Cheers to 10 Years!
Updated: Jun 30, 2018
Ten years ago today, I became the Cycle 10 winner of America’s Next Top Model; The only plus sized person to ever win. My life, as I knew it, would never be the same.
I remember the excitement of winning after the tumultuous build-up that is reality television. You see, people can not think that you’re going to win. Hell, you don’t even think that you are going to win. Without the ever-changing role of your “character” (aka you, a real life human being) the show would be boring.
By the time the final episode aired, there was a clear rift. I would estimate 60/40 for fans wanting me to win, and fans wanting my opponent (who was my best friend in real life), Anya to win. Immediately, you are not only dealing with the love and adoration of people all over the world who see you as an inspiration, but also the venom and severe disdain of those who had their heart set on you losing. No one wants to believe that they are anything but the protagonist in any story, let alone the story of their own lives. With the comments rolling in, the only ones that stuck to my skin were the negative ones, but I didn’t have time to sit and think about that. Instead, I was immediately rushed into a 7 day press tour unlike any one I would ever have to endure again.
I watched the finale air at Hearst Towers, the home of 17 Magazine and a slew of the most successful magazines in the world. I went straight into red-carpet interviews after the show, followed by radio interviews in the car, heading back to my hotel (the W in Manhattan), followed by more radio interviews in my hotel room, well into the wee hours of the morning, only to wake up again at 4 am to do a few radio interviews, and start my day with television interviews (including the coveted Regis & Kelly Live morning show). I don’t know what the other winners went through, though I have met and spent a great deal of time with most of them, because it is such a unique experience for each of us. I do know that my press tour did not include any kind of a stylist or hair and makeup team. In hindsight, I’m sure that this was just an oversight by the PR person, because you want your Top Model winners to look professional in any environment (unless they are a huge hot mess because that would be free press too). If I did not have such incredible friends in “the know” from my hometown, I would have looked like a dumpster fire. Thank God for Natalie (McCray) who was able to secure designer clothes and shoes in my size for all of these interviews. I had yet to receive my check (nor would I for a while, which is standard practice in the industry, but not made clear to me until after the fact) and I couldn’t afford Manolo Blahnik, Prada, Diane Von Furstenburg, and when people ask, “Who are you wearing?” it is not an acceptable practice to reply, “Target, Spring/Summer 2008.”
To say that I was overwhelmed would be a massive understatement. Yes, it felt good to have the mean girls in high school commenting on my Facebook, “I was totally rooting for you!” (My internal response being, “Eat shit and die.”) However, I was coming out of a very long, tumultuous relationship with my high-school love who was ashamed of me because I was a “fat model,” I didn’t know a soul in New York City, and I was drowning in press, both negative and positive. I called an unlikely character to come hold my hand through the experience: My sister.
Lindsey and I never got along. That’s a much nicer way of saying that I literally prayed that she would die many times during our adolescence and I am quite sure that she did the same. She was the perfect one (she will say the same thing about me) and we were very competitive, though we were four years apart in age and miles away in looks. To this day, people don’t think that we are related when we go out, and usually they think that I am the older sister. Lindsey has naturally flowing blonde hair (like a fucking mermaid), chestnut brown eyes, enormous breasts (I did not begin to fill out my chest until college, so this was a sore subject for me growing up), an IQ that made her a literal genius, incredible writing skills, insanely great acting skills (something she picked up on a whim and was immediately better at than me), she can pick up any instrument and play it… The list goes on. We were never friends. We were never even pleasant acquaintances. However, I never would have gone on the show at all if it wasn’t for her, and the girl who started as my arch nemesis became my number one fan, and biggest supporter.
I never watched America’s Next Top Model. My goal was to be a surgeon, specifically pediatric. I wanted to work on Mercy Ships and help people. One day, my sister came home from college and started telling me about this hysterical show that I had to see. She said that a contestant (I’m paraphrasing here) looked into the camera and said, “I want to go to Harvard. I don’t have really good grades, but I have a great personality, and sometimes, that’s what they’re looking for.” I died laughing. Beautiful, stupid people on television. It’s like Zoolander in a reality TV format. But we didn’t watch a lot of television in my house and I only kept up with the show when she would share stories with me (the internet was new then).
I was in my freshman year of college when I had a falling out with my sorority and felt that I needed a big change. The truth is, people do not change. I know that we tell kids that bullies are only in school and things will get better, but that’s a crock of shit. The difference is that you have more control when you graduate. I had never had many friends who were girls. The popular girls at school hated me. One of them even left her own birthday party because I showed up. It was a really hard time in my life. But college is different, right? We’re all adult-ing and living in our own places! We’re women, not teenage girls! Wrong.
