Plus model promotes geek glamour, body positivity

I met Danielle Zavala when I visited Hot Topic to write a post about fit and size issues in geek fashion. Danielle was on the job as a fit model and she spoke with refreshing honesty and openness about some of her struggles with body image and shopping for clothes as a woman who wears plus fashion. She also radiated sheer optimism and joy, the kind of positive feelings she aims to encourage in other women through her career as a plus model.

This approach to work and life is apparent in whatever Danielle does, whether booking photo shoots, walking the runway in the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show, designing an inclusive line of Harry Potter-themed clothing, or indulging her geek side with cosplay, Riverdale, Overwatch, and visits to the Wizarding World.

Danielle’s modeling career began in 2011 when she participated in a model search hosted by Torrid. After booking a gig modeling pinup styles, she built her portfolio, won a division title in the Miss Plus America Pageant, and was featured in Latina Magazine. She models for many companies, but Hot Topic is an especially good fit. (She admits the abundance of geek merchandise can be hard on her pocketbook.)

While there’s a general lack of visibility of plus models in the fashion industry, Danielle has set out to do what she can to change that, giving feedback during fit sessions about what women who wear plus might want and need, and spreading a message of self-confidence and body positivity wherever she can.

Read on for Danielle’s thoughts on geek fashion, what she’d like to see change within the industry, and why Puerto Rico needs its own superhero movie. (Seriously, Hollywood, let’s greenlight this!)

You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

If you’d like to book Danielle or set up a meeting, contact Penny Middlemiss, MPM Models, Mspenny@mpmmodels.com.

You’re a plus model and a self-described “nerdy girl” and, if I may say so, you’ve achieved the perfect blend of glamour and geekiness. Is that a rare thing in the modeling industry?

Thank you, Lavender. I think that you’d be surprised to learn that a lot of models in the industry have a geeky or nerdy side to them. The models I tend to gravitate towards have a goofy side and I think that’s why we find so much joy in our careers because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Society places a lot of pressure on models to always be perfect and as a plus model the amount of judgement and criticism we receive can be damaging. I find comfort in my goofiness because it helps let some of the criticism slide off my back.

An image from Danielle’s first booked photo shoot in 2011.

Tell me about how you got your start in modeling.

I started modeling back in 2011 after being encouraged to compete in the “Torrid House of Dreams” model search. Although I didn’t win the competition, I found myself to be bit by the modeling bug. I was hired for my first gig for a small pinup clothing line and instantly fell in love with it. I then began reaching out to other companies who advertised plus clothing options but didn’t show them on plus models and began building my portfolio.

My first big break was after I competed and won my division title at the Miss Plus America Pageant. I was featured in the August 2011 issue of Plus Model Magazine as a new and up-and-coming model. This led to being cast in Full Figured Fashion Week and featured in Latina Magazine.

Is plus modeling different at all from other types of modeling?

Technically, plus modeling is the same as other formats of modeling. However, I personally feel that plus models also serve as body positivity activists when they sign on to model. I believe there’s a certain level of responsibility we have as plus models to be ambassadors of body positivity and should use our platforms to encourage our followers to love themselves for who they are regardless of their size.

I’ve been told there aren’t a lot of plus models in the fashion industry. Is that true? If so, what’s it like to be one of the few?

When I began modeling back in 2011, plus models had been working for years prior, but I had never been exposed to them. There was a major lack of visibility for plus models, but they have been thriving and pushing the envelope for years. Once I joined the industry I was so honored to have met models that were not only phenomenally gorgeous, but they were incredible advocates for the community. I have always felt blessed to do what I love and be able to work hard to encourage other plus individuals to love themselves.

You’re a fit model for Hot Topic. With your geeky inclinations, that seems like the perfect gig for you.

Working as a fit model for Hot Topic has been surreal. I remember when I first got called for a casting two years ago and when I walked up the steps into headquarters I was just blown away. The Hot Topic at the Brea Mall was one of my all-time favorite stores when it opened back in the early 2000s. I loved all the pop culture items I could get there over the years as the company grew and to have the opportunity to work for such an amazing brand that makes product that I get so excited about is truly special. It’s not so great for my bank account … haha … but there’s a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when I see something I helped fit at my local Hot Topic.

