to understand there should be no shame. I let him assault me because I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.
“I wish I had spoken up, but I didn’t. I still haven’t even really processed what I went through.
“Along with everything that has happened to my mom, it’s why I’m such a campaigner [to raise awareness about] domestic violence against women.”
Ironically, it was when Tess decided to try her luck in Los Angeles, home of the thinnest, most conventionally beautiful people of all, that her life began to turn around.
After being chosen off the back of her online posts as the face of 2011 TV documentary series Heavy, which saw her grace billboards across the US, she began to make waves in the fashion industry.
In 2015 she was signed by British agency Milk Model Management, who turned her into a star overnight.
Even more important for Tess was crossing paths with Australian photographer and brand manager Nick.
The pair met through Tumblr in 2012, and talked online for seven months before she flew to Australia to meet him.
They married in Las Vegas in 2015. Throughout the shoot, it’s clear how much Tess relies on Nick, and how completely he adores her.
“I never felt truly sexy till I met Nick,” Tess says with a smile. “He tells me I’m beautiful every day, and he gets me. We are not perfect. We row a lot, but we laugh a lot.
“Nick has his own issues with depression that he’s been completely honest about since we met, but that’s who he is. He’s real. I’m real. We love and support each other.
“Our absolute bliss is chilling out at home, hanging with the kids and watching Netflix together. Life is hectic, but life is good.”
So what next for Tess? She grins and pulls open her flimsy satin jacket to show off her impressive boobs.
“To get this body up on a high-end, top designer catwalk show,” she says, with so much determination you just know she’s going to make it happen.
“I have no problem with size-6 models on the catwalk but hell, give us a break. Women come in lots of sizes and I want the fashion industry to actually show that – and make some room for me, too.”
– The Not So Subtle Art of Being A Fat Girl by Tess Holliday (£12.99, Blink Publishing) is out now.