Model Kate Dillon speaks out—about being too skinny, too plus-size, and what's up with the Crystal controversy

On a 103-degree morning, Kate Dillon breezes into a New York coffee house and plunks down on a torn couch with one thing on her mind: food. There's nothing about her-the generic jeans, flats, boho blouse, E-Z Pass ponytail-that reads fashion model.

Don't get me wrong. Dillon, at 36, is a slow-mo knockout. Her skin is so luxurious, just gazing at it feels like receiving a spa treatment. And that bewitching, asymmetric smile-shot through with intelligence-has taken her from rubbing hipbones down the runway with Kate Moss, to being the first plus-size siren to ever grace the pages of Vogue (check out her most recent spread. It's smoking.)

"The spinach and salmon frittata, please, with a decaf soy-milk latte."

Four months pregnant, Dillon can't order fast enough. Pre-preggo, she says, "I only watched calories when I was training for a triathlon or running race. If I don't, I'll eat way too much." She laughs. "In general, though, I give in to temptation-pizza, French fries, dessert-a few times a week, and basically follow a high fruit and vegetable, mostly whole-grain diet."

Of course, I want to talk about her weight-especially in light of the recent blogoversy over fellow model Crystal Renn's plus-size shrinkage. But I'll say up front: That's the least interesting thing about Dillon. For starters, she holds a master's degree in international development from the Harvard's Kennedy School. She has created a nonprofit to educate Rwandan girls (the Komera Project) and gotten a lot of ink on her environmental activism (and I'm not talking about the five tattoos hidden under her clothes.)

But Dillon has also done more than almost anyone to speak out about body image-and is passionate about sharing her story to help others. So, although, I'm torn about the weight thing, let's agree to use her figure, and figures, to get a healthier grip on our own.

162 Pounds: Growing up in San Diego

"I come from a huge family," Dillon says. "You'd think we were Danes, but we're Irish, Welsh, UK all the way." Mostly she was tall, but around age 12, she started getting a little chunky, and by 7th grade-still 5'4"-she hit 162 pounds. "The kids used to jump up and down on the school bus and chant, 'Overweight Kate,'" she says. "It was pretty awful."

120 Pounds: Glossy Girl

Around that time, she saw a made-for-TV movie starring a girl with anorexia. Good idea, she thought. A misfit, punker chick in a prissy private school, she skidded into a serious eating disorder. She also grew. "At 16, I was 5-11, super skinny, and everywhere I went, people were telling me I should be a model," she says. A photographer spotted her, took her around to the agencies in L.A.-and as soon as she graduated, she moved to NY. Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar, Christian Dior, L'Oréal, Paris-"I was very much one of the up-and-coming girls," she says. "And I was just never thin enough. I only weighed 120 pounds, but was always being told to lose weight."

160 Pounds: Turning Point

Dillon tried everything. "I was obsessive-compulsive about eating and weighing and measuring, and very punishing to myself if I ate too much," she says. "It was bad." Finally, though, she was flattened by a gruesome, 10-day intestinal bug, which left her almost skeletal. Everyone at the shows told her she looked fabulous. That's when she snapped.

Here I am perpetuating this illusion for other women when I'm literally dying, she thought. "I lost it. The main thing was, I didn't believe in being skinny anymore. Not that there was anything wrong with it. I just didn't think it was an achievement."

185 Pounds: Ahead of the Curvy

Acceptance didn't happen overnight, but she did lots of yoga, started playing the guitar, and stopped starving herself. "I ballooned," she says with mock horror, "up to a size 6 or an 8. I actually got sent home from a job. It was pretty traumatic." At age 20, she quit and moved home to California.

When someone suggested two years later that Dillon try plus size modeling, the only full-figured girl out there was Emme. "I'd worked with her," Dillon says. "At the time, I thought: She's so brave. If I were that big I would kill myself." And yet, here she was. "Suddenly, I just knew my job was to go out and prove that you could be happy, healthy, and sexy without being like this,"-she uses her thumb and forefinger to indicate the width of a pencil. Dillon embraced being "the fat girl," with the same enthusiasm she'd been a skinny model with. She went up to a size 14, had cellulite, plushy arms. So what? Helmut Newton snapped her in a bathing suit for Vogue in 2001, and with that she busted through the industry's size-O measuring tape.

160 Pounds: The Plus-Size Blogoversy

Ultimately, Dillon settled down at her current, athletic size 8 or 10 and 160 pounds. Mind you, the average woman in the U.S. weighs that much, but is 7 inches shorter-which leads to the question: Should plus size models be required to exceed certain measurements? This is what people are asking about Crystal Renn, the once size-16 model, who recently has been looking more like her old anorexic self. She explains the weight loss by a three-week hiking trip in Patagonia, and Dillon supports her colleague, while seeing both sides of the debate. "One side is extremely hypocritical," she admits. But on the other hand, the plus-size field is such an improvement over the traditional modeling, where all the bodies look exactly the same and represent almost nobody. "We're anywhere from an 8 to 18, and there should be room for models to fluctuate within that range."

3 Pounds (the weight of a brain)

At age 28, Dillon decided it was time to feed her mind and finally go to college. At St. Thomas University in Houston, she says, "I went native." Senior year, as she was flying back from Thanksgiving vacation, a commercial real estate guy from New York sat next to her-so not her type (she was into an elusive environmental architect at the time). "I kept thinking, I'm all hung up on the cool, groovy dude. But, watch, I'm going to end up with this corporate guy-and sure enough..." She and Gabe Levin married two years later.

After college, Dillon went straight to Harvard, and graduated in 2007, ready to do something using fashion to improve the environment and the lives of poor women. "I'm still figuring it out," she says, ticking off several projects, including speaking on a panel at the U.N. in January about fashion and biodiversity. "The baby's thrown a little wrench," she says smiling. It's a boy.

160 and getting bigger

Meanwhile, Dillon is back to modeling. As she embarks on another huge body change, she says: "About a month ago, I started feeling squeezed into everything, and I thought, This sucks. I don't have a belly. I'm not that cute pregnant chick. I'm just fat. I finally had to go, 'Kate, you really have to internalize all the crap you've been saying for the past 15 years!'"

What, I ask, could you say to help others in a sentence or two? She thinks a minute. "First of all," she offers, "don't put yourself down if you're hung up on the way you look, because our culture really values that, and there's nothing wrong with it. But if it's affecting the way you feel about yourself, think of what you love more than anything in the world, and go after it. I really belelive that if you're being the person you want to be, you'll care less about looking like the person everybody says you should look like."

"Honestly," she continues, "I can't stand thinking about the way I look all the time. And when I work, I have to...Like right now, I've got to go get a manicure."

Color? Essie Jazz.

Hey, what's your take on plus-size models? Helpful? Or hypocritical?

For more ideas on showing some love to every body, especially yours....

How do plus-size models make women feel about themselves?
Dear Belly, can we stop all this hating?
How to rock a plus size bikini

[Photo Credit: Marina Rinaldi]