In junior high, she was known as Overweight Kate. Today, Kate Dillon is known as one of the most influential women in high-fashion modeling.
Currently represented by New York City's Wilhelmina Models, Dillon was the first plus-size model to appear in Vogue, was named one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 2001, and has been photographed by industry icons Richard Avedon and Helmut Newton.
But there is more to Dillon than just a pretty face. The 5-foot-11 36-year-old also holds a master's degree in public administration in international development from the Harvard Kennedy School and has been involved in numerous philanthropic projects.
Discovered by a photographer while hanging out at Del Mar's Pannikin, Dillon is on a mission to redefine beauty, proving to the world that true beauty really does come from the inside.
What was it like growing up in North County?
My family moved from Washington, D.C., to San Diego when I was 10. My father worked for Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) in La Jolla and my mother was a kindergarten teacher at La Jolla Country Day, which I attended from eighth to 12th grade. We lived first in Carlsbad, then we moved to Carmel Del Mar. I loved going to the beach at sunset and seeing the dolphins swimming by, hiking at Torrey Pines Reserve and Sunset Cliffs, and the tacos at Roberto's.
How did you get started in modeling?
It is ironic that I ended up modeling; in grade school, I was ridiculed mercilessly for being fat. But when I was 12, I saw a movie about eating disorders on TV, and I learned that if I starved myself, I could get skinny. It made less of an impression on me that the anorexic girl in the movie died than the fact that I had a solution to my problem at school. So I got very skinny and ultimately became a model.
One night when I was 17, I was hanging out at the Pannikin in Del Mar, and a photographer told me I should be a model. I gave it a try and soon signed with an agency in Los Angeles, working part time while finishing up high school.
You are now billed as a plus-size model, but that isn't how you started out, is it?
When I was a "skinny" model, I got very ill with a stomach virus. I had hardly eaten in 10 days when a fashion editor came up to and told me how fabulous I looked. I remember thinking, "Wow, that is what it takes to look fabulous in fashion."
I did very well, working with all the best photographers, the best designers and the best magazines. Yet something nagged inside of me: Why was I starving myself to perpetuate this ideal illusion for other women to torture themselves? I asked myself if this was the impact I wanted to have on the world, and had to answer no.
After two years of modeling full time, I left the industry in search of health and a more meaningful direction for my life. I moved back to San Diego and worked at Barnes & Noble and Cafe Lulu downtown. I spent two years doing a lot of soul-searching and then decided finally to go to college.
Almost as soon as I arrived back in NYC, someone suggested I become a "plus-size" model. I had worked with plus-size model Emme before and thought she was heroic. Suddenly, it seemed so obvious that I should re-enter the fashion industry as a plus-size model, at a very normal size 10, by the way, and draw attention to body image and eating disorder issues, as well as body diversity in the media and fashion.
Given that the average American woman is 5-foot-4, weighs 140 pounds and wears a size 14, do you feel any resentment being tagged as a plus-size model
I think the term "plus-size model" is misleading because so few plus-size models wear plus-size clothing, but I love representing this demographic. I love representing curvy women, although some women — justifiably — do not feel a size 10 is really curvy enough.
You have broken a lot of modeling barriers for "plus-size" women. Do you think this is because the industry is becoming more realistic?
I don't think it's about realism at all. I love the fantasy of fashion, and fashion should remain a fantasy. I just don't believe diversity must sacrifice fantasy, and I think the fashion industry is beginning to get that. Nowadays there are so many amazing plus-size models that it is hard to argue with so many images of beautiful, healthy, curvy women.
How did you come to terms with your version of "beautiful"?
I discovered self-acceptance somewhere on the beach in La Jolla, actually. I was walking on the beach and was feeling so self-conscious — cellulite, arms too fat, stomach not flat enough, thighs jiggling — and I suddenly realized everyone else on the beach was probably worried about the same stuff. Then and there I decided no longer to waste my life worrying about all that nonsense. I decided I would focus on being kind, funny and smart. That really gave me the "take me as I am" attitude I still have, and that is probably my most attractive quality.
In 2009, you completed your master's in public administration in international development from the Harvard Kennedy School. Why was that important to you?
I have been successful as a model, and I love being an advocate for women, but I knew something in me needed more. Now finished with school, I have returned to fashion full time to use my career to advocate for the development issues I care about: global poverty/education and environmental sustainability. In January 2010, I spoke on a panel on fashion and environmental sustainability at the United Nations in Geneva; I have written green shopping tips for Glamour; and co-founded a nonprofit organization to fund scholarships for girls' secondary education in Rwanda called the Komera Project.
That is an interesting nexus: fashion, global poverty and environmental sustainability. How do they overlap?
About 30 million people in developing countries work in the apparel industry. They endure excruciatingly long and monotonous work weeks and work in conditions we would not deem acceptable. Yet overwhelmingly these proud workers value their jobs for they are far superior to their alternative: forced labor, prostitution or subsistence agriculture, for example.
In this sense, fashion, or the garment industry, is an agent of economic development in Asia and Latin America. That being said, improvements can be made to improve working conditions in garment factories to further advance poverty reduction. As for the environmental impact of the garment industry, that has been receiving a lot of attention lately, and I am trying to raise awareness about how to be a "green fashionista."
What motivates your philanthropic drive?
I want — more than anything — to be useful. I have been extremely fortunate and do feel a sense of duty to give back in some way. Ultimately, I want to have a positive impact on the Earth and the people living on it, and I try to achieve that in what I do.
Dillon is married to Gabe Levin and lives in New York City.
More on the Web
- Kate Dillon supports the Komera Project, an organization created to provide Rwandan girls with the opportunity to attend secondary school. For more information, go to
- An advocate for socially conscious style, Dillon is co-founder of