What’s a typical day at work like for you?

A typical work day for me starts off with an hour drive to my client for a fit session. Fit sessions usually consist of trying on woven tops, knit tops, active wear, dresses, outwear, swimwear, bottoms and denim. I usually see two to three clients a day for anywhere between one hour to three hours, depending on the client and the number of samples received. Occasionally, I have done eight-hour fit days if there are special meetings with buyers or vendors, but most days are around 6 hours of work.

Do you model for other companies as well?

I’m fortunate to work with JustFab, Fabletics, Lucky Brand, and Democracy as well. In the past, I have worked with Torrid and Seven Jeans for their Melissa McCarthy clothing line.

When I visited Hot Topic headquarters for a post I wrote about geek fashion and size issues, you were very open about your own issues with size and fit. Tell me about some of your experiences with this.

One of the most important aspects of my job is my ability to provide feedback to designers, buyers, and the technical team. Sizing and fit issues are something that everyone struggles with from brand to brand because of the inconsistencies that often occur.

Prior to being a fit model, I would find myself incredibly frustrated when shopping for clothing because I’d be a size 14 in one brand and then a 20 in another. This would aggravate me, as it does most individuals, especially plus women, because it made me feel as if I was the problem. Thankfully, I have come to see that the issue was with the clothing companies because they all use their own size charts and these differences will be reflected in the actual sizing.

One of my biggest frustrations to this day is with companies who vanity size their clothing. Vanity sizing is the practice of assigning smaller sizes to articles of manufactured clothing than is really the case, to encourage sales.

I find that companies that do this create consumer confusion and that often attributes to body image issues because they tell a consumer they are a size 14 when they might actually be an 18. By doing this they inadvertently damage the self-conscious consumer who may already be struggling with their body because of criticism from society or even bullies.

Does your awareness of the frustrations experienced by plus women and, honestly, women in general affect your approach to your work at all?

It absolutely affects my approach to my work. Models are often told they are just hangers meant to show off the clothing and not necessarily to voice their opinions. In my line of work, my feedback is crucial to keeping clients. I try to find a good balance of helpful yet honest comments to provide to designers and the technical teams instead of just saying that everything looks great and feels amazing.

Some designers are so focused on ensuring that the plus-size garment looks just like the Missy or Junior sample and there are situations in which this doesn’t work. For example, something with a super high neckline and boxy shape may look cute on a size 2 or 6, but when graded to a plus-size 16 or 18, the garment is now unflattering.

As a fit model, I’m incredibly comfortable with my body and exposing my arms but I always make a conscious effort to consider those plus-size individuals still struggling with their own body image. When providing feedback to companies, I’ll include comments like, “I think the sleeves on this are too short and might make a consumer who isn’t a fan of her arms feel self-conscious.”

Also, if every garment is super uptight in appearance, I’ll request things like lowering the neckline or opening the neck so that there’s more skin visible. Occasionally, I’ll include that feedback so that the designers know that plus fashion should also be cute and sexy, too.

Do you consider yourself an ambassador or a role model?

That is such a tough question to answer because I feel like the title of role model or body positive ambassador is tossed around so much nowadays. I’d like to hope, like anyone else, that what I do in life will impact someone else’s life in a positive way. I don’t consider myself a role model, but I do know that I have a moral obligation as a member of the plus model community to do my very best to support other community members as they fight for representation and equality in the fashion industry.

I have always aspired to be a woman of influence and to one day do or say something that would make 16-year-old me proud. I wish that as a teenager I had plus-size role models that I could look up to when I was feeling depressed or being bullied. When I’m in a fit or at a shoot, I think of those times and remind myself that somewhere out there a girl is feeling that same way and it’s up to me and the other members of the community to tell her that she is loved and valued.

What changes would you personally like to see in the geek fashion industry and in the fashion industry in general?

