Chenese Lewis made history by becoming the first Plus Miss America in 2003. She later produced the history making “Love your Body Day” in Hollywood, California for six years. Her resume is filled with modeling accolades(UK VICE Magazine cover and an international campaign with Whitney Thompson of America’s Next Top Model) and acting accomplishments that equal Black woman excellence. She’s hosted NYFW events dripping in diamonds and still hosts one of the longest running podcasts “The Chenese Lewis Show”. Ms. Lewis celebrates twenty years in entertainment with particularity to the plus industry. The Ashley Grahams, Tess Hollidays, Liris Crosses and Precious Lees can thank her for paving the way and making it an easier road for plus models to gain mainstream success.
How does it feel having twenty professional years behind you?
It feels great! Especially when the odds were against me. I am proud of all the things I’ve accomplished over the years, but there is still much more to do. My goal was always to inspire to someone to be confident and have a positive body image regardless of their size.
I have to know what you’re doing during the quarantine. How are you spending your time?
I have been getting lots of rest and spending time with family. Although lots of events were postponed or cancelled, I have been consistently securing press to celebrate my 20th anniversary in the plus industry and keeping my brand visible. I am also creating new episodes of my podcast and diligently working from the home office preparing for 2021.
How are you caring for yourself mentally and physically during the quarantine?
I had to quit watching the news 24/7. Constantly hearing about deaths and the global pandemic was starting to stress me out. I feel my anxiety physically in my shoulders, neck and back. After I limited my intake of the news, my anxiety went down, and I have been calm. I am aware of what is going on, but it’s not healthy to be inundated with bad news continuously.
What made you take that first step into the industry? What gave you the courage?
Summer of 2000 I learned that plus models existed by hearing a commercial on the radio. The commercial advertised a national model search coming to my hometown, specifically looking for plus size models. My interest was immediately sparked, and I eagerly went to try out. I never lacked confidence growing up, so I did not hesitate to go and give it a shot. I was also blessed to have supportive family and friends who encouraged me to try out.
Tell us about your first audition. How did you get through it?
Honestly, I don’t remember! I don’t remember being nervous at any auditions I’ve had; you just go, do the best you can, and then forget about it.
For any girl thinking or dreaming of having your career, what is the most important piece of information you can share?
I think its important to have high morals and values. Some people are so desperate for attention or an opportunity, they will participate in anything and collaborate with anybody. I always kept high standards and never did anything that was a conflict of my brand for the sake of exposure. Sometimes there will be droughts, but you must be patient and wait for the right opportunities. Do not lower your standards. I always believed that quality was more important than quantity when building a resume.
Your podcast is how I came to know you. It’s an honor to have been interviewed by you as well. When you started in 2008 it wasn’t as popular, then everyone had one, you’re the only one standing. How was “The Chenese Lewis Show” created?
When I launched my podcast, I lived in Los Angeles and was pursuing a career as an actress, plus size model, and television host. I enrolled in classes to hone my skills on camera, such as working with a teleprompter and red-carpet interviews for award shows. I created the podcast to sharpen my interviewing skills as suggested by my teacher, IDalis De Leon, who was an MTV VJ from the 90s turned TV host coach and media strategist. My podcast was the first that catered to the plus size fashion and modeling industry. When choosing the direction of my podcast I decided to focus on the plus size industry because I was already industry-recognized, and it wasn’t hard for me to get the show off the ground with partnerships, influential guests, and listeners.
What are the differences you see in the plus modeling world when you started compared to now?
The biggest change is the impact of social media. It has blurred the lines between professional models, influencers, and bloggers. The good part is that industry standards have been broaden and brand representatives are now more diverse. The bad part is a model who has mastered their craft with an extensive resume will often get overlooked for someone with a big social media following.
For me, I see the same faces and feel like there is some change but not enough. I see changes in body types but not so much with regards to Black Plus Models. What are your thoughts?
The plus industry is far more diverse now than it was 20 years ago, but there is still a long way to go. Many brands use “ethnically ambiguous” models over darker-skinned models because they feel they appeal to a wider audience. Some modeling agency don’t represent many darker-skinned models, if any. Tokenism and colorism are issues that need to be addressed in the plus industry. I have to say that Black women were the first to embrace their curves and the beauty of being plus very early on. We were the first to consider fashion shows, magazines and podcasts. I see retailers giving non-Black bloggers campaigns and opportunities that should equally go to plus sisters.
How do you feel seeing plus women, bloggers and models, that don’t look like us, gaining such traction and strength in the industry, especially while POCs are still struggling to get attention?
I think the plus size industry reflects the mainstream fashion industry. There are people with privilege that have more access and opportunities, who become successful and popular quicker. Whereas many POC do double the work to get little recognition, if any, which is discouraging. The corporate boards of national retailers need to have more diversity, and more minorities should be in leadership positions, which would reflect in the brands marketing and campaigns.
Knowing you personally, I know that It hasn’t been easy in this industry, but through it all you’ve always kept a positive attitude. How do you do it? What keeps you so positive?
I am my brand and business; therefore, I always remain professional. People usually do business with someone they know, like, and trust. The more sincere you are, the more opportunities will come your way. People will be more inclined to open doors for you if they trust you. I remain positive by staying away from negativity because I don’t want it in my personal or professional life.
Black women already carry so many stigmas, let’s throw in being plus size, what is your secret to move beyond and pursue your passions without fear?
I was always aware that I had obstacles trying to break into fashion and entertainment. However, I never let it deter me from pursuing my dreams. My attitude was: “I’ll never know if I can succeed if I don’t try”. If I didn’t see any progression after a certain amount of time, I probably would have moved in a different direction. I think it’s ok to have a little fear when pursuing something new and unknown, you just can’t let it stifle you.
What was your plan when you started your dreams in entertainment?
My plan evolved as I learned more about the industry. Initially I was drawn to the industry to pursue plus size modeling, however learning that I didn’t fit the industry standards to be signed by an agency, my plan expanded to other areas and I excelled. I discovered speaking, hosting, being a spokesperson, etc. I did not keep myself pigeonholed in one facet of the industry and was able to create a more diverse brand as a result.
What is your five year plan?
There is a saying that goes “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans”. I just pray to be alive, healthy, surrounded by family, and in a good place. After being a Septic Shock survivor, a flood survivor, and currently living through the COVID-19 global pandemic, I feel like this meme floating around social media that says “My five year plan is to make it through this year”. Do not get me wrong, I have specific goals that I want to achieve that I work towards every day. However, I’m planning in shorter intervals these days.
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