Former 'Top Model' contestant Whitney Cunningham defends plus size models, celebrates the "regular woman"
Wednesday, December 5, 2007
Once you get a chance to talk to West Palm Beach, Florida native Whitney Cunningham, who placed seventh on the eighth cycle of the popular reality TV series America's Next Top Model, you begin to understand what host Tyra Banks meant when she described her as the "full package."
First of all, she is confident and headstrong, which is a must on these kinds of shows, almost as much as it is to take a beautiful modelesque picture. Second, she turns that confidence into drive. She has been receiving steady work as a model since leaving the show, and still believes that her goal of being the first woman to wear a size ten dress on the cover of Vogue is in reach. Third, and probably most important to television viewers, she obliterates the age-old model stereotype that to be pretty and photograph well, one must also be vapid and without a thought. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Cunningham also dreams of becoming a writer, and is working toward dual goals: a model who can express herself like no other model before her.
Cunningham recently sat down with Wikinews reporter Mike Halterman in an impassioned interview, taking hours to field questions from the reporter as well as from fans of America's Next Top Model. Always in high spirits, Cunningham shows that she is a distinct personality who has carved her own niche in the Top Model history books. At the same time, she exhibits a joie de vivre that is oddly reminiscent of earlier Top Model fan favorite Toccara Jones, who showed America just how to be "big, black, beautiful and loving it." However, Cunningham is quick to remind everyone that she isn't big at all; she is simply a regular woman.
This is the first in a series of interviews with America's Next Top Model contestants. Interviews will be published sporadically.
Whitney's beginnings, and looking back
- Whitney was going to be interviewed with fellow Top Model contestant Keenyah Hill, but the interviews were ultimately done separately. Whitney and Keenyah, both based in New York City, chitchat before the interview about the restaurant where Keenyah works. Keenyah wonders if Whitney has ever eaten there, and to Keenyah's surprise, Whitney has. They make plans to keep in touch after the interview. Whitney's interview followed later.
Mike Halterman: So, who were the people you looked up to and inspired you to pursue modeling?
- Whitney Cunningham: You know modeling was something that I was always interested in, but I would have to say that modeling was not an interest of mine that took a priority over my other interests. I've always been a basketball player and someone who was serious about academic achievement so I looked up to people who were eminent in those areas—i.e., Cheryl Miller and Maya Angelou. I would have to say that Tyra Banks was probably someone I always revered because she has always been such a trailblazer and that is a huge quality and characteristic I strive for in myself.
MH: Did you follow America's Next Top Model before appearing on the show, and if so, who did you like?
- WC: Who didn't [follow Top Model]! I was a Top Model fiend in the first couple of cycles it was on the air. I loved Yaya because she was the educated chocolate "sista" [who was] much like myself.
MH: If you could quickly summarize your experience on the show, how would you describe it?
- WC: It was an absolutely memorable experience that I wouldn't change for anything in the world. Not too many people can they say that they've been a participant on a television series that has literally changed the face of popular culture in America and in countries worldwide.
MH: What do your friends and family think of your stint on reality TV?
- WC: I think everyone was really excited for me. I think their general sentiments are that it's cool to see someone that you know inside and out be put on display for the whole world to see. I know there were times where I would make certain faces or have certain reactions and they would always say, "I know exactly what you were thinking."
MH: What were some of your specific pros and cons as a result of entering this contest?
- WC: On the pro side, I would have to say that the exposure is incredible. I couldn't imagine how I would have been propelled into the industry so quickly if I hadn't been on the show. On the con side, I'm not exactly sure what the show's impression is on the fashion industry. I try to always remain positive, though. I, personally, have definitely used the show to my advantage as best I know how.
Impact Top Model has on society
MH: Do you ever fear what negative effect the show will have on girls?
- WC: I said before that ANTM has changed the face of popular culture in America and beyond and I'll say it again. We're living in a "Top Model Era." Every girl, woman, boy and man wants to be a model now. But everyone cannot be a model. Modeling is not just an "easy" way to bring in the big bucks. It takes hard work, dedication, some hustle, and it's not meant for everyone. I kind of feel like ANTM is selling a false dream for a lot of folks out there.
MH: Do you think that in some way the show can lead to girls developing an obsession with how they look, their weight, etc?
- WC: I have to say no on this one. I applaud the show for their consistent efforts to try to show their viewers that beauty comes in all shapes, forms, sizes, colors, and creeds. I think that it has actually had a profoundly positive effect on the folks who watch. I can't tell you how many people stop me on the street or e-mail me just to thank me for being a role model and showing the world that very thing.
