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Meet Paloma Elsesser: The New Beauty Icon We've Been Waiting For

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

It’s a muggy Friday morning, and there’s a damp, listless feeling to the summer heat. Inside Dimes, however, is a bustle of movement and chatter. Elsesser is easy to spot, perched atop a stool at the bar in a vinyl trench coat—a cool- kid fashion call if there ever was one. She’s makeup-free—her caramel skin is objectively perfect—and her long, jet-black hair is tucked into a low bun. We make our way over to our booth where I let her do most of the ordering, as this is clearly not her first time here, taking her suggestion to get the breakfast sandwich (I add bacon to mine; Elsesser is a vegetarian). We decide to split the matcha pancakes between the two of us because it’s Friday, and you should always get the pancakes. Elsesser jokes around with our waiter, whom she knows by name, and there’s an ease she exudes that only happens when you’re somewhere that feels like home—but perhaps it’s not limited to the confines of the restaurant. “I grew up in L.A., but I grew up in New York,” she tells me, taking a sip of her juice. “I became a person. I figured out my own pace, what I like to do, and how I like to do it here in the city. I fell, I picked myself back up—and I did a lot of that on my own. New York is now my home.”

Paloma Elsesser on Modeling

Elsesser may not be a household name just yet, but after only four years modeling, she’s already worked with some of the biggest names in fashion and beauty. Her “big break” came in via legendary makeup artist Pat McGrath, who handpicked her to serve as muse for her first-ever namesake product, Gold 001. Since then, Elsesser has collaborated with Nike, appeared in the pages of Teen Vogue and Vogue, and most recently, fronted the millennial-favorite beauty brand Glossier’s Body Hero ad campaign. As she’s a mixed-ethnicity model, these achievements feel even more important; by working in the industry, she is inherently fighting against a long-held belief that the term model should apply to someone thin, tall, and usually white. But being outside of the norm is something Elsesser has experienced her whole life, which is perhaps why she seems to navigate her role with such ease.

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“I grew up going to affluent, predominantly white private schools in L.A. I don’t come from a lot of money, and I’m obviously not white, and I’m not thin,” she laughs. With an African-American mother and a Chilean-Swiss father, she stood out from the rest of her peers, which she calls both a struggle and a learning experience. She describes going to Gap Kids at age 11 or 12 and trying to find a pair of jeans with embroidered patchwork, the coolest fashion item at the time, and sobbing in the dressing room because there was nothing in the entire store that fit her. “It was horrible,” she says. “I still remember so clearly what that felt like.” In another instance, she recalls a classmate calling her a “fat failure.”

“That kind of comparison [at a young age] was bewildering, and that being my experience for as long as I can remember, since kindergarten, was hard,” she admits. “But it actually helped me figure out who I was and what kind of value I wanted to contribute and how I wanted to navigate style and beauty. As much as I compared myself, it was quite early that I realized that I am different, and there’s not much I can change about it. There’s just no other option.”

Paloma Elsesser on Finding Herself

Moving to New York when she was 18 was a turning point. “It was so interesting to walk down the street and see people checking me out,” she says. “It was a totally new experience for me. I felt like I could pave a different road for myself.” But navigating New York alone can be difficult for even the most well- adjusted, and Elsesser struggled with the push and pull of shedding a former identity that never really felt like it rang true.

This New York homecoming is also when Elsesser’s modeling career took off. She started modeling on the side, thanks to a suggestion from her friend Stevie Dance, a stylist. And though work came in, at first, she resisted. “I was like, ‘I’m not that down. I’m in school,’” she says. “I thought about it only in a financial sense. I thought about the impact I was trying to make, and I thought I had to do it academically; I thought I had to do it in the background.” Even as she started going to casting calls and booking gigs, it took a long time for it to sink in that she could make a career out of modeling.

Paloma Elsesser on Diversity in Modeling

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After that, it was hard to deny the fact that she was indeed a professional model. But though a beauty shoot was what gained her more recognition in the industry, Elsesser still thinks there’s a long way to go—especially when it comes to contracts. “It’s the biggest honor as a model to get a beauty contract,” she says. “It means you’ve been able to solidify your place in the industry, and yet there are so many plus-size models who’ve been around for 15 years who haven’t been afforded that opportunity.” And why does she think that is? “The global idea of beauty is still affected by the beauty ‘ideal,’” she explains. “We’ve been told that the emblematic person to represent that ideal is somebody that we’re not—it’s someone we aspire to be. But there are moving parts happening in other industries with inclusivity that are radically showing to people, yeah, it’s fantastical, but it’s also a fantasy to see someone that you feel akin to and alike and inspired by. That’s a fantasy too.”

Paloma Elsesser on Social Media

“I feel all of the same things [I used to],” she tells me matter-of-factly. “It’s just being better at navigating those feelings and coping with them.” She pauses. “It is hard.” She credits her late start in modeling as the reason she’s able to push forward and stay strong in an industry that has pushed women who look like her to the side for so long, as well as her girlfriends— a group of models and young women who call themselves the International Girl Crew. “Surround yourself with women who inspire you and motivate you and make you feel safe and protected,” she tells me. Allowing yourself to open up and be vulnerable is part of the equation too. “My number one self-soothing and coping response is just reaching out,” she says. “I’ve always just felt this weird loneliness, even as a kid, but I’ve figured out throughout the years how I can slowly tap out of it by reaching out. Being transparent in happiness or in sadness, and being able to share that moment with somebody is really important to me.”

As our interview wraps up, I realize that at some point between devouring pancakes and breakfast sandwiches, Elsesser has removed her vinyl trench coat to reveal a simple white tank top underneath. The juxtaposition of the two looks is not lost on me, and it perhaps serves as a perfect visual representation of Paloma herself: The fiery, outspoken model exuding confidence and unafraid to call out the industry she works in for lack of representation, versus the relatable young woman who deals with the same issues we all do and isn’t afraid to use her platforms to discuss them. “Once I surrendered to modeling, I realized that I’m resilient. I thought, this is what you make of it,” she says. “That’s why I’m very persistent about inserting my voice where I have the opportunity because that’s what makes it worth it for me.” And to the classmate who called her a “fat failure”? She smiles. “Resilience,” she repeats. “I hope my story inspires others to know their capabilities.”

Creative Director: Katrina Symonds Model: Paloma Elsesser with Muse ManagementPhotographer: Jason Kim Producer: Hillary Comstock Makeup Artist: Ralph Siciliano Hairstylist: Takayoshi Tsukisawa Stylist: Carolina Orrico Manicurist: Holly Falcone

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