long island city
It can be hard to grow up feeling different from those around you. For model and activist Clementine Desseaux, those beautiful differences led to a career promoting body positivity for all women. Clementine tells us how a ticket to Miami changed the course of her life, and what it’s like to go viral online just by being yourself.
I was born in Toulouse, which is in the southwest of France. We didn’t live there very long; we moved to Nice for a few years and then, when my parents divorced, we moved all the way up north by Germany. It was really different from the south, where it’s beautiful and warm. The north is very square and cold. It’s a totally different mentality there. On top of that, I felt completely different in school there. My body formed into a womanly shape really early. I was bigger, taller, and I had a lot of freckles.
That’s a lot of “different” to feel at a young age.
Elementary school to high school was the worst times. I mean, it was fine, but it was never easy. After school, I moved to Lyon for university. It’s the second-largest city in France, and it’s also where my dad and little brother lived.
What did you study?
International marketing. I also did a master’s degree and then finally moved to Paris. French people don’t really like Paris. There are a lot of assholes there. [Laughs]
So why did you move to Paris?
My first job was there, which was in publishing. I met a woman during one of my internships, and she hired me to work as her editor. She worked with cookbooks and kids books. I love cooking, so I loved that. I would art direct the book, place images and text, as well as do corrections. That lasted a few months; it was nice, but at some point I needed to leave. I didn’t feel like I was in “my place.” I didn’t feel like I was meant to live in the suburbs, with a regular job. It wasn’t me. At some point it became too much, and I felt like I would explode if I didn’t do something. I talked to my boss and told her I wanted to move to Miami.
[Laughs] That’s what my boss said. I had been there for vacation a couple of times and I had loved it. I just felt free every time I was there. I need to be by the water. She was so supportive, and she bought me my plane ticket.
Wow, that’s awesome. So they didn’t have any outpost office there or anything?
No. She was just like, “You’ve got to do it.”
So I landed in Miami with no job and a bit of money that my mom had given me. She was really worried about me moving to America. I had only booked my first three nights there and then I was going to figure it out.
The day after I moved, I went to breakfast in the hotel restaurant, which happened to be French. They were looking for a manager, and I got the job that day!
Had you ever managed a restaurant or cafe before?
No. I worked as a server when I was a student. Things happened in amazing ways in Miami. It’s a similar way to how I found my apartment there. One night at the restaurant I was talking to a Russian woman who was leaving her apartment to move to New York and was looking for a subletter. It was five blocks from the restaurant, so it was perfect!
After I’d been in Miami for a couple of months, I heard about a contest American Apparel was doing looking for models. I sent in a few photos, and they called me right back and asked me to fly to LA for a shoot.
This is amazing—things were just happening for you!
An agency in Miami saw the photos and wanted to represent me! Of course, there was a lot of delay, waiting, and visa back-and-forth, but in the end it worked out.
How long did you stay in Miami?
For a couple of years. I wasn’t modelling full time straight away. There were jobs here and there, but I still kept my job at the restaurant. I was hustling a bit, trying to make everything work. I loved Miami and didn’t want to leave, but in order to get more modeling work I really needed to be in New York. I signed with an agency here and made the move. I was scared. I didn’t want to move to the big city.
It was really stressful, because if you aren’t making money in New York then it’s really hard to survive here. But that first week I worked every day, and after a couple of months I started to build more clients.
So you were able to work as a full-time model?
Yes. I’ve been here for three years now.
Had you modeled before the American Apparel contest?
I had one job in France, but it was a big one. I was in a TV commercial and I was the first plus-sized woman to be on TV.
We're really late on everything. [Laughs] The press was crazy—people loved it and hated it. I got the first taste of what it means to be a plus-sized model… how it makes people feel. There are repercussions to putting yourself out there, but I learned it can have a really positive impact on people. That was when I started to get into how modeling can affect body image, and it was why I submitted my photos to American Apparel. Modeling wasn’t anything I ever thought of doing full time. That’s one of the reasons I started my blog here—it’s given my brain another outlet. Modeling is fun, but there’s not a lot of brain work involved. My boyfriend works in branding, so he helped me a lot to get my blog started. He made the website for me, and I started writing a few articles. It was really something that motivated me to get out there and meet more people. To find women and talk to them.
I loved doing it, and my boyfriend was such a support, so we started our own creative agency a year ago. We do art direction and production for clients. We started with a lot of European clients that I had worked with as a model, and we’ve grown to work with a lot of local Brooklyn brands.
What is the name of your agency?
Les Mijotés. It's French and it means “the ones that simmer.”
You have so many projects going on! How did All Woman Project begin?
A few months ago, I met Charli Howard when she signed to the modeling agency I’m with here. She is from England and she also had a blog. Our agent was like, “You two should get together!” So we met over avocado toast in Brooklyn and she started telling me about her experiences as a straight-sized model in London.
Straight-sized means “normal” sized, which is obviously tiny—it’s size 0 to 2. She always had issues because she never really fit that mold. Even though she's on the skinnier side, it’s not skinny enough for the agencies.
