It feels fitting that Paloma Elsesser would choose Dimes as the location of our interview. Though local foodies love the Lower East Side micro-eatery for its California-inspired menu, the cosy nook of a restaurant tucked between Orchard and Ludlow on Canal is perhaps equally known as a haunt of choice for NYC cool kids. You know—the ones whose faces, art, and work you’ve probably seen in your daily Instagram scroll? You might not know their names by heart, but you’d do a double take if you ever saw them out in public. Elsesser certainly fits in this crowd, although, if her recent modelling trajectory is any indication, it’s only a matter of time before she joins the first-name-only moniker club (and not just because “Paloma” is a great name).
It’s a muggy Friday morning, and there’s a damp, listless feeling to the summer heat. Inside Dimes, however, is a bustle of movement and chatter. Elsesser is easy to spot, perched atop a stool at the bar in a vinyl trench coat—a cool-kid fashion call if there ever was one. She’s makeup-free—her caramel skin is objectively perfect—and her long, jet-black hair is tucked into a low bun. We make our way over to our booth where I let her do most of the ordering, as this is clearly not her first time here, taking her suggestion to get the breakfast sandwich (I add bacon to mine; Elsesser is a vegetarian). We decide to split the matcha pancakes between the two of us because it’s Friday, and you should always get the pancakes. Elsesser jokes around with our waiter, whom she knows by name, and there’s an ease she exudes that only happens when you’re somewhere that feels like home—but perhaps it’s not limited to the confines of the restaurant. “I grew up in L.A., but I grew up in New York,” she tells me, taking a sip of her juice. “I became a person. I figured out my own pace, what I like to do, and how I like to do it here in the city. I fell, I picked myself back up—and I did a lot of that on my own. New York is now my home.”
Elsesser may not be a household name just yet, but after only four years modeling, she’s already worked with some of the biggest names in fashion and beauty. Her “big break” came in via legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath, who handpicked her to serve as muse for her first-ever namesake product, Gold 001. Since then, Elsesser has collaborated with Nike, appeared in the pages of Teen Vogue and Vogue, and most recently, fronted the millennial-favorite beauty brand Glossier’s newest Body Hero ad campaign, a giant billboard of which is currently on display on Spring Street. As she’s a mixed-ethnicity model, these achievements feel even more important; by working in the industry, she is inherently fighting against a long-held belief that the term model should apply to someone thin, tall, and usually white. But being outside of the norm is something Elsesser has experienced her whole life, which is perhaps why she seems to navigate her role with such ease.
“I grew up going to affluent, predominantly white private schools in L.A. I don’t come from a lot of money, and I’m obviously not white, and I’m not thin,” she laughs. With an African-American mother and a Chilean-Swiss father, she stood out from the rest of her peers, which she calls both a struggle and a learning experience. She describes going to Gap Kids at age 11 or 12 and trying to find a pair of jeans with embroidered patchwork, the coolest fashion item at the time, and sobbing in the dressing room because there was nothing in the entire store that fit her. “It was horrible,” she says. “I still remember so clearly what that felt like.” In another instance, she recalls a classmate calling her a “fat failure.”
“That kind of comparison [at a young age] was bewildering, and that being my experience for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten, was hard,” she admits. “But it actually helped me figure out who I was and what kind of value I wanted to contribute and how I wanted to navigate style and beauty. As much as I compared myself, it was quite early that I realised that I am different, and there’s not much I can change about it. There’s just no other option.”
Moving to New York when she was 18 was a turning point. “It was so interesting to walk down the street and see people checking me out,” she says. “It was a totally new experience for me. I felt like I could pave a different road for myself.” But navigating New York alone can be difficult for even the most well-adjusted, and Elsesser struggled with the push and pull of shedding a former identity that never really felt like it rang true. “I was trying to silence some things that were my truths,” she says. “And then it all was exploding in my face.” She ended up moving back to L.A., where she worked in a streetwear store and started her Instagram account—which ultimately became a vehicle for her to show her aesthetic and style. She took this time in L.A. to save up and “sit in my shit and think on it,” and ultimately came back to New York for round two—and everything was different. “I was 21, back in New York, and it was a new New York for me,” she says. “It was a more focused New York.”