While I’m happy to see that the geek fashion industry is starting to expand their sizing, I’d like to see more plus models represented in their photoshoots. Elhoffer Design does a great job of being size inclusive with her line and it is incredibly inspiring. It’s one of the reasons why I will often refer my friends to her site.

One of the things we chatted about when we first met at Hot Topic was the lack of larger models used in photoshoots for some geek brands. It’s hard to know that awesome plus fashion companies like Hot Topic use a size 18 fit model but when photoshoots take place most of the models in plus size outfits are on the smaller side making it sometimes harder for larger consumers to see themselves represented.

Representation in the fashion industry in general is so very important and while I’ve seen so much progress in my seven years in the industry I still see how much more work is left to be done. Slogans like “Drop the plus” have been passed around in plus marketing and I feel that they are detrimental to the community as a whole.

I don’t want to be called a “model” because I’m proud to be a size 18 PLUS model and it’s why I often tag my photos #proudtobeplus. By removing the plus, it takes away a part of who I am as an individual and implies that there is something wrong with being plus. I struggle with that at a size 18 and can only imagine how much more of a struggle it is for, let’s say, a size 24 or 32 who sees little to no models used in their size range.

Danielle, around the age of 5, reading comic books with her Dad.

Let’s talk about your inner geek. When did you first discover it?

My inner geek first started showing around 7 years old. My dad owned a bunch of old Super Nintendo machines and we would play them for hours together. I’d also love to watch him as he read his comics from time to time. He had a large collection of Star Wars figurines still in their packages and I remember just staring at them wishing I could open them all.

Thankfully, he taught me about how to take care of my collectibles. I’m lucky to be one of kids who grew up with X-men, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and other awesome Saturday morning cartoons that furthered my love for all things geek.

Danielle with her sister, fulfilling her dream of being Sailor Moon.

What were some of your first fandoms and how did you express them?

Sailor Moon and X-men are probably the two fandoms I was the most excited about. During recess, I’d always convince my friends to play X-men with me, I was ALWAYS Rogue because I was such a tomboy and I loved that she could kill people with her kiss. Once Sailor Moon was released in the USA I would save up my chore money and buy all the knickknacks I could find to play with. My cousins and I would play Sailor Moon after school with our Moonstick popsicles from the ice cream truck.

One of your major passions is Harry Potter, which you’ve said changed your life and “solidified” your love of reading. Tell me how you discovered the wizarding world and why it means so much to you. 

My love for books started thanks to Belle from Beauty and the Beast. She was my favorite princess and I always wondered what life was like in other places, so I’d read to learn about them. So, when I stumbled across Harry Potter I was instantly transported into a world of magic that seemed so realistic and attainable. I was an only child for seven years so when Harry Potter came out in 1997, I had just turned 10 years old and realized I was almost old enough to get my own letter to Hogwarts.

As a kid, I was always very outgoing but odd because I loved to learn and read and wasn’t worried about boys like some of my other friends. When I first read about Hermione I felt so connected to her, mostly because we both had strong personalities and crazy curly and frizzy hair.

I remember reading “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” prior to the U.S. launch of the re-titled “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” at least three times the summer I received it. I couldn’t put the book down and every time I read it I imagined what Hogwarts was like. Once I realized the books would continue in a series, I was hooked. It was the longest series I had ever followed. I waited in lines the night before they were released and would have the book finished hours after my mom would purchase it.

My love for literature increased exponentially as I grew up with the characters. Even though the novels were about Harry, Ron, and Hermione, I always felt like the fourth member of their group and it’s why I have such fond memories of them.

Harry Potter changed my life because it showed me that even a child can have a difference in the world. It helped me see that just sitting on the sidelines when you see injustices makes you just as bad as the person treating people poorly. I struggled with bullies growing up and found comfort in my books and wishing in my head that I could say a spell to turn my bullies into a toad or a pig.

So you’re a bookworm. What are some of your favorite titles?

