With the growing popularity of social media you may be too busy collecting friends to realize a living, breathing and inspirational plus size model is in your presence. By remaining focused, plus model Kori Leilani, has catapulted into the spotlight right before our eyes. A little over a year ago, Kori graced our September 2011 cover as a relatively new model. Since then she’s captured the hearts of major plus size brands and fans alike.
This month, we catch up with Kori as she shares with us her passion for modeling, why it’s important to network with others , the struggles she faces and how she continues to rise above every obstacle she’s faced with.
Early in your career you partnered with local photographers, boutiques and designers. Why was it important to receive support from your peers locally first?
When I first decided to model, there was not a lot of information about it here in Washington. I wanted to reach out to local photographers, boutique owners and designers to show them that there is a market for plus and just because we are not really known for fashion here in Washington, it didn’t mean that we still couldn’t participate in the industry. I was a new-by. I felt that if I were to make it, I wanted to make it with the people here in my community. I wanted to bring them with me and show that you don’t really need well known industry professionals to make it. I have made it to where I am today because of the support and encouragement of the people here in my home town. Their unconditional love and support meant so much to me. Just knowing that every time I went to a big city such as NYC where I was unknown that I had people back home routing for me was so amazing. Knowing that most of the test shoots and images that I did when I first started were taken by people that were aspiring just like me; but are getting so much recognition is the greatest feeling. It shows that you don’t necessarily need to know anyone at first to get started. Working with people that have the same passions and visions as I had and that work hard and wouldn’t stop until they got to where they wanted to be was very motivating.
In such a short time modeling you’ve done so much including working with MYNT 1792 and becoming the face of Eva Tremaine’s novel Seven Again. How do you juggle modeling and your daily responsibilities?
Knowing that I had responsibilities before I decided to pursue modeling made it really easy for me to know my limits and my boundaries. I am a normal person. I work full time, I have a family and friends; and all this came before the modeling. Everyone in my life supports my dreams and my goals which I think helps me stay humbled. If modeling ended for me tomorrow, I know I’d still have family, friends, and work.. and I’m OK with that. There have definitely been times where I’ve had to make tough decisions. I always talk it out with my cousin Asha or my brothers and family and make a decision from there. I am really thankful for the opportunities and jobs that have been asked to be apart of in my career.
Many of our readers have been vocal about the lack of African Americans in modeling. Did you ever worry about being rejected by agencies because of the color of your skin?
Yes of course. I believe I have been rejected by agencies due to the color of my skin and that’s so unfortunate. I think its really silly actually. I would get upset at first because I just didn’t understand why other models were getting signed by this agency and that agency and I couldn’t get signed. I knew I had what it took and what the consumers wanted and yet, all I would hear is “You’re not what we are looking for” or “When you get down to a size 16 come back and we will re assess you”. I’ve heard “You are too dark” and “Your hair is too short” or “We are looking for the girl next door type”. All of these reasons made me more and more upset and made me want it even more. As a consumer, when I walk into a store and looked at the marketing that is supposed to make me want to buy their clothes… its would do the exact opposite. Yes, the models are pretty and can model… but they all look the same. What about the consumers that are just like me or different. African American, or Latina, or Indian etc… Where are the models that represent us? Its very discouraging to go into a store and see someone that doesn’t look like me or isn’t my size and shape knowing that I could be the one or a fellow model could be the one yet they choose not to use us. I think agencies and clients play it safe. Its 2012 and there are so many different types of women that need to be represented that are not yet continue to spend their hard earned paychecks on these brands. How will they know it doesn’t work until they try it? Just a thought…
I was signed with Images Model Management NYC after walking in FFFweek this past June and I was so excited! I finally was working with someone who saw my potential. I was signed for about 2 weeks and then for some unknown reason, Images sent out emails to the whole Figure 8 division and let everyone out of their contracts. To say I was bummed was an understatement. I honestly didn’t think I would be signed by another major NYC agency. I had already applied, applied and applied again… but then I received a call from IPM Model Management a month or so later and Ms. Fallon Sinclair was on the other end. She told me that she believed in me and what I represented and loved my look and wanted to sign and work with me. So, that’s what I did. I am now signed by IPM Model Management and I’m excited about whats to come!