This New York homecoming is also when Elsesser’s modeling career took off. She started modeling on the side, thanks to a suggestion from her friend Stevie Dance, a stylist. And though work came in, at first, she resisted. “I was like, ‘I’m not that down. I’m in school,’” she says. “I thought about it only in a financial sense. I thought about the impact I was trying to make, and I thought I had to do it academically; I thought I had to do it in the background.” Even as she started going to casting calls and booking gigs, it took a long time for it to sink in that she could make a career out of modeling. “I didn’t even know plus-size modeling was a thing,” she explains. “Growing up, people would always say, ‘You have such a pretty face.’ It’s kind of backhanded. That’s the kind of things we have to stomach.” Her reluctance prevented her from committing to modeling full-time, so one summer she decided to tour manage for her friend. While at a music festival, she received a call from Pat McGrath, who had discovered her and her Instagram account through a mutual friend. “[Gold 001] was the best shoot I’ve ever been on,” she says. “Pat was just trying to get a group of women and models who represented what she is, which is essentially very punk. Not punk in the aesthetic way but just different from the norm. She’s fucking punk. She’s incredible.”
After that, it was hard to deny the fact that she was indeed a professional model. But though a beauty shoot was what gained her more recognition in the industry, Elsesser still thinks there’s a long way to go—especially when it comes to contracts. “It’s the biggest honor as a model to get a beauty contract,” she says. “It means you’ve been able to solidify your place in the industry, and yet there are so many plus-size models who’ve been around for 15 years who haven’t been afforded that opportunity.” And why does she think that is? “The global idea of beauty is still affected by the beauty ‘ideal,’” she explains. “We’ve been told that the emblematic person to represent that ideal is somebody that we’re not—it’s someone we aspire to be. But there are moving parts happening in other industries with inclusivity that are radically showing to people, yeah, it’s fantastical, but it’s also a fantasy to see someone that you feel akin to and alike and inspired by. That’s a fantasy too.”
With growing fame comes growing pressures and moments of comparison, especially in the modern age of social media and endless scrolling, where everything in your feed feels glossy and perfect. Elsesser has over 90,000 followers herself, which she sees less as a blanket number to grow and more as a social responsibility: “I am trying to be the girl I didn’t have,” she says. “That’s important to me. I have to be conscious of that. In this weird, dark, small, very intimate way, there’s a girl out there who relies on me. And that’s super important to me, and I don’t want to let her down.” Part of that responsibility involves showing that it’s okay to be vulnerable and not fully self-assured 100% of the time. Proof of this came just a few days ago, when Elsesser posted a photo of a Glossier billboard for Body Hero on Instagram; a photo where her skin is glistening, her hair is tied up in a simple topknot, and her body is exposed. Her caption reads: “Look, I've never done nude before. I cried 3 times before this shoot. I cried because I still feel scared, paralysed by insecurity at times, and exhausted by an unfettered vulnerability that I want to present to the world … I did this to show that being fat isn't a burden. Being fat isn’t ugly or shameful. To prove to one person that it isn’t BRAVE to be fat, but bountiful.” In an industry where you’re more likely to find copious amounts of sultry selfies in a top model’s Instagram profile than any mention of the emotional toll that the industry can often take, Elsesser’s raw openness—her willingness to admit she’s susceptible to fear and self-doubt and that’s okay—is what has her poised to be the leader of the new school of model icons.
“I feel all of the same things [I used to],” she tells me matter-of-factly. “It’s just being better at navigating those feelings and coping with them.” She pauses. “It is hard.” She credits her late start in modeling as the reason she’s able to push forward and stay strong in an industry that has pushed women who look like her to the side for so long, as well as her girlfriends—a group of models and young women who call themselves the International Girl Crew. “Surround yourself with women who inspire you and motivate you and make you feel safe and protected,” she tells me. Allowing yourself to open up and be vulnerable is part of the equation too. “My number one self-soothing and coping response is just reaching out,” she says. “I’ve always just felt this weird loneliness, even as a kid, but I’ve figured out throughout the years how I can slowly tap out of it by reaching out. Being transparent in happiness or in sadness, and being able to share that moment with somebody is really important to me.”
As our interview wraps up, I realise that at some point between devouring of pancakes and breakfast sandwiches, Elsesser has removed her vinyl trench coat to reveal a simple white tank top underneath. The juxtaposition of the two looks is not lost on me, and it perhaps serves as a perfect visual representation of Paloma herself: The fiery, outspoken model exuding confidence and unafraid to call out the industry she works in for lack of representation, versus the relatable young woman who deals with the same issues we all do and isn’t afraid to use her platforms to discuss them. “Once I surrendered to modeling, I realised that I’m resilient. I thought, this is what you make of it,” she says. “That’s why I’m very persistent about inserting my voice where I have the opportunity because that’s what makes it worth it for me.” And to the classmate who called her a “fat failure”? She smiles. “Resilience,” she repeats. “I hope my story inspires others to know their capabilities.”