Kate Dillon, the plus-size supermodel and Harvard-educated policy wonk, is brilliant with figures.
By Sally Singer. Photographed by Patrick Demarchelier.On a chilly December day, a giant of the modeling world goes shopping at some Lilliputian boutiques on New York's Lower East Side. Kate Dillon-she stands five feet eleven, wears a size 10, and at age 36 has been the face (and body) of "plus size" modeling for more than a decade-is looking for clothes that fit her well in every sense. An environmental and education activist with a degree in international development from Harvard's Kennedy School, she has an overtly principled approach to shopping. So at the eco-fashion and lifestyle shop Kaight, she considers sweaters and little tops made of bamboo ("grows like a weed; in my opinion a great material because of the low water usage. Some people don't agree") and hemp ("also grows like a weed, but you still have to process it"). She wanders in and out of vintage shops-for Dillon, recycled is best-looking for the right plaid flannel shirt; not one buttons over the chest with requisite slacker ease. At Maryam Nassir Zadeh (a gallery space that sells the labels of the minute alongside arrows and twigs), Dillon falls headfirst in love with a nonorganic Isabel Marant Empire silk peasant dress and heads straight to the changing cabana. "Can you witness this?" she says, emerging with her hands thrown up. "It's the boobs that ruin it. My struggle."
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Kate Dillon laughs when she says this. After working for nearly two decades in the fashion industry, she knows better than most that when the clothes don't fit you right, move on: It's the clothes, not you. She describes her professional life thus far as Modeling 1.0, 2.0, and 3.0. Modeling 1.0 began in 1992, when she was seventeen years old, a grunge beach babe from San Diego sought after by the likes of Richard Avedon and Peter Lindbergh for her beautiful face; pals with Kate Moss and the coolest stars of the post-supermodel, heroin-chic era; a size 4 or 6; and in the throes of a "nontrivial eating disorder. When I was skinny, I was really self-conscious. I felt so fat all the time." She recalls being on a shoot with a skinnier model where both felt inadequate. "If I had your face or you had my body, we'd be perfect," she recalls her colleague saying. And then Dillon remembers looking around and thinking, The photographer isn't in shape, the fashion editor doesn't eat and doesn't look happy about it, and the fashion assistant has body issues. Soon after, in 1993, Dillon had an intestinal virus for ten days. "Someone in fashion said, 'You look amazing.' I lost any faith in the belief that being pretty or skinny was better than being anything else." She stopping starving herself and headed home for a two-year break.
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When Dillon returned-Modeling 2.0-it was to work in plus-size with "a mission. It was so clear, so important: You can be beautiful and a little bit bigger." She was bigger then; she had gained 40 pounds and was closer to an actual plus size. The reasons were personal-"Part of me wanted to cover up and hide by being overweight"-and professional: Certain plus-size clients will book only models whose bodies directly resemble those of the customer. Dillon realized that she was rebelling through food ("I used to eat an entire bag of Tostitos. I didn't know what full was") in ways that were as destructive and untrue to the naturally healthy, athletic woman as what she had gotten up to in Modeling 1.0. She sought the advice of a nutritionist, started exercising, and dropped the weight superquick. "I moved to Houston and went to school," she says. "My focus shifted off my body." Kate Dillon was 28.
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Enter Modeling 3.0: Dillon graduates with a poli-sci degree from the University of St. Thomas and is accepted to Harvard's Kennedy School. Two years later she gets a master's in international development, coauthoring a prizewinning thesis and receiving a Dean's Award for teaching (Dillon teaches statistics because she "has a gene that is good at math"). She meets the man she will eventually marry on a flight from San Diego to Houston. He works in commercial real estate and is utterly beside himself that the Amazonian bombshell in the next seat is reading about the deregulation of the electricity sector in the Dominican Republic. He has just watched a documentary about deregulation called Power Trip. It seems fated. His name is Gabe Levin, and he later woos her by buying her an article from The Economist online. Dillon remembers thinking, All I want is some eco-terrorist, and I am going to end up with a corporate guy in New York? She adds, "I found a depth in this corporate guy that I hadn't found in the creative types."
Dillon and Levin are now happily married and living in Spanish Harlem. They are both serious athletes who train for triathlons and ride their bikes to Nyack and back on weekends. They don't hire personal trainers, and they don't join gyms. When not working toward a specific event-this July's half-marathon in Napa Valley, say-Dillon runs a minimum three days a week and takes class at YogaWorks. Says her agent John Ilani, "Kate is superfit. She's not going to shave her shoulders off to fit into a sample. As long as one is healthy and beautiful, then that's something to aspire to."
And Dillon's aspirations are vast and purposeful. She has cofounded a program called Komera to educate and mentor high school-age girls in Rwanda. She also tutors and mentors students near her home. It's her mission to form a bridge between the lives of local teenagers in New York and those of the girls in Rwanda. Education, sustainability, and poverty are her three overarching areas of concern. "I enjoy being at the frontier of an issue," she says, "being in that fuzzy area, and being willing to look for solutions." Says her husband, "Kate has two speeds: on and off. She has this engine. Once she sets her sights on something, there's only one speed."
Bring on Kate Dillon 4.0.
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Photo Credit: Patrick Demarchelier