Ashley Graham is so happy, she’s singing. Every other sentence is punctuated with an “amaz-ing”, or “excit-ing”, the final syllable operatic.
The supermodel is back at work, returning to catwalks, covers and campaign shoots after a pandemic-defined maternity leave that she never could have predicted. The new face of Pandora’s new collection, she’s wearing stacks of diamond rings and earrings on our video call, with an apple green Frankie Shop shirt, holding a sunshine yellow McDonalds coffee cup.
“I’m in Issey Miyake shorts, but they are elasticated,” she admits. “What I learned in the last year is that chic and comfort can go hand in hand, it's just a matter of how you put it to-geth-er!”
Graham, 33, has become one of America’s most popular and bankable models in recent years, as well as a changemaker in the fashion industry. A prominent body positivity campaigner, her career has been filled with symbolic ‘firsts’ - the first ‘plus size’ model to star on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimwear Issue in 2016, and the first to make the cover of American Vogue in 2017.
For Vogue’s January 2020 cover, she was photographed, goddess-like, by Annie Leibovitz when she was six months pregnant.
“I have that picture framed but not hung,” she cackles. “I think it’s going to go in the office. I can’t have that girl watching over me when I’m in my sweats in the living room.”
Her latest effort has been to change the narrative around what happens to a woman’s body after pregnancy. Graham provides an honest, alternative role model to those who post social media pictures suggesting they have ‘snapped’ into shape at just one week postpartum.
After 10 years of marriage, Graham and her cinematographer husband Justin Ervin welcomed their first child, Isaac, in January 2020. She felt it was essential to share every aspect of new motherhood - from breast pumping, to her slow and steady approach to exercise - with her 12.5 million Instagram followers.
“Having Isaac was a big change for me,” Graham explains. “Being a new mommy and breastfeeding, I was trying to figure out what motherhood means for myself, my body and my family dynamic.”
“I still have 25 pounds extra on me from the baby and we're over a year in,” she says bluntly. “God bless the women who bounce back after a couple of months, but that is not my body. My body has been screaming at me - we are not meant to go back.”
Graham made her return to the catwalk in September, starring in socially-distanced shows for Fendi and Etro, both in Milan. In February, she walked in Michael Kors’s New York show.
“When I went to the runway in Milan, I was only gone for four days,” she explains. “In some ways it felt like a vacation, in other ways it felt like torture. I had Isaac in January  and I knew I wasn’t going to make it back onto the runway for February because that would be insane. I wanted to go back for September.”
Due to the pandemic, Graham initially wasn’t sure if there would be any fashion shows to return to. Her young family had driven 20 hours from New York to her mother’s home in Nebraska when the crisis began. They stayed for six months. “It turned out to be the maternity leave I could have never asked for,” she says.
Preparing for that first job with Fendi, refreshingly, didn’t involve a crash diet or a military exercise regime. For Graham it was as simple as learning to walk in heels again.
“When Fendi booked me I was so grateful,” she says. “It felt so good. I put on a pair of heels at my mum’s house and walked around for an hour, as my first thought was that I hadn’t worn heels since November 2019.”
Graham’s newest job is with Pandora - she is the face of the jewellery brand’s new range of Brilliance lab-created diamonds. Her glittery personality makes her an enthusiastic ambassador.
“I’m all about self-gifting,” Graham says of Pandora’s ethos, to encourage women to buy jewellery for themselves. “I had a really terrible breakup with a boyfriend [when I was young] and I saw a necklace that really spoke to me. It had a tiny diamond and it said I love you. I bought that for myself, to remember to love myself. Jewellery can do that for you.”
Graham was just 12 years old when she was scouted at a shopping mall in her hometown of Nebraska and was - even at that age, and a UK size 14 - labelled as an adult ‘plus size’ model.
She predominantly shot catalogue commercials until 2010, when television networks banned an underwear advert that she starred in for department store Lane Bryant, on the grounds that it was ‘too risqué’. Graham, then 23, considered the rejection discriminatory; would it have happened to a less voluptuous model?
She spoke out, and started an international conversation about body-shaming in fashion media. She began working with designers from Dolce and Gabbana to Tommy Hilfiger and by 2017, she had made Forbes’ list of the world’s richest supermodels - the only curvy model to feature alongside the likes of Kendall Jenner and Gisele Bündchen.
“I remember at the beginning of my career, people were asking me, ‘do you think that curves are just a trend?’,” she says of how attitudes have changed. “My response was, ‘do you think that my body is a trend?’ The average size of an American woman is 14-16 [UK 18-20], those are the facts. It’s who we are.”
While the visibility and inclusivity of ‘plus-size’ women in fashion has improved greatly, Graham has her sights fixed on a very specific action she would like to see taken next.
“I've been doing this for 21 years, and the shift has been astronomical,” she says. “Originally the hard thing was changing the minds of designers, to acknowledge that every <body> is beautiful and every <body> deserves clothing that fits. I think the next hurdle is getting designers to learn about size grading [in pattern cutting classes] at university level. The change will be gradual, but to me that’s a good sign as it means it will last.”
Graham has been steadily building her experience as a television and audio host. Her YouTube exercise video series, Thank Bod, has gained a 289,000-strong following. She stood in to present Ellen DeGeneres’s flagship talk show, and has hopes to develop a live show format of her successful Pretty Big Deal podcast for Spotify.
“I love being an interviewer, I am so curious about people,” she says. Over 47 episodes to date, she has quizzed stars from Kim Kardashian to Serena Williams. “I’m so excited that [venues] are opening up as I’d love to have an audience, I want people to be a part of it.”
Graham is an open book, a superstar in a new era of modelling that could not be further from the “never complain, never explain” generation before her.
“I’m just being myself,” she shrugs. “I have had my fair share of trolls and nasty comments and disgusting emails. But I have to say, overall, the [fan] community is so nice. They fight for you, they love you, they struggle with you, they have gone through similar things and they're grateful that you're sharing your story.”
“I hope I can give people confidence to be themselves too,” she adds. “I want to keep making that change in the world.”
Pandora’s Brilliance collection is available to buy at pandora.net