MH: Did Tyra encourage a certain standard among the girls (weight or otherwise) that was unhealthy?
- WC: Not at all. I think that viewers think that we have a whole lot more interaction with Tyra than we actually do. We only really saw her during panel and during our "interventions." [laughs]
MH: Do you think Tyra still believes her show is about finding "the next top model" even though none of the show's winners have had that success?
- WC: [laughs] That is a phenomenal question. I don't think that the show gives its winners enough time to reign. The show puts out two cycles a year. While one cycle is airing, they are taping another and apparently the show is scheduled to continue until 2010! I think it was about finding a "Top Model" during the show's beginnings, but I think that über-success of the show has turned it into a profit-driven production. I just wish that the show would put more time and cultivation into their winners even after their cycle's conclusions. And I truly think that the show would see a return on cultivating their winners, because the show's credibility would increase.
MH: A fan wrote in to ask, "What struggles did you face on the show as a plus sized model?"
- WC: I think that my biggest struggle was realizing that plus sized models and straight sized models are apples and oranges...I couldn't study magazines and try to develop my poses, because a woman who weighs 110 pounds and is 5'10" looks completely different when she shapes and curves her body than a woman who is 5'10" and weighs 175 pounds. I, therefore, had to figure things out as I went along. The other girls had a reference/vantage point to learn from. I'm still figuring things out.
MH: Do you think it was unfair for Tyra to ask that [studying magazines and developing your poses] of you and Diana, considering that even though she's fuller-figured now, she has a lot more experience under her belt than you two did?
- WC: Well, you know, I would say that it would have been fair if there were magazines for us to study! But there were none. That's why I think that it's so important that publications like Plus Model Magazine continue to blossom and flourish. I've learned more reading that magazine and getting to know the folks who write for that magazine than I ever learned about being a plus-sized model on ANTM. P.S. I'll be gracing the cover of that magazine in January of '08. Look out for me.
MH: It sounds like you're doing just fine for yourself. Which one fan also asked, "Have you faced adversity about your weight since being on the show?"
- WC: Adversity?! Absolutely not. I don't think people understand that I am a regular woman. I wear a [size] ten for God's sake. It's so funny because people come up to me and they say, "Wow, you're not fat at all? You must have lost a lot of weight." I think I just came off looking heavier on TV...that, or people just had a distorted perception of what I should look like in person. As a matter of fact I'm about 10 pounds heavier than I was on the show now and people can't believe how "normal" I look. But that was my aim in going on the show, that a normal woman can actually have a place in the industry. She doesn't have to be a size 2 nor does she have to be a size 18.
MH: Another fan writes: Do you feel like "plus size" models are treated fairly? (I put "plus size" in quotes because I don't believe you are "plus size"!)
- WC: No, I don't. I don't think that plus-sized models are given enough respect and I don't think that folks value the plus-sized industry the way it should be valued. But I think it's because people don't know how much the plus-sized industry varies. Hell, Kim Kardashian could be considered a plus-sized model! But people automatically assume that plus-sized means obese and that no one who is obese could possibly be attractive, or sexy, or a model. But that's not the case.
Whitney's views on production and editing
MH: Do you believe the producers for shows such as Top Model intentionally pick people who are perhaps unstable, for better television?
- WC: Absolutely. I understand it, though. When I have my own production/entertainment company and I'm brainstorming ideas for a show, or a book, or a commercial, etc., I'll think of what sort of concepts will accrue me the largest profit. The producers of Top Model think along the same lines. Mass consumers want to see stuff that's juicy! They don't want to watch boring characters every Wednesday night. They want someone who's fun and out of the ordinary.
MH: Can you explain what types of things the producers allow you to say or not say following your departure from the show?
- WC: Well, the show is not taped live, so of course you're sworn to secrecy about what's happened during taping until the show actually airs.
MH: Who selects your best photo for each panel and do you think there are ulterior motives involved?
- WC: Tyra says she selects the photos, but who knows. I don't know about ulterior motives, but there were numerous times where I knew that I had taken a better photo than the one that appeared on the screen during panel. Every season girls say the same thing as well. It's interesting because in the last photo shoot I had before I was eliminated, Mr. Jay told me that I had finally figured out the art of modeling and I have successfully pulled off my shoot. Needless to say, I was eliminated and never saw it coming. I figured it was smooth sailing since the director of the photo shoot told me I looked like I knew what I was doing. It is what it is though. What can I say?
