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Tess McMillan is not a body positivity icon, a plus-sized model, or an outspoken inclusivity activist. She’s just Tess. And when she sat down with Liza Mullet for Fashion at Brown’s Distinguished Speaker Series, it felt like she really was “just Tess.” Though originally from Texas, McMillan relocated to London (from New York) in late February of 2022 for her modeling career. 

Scouted on Instagram by Heather Hazzan, modeling was just about the last thing McMillan expected to do for a living. “When I was a kid, I was a very creative child. I wanted to be creative in any way I had access to. I just wanted to make,” she explained, touching on her interests in music, writing, acting, and of course, fashion. In middle school, she fixated on Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Yearbook, staging her own photoshoots with her friends. “They didn’t have a lot of deeper meaning, it was just ‘a goth photoshoot’,” she joked, messing up her hair and pouting. McMillan described herself as having “a million dream jobs”, from a popstar to a baker, but she never even considered modeling. She wanted to create, not be part of someone else’s creation.

McMillan’s creative drive made it difficult in her first year as a model. It was challenging to figure out, but now she says that it’s been so long that she’s “forgotten how it feels to not understand.” McMillan still remembers the biggest part: she had always been a creator, and now she’d lost her autonomy. She wanted her opinion to matter in the things she did. She knew that she was going to be modeling for a while whether she liked it or not, and began to ask herself, “How can I make this job something that makes me happy?” She began to make herself part of the creative process, putting more into the shoots than just poses. This creativity is why she loves editorial modeling so much, it leaves space for her to bring her own perspective.

“How do you feel being seen as a force of change?” This question drove the most meaningful part of the conversation. “In many ways it feels like responsibility…” People often only want to talk about Tess as an agent of change, she said, and it feels reductive. Everyone wants to talk about this amazing thing that they’re doing, being so inclusive, and changing the world, but she asked, “Do we have to talk about it? Can’t we just do it?” For a while, Tess refused to discuss her body and what it meant because she is so much more than meeting a quota. There are so many more meaningful ways to be inclusive than sitting around and talking about what a good job you’re doing, she expressed, and she just wants to exist with people doing what is right because it’s right. “Fashion is about making money.” Though there are so many facets and beautiful parts of fashion, the industry exists to make a profit. Tess talked about her discomfort with brands diversifying in the name of making money. “They shouldn’t do this because other people want to see it, they should do it because it’s the right thing.”

From being on the cover of Vogue Ukraine and in campaigns for brands like Gucci and Gaultier, Tess McMillan felt like a real person. As she continues to work on films and models for iconic houses, there’s no doubt that she will remain “just Tess.”

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