Kate Dillon has Brains, Beauty, and is an Advocate For Environmental & Humanitarian Causes Such As The Komera Project

Kate Dillon is known in the fashion industry as a groundbreaker and a passionate advocate for environmental and humanitarian causes. For 19 years, she has leveraged her career in fashion to campaign for positive body image in the media, eating disorders awareness, and global poverty reduction. Her work has been widely featured in the media, including on Anderson Cooper 360, Good Morning America, and the PBS NOVA series as well as in Vogue, Glamour, and People. In order to be a more effective advocate, Kate completed a Master’s in Public Administration in International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2009 where she won two academic awards. Now back in the fashion industry full-time, Kate continues to model while serving as vice-president of the Komera Project, a fund that provides scholarships for secondary education to girls in Rwanda.

Who are you signed on with and who are some of your clients?

I signed with Ford about two months ago after fourteen years with Wilhelmina, and my major clients are: Marina Rinaldi, The Avenue, JC Penneys, Kohl’s, Talbots, Bloomingdales.com, and Macys.com

Please tell us how you got started in the modeling business and about your transition from “straight” modeling to “plus-size” modeling. Was that a difficult transition for you to make?

I started modeling when I was seventeen years old. I was at my usual hangout, a coffee shop in San Diego where I grew up, when I met a photographer who got me into modeling. I was not especially into fashion, and I certainly did NOT think of myself as model material, but it seemed like a great opportunity. I started working out of LA until I finished high school, and I loved having this double life – nerdy high school chick most of the time, burgeoning fashion model in LA once a week or so… The trouble was I could not stay super skinny. I moved to NYC and Paris when I graduated high school and I loved the travel and the people I met in the fashion business, but the pressure to be thin was killing me – MOREOVER I hated that I was perpetuating this illusion, this super-thin ideal. Here I was starving myself to be thin and then foisting this image on women – this was NOT the impact I wanted to have on the world. So, I quit modeling and was pretty much clueless about what to do for about two years. I gained about 40 pounds (about a size 10) as soon as I quit and started doing some soul-searching. Then a friend mentioned plus-size modeling. I  had worked alongside Christine Alt and Emme as a skinny model, and I remembered thinking they were so cool and brave –  I actually thought, “I would never have the guts to be that big”… Well, I found the guts and the transition to plus was super easy because I was so sure of myself. I knew that being beautiful, fashionable, and successful had NOTHING to do with size, and I loved kind of challenging the fashion world to recognize that. I have always been a bit of a rebel. =) The only real challenge was in the beginning – and this happens to a lot of plus models, I think – at first I started to feel guilty if I worked out or ate a salad so I gained A LOT of weight in my first year as a plus-size model. Some people really remember me at that size – like a 14 – but it wasn’t sustainable for me… Eventually I realized exercise and healthy eating is just fine and returned to my “natural” size…

Was there a specific event or sequence of events that led to your decision to stop modeling for the “straight” modeling industry?

I did a lot of shows and editorial, but I was always told to lose like 5-20 pounds (at 120 I have no clue how to do that!).  Before one show season, I got a bad intestinal virus that lasted about ten days – use your imagination. =) Well, needless to say, I lost a lot of weight, and when I turned up at the shows Paris all these editors were like “you look amaaaaaaaaazing” and I remember thinking, “Wow, THAT’S what it takes to be beautiful around here? Yuck.” That was pretty much the beginning of the end…

Would you define what the term “plus” means in the modeling industry? (We get this question all the time from our readers who are not in the industry. It would be wonderful for someone like you [so well-known, established, intelligent, and admired] to answer that question.)

