Tess Holliday is a plus-size model, body positive activist, and a fat bb angel, according to her Instagram bio, where she has over 2 million followers. And she has gone on a date with at least one of them.
A few months ago, one of her female followers slid into her DMs and they hung out. (Holliday, 35, identifies as queer.) “My friends are like, ‘I can’t believe you’re going on a date with a follower of yours.’ And I’m like, ‘Why?’” Holliday says over Zoom, as she cradles her cat Bandit in her arms like a baby.
On the date with her follower, she was nervous, but they had fun; it just wasn’t a romantic connection. She’s on dating apps for the first time in her life: Tinder, Bumble, Hinge. With one exception: “Raya will not accept me. They have denied me twice. I want to say that it’s because of my weight, because I actually do not know any other reason why,” she says. “I kind of took it personally and then I was like, ‘Fuck it. I don’t need to be on this anyway.’” (No fellow celebrities have DM’d her, either.)
Today, her trademark long, red hair is vivid even on a computer screen, her hyper-femme makeup perfect, and her outfit a cozy sweatsuit. She’s getting her first vaccine shot from Pfizer soon. She wanted the Moderna because Dolly Parton had donated money to help develop it. She’s a Dolly super fan with a tattoo of her. Other tattoos include Miss Piggy and the late drag queen Divine.
She’s telling me about her recent divorce, which she says she doesn’t want to talk about too much; it’s clear she’s still in the middle of processing it. “When the pandemic happened, I had just left my abusive marriage. I left in September  and then the pandemic was March,” she says. “No one knew that I was in an abusive relationship, and no one knew that I had left my husband. I was keeping everything bottled up.”
After she separated from her husband, Holliday moved into her best friend’s tiny apartment in Orange County, California, with Bowie, her younger son, who is turning 5 this year. (Her older son, Rylee, is 15 and has been living with his own father.) It was difficult. She wasn’t in her own space, her kids were living apart for the first time, and Orange County is a conservative place.
“I was being pulled in a million different directions with work and I had a difficult time managing it all on top of being a parent,” she says. “I am grateful that through that time, even though it was hard, I always have made sure, especially with my oldest, to be honest with him.”
Now she and her kids are in healing mode. She’s surrounding them with love and support, aided by her group of about five close friends. The first order of business was finding a new place to live. “I wanted to find a space that I was happy in and that made me feel safe and was all the things that I needed. I wasn’t willing to settle because it was kind of…” she trails off for a moment while she’s choosing her words. “For me, settling was the overarching theme of my previous 8-year relationship, and career-wise I was always kind of settling and doing what I felt like I needed to, not what I wanted to.”
Last September, a year after she left her husband, she found a place in Long Beach, a community that is near the water, queer-friendly, and diverse. After she drops off Bowie at school in the mornings, she goes to a dog beach, even though she doesn’t own one, just to watch them frolic while she eats breakfast and drinks coffee.
She’s a Cancer with Scorpio rising and an Aquarian moon, which she says basically all adds up to her crying a lot.
Her outlook on dating, she says, skewed naïve at first. “I thought, ‘OK, well, I’m pretty, I’m successful, I have a good heart, I’m all these things. Dating shouldn’t be bad, right?’ Dating has been a sh*t show. I hate it.” Her issues are wholly relatable: dating while fat (the term for the myriad issues that come up while dating in what society considers a larger body); being successful; people getting intimidated by her firm boundaries. “I’m not going to tolerate nonsense,” she says. “My time is valuable. I feel like I’m making all this time for people that really aren’t interested in doing anything but wasting my time.” Case in point: Last week, she went on a date with someone that lasted eight hours, conversation was serious, and it was their second date. “I have not heard from that person since then,” she says with a wry laugh.
For people, she goes by energy. Vibes in general are very important to her. She’s a Cancer with Scorpio rising and an Aquarian moon, which she says basically all adds up to her crying a lot. But beyond just being about energy in a kind of witchy, mystical way, Holliday is committed to trusting her intuition for maybe the first time in her life. “I spent so long ignoring that gut instinct,” she says.
Just a few years ago, Holliday’s fame as a model was somewhat niche, when there were even fewer plus-size or size-inclusive mainstream designers than there are today. In 2015, after launching her #effyourbeautystandards campaign on social media and modeling for Torrid and Benefit cosmetics, she landed the cover of People magazine with the cover declaring her, “The World’s First Size 22 Supermodel!” The story went viral, which wouldn’t be the last time her name was all over the news.