I told her that I never really get to model for the campaigns that I wish I could, because brands won’t take the risk. Even brands that show diversity feel really forced some times. Even the diversity is so biased. We were both so frustrated.
One day we went to visit a showroom of a brand that was launching called Phylyda. We were so inspired by the owner because she was offering so many pieces for different-sized women. Her lookbook had models who were size 0, 4 and 14 all together.
Charli and I started talking about doing a shoot showcasing true diversity, and using her swimsuits. It started as a small project for us, something we could work on together. We reached out to friends who were models, photographers, and makeup artists, and we put a video together. People were so excited to work on the project, even though we couldn’t pay anyone. It made us think we really had something exciting. We all worked together over a weekend—it was crazy. There were about 20 of us at the studio, all women of different sizes wearing bathing suits and running around. It was an amazing two days. When it was done, we pitched the video to different media, including Vogue. We had Vogue contacts through modeling. Before the video was even edited, they were interested in featuring it! We were so excited. People were starting to fight over exclusives and images. We were like, “Fuck, we can’t handle this!”
We had some help from a PR agency, which really helped us structure all the content.
I would have no clue how to do that.
We didn’t, either, so it was really helpful. The first photos came out in Vogue and then the video was featured in i-D magazine first, and then it spread.
People really responded to it. It was being emailed, shared, reposted. I think we had about 400 million impressions in the first week. The PR agency had never had such a successful a campaign before. And it was all organic.
People obviously really wanted this content.
They were craving it. The way the video was received was beautiful. It didn’t feature celebrities, it was just women being themselves. It really shouldn’t be something that creates so much buzz, but it does. Charli and I say that we’ll stop being relevant when diversity becomes the norm. We’d be happy to be irrelevant! [Laughs] That would mean that we have made progress.
Did a lot of women reach out to you?
We were flooded by messages from women and girls, telling us how we had changed their vision of beauty, and of how they see themselves. It was amazing. This is something women want to talk about. Women wanted to find out how they could help and be involved.
Once we realized how big this could be, we needed to come up with something more long term. So we created the All Women’s Project and started spreading messages on Instagram. We have women posting videos talking about how they are going through the same things. We get so many video submissions a day. Soon we’re going to apply for 501(c)(3) status and become a charity.
We want to give talks at school, and to maybe do a video series. We want to have round tables with women, girls, and teachers. Body-image issues really start when you are a girl. We started linking with [the UN foundation] Girl Up and other associations doing amazing work who are already spreading the word. And we just hired our first volunteers!
Did the experiences you had at school give you a good perspective to speak to young girls?
Definitely. I’ve been through a lot. Body dysmorphia, being scared to go out in case I was judged, not eating in the cafeteria… stuff like that. Of course, everyone’s experiences are different, but so many women can relate. We need to talk about why women are feeling like this.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Growing up, my mom had this little postcard taped up in the bathroom that said, "Love yourself and life will love you back.” She always struggled with self-love and she really wanted me to be on top of that. Every time I brushed my teeth, I would read that and it stuck with me. It’s true—until you actually love yourself for what you really are, life is never going to give you as much. Despite having seen this postcard every day, it still took me awhile to get here! [Laughs]
Secondly, find your own happiness. Sometimes you have all the things that society says should make you happy, but you feel like something is wrong. It’s scary to take the risk to change that, but in taking the risk you can find real happiness. If I didn’t do that I might still be stuck in Paris with a job I didn’t like, and a guy I didn’t like. Don’t be afraid.
Would you have had the same opportunities if you’d stayed in Paris, or is there something about New York?
I think my life would be so different. First, I’d be miserable. [Laughs] France doesn’t really push young people like American does. In France, people won’t really give you a chance if you’re under 35 because they think you are too young. No bank will give you a loan to start your own business. That’s one of the reasons why I left. And modeling would have never been an option there. There just isn’t much marketing or need for plus-sized models. Moving to America is the best thing I’ve done.
I’m definitely still the weirdo to some of my friends and family. A lot of smart, creative, young people leave France. There is no support there; we aren’t pushed to do our own thing. I always felt I was born in the wrong country. Of course, I love France for many reasons, but there was always something that felt “off.” I was always thinking too much outside of the box. When I moved to Miami I felt liberated. I felt like finally I wasn’t the issue. I really started feeling better mentally and in my body. I felt good because I had opportunities. Even though I had two jobs and was struggling, those were some of the happiest times in my life. Everything seemed to align. When I came to New York, I feel like that happened all over again.
We usually end with the question, what does New York mean to you? But I also would love to know what Miami means to you.
New York means excitement. Career-wise, it’s the best I’ve felt so far, because I feel like everything is happening here. Things I’ve put on my vision board are happening. That’s one of the reasons I’m afraid to leave. This city is addictive, in a good and bad way. When you’re here you can sometimes feel desperate to leave, but as soon as you go you feel like you’re missing out.
Miami means health, both mentally and physically. I am so relaxed with my body there. Miami is like New York, but for lifestyle instead of careers.
Visit All Woman Project.