Well, thank you for the compliments!!!!  I get this a lot, too. In the industry “plus size” means size 14W and up. A “plus size” model models those clothes for the catalogs and advertisements of those who produce those sizes. Occasionally – like my work for Talbots and Gucci – a brand that does not cater to “plus sizes” will hire a plus size model. Plus-size models come in many shapes and sizes – it’s pretty cool, actually. Some clients like bigger girls and some like smaller girls. Some mix it up. There is a lot of diversity…

You have been open regarding your struggles with body image issues. How did your struggles affect your self-esteem? How did you reach the point of accepting and loving your body as it is?

I accepted my body, as is, when I was twenty-one years old. I was walking down the beach feeling so self-conscious about my “big” arms and my thigh cellulite. Suddenly, I realized that it was very likely that every woman on the beach was ruining this gorgeous day at the beach – just as I was – obsessing over her imperfections. I decided to get over it – that it was more important to be happy, grateful for life’s mystery, and as smart as possible. It really was like a switch flipped in my brain. And I never looked back. Since then, I have had a pretty healthy self-esteem body-wise. However, that’s largely because my sense of self-worth is actually NOT tied to my appearance. I love to be pretty and sexy, but I am more concerned about making a contribution to the world and being a kind person – these are the things I struggle to achieve these days – I am working on it! But, my self-esteem lags when I’ve been judgmental or bitchy or when I am not doing enough… When I was in graduate school I was so overwhelmed by all the talented people around me – my self-esteem really took a beating! But I think it’s normal – and healthy – to have periods of high and low self-esteem.

What advice would you give to young girls or women who are struggling with self-esteem, confidence, or body image?

Well, in our society it is certainly understandable for a woman to have body-image/confidence issues. My advice is to cut yourself some slack, acknowledge you have issues, and then decide to focus on something more meaningful. Decide to get an A on your next test, volunteer at an animal shelter or a retirement home, something… Think about what you love and care about and devote yourself to that – the act of following your dreams and/or being altruistic will boost your confidence. And always always always treat yourself the way you would treat your best friend.

Have you read any good books that help promote positive self-esteem and healthy body image that you would recommend for girls, pre-teens, teens, or women?

The poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou has been in the back of my mind since I was twenty-one years old (fifteen years).

How would you describe your current approach to potential clients and your modeling career?

Grateful, professional, and I try to give them something exciting – I try never to go on autopilot. I learned that from Crystal Renn, actually. She gives it up like its Italian Vogue every time.

Do you feel that furthering your education and earning a degree in International Development at Harvard helped build your confidence or changed your perception of yourself or life?

Emotionally, Harvard was really difficult for me. As I mentioned above I was very intimidated by my classmates (even though they are the sweetest, most compassionate, most supportive group of people on the planet, and truly amazing human beings), and the coursework was extremely challenging. I lost about ten pounds during graduate school because I was so stressed! But it was probably the first time in my life I had to struggle and it was sooooooo good for me ultimately. I was deeply humbled. Studying International Development, I expected my perception of the world to change, but it really didn’t. However, my perception of myself changed dramatically. I am still trying to figure out what to do with my degree. I have been thinking a lot about the impact of the fashion industry on the development issues I care about most: the environment and empowerment strategies for women and girls. This April, I designed and moderated a panel on fashion and sustainable economic development at the Harvard International Development Conference. It’s a work in progress. =)

We know that you are an environmental activist. With that in mind, we would like to know where you like to shop for clothes and who your favorite designers are?

Excellent question! I am pretty militant about the clothes I buy these days – I go for environmentally sustainable fabrics like bamboo and hemp and stick to organic cotton. In New York, I shop at Kaight and Barneys where I can find Loomstate, John Patrick Organic (my absolute fave), Josh Podoll, Samantha Pleet, and Camilla Norrback. The mainstream exception I make is the Gap, Inc. They are great company that is truly committed to improving the lives of the workers who produce their clothes, and I expect they will announce an organic line any day now… Redcats, who own the Avenue, are also a great company – they sponsor eco-fashion week in Paris and have a strong environmental policy…

What are your favorite beauty must haves?

