(Editor’s note: frank discussion of weight follows.) Velvet D’Amour is a Renaissance woman in the truest sense. Born in Rochester, New York, Velvet went to Paris in her late 20s to pursue dance and photography, and since then she has walked the runways of Paris (at age 39 and weighing around 300 pounds), been sought after by renowned photographers, appeared in French films, music videos and French, Swiss, and Japanese TV, and continued to work as a photographer. If you’re here in the U.S., may know her as a judge on M’onique’s Fat Chance, and from appearances on Entertainment Tonight, E News and CBS Sunday Morning. In 2010, Velvet was selected to participate in TF1’s, La Ferme Celebritie (Celebrity Farm), where she made it through nine of the ten weeks living in the rough, caring for wild animals on a nature reserve in South Africa, and raising over $73,000 for her chosen charity, SOS Enfants Disparus.
But Velvet’s road to fat positive stardom wasn’t paved with gold stars. In her late teens, she considered modeling. Weighing around 140 pounds, she was told by modeling scouts that she had the face for it but would have to lose weight. She went on a crash diet and managed to get down to 117 pounds, and was told again that she was too fat to model. “The more severely I dieted, the more fat I got,” she said. “I’d have these big extremes of eating tons and then starving myself.” Because she couldn’t maintain the size she needed to be to please the modeling agencies, body hatred set in.
As it happens for many body positive folks, Velvet reached a turning point where she started to see her struggle to conform to beauty standards as a larger struggle. “I started questioning our ideals of beauty and why I hated fat and I why I didn’t like looking fat”¦ The more I questioned it, the more rebellious I felt about it, the more I tried to find images that somehow related to how I looked and the more difficult it became [to find them].” Part of the reason why Velvet turned to photography was to help herself and others let go of our singular ideas around beauty. “We’ve evolved so much in society that we don’t need to consistently leave people out. We can open up our ideal of beauty to be more accepting and find beauty in every individual.” She thinks that one of the reason why fatness is so dreaded and derided in our society is that fat is often depicted as unsexy and non-seductive. “I started emulating photos that I would see in regular fashion magazines but using myself”¦ and it ended up helping me and a lot of other people. I would try to make the images so seductive that you had to question something.”
It was photography that led Velvet back into modeling nearly twenty years after her original foray. When the first plus-sized modeling agency was opening in Paris, Velvet sent her photography portfolio, along with a picture of herself, saying that as a plus-sized woman she knew how to make the models feel comfortable. But the agency wanted more pictures of her, eventually asking her to sign with them as a model. “I thought, this is crazy. I’m 39 years old, 300 pounds, and”¦ I’ve gone through this really amazing journey of self-acceptance and now I’m kind of reaping the rewards of that.”
Velvet’s way of styling herself and her models has a timelessness about it that I’ve always connected with. In photos she always seems to be inspired by different time periods, from pre-revolutionary France to a 1940s pinup aesthetic. So I wasn’t surprised when she brought up her interesting perspective on broadening beauty definitions. “Instead of honoring what the media’s trying to sell us, why not honor the ancestors that have come before you? “¦ For me, thinking about how many people came before me was another way of thinking that I don’t need to buy into someone else’s idea of what ‘pretty’ is.”
I asked Velvet about how “pretty” is often limited in the plus-sized community too, given that the plus-sized models that seem to get the most work (like Crystal Renn and Ashley Graham) are often no larger than a size 12 and therefore don’t even need to wear plus-sized clothes. “Well, it was interesting. When I did Galliano and Gautier [runway shows] my expectation was that the plus community would be fully behind me and they were actually my most severe critics”¦ [There were] forums on how awful it was that I was on the runway, how I was promoting obesity, what joke it was, that I was dragging down the plus model industry, etc., etc. by being a genuinely fat person on the runway.” But for Velvet, this just brings up how exclusionary the whole world of modeling is. “For me, it’s just so much more global than plus sized women”¦ You’ll never have an actual person in a wheel chair in a fashion magazine. Why is that? There are 90-year-old women who are stunningly attractive but you’ll never, or rarely, see them in a ‘women’s’ magazine”¦ It’s 99.9% white women, not any other ethnicity. It’s 99.9% very young people. So for my quest, it’s about bringing diversity to fashion and all types of media.”
As for the debate that having more fat people in media “promotes obesity,” Velvet has this to say:
There’s much more pressure put on [plus sized models] and it’s a form of denying our right to be included in media by constantly using the health debate, where no other person is expected to discuss their health, nor should they be”¦ It’s an utterly ludicrous notion that we as fat people aren’t allowed in media, and if we are allowed in media, it’s to berate us and tell us that we need to lose weight and have some thin person screaming over you”¦ in order to be in their glorified circle of health.
If you’re looking to connect with Velvet, she invites you to join her Facebook page and check out her photography. Some of her upcoming projects include, a feature in Vogue Curvy, her inclusion in Valerie Berlin’s burlesque art expo in NYC, a feature on Tellement Vrai (popular French TV show), shooting for several plus magazines in the U.K. and U.S., an appearance in an Axel Engstfeld documentary film for ARTE, as well as the release of several songs in which she sings lead vocals.
Also, you can listen to the full interview here at the Body Love Wellness Podcast.
Golda Poretsky, H.H.C. is a certified holistic health counselor who specializes in transforming your relationship with food and your body. Go to http://www.bodylovewellness.com/stay-in-touch/ to sign up for her newsletter and get your free download — Golda’s Top Ten Tips For Divine Dining!