Some of my favorite books include what I call my Shakespeare Bible, which is the complete works of Shakespeare book in a beautiful green and gold embellished binding. I also loved “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” and “The Great Gatsby.”

You’re a proud Ravenclaw. (Many of my best friends are Ravenclaws!) What do you love about being part of that house?

My favorite thing about being a Ravenclaw would take an entire interview to explain so I’ll keep it short … haha. I love how witty, eccentric, and outspoken most Ravenclaws are. Luna Lovegood is such a great example of the perfect Ravenclaw because she keeps you guessing. You can’t tell if she’s an absolute genius or a crazy person and, as we know, there’s a very line between the two. I also love how exciting and challenging getting into the Common Room sounds.

It looks like you’ve spent a fair amount of time playing Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. Explain yourself.  

As a Harry Potter superfan it felt only natural to download the game. I’ve spent countless hours and a few bucks to truly enjoy the game. The thought of learning and performing spells in a similar capacity to Pokémon Go was exciting. Sadly, my love of the game has dwindled because of those darn energy bars. I’ve hit year 4 and have decided to put the game down until someone can fix that … haha. I have gotten some great laughs at the Hogwarts Mystery memes that floated around for a while.

Have you visited the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Hollywood?

I have! It was so much fun checking it out during opening week. My love for Wizarding World was so much that I spent my 30th birthday weekend at Wizarding World in Orlando, FL. I went all out for the 4 days I was there and wore my full school uniform while we visited. I even got asked a few times if I worked there.

I felt like I truly was a Ravenclaw student visiting Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. If you’ve ever visited, you know that it’s easy to walk past Diagon Alley if you aren’t paying attention, but the minute I walked through the entrance to the sound of the bricks moving, my eyes filled with tears because it felt like I was home. It was an absolutely magical experience and a huge part of what inspired my Magically Made by Couture for Everybody collection with Pinup Girl Clothing.

How do you like your Butterbeer?

I love my Butterbeer cold. It’s such a nice and refreshing treat for a hot day.

Anyone who follows you on social media knows you’re obsessed with the CW series Riverdale. What do you love about the series?

Riverdale started as a guilty pleasure kind of show and then it just turned into one of my all-time favorites. It gives me old school WB show vibes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Smallville. I think what I love the most about the series is how they modernized such an iconic comic book series and turned on the newer generations to Archie and the Gang. The darker side of the show really gives a nice contrast to the otherwise cheerful original comic.

Who do you ship on that show?

I am a MAJOR Bughead fan! Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse are both incredibly talented actors in their own right and on the show their chemistry is just captivating. I’m not going to lie. I totally bawled my eyes out during one of their fights in Season 2. I think I ship them the most because I relate so much to Betty and have my very own Jughead with the occasional Bughead drama.

So you’re into the Archie Comics, too?

Yes. I would read Archie Comics when I was younger and lost touch with Archie and the Gang over the years. I was reintroduced to the comics when the Josie and the Pussycats movie came out as well as the Archie’s Weird Mysteries cartoon in 2002. Archie Comics weren’t something I was always a diehard fan of until Riverdale. My favorite fandoms always tended to gravitate towards sci-fi and magic type fandoms up until Riverdale. That is probably the only realistic fandom I truly follow.

You’ve done some Riverdale cosplay. Tell me about the outfits you’ve put together. 

All of my Riverdale cosplays thus far have been more of a casual cosplay utilizing pieces from either Hot Topic’s Riverdale line or from one of my favorite companies, Pinup Girl Clothing. I did an Archie Comic’s Betty Cooper look with my bestie Victoria Cabot, who is my Veronica Lodge. We styled our outfit using Pinup Girl Clothing pieces, as those are most timeline appropriate.

At San Diego Comic Con this year, I celebrated the new Archie Comics/Batman crossover and wore my version of Betty Cooper as the Black Canary. This outfit was definitely a hit! Every good Betty cosplay comes equipped with the perfect High Pony Tail, which is Betty’s signature hair style. My Southside Serpent Betty Cosplay was even re-shared on the Hot Topic Instagram page and website.

