"That is chunky good."
I'm walking down a swanky New York street, totally invisible, as one tends to be when they're with Maiysha Kai. And suddenly, a black, knit-chunky good-shrug in a Daffy's window, makes her do a sharp runway pivot straight into the store. I gather we're going in.
It's true, that sweaterette would kick it on her unruly and highly-paid bosom, which has decorated everything from billboards to bra boxes to album covers.
The modeling: It happened a little like the shrug, on the fly, for Simpson, who goes solely by Maiysha (and she's definitely a chick who can sling a uniname over her shoulder and carry it off like a slouchy hobo bag.) She never dreamed of doing it; wasn't discovered as a child. In fact, she was teaching drama after graduating from Sarah Lawrence-unhappy and barely scraping by-when a woman at the school suggested she model. "I'm too heavy," Maiysha told her flatly. She'd never heard of "plus."
The conversation led to a casting call for Essence, whose fashion director said she had the goods for a top agent, at which Maiysha strode back into the waiting room and asked the other girls for names. "The first meeting I had was with Gary," she says referring to Gary Dakin, now head of Ford's plus-size division. "He turned me down."
She laughs. "He told me I was disproportionate."
"Hippy, Let me correct that, because I don't usually refer to myself as hippy. But, you know, I got junk in the trunk."
Maiysha ended up at Wilhelmina, and admits that green girls don't have an easy time. "I'm at a job once, sitting in a chair getting my makeup," she remembers. "The woman in charge walks in and starts talking about me as if I'm not even there. 'I don't ever want see this,' she says to the stylist. 'You see how her hair's curly? It's round. She's round. it's all round.'"
After a couple years, Maiysha approached Dakin for another meeting. She put it bluntly to him: Should she fish or cut bait? This time, he signed her, telling her he could turn her figure (a size 8 to 16, depending) into a six-figure income. "She had to do some work before I could take her on," he explains. "But she did it, and the rest is history."
The music: Really, though, modeling is her day job. Maiysha, named after the Miles Davis song, is first and foremost a recording artist, with one of those voices that climbs all over you like ivy and clings long after you've turned off the sound. Just months after her debut album, This Much is True, came out in 2008, she was nominated for a Grammy. (Here's the song that got the nod, although I'll warn you, she's hardly plus-size in the video. More on that later.)
Maiysha wrote "Wanna Be" during what she calls her "crisis of faith," when she was bingeing out of control and couldn't get music deal. It was as if her body was the site of a career collision: The modeling clients (Lane Bryant, Bloomingdales, Tommy Hilfiger, Nordstrom), were loving her, but the music industry wasn't. "Nobody wanted to sign me and nobody wanted to buy my album," she says. "I know for a fact there were deals I didn't get because I was plus."
The Secret Bingeing: It was getting bad by late 2006 and her 5-foot-10 frame was carrying 220 pounds. "I would walk up and down my neighborhood. I might grab a scone here, a cheeseburger and fries there, have that bag, and then go down the street and get pizza," she says. "To be honest, I was scared. I didn't have a handle on it." Her turbulent relationship with food went back, she says, to her childhood-which she spent shuttling between Minneapolis and Chicago to live with her attorney father and TV journalist mom, who divorced when she was 2. As a latchkey kid, she says, "There were hours between when I would come home from school and my mom would come home from work. She'd leave stuff for me in the fridge, and I would eat. And eat. And eat. It's the thing so many people have-food as love, food as comfort. It kept me company." By January of 2007, at 28 years old, she was so out of shape, she could barely make it up the stairs.
Getting Help: The first step was to put herself in therapy. Next, came a nutritionist. He started her on smaller and more frequent meals, taught her healthy eating, gave her structure, and got her going regularly to the gym. "I never starved myself," she says. "I have a friend who cooks amazing Italian food. And at no point did I ever once turn down a free meal from him. Nor did I fail to clean my plate. But I would write down what I ate in my food diary. That really helped."
Going too far? "I figured when I started," she continues, "that I would lose 20 or 30 pounds and no one would really notice." But over the course of a year, she lost 66 pounds. And they did notice. "Some clients dropped me," she says. "Others asked me to gain weight back. It became questionable as to whether I could keep working."
Meanwhile, her music was attracting notice. When photographers for the New York Times snapped her on the red carpet last year, she was at her thinnest. It was an awesome moment, though she didn't get the award. "I went through a bit of post-Grammy depression," Maiysha admits. "I never expected to win. But there was kind of a let down. What now?"
Finding Balance: After gaining a little weight back and doing a lot of soul searching, this year, the modeling jobs have been rolling in. And in June, she put out her second album, Undercover: Live from New York, in which she covers everyone from Nancy Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix-her voice, at times sweetly haunting, at others, feral and untamed.
Her body? It's an open-ended project. "The other day I was thinking, Ok, so we're a size 12-14 again. How do we feel about that?" she says, talking both to herself and me. "Well, at least I'm not bingeing. I go out for really fun dinners and drink a lot of wine with my friends. But I'm not having these secretive sessions, hoarding Papa John's in my room. My body does want to go to the gym, and I haven't been taking it. I'm like, We're going. But basically, I can say that today, it's happy-and I'm happy-right where it is."
Hey ladies, have you struggled with bingeing? Have you found anything that helps?
To hear more from (and about) curvy models.....
Ashley Graham on How to Rock a Size 16-Did someone say cellulite?Kate Dillon-Skinny to Plus-Size ModelDo Full-Figured Models Make Women Feel Bad About Themselves?
Dear Belly, Can We Stop All This Hating?
[Photo Credit: (Black & White) Ford Models] [Photo Credit: (Singing) Getty Images/WireImage]