I use Suki everything for skin care. Suki pure facial moisturizer and the foaming exfoliating cleanser rock my world. For make-up, I love Korres concealer and lipsticks. Both brands are environmentally conscious. Suki is all organic and fair trade.

Do you have a favorite workout routine?

Hahaha. Well since I got pregnant, I don’t do much anymore! I used to run 3-6 miles three times a week and did vinyasa yoga about twice a week. These days I do a 30-minute elliptical workout or a swim a few days a week and go to prenatal yoga once a week. In my non-pregnant state, I love to do races – triathlons and runs so I am usually training for something. But I avoid gyms. I like to exercise outside – even in the cold! I ran a 15K last December in 25-degree weather – my crowning athletic achievement. 🙂

What does being healthy mean to you?

Being able to be physically active, being reasonably flexible, and laughing every day.

Out of all the places your modeling has taken you – where is the most memorable?


Who do you consider a hero or role model?

Role models: My mom and dad. Hero: Girls all over the world who struggle – against unimaginable odds – to be educated and empowered.

Please tell us about the Komera project.

The Komera Project provides scholarships to girls in Rwanda who have the ability and desire to attend secondary school, but who lack the financial resources to do so. I co-founded this initiative with my friend, Margaret Butler – a former professional runner, who lived in Rwinkwavu, Rwanda for a year. I became interested in educating girls in Africa in 2007 when I visited a school in Zimbabwe – it was freezing and I was wearing about a thousand bucks worth of Patagonia’s finest fleece, and most of the students didn’t even have shoes. They wore torn cotton sweaters and shorts and skirts with no tights. The teacher had to lead them in a song and dance in between lessons to keep themselves warm. Then I found out that many of them walked one to three miles just to get to school every day, and that because there was no secondary school in the village most would not attend high school. It was so awe-inspiring to see how hard these kids worked in formidable circumstances. They knew education was the only chance in the world they had. Komera has a website with more in-depth descriptions of our mission and programs as well as some data about educating girls. www.komeraproject.org

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Running for public office. Teaching high school. Modeling. Who knows!

What are you excited about right now?

My baby boy due December 14. =)

*Thank you and congratulations, Kate!

**To learn more about the Komera Project or help Kate’s cause please visit www.komeraproject.org.

***’W Curve,’ the division for full-figured models at Wilhelmina, have formed Curves for Change (C4C)- a platform to collectively pursue charitable activities. They will be a hosting a fundraising event which will be a 5k run/walk this fall in NYC (date to be announced). Proceeds will go to the Komera Project and Healthy Girls Hardy Women. Here is the Curves for Change link if you want to find out more about the upcoming fundraiser. http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/curvesforchange?ref=ts


7 Responses to “Kate Dillon has Brains, Beauty, and is an Advocate For Environmental & Humanitarian Causes Such As The Komera Project”

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    Kate Dillon has Brains, Beauty, and is an Advocate For Environmental & Humanitarian Causes Such As The Komera Project | Plus-Size Models Unite

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    […]Kate Dillon has Brains, Beauty, and is an Advocate For Environmental & Humanitarian Causes Such As The Komera Project « Plus-Size Models Unite[…]…

  4. Lorraine savanhu Says:

    I want to do plus size modelling but i am nt sure zimbabwe has the proper agencies. I am 17 and i really believe i can do it

  5. She is remarkable. I love the poem she mentioned by Maya Angelou, “Phenomenal Women.”

  6. It is SO terrific to read more about The Great Kate. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since her nude Mode cover way back when, and I’ve always wanted to know more about her. I hope more people in fashion become more socially responsible and more realistic about their true impact on women and girls through her example.


  7. Great article. What a special person Kate is. Her kind heart is revealed throughout the interview. Her goals to make a positive impact in the world, to be kind to others, and recommendation to do volunteer work are admirable. This is one of my favorite interviews. Thank you Kate!! I wish you success in everything you do.

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