Model Myla Dalbesio is a pro at pretending she’s larger than she is. A size 8 to 10, she’s never belonged with show-your-bones high-fashion models or big-and-beautiful plus-size ones. She’s an “in-betweener,” an awkward fashion industry term meant to make it clear that she’s bigger than sample size (0 to 2) but smaller than plus size (14 and up). In the real world, the in-betweener sizes are more standard — they’re probably what you and most of your friends wear — but the fashion industry has no place for them.
So to get work, in-betweener models fake that they’re bigger than they are, which is what Dalbesio has been doing for most of her nine-year career. She owns hip and butt padding to help her fill out plus-size clothing, and she says that she and other models her size always worried about losing weight and no longer being big enough. “So many girls say things like, ‘I would love to go to the gym, but I don’t want to lose my clients,’” she says over breakfast at a cafe near her apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “You get used to calling yourself a plus-size model when you’re not.”
That all changed when, at age 27, Dalbesio landed the biggest campaign of her working life, for Calvin Klein lingerie — a job for which she was allowed to be honest about and embrace her actual middle-of-the-road size. She gave an interview to Elle.com about being picked for the Calvin Klein “Perfectly Fit” underwear campaign, saying that, at size 10, she was the biggest girl the brand had ever booked. She never called herself plus-size, and neither did Calvin Klein, but people who found out her size and heard that she was supposed to be “big” were angry. It seemed like the brand that gave us Kate Moss, the original waif in denim, was trying to pass off an average girl as a plump one — exactly what Dalbesio had done for so much of her career. “WTF @CalvinKlein — this is your “plus-size model”? Give me a freaking break!” Sharon Bueno, in Youngstown, Ohio, tweeted.
“It has been hard,” Dalbesio says. “I can never figure out where I fit in, and I’m always making someone mad. I’m not skinny-skinny, but I’m not fat and fabulous either. I’m a size 10. There’s been a whole public outcry about me not being as big people think I should be. They say, ‘What do you have to complain about? You have a great body.’ But if you’re a size 6 or 10, that doesn’t mean you don’t need to see yourself represented too.”
She says that what Calvin Klein did by hiring her — and not generating a lot of hype around it — was “f—ing awesome.” “A lot of brands go for shock value,” she says. “They say, ‘We booked a girl who is so noticeably not a size 0 and aren’t we great?’ What Calvin did was radical. They didn’t book someone who was so large and didn’t make a huge announcement. They just booked a normal girl.”
She’s also encouraged by women who’ve written to her to say how great it is to finally see someone their size in advertisements. “I never thought through modeling that I could make a difference, and it’s is really cool to hear,” she says. “I can see why plus-size women want someone who’s plus-size in their clothes, but I want to book jobs and make money too. The size 16 and 14 girls are my friends. I want them to be successful. I want to see them on the cover of magazines, but I want a piece too.”
Dalbesio was 16 years old and competing in the Miss Teen Wisconsin beauty pageant — she grew up in Racine, Wisconsin — when model spotter Mary Clarke asked her if she was interested in modeling. Clarke and her husband, Jeff, run Mother Model Management; famously, they’re also responsible for suggesting modeling to Karlie Kloss and Ashton Kutcher. Dalbesio’s sister, who is 14 years older than Dalbesio and raised her after their mother died, had entered her in the pageant and answered for her. “She was like, ‘Yes, she is,’” Dalbesio says. “I was more like, ‘Why not?’”
At that time Dalbesio wasn’t being thought of as a plus-size model; the agents she met with asked her to lose 10 to 15 pounds. “I definitely tried,” she says. She dabbled in liquid diets, the South Beach diet, and Weight Watchers, but nothing worked. She even struggled with bulimia. “Now it all just makes me feel really bummed out for my teenage self,” she says. What she did like was the prescription drug and stimulant Adderall. “I thought, I can take this pill and not eat, which is great, and it also helps me work out really hard,” she says. She never shrunk much, but at 18, when she came to New York City for a summer to intern at Flavorpill Media, she asked Clarke to send her to agents there. Clarke did, but told her, “You’re going to be looked at for their plus-size boards.” Dalbesio made the rounds in Gap Bermuda shorts, vintage heels, and a pink Lacoste polo that was two sizes too small. Ford signed her to its plus-size division that day. “It was confusing to me to be labeled ‘plus size,’ ” she says. “I thought, ‘I shop at normal stores.’ It’s so f—ed up the way the fashion world is structured. There’s no way to understand it as a kid living in Wisconsin.”
This time, to be a successful model, she was told to gain weight; again, she tried and failed. She was still battling her Adderall addiction, and the only way she could force herself to get a lot of calories was by drinking protein shakes that she bought at the bodegas in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, neighborhood where she lived. “The first couple of years were really slow,” she says. “I was a s—ty model. I didn’t know how to dress or do my makeup or hair. I didn’t know how to be in front of the camera. But I’m also one of those people who’s not a quitter so when I sign on, I really want to do it.”
Dalbesio finally learned to pose, like so many other aspiring models, with Tyra Banks’ help. “I watched America’s Next Top Model and listened to Tyra’s posing advice,” she says. “Seriously.” She also stopped taking Adderall and studied the other models on shoots she was on. She started to get more work, particularly for plus-size underwear. “I have a body that’s good for lingerie,” she says. “I have big boobs and hips, and they’re in proportion.” She also did catalogs, websites, and a lot of work in Germany — “they like smaller plus sizes,” she says.
At breakfast, she’s dressed in leggings, high-top sneakers, an Unif “666” jersey, and a quilted leather jacket — spot-on off-duty model wear. Her glossy black hair and minimal makeup are perfect. She says she has been working constantly, traveling for shoots for weeks at a time, most recently to Germany and Wisconsin. Even though she’s been modeling for almost a decade, in some ways, her career has just begun. Her new agency in New York, JAG Models, doesn’t categorize models by size — it’s the first one not to do so — and no one’s asking her to mess with her weight anymore. These days, she rarely uses her hip and butt padding; her own shape is what clients want to see. “I didn’t have my big break when I was 15 or 16, and for Calvin Klein to hire me — for me — at 27 is remarkable,“ she says. "It’s a game changer, for sure.”