MH: How did they decide who was going to read the Tyra Mail for the episode? Was it random, planned, or was it really who 'discovered' the note each morning?
- WC: It's definitely whoever discovered the note. Contrary to popular belief, the show isn't really scripted, planned, etc.
MH: Were you forced to fake your excitement over Tyra Mail?
- WC: We weren't forced to do anything, but I think that we all knew what our "expected" reactions were to the Tyra Mail readings. We had all seen the show, we all knew what the girls acted like when Tyra Mail was read, so we basically just kind of did the same thing. It's supposed to be an exciting moment, you know?
Whitney takes more fan questions
MH: Do you still keep in touch with girls from your cycle? If so, who?
- WC: Most definitely. I probably have hung out with Jaslene the most since we both live in New York together and that was my girl from the beginning. Diana and I still keep in touch. I still speak to Felicia every now and then, and Kathleen and I have been out on the town (she doesn't know it yet, but she's my new hairdresser too. That girl has got a fierce weave game.)
MH: What were the pressures like in the house?
- WC: I actually felt like the house was my refuge. It was home! It was where I could go and let my hair down, go to sleep, read a book, call my friends and family, etc. Some of the girls might say they hated it in the house, but I was really cool with mostly all of the girls so the house was somewhere I knew I could be and just be Whitney.
MH: Is it common for agencies or clients to contact you after seeing the show?
- WC: No way. Models come a dime a dozen. Established modeling agencies have no reason to go out and chase girls. I'd say it's more common for companies to contact girls about making special appearances, but not modeling agencies. It's up to you to go out and find a modeling agency.
MH: And do you get contacted from the guest designers that appeared on your cycle?
- WC: I, personally, never have.
MH: A fan really wanted to know, "Was Dionne as funny as she was on the show?"
- WC: Dionne was really quiet and reserved. I was actually surprised to see how comedic she came off during her interviews.
MH: How did you feel when Dionne and Renee only got T-shirts as a prize for winning the acting challenge?
- WC: Like I was the luckiest person in the world for winning the laser beam challenge. [laughs]
MH: There were a lot of negative reactions from fans when Jaslene won. Do you think she was the best choice? If so, why? If not, who would have been the better choice and why?
- WC: Oh, my God, negative reactions? Are you kidding? Jaslene was, without a doubt, the best model at the time on the show. The only possible negative reaction I could think of is that she's so thin. And what people don't know is that Jaslene could give me a run for my money in eating. [laughs] She's just naturally built the way she is.
MH: Some negative fan reactions were "How could Jaslene sell a product when she can't speak English well?" and "Model? She's not even pretty! She looks like a man!" Which, I wish I was making it up, but it's a rather loud fan voice on those points. What do you say to them about that? And following on that, do you think fans can be excessively cruel toward the contestants?
- WC: Those "fans" can kiss my ___. She is from Puerto Rico and represents all that America is—a large nation made up of a multitude of people from different backgrounds and places. And Jaslene is beautiful as are we all. And yes, I do believe that the fans can be excessively cruel. I don't even consider those folks fans though. They're people who have nothing else better to do with themselves than sit around and bash reality TV contestants on anonymous blog sites.
MH: You and Diana were some of the only models in this cycle who were working toward a college degree. Did you feel that you were smarter than the other girls? Did people at your college watch Top Model to see you and root for you?
- WC: Smarter? [laughs] I don't like that term because I'm an honest believer in the fact that people are all relatively smart, just in different things. I would say that I was well versed in certain areas that others were not, but that doesn't mean I'm smarter per se. And yes, folks at my school definitely watched the show. I got really positive feedback! They said I represented well.
Where Whitney is today
MH: And on that note, a fan wanted to know if you finished your degree at Dartmouth.
- WC: Yes.
MH: This past May, right?
- WC: I walked in June.
MH: Do you plan on moving back to Florida, or are you going to continue living in New York City?
- WC: I'm definitely going to continue to live in New York for a while. I need to be where the industry is.
MH: Apart from your spread in Plus Model Magazine, what else are you doing now?
- WC: I'm modeling, working on my motivational speaking tour entitled "Embrace Yourself" (look out for me coming to a college near you in the Spring of '08), acting, and writing for a couple of magazines.
MH: What is your message to the girls of America who have big dreams of their own? What would you tell them?
- WC: My life's motto...If someone tells you that you can't, prove them wrong and show the world that you can.