INTO THE MODELING WORLD THROUGH THE BACK DOOR

Proud Mary is excited to bring you an exclusive interview with Catherine Schuller, creator, curator and entrepreneur. The interview consists of three parts. In Part 1, Catherine shared with us her amazing journey into the plus size modeling world, the obstacles she faced, and how they helped her become the fashion icon she is today.

[Marialyce] Catherine, you have had an amazing career, starting in theater, comedy, modeling, and writing. Now you are called a curator, creator, entrepreneur, and connector. When did you make your entre into plus size fashion?

Blondie days 1
Billy O’Connor and Catherine Schuller, circa 1975

[Catherine] I was kind of shy, believe it or not, when I moved to New York. I had brought my boyfriend, Billy O’Connor, to New York and he auditioned for the band Blondie (before they hit it big). So I was part of the underground scene with Warhol, and the beginning of the punk movement, but I didn’t feel like I belonged. New York was a scary place then, and I didn’t understand where I fit in. Now I always tell people to include themselves. If I had included myself then, I think my confidence would have been more settled. It was through rejection and not taking “no” for an answer that everything happened. I realized I was the round peg in a square hole, not the cookie cutter model. I had to find my way in.

I decided to go to acting class because I felt like that would get me out of my shell. There was a photographer who worked down the hall. One day he stopped me and said “I am Eileen Ford’s favorite photographer and scout. I would like to make your portfolio and get you over there.” We worked on my portfolio for about 3 months. I was so proud of my book! It was done by a great photographer and I had great shots. The day came and I remember sitting waiting and then this woman came out. She flipped through my book, closed it and she said, “You have to lose weight. Could you get down to maybe 120 lbs? We don’t really take anyone who is not a size 4/6.” I said, “I am a 14 so I don’t know how I am going to do that.” She was so curt and so rude. She handed my book back, turned around, and walked off. I was crestfallen.

And so I tried. I went to a fat farm one time and lost 14 lbs. I slept in size 8/10 jeans to remind me to stay thin. It was a real mind-warping experience. It was too tortuous for me. I was not going to get down to a size 4.  I decided I didn’t need to be in front of a camera. Theater worked for me, I knew I was funny. That was the direction I went. I met these three guys during an off Broadway show I was in, and we all thought we were so funny and my acting teacher encouraged us to do a comedy group. So we created a comedy group called The Nerve!.

The nerve!
The Nerve! comedy group,1980-86.

Our comedy used sarcasm and satire about individuality in corporate America – the nerve to be yourself. It was a great time. I wrote, directed, costumed, and acted for about 6 years. We got bookings in comedy clubs and universities and I was writing special material for other people as well. We got called into SNL to audition. It was really great. I had finally found my niche!

One night after a show, a woman came backstage and said to me “You should be a plus size model!” and I said “You should write for my act!” I had never heard the words, “plus size” and “model” together. I was not going to go down that model road again. She said, “No, no, you’re perfect, it’s a whole division and it’s all size 14 and up.” I thought, “OK, this sounds interesting.” I went the next day, met with Plus Models, and got signed. I never looked back.

I went for what I knew was right for me: acting and comedy. And at the end, this allowed me to enter [modeling] through the back door.

I got hired to do a lot of shows, hosting, pulling shows. It was a great combination of my fashion sense, my plus size modeling and my ability to commentate and act as a spokesperson. By that time I had the acting experience, the spokesperson experience, the comedy experience. I could grab a microphone and commentate shows. That is what you do – you don’t change the chicken, you change the pot.

Additional photo
Photograph by Naru, circa 1989.

I was one of the first plus size models in some of the shows. It was amazing. People went crazy when I went on the stage and gave me standing ovations. I realized it was just because they had never seen themselves represented in any kind of fashionable way. It was more of a feminist activist platform. That was the moment when I realized I was really onto something. It was a bigger mission and it became about self expression and self acceptance. I became a representation of what a woman could be: she could put herself out there, she didn’t stop herself, she was funny, she was on top of her game, she looked good, and she wasn’t going to let anything stop her. That became my brand, before the days of branding. I was the walking and talking representative of a plus size woman who wasn’t going to take a back seat or be told she wasn’t good enough. I became an icon, a symbol of that kind of lifestyle, and I stuck with it.

During my time with The Nerve!, Emme really broke out. She was the first plus size supermodel. Everyone else but me was jealous of her. You should be supportive of someone’s success who is advancing your interests, not jealous and undermining. I saw the reflected value of her being out there and gaining notoriety and respect for this new aspect of the fashion market. We became friends because I was one of the only models to show up for her different products; apparel lines, books, dolls, seminars and fashion shows. It wasn’t a phony alliance. It was authentic and genuine. It paid off. She would go on to introduce me to the editors of MODE Magazine (1997), where I became the Retail Editor and did MODE on the Road [more on this in Part II].

Today I am out there and supporting other people sidelined by the fashion industry. I am so grateful for those initial obstacles for what they taught me. I tell everyone the story about how I was too shy in the Blondie days to really include myself and that I had to find my ability to get over that. I did it through comedy and I did it through my own direction. I created my own thing. That’s my story.

During her modeling career, Catherine worked with the special sizes division of Ford Models, and designers Liz Claiborne, Dana Buchman and Brian Bailey. She was the Fashion Retail Editor for MODE Magazine and produced MODE) on the Road. Catherine is the founder of CurveStyle, Runway The Real Way, and is the Image and Style Advisor for Divabetic.

Coming soon in Part II Catherine talks about her role as a pioneer in Plus Size modeling and fashion.

 

Comments (1)

[…] This is Part II of Proud Mary’s exclusive interview with plus size fashion icon Catherine Schuller. In this section, Catherine shares her experience in the evolution of the plus size fashion sector, the challenges the industry faced, and new opportunities ushered in with new technology. You can read Part I here. […]

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