So, so wrong. To quote Taylor Swift, “All you’re ever gonna be is mean.” That’s the damn truth. So, I joined a sorority, thinking that I would finally have some girlfriends, and I do still talk to some of the girls, but there was a large group of them who didn’t like me and a rumor came out of nowhere (this, of course is sarcasm because one of the shady bitches made it up) and they voted to expel me from their sorority. They kicked me out over a completely false rumor. And please keep in mind that my “sisters” were getting so wasted at parties that some fell through and shattered glass tables! They were getting DUIs and having threesomes and yes, I partied, but the claims made against me were completely false and they still voted to kick me out. I was devastated. The wind had been kicked out of me. I thought that things would be different but they weren’t. They were exactly the same. My father always told me that living well is the best revenge, but that never really clicked.
I decided that instead of staying in town and getting trashed on Daytona Beach with all the other basic bitches, I was going to fly to Los Angeles and see if I could get back into modeling. I had gained about thirty pounds since my modeling work for Jacksonville Magazine.
My experiences in Los Angeles are a whole chapter unto themselves, but as I returned to LAX to fly home, a woman approached me (while I was buying a candy bar) and asked if I wanted to be on America’s Next Top Model. I laughed at her and said “No.” I was in college majoring in Biology, planning to be a doctor. She told me that I would be considered a plus size model and it intrigued me. I had spent years of my adolescence trying to be thin enough to model, always failing, just a half of an inch too big to be successful, and here was this woman telling me that at 5’10”, 160 pounds, a size 6-8, I was considered plus size.
She gave me her card in case I changed my mind. When I got back to Florida, I told my family about the encounter, laughing it off, but they thought that I should consider it - Lindsey most of all. I didn’t want to leave college and perpetuate the stereotype of another pretty girl who drops out to become a model and fails. My mom & dad assured me that college would always be there. I could go back any time, but this opportunity was once in a lifetime. I took the chance and went to the audition. The rest is history, but I will add that my sorority tried to claim me to their pledges for many years following my win, and I made it very clear that I was not affiliated with them at all. Living well indeed, is the best revenge.
Okay, focus, Whitney. So, I called my sister to come stay with me in New York and she dropped everything and took the next available flight. She made everything seem so much lighter. She made fun of the experience and didn’t let my ego get too big. Her favorite game (and she still does this when she wants to make me mad) is to walk down the street and pretend like she just bumped into me, and then she yells, “Oh my God! Are you Whitney Thompson from America’s Next Top Model?!” Which is followed by any fans or tourists trying to spot a celebrity, screaming and running over, begging for a picture. She’s crafty like that. But things like this poked fun at my new title and I could speak freely with her about not having any designer clothes at my disposal and not knowing how to do my hair and makeup properly for television. She got me coffee when I needed it and made me go out to the voluntary press events (the fun ones) like Fuerza Bruta (where you get to dance in the rain, indoors while dancers plummet onto mylar above you, like rain drops) and seeing Broadway shows where I had to take press photos with Lea Michelle and Jonathan Groff, who were excited to meet ME! It was an insane whirlwind. After seven days, she returned home, and so did I.
You see, America’s Next Top Model is a huge infrastructure, but it is not your momma. It is required to cut you a check and give you some press (because it’s good for the show), but it is not their job to give you a career. They of course don’t tell you this, but it was very clear after my press tour that our relationship was, for all intents and purposes, over. If I wanted to say, “Check! I won ANTM, now I can go home and pop out some babies and live a satisfied life as a housewife,” that would be my prerogative. However, my feeling was “Okay, now that I’ve won, I can start my career.” But my agency (Elite) didn’t even have a plus division. How was an agency with zero plus size connections supposed to submit me for bookings to plus size clients?! Even though it was not by any means intentional, I was being set up for failure. My agent even told me that I didn’t even have to move to New York. How in the world could I expect to be a model, living in Jacksonville, Florida with an agency in New York who didn’t have a plus division?! I told him that I would move anyways. I stayed in the Elite model apartment in mid-town east. It was rough. The apartment was great and my roommates were awesome, but they were going to castings every day and I wasn’t. I was booking jobs directly, which is ideal, but it doesn’t give you a lot of meaning in your day-to-day life. I was making money too, getting paid between 10,000 and $25,000/day for these jobs. In order to be considered a supermodel, you have to make $10,000/day. I felt like that made me a success, and I needed to believe that I was making it in order to claw my way to real success. I would book a campaign and not work for 6 months. This was the process for me over and over again.