Holliday found herself once again in the headlines over the summer of 2020 when a $490 pink tulle dress with sequined strawberries from the designer Lirika Matoshi became all the rage on TikTok for how glorious it was, how cottagecore-perfect it made people who unboxed it look. Except when Holliday had worn it on the red carpet in January 2020 — a custom version because the dress was made to size 16 — she was mocked. The issue highlighted two key issues when it comes to fat bodies and fashion: how hard it is for plus-sized people to find designer clothing and how they aren’t considered stylish or trendsetters when they do.
“I like how this dress had me on worst dressed lists when I wore it in January to the Grammys, but now bc a bunch of skinny ppl wore it on TikTok everyone cares,” she wrote on her Instagram account last August. “To sum it up: our society hates fat people, especially when we are winning.”
“I wanted to do something that made my followers feel like they were hanging out with me. I didn’t really think about how now everyone is going to know how weird I am.”
Holliday has been outspoken about growing up in an abusive household in Mississippi, and she references that time and how it influenced her past year with the clarity of someone who has done a lot of work on her past. “I remember there was a moment when I was a kid that something happened with one of my stepfathers and my mom was in the room. I remember looking at her, thinking that she was going to do something, and she didn’t,” she says. “And for a long time I was mad at her. But I understand now. When you’re in that situation as a parent, you don’t always do what you want because you’re in survival mode. Something that you do might set off a chain of effects.” She stops to swat at her fighting cats — they’re siblings — with a vintage Miss Piggy pillow.
“I wish that my mom would have communicated with me throughout some of those experiences, ‘Hey, this is not normal. I understand that this isn’t safe for you, I love you, I’m sorry,’” Holliday says. “When I found myself in similar situations, I always communicated with my older son and let him know what was going on. I made sure to do what I could to make sure that he was safe and supported.”
She’s channeling that renewed sense of knowing herself in her work. In March, she launched a podcast called Slumber Party to give the feel of hanging out in pajamas, eating snacks, and gossiping. “I wanted to do something that made my followers feel like they were hanging out with me. I didn’t really think about how now everyone is going to know how weird I am,” she says. Weird how? “I do impersonations and I cry a lot and I ramble and I complain a lot.” She proceeds to launch into her natural Mississippi accent, a dialed-up Southern twang.
Dream Slumber Party guests include Dolly — obviously — and Janelle Monáe, Jane Fonda, and Meg Thee Stallion. Ricki Lake, who co-starred in the original Hairspray movie with Divine, is a friend and a recent guest. Lake is a home birth advocate, which isn’t something Holliday had with either of her two kids. Her first birth was alone in a hospital when she was 20 years old. Her second pregnancy was healthy from a physical standpoint, but, she says, emotionally it was a different story.
“There were a lot of people saying a lot of really horrific things about me online during my pregnancy about my body, about my unborn baby, all kinds of stuff,” she says. “I didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to go through the home birth experience. I couldn’t emotionally do it, and I wasn’t fully supported by my partner.”
Once she’s vaccinated, she wants to travel again. She used to go to Disneyland with the kids multiple times a week. During the pandemic year, she and her pod of five friends took road trips to the Madonna Inn, a California institution known for its themed rooms (she likes the cave room and, yes, Dolly is also a fan of the Inn), and to Palm Springs for her birthday. “I just love magical places,” she says.
One side effect of quarantine boredom has been shopping, so she’s ready to make her debut whenever she gets invited to her first post-pandemic party. “I’ve actually bought more clothing during quarantine than I’ve ever purchased in my entire life, so the outfits are ready,” she says. “I’ve been going to Pilates so much, I feel stronger than ever.” And how will she show her stronger, single, and happier self off? “In something sheer, something rhinestones, something fun. I have no idea. If I can show up naked, I will, because if I was naked before a quarantine, I’m really going to be naked now.”
Top Image Credits: Azeeza dress, Sterling Forever earrings, Tess’ own ring
Photographer: Pavielle Garcia
Stylist: Meaghan O’Connor & Charlotte Harris
Hair: Esther Vasquez
Makeup: Ivan Núñez
Art Director: Shanelle Infante
Producer: Kiara Brown
Bookings: Special Projects