What are three stereotypes that you’re faced with as a plus size model?
I think the biggest stereotype that I have encountered is that because I’m “pretty” I can’t model. I have heard so many times that “modeling is more then just being a pretty face”. I’m over hearing that. Put me in front of a camera and then lets decide whether or not I can model. I enjoy modeling not because I think I’m pretty, but because of what I can create. I love pushing myself and seeing what or who I can become. That’s what drives me.
The other is if you are larger then a 12-14 you can’t model. Why not? I’m a size 18 and I am 5’11. I can model just as great as the size 12’s, 14’s and 16’s.
The funniest one is that we have no fashion. I don’t think fashion has anything to do with size. Its all about your personality. Everyone has their own style and fashions sense and that’s whats so exciting about it!
Who are your inspirations in modeling and in life? And why?
In life I would say my mother inspires me… everyday. Even though she passed away in 2008, she continues to be my biggest supporter. I hear her speaking to me every time I step in front of the camera. My daughter Avah inspires me. I want my daughter to know that her mother worked hard at everything she did. I want her to know that despite life’s challenges I was still able to pursue a dream of mine and that I didn’t let the world hold me back. I want her to know that I am strong and determined and to know that no matter what, you can really do anything you set your mind to. It really is that easy… that’s something my mother taught me and I am just now understanding what she meant. In the model world… there are a lot of women that inspire me. The women that have supported me and believed in me, inspire me.
In regards to body image, what is your favorite feature and which feature are you still in the process of embracing?
Such a hard question!!! I’m going to say that I don’t really have a “favorite feature” as I continue to try and embrace all of the features I was given everyday. Everyday is a challenge. I have good days and bad days just like everyone else. Today my favorite feature may be my eyes… but tomorrow it may be my hands. I am a work in progress.
Life is a never ending lesson. What has modeling taught you and how do you turn those into life lessons?
Modeling has taught me to have thick skin. Every where you go no matter what the industry, job or career… you’re always going to have someone that doesn’t like you or the way you work or what they think you represent. Knowing who you are and knowing why you are doing what you’re doing will always make it worth it in the end. Even if you don’t get the job you wanted or the raise you deserved or whatever it may be. Keep going. Keep pushing. Stay true to yourself. Use all those no’s and naysayers as fuel to keep you pumped and motivated to strive for the best every time you try out for something.
You have a beautiful daughter. It’s not uncommon for modeling mommies to introduce their kids to the same career. Would you let your daughter model as well?
I’m not opposed to my daughter stepping into the modeling industry. I want her to do whatever makes her happy. Once she is at an age where she understands what it all in-tales I will ask her if she wants to try it. For now, she’s enjoying being a 5 yr. old, playing dress up, going to school and exploring new things.
You’re currently working with a group of 2-3 models to teach them about the business. Did you have this type of support system when you started and why is teaching them important to you?
I love working with my girls. They all are so talented and driven. I decided to work with these girls because there was no one really there to answer the questions that I had when I was entering into the business. There was no one there to teach me the basics and the ins and outs of the business. You can read all the books and articles about how to get started or what to do or not to do and even watch shows like ANTM but actually having someone you can call or text when you have that question… is just so much more personable. You get a better understanding about what it is you are asking. I think its important for them to know the basics. I want to help them get ready to enter the modeling word. Things like setting up test shoots, choosing the best portfolio images, how to submit to agencies and things like that. I also work on things like posing and movement in front of the camera. This is something I enjoy doing and I feel like I am really helping them and that makes it so worth it.
What’s next for Kori Leilani?
Well… I’ll be continuing to heal for now. I had Achilles Tendon repair surgery in October so healing is definitely my first priority at the moment. I have been off for 5 weeks now and during this time I have had the opportunity to figure out where I want to go and how I am going to get there. Making new goals for myself and planning new endeavors. I’m still testing with photographers and I will continue to work on my photography. I’m excited about what 2013 has to bring for me and those around me.
Photographer: McSchmoogly Photography