Nancy Upton Takes On American Apparel’s Plus-Size Campaign and Wins: Q&A


American Apparel’s models are generally lithe and barely clothed, and never look to be above a size two. But the troubled fashion company recently launched plus sizes in some items, and an accompanying contest to find a plus-size model:

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Nancy Upton, a 24-year-old actress and student in Dallas, was galled by the campaign’s tone and message. She recruited a photographer for a special project: she was entering the contest with photos like the one above, of herself smothered in different kinds of food. Her goal was simply to protest the campaign, but she actually ended up receiving the most votes and winning. She has no plans to actually model for AA, though.

Runnin’ Scared spoke with Upton on the phone yesterday about the project.

Runnin’ Scared: How did you become aware of AA’s contest?

Nancy Upton: I read the article on Jezebel–they wrote a piece on the contest. Though whenever I write the word contest in association with this I put it in quotes. It’s all completely arbitrary.

When did this all start?

At most, like, two weeks ago.

And your goal was to poke fun at American Apparel, not to actually be a part of the contest?

That was, like, the only reason. I feel like it would be pretty obvious that I wasn’t trying to win the contest, although some people think it was publicity or a scam, like I was trying to get attention. Whenever I used to read stuff about American Apparel, I’d be like “that’s disgusting” and then just forget about it. But this contest–I read it and two nights later I’m lying in bed, like, “Those assholes.”

I’m lambasting what they probably think of fat women. There was definitely artistic intent as well.

Was it gross having to be smothered in all that food?

It was kind of fun but also kind of gross. I totally threw up afterwards. In the process of eating all that different food–a lot of the stuff I really was eating, you know. I had all this ranch dressing in my mouth, Hershey’s syrup all over me.

But really it was a lot of fun. Shannon [Skloss, the photographer] and I took it really from the idea of like, this woman feels like she’s being super duper hot. Lots of bedroom eyes. The ranch thing. Everyone was freaked out by the ranch.

I couldn’t believe that picture — so much ranch dressing!

It’s actually about seven gallons of whole milk with water and ranch packets. [Laughs]

You must have had to wash your hair so many times.

Oh, God. The next day I was driving to a friend’s house and I pulled ranch dressing out of my ear. I could smell it on me till after the third shower.

So you ended up winning the contest?

I came in first by a margin of–I think the girl under me had a 3.8 or 3.9, and I ended up with at least a 4.3. There was a good chunk between us.

Do you have to actually do the photo shoot if you win?

I don’t know if they had the legal stuff posted for anyone to read, but when you went to submit your photos, you had to read all the rules of the contest. As with anything, like on iTunes, you can choose to read or not. I was like, I should read this in case they sue me.

It totally said that the results of the vote are not legally binding. So they can pull whoever they want, which is what I thought was going to happen. They’re covering their ass as far as, “We’re going to pick whoever we want”–it’s not really a contest.

And the grand prize is not actually an ad. The way it’s listed in the legal mumbo jumbo: trip to LA, free airfare, photoshoot with a fashion photographer. It’s not like you even win a contract with them. It’s unpaid, you get no money. I don’t think that’s clear to anybody.

More than anything it would probably be one photo: “see our contest winner!”

You said in your Daily Beast article that plus-size women were a demographic AA had “long insisted on ignoring. But isn’t that true of a lot of other fashion companies as well?

I, like many people, have a root dislike for American Apparel–the way their CEO [Dov Charney] behaves, their general attitude towards women. The way women are portrayed, the stories that models and salespeople have about the company.

If American Apparel was the Gap and they had run that contest, I wouldn’t have had that same gut reaction. It comes from American Apparel’s history of treating women like a piece of meat. If I was an American Apparel customer in a store, and I had never heard of the company or Dov Charney, I’d probably be happy. [ed. note: Charney didn’t want to comment on this story and hadn’t heard of Upton. But he said of her idea, “That’s crazy; I like that.”]

A lot of people have expanded their plus sizes, but don’t see the need to seek approval for it.

It’s a little bit pandering. I really do believe that if they had gone at it from a different angle, people would have been like–if they had just said, “Now selling up to 2X!” and that was it. But they felt the need to do the thing they always do.

What kind of reactions have you been getting?

It’s been a mix. I will say that I’ve only gotten like two or three e-mails that you’d qualify as hate mail. I got drunken poetry from one guy and two really upset e-mails from one of the girls in the contest. For the most part, people who have been contacting me directly have been super positive. It ranges from either silly complimentary stuff about my looks, to super positive stuff from young women, even doctors–that I’m showing a realistic look at the shape of a woman, confidence, etc.

A lot of the discussion online has been a pretty even mix. I think it’s interesting how polarizing my actions have been.

Are you surprised about that?

Yeah absolutely. I never would have expected people to respond the way they did. When you’re sitting in a bathtub full of ranch dressing, you’re not thinking about how it’ll be all over the news in two weeks.