After my contract was up at Elite, my agent helped me get signed at Wilhelmina New York, an agency who had a great plus division. I had a love/hate relationship with Wilhelmina. When you are shopping agencies, they are going to treat you like royalty, but once you’re signed, you quickly find out that they do not care about you. You can’t pay your bills? Tough shit. We want you to do a test shoot with this guy next weekend and you’re going to pay him $2500, from which the agency will take a cut. It’s disgusting how they take advantage of people. I was told where I had to live, what color my hair would be, and how much I could weigh on any given day. I was made fun of if my skin broke out. Agents are brutal. I was booking shoots every few months with really big companies, but I was being bullied by my own agency. I was the first plus size model ever for Forever 21. I shot for Target, Saks 5th Avenue, JC Penney, Walmart, Torrid… pretty much every major brand other than Lane Bryant in America. I was done with the American companies and they were done with me. I don’t mean that in a negative way. It’s just that you can only shoot with a company so many times as their spokesmodel before the customers tire of you.
The best thing that came out of Wilhelmina was me signing with my agency in London, Milk Models. I was able to move to London and suddenly, I felt like a real model. I was going to castings every day, booking jobs all over the world, paying my bills and getting paid in Great British pounds, worth twice as much as the American dollar. I had an apartment in Los Angeles, New York, and London. I was making it.
I asked my agent in London if she thought that I should go back to blonde and she thought that it would look great, but she was not my mother agency - Wilhelmina was. And they very clearly stated that they wanted my hair to be brunette. I dyed my hair blonde anyways. I went into Wilhelmina and they said, “Your hair… I can’t. It’s awful.” Two days later, Milk booked me for Italian Vogue, as a blonde. Do you think that my agents in New York were happy? No. I couldn’t wait to end my contract with Wilhelmina.
Since signing with Milk in London, I also went on to sign with agencies in Istanbul, Cape Town, and Hamburg. I was shooting in Greece, Singapore, Sydney, Milan, Paris, Sweden, London, Germany, Canada, Naples… The list goes on! I finally felt that I had made it. I had two billboards in Time’s Square, a cover and 7 page spread in 17 Magazine, 10 Covergirl commercials, shot for every major fashion brand in America, as well as ones all over the planet. I was paying all of my bills and saving money just from modeling. I felt confident on who I was and what I was doing. This of course, is when I fell in love.
Once Ian and I started dating, everything changed. He moved to London to be with me, which was incredible. He was traveling with me for most of my photo shoots, but there were some where he was clearly not welcome. One night, I was flying to another country to shoot for one of my favorite clients. I was staring out the airplane window and I had the realization that I had no desire to do this. The fire was gone. I felt that I had proved myself in the industry, but I was still sacrificing my life to do something that I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to sit through two hours of hair and makeup. I didn’t want to stand in heels for 9 hours and pretend like I was walking in place. I loved my clients. I loved traveling. I was finished with modeling. When I got back to London, I told Ian that I was finished with modeling. I wanted to be in control. I wanted to have control over my hair color, my outfit choices, where I lived, where I traveled to, what my makeup looked like… I wanted to live my life for me.
Ian proposed to me in Ireland and we decided to move back to America to be closer to family. I found a little restaurant in a small Southern town where my family had moved. I have always loved cooking and Ian had gone to culinary school. The former owner of this building had left all of their restaurant equipment before they moved out. By moving into this building, we would be inheriting about $80,000 in restaurant equipment. It seemed so serendipitous to me, kind of like being scouted for America’s Next Top Model. We took a leap of faith and opened Whitney Lee’s Farm to Table Restaurant in June of 2014. We have since expanded and changed the name to Copper Vault, and we’ve been successful for four years. Owning a restaurant is completely different from modeling, but I have control over everything and it’s my incredible little, ever-evolving monster.
I still do some modeling, but mostly direct bookings. If a client books me, I fly out to wherever they want me to shoot, and fly back in time for Friday night dinner. I still travel a lot with Ian, but it’s mostly for fun. I never felt like I was modeling for myself. The industry is way too difficult for one person to sustain themselves mentally without a push behind you. I modeled/model for others. I want people to see me and feel like my body is relatable. I want them to see that there is beauty in themselves by seeing me.
I thank each and every one of you for the past ten years. To my friends and fans, thank you for for your endless support and inspiration over the years. Without you, I never would have experienced the incredible successes and joys in my life. Thank you for sharing your personal stories and journeys with me, reminding me constantly that I was working for you, not for me. To my haters, thank you for motivating me by pushing me to work that much harder. Without you, I would have quit in Istanbul when I had to shoot for sixteen hours straight. I would have said no in Greece when I had to shoot in frigid temperatures on the water. You motivated me more than anything, to continue to push myself and standing up for others being bullied by you. Thank you.
Cheers to ten years!
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