You seem to enjoy cosplay in general. What’s your experience been like as a plus cosplayer?

I’m new to the cosplay scene but have absolutely fallen in love with it. I started out with Disneybounding years ago as I would go to Disneyland frequently and, after deciding to spend more time at comic conventions, have just adored all the cosplayers I’ve had the chance to meet. My favorite part about branching into cosplay is the amount of creativity I see from everyone I meet. I draw a lot of my inspiration from Ivy Doomkitty who is a spectacularly amazing woman, body positivity activist and plus-size cosplayer.

Danielle at the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show with her best friend, Victoria Cabot.

You’ve walked in the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show. What was that like?

Stan Lee’s Comikaze (now Los Angeles Comic Con) was the first time I had the opportunity to participate in the Le Geek So Chic Fashion Show and it was an honor. I’ve walked in many runway shows but they were nothing like this. The audience had so much energy and the other models were all shapes, sizes, ethnic backgrounds and genders and I really felt a part of something so unique and special. Not to mention I got to walk for one of my favorite geek designers, Katie Elhoffer of Elhoffer Design. She is so incredibly talented and the fit of her clothing is just top-notch.

You also recently launched a fashion line, Magically Made for Couture for Everybody, in collaboration with Pinup Girl Clothing at San Diego Comic-Con. How did that go?

The launch was a dream come true. It felt surreal that clothing items I had thought of were being sold at one of the largest cons in the world. It was a proud and happy moment. My favorite piece of the collection is my Narcissa dress, which is a ponte dress with mesh cutout and swing skirt, and it was flying off the rack.

What made me the happiest about the dress selling was that all the women who purchased it looked stunning regardless of what size they wore. It was a sexy and flattering dress on all of them and that’s one of the big things I was hoping to accomplish with my collection.

How did the collaboration come about? What was the inspiration for it?

The collaboration came about after Pinup Girl Clothing CEO Laura Byrnes and I chatted about doing something for the PUG nerd fan base. At the time, I was working as her assistant and my nerd pride is always something I chat about, so we started talking and I said I had some ideas. I went to Wizarding World in Orlando and, after being immersed in this world I had only dreamed of, I sat down and just let the ideas flow. The initial sketches I showed Laura was around 9 pieces so there are still several more designs on their way, but these first 3, including the capelet, are the ones I felt every nerd girl needed in her closet first.

Is designing geek fashion something you’d like to do more of?

I’d love to design more geek fashion! As a plus-size girl it was always hard to find cute items of clothes to express my fandoms growing up because stuff that would fit me was usually just in men’s sizes. Now that the design world has opened up to me, I can design pieces that show off my fandom that will fit and make me feel proud of my inner geek.

You also happen to be a serious gamer. When and how did you start playing?

I have always loved video games, thanks mostly to my Dad. The love grew stronger as he and my mom would give me quarters to play in the local arcade during their bowling league nights. I learned around 12 years old, that I was pretty good with a joystick and would hustle the neighborhood boys out of their chore money.

I’ll never forget the first time I won a round of Street Fighter against this bratty 15-year-old and he kept telling his friends it was “beginners’ luck” because “girls don’t know how to play video games,” so I made sure to lose the next round and then bet him $20 I’d beat him in the 3rd round. It was the fastest $20 I ever made and the immense joy I felt at the time was one that boosted my confidence to never let someone else’s perception of me change who I truly was.

Your game of choice is Overwatch. How many hours have you spent playing it?

My current game of choice is Overwatch because I used to be a huge World of Warcraft player. I started playing WOW back during Warcraft 1, which eventually led to me playing WOW with my old Disney coworkers. After life got too busy, I stopped playing video games for a while until I caught a Blizzard Overwatch short in November and decided it was time to start playing again.

Since getting the game in March, I’ve logged in about 150 hours of game time, which is not too shabby given I have a family and a full-time job. I tend to play late at night or on the weekends because it drives me nuts to play with some of the crazy 12-year-olds on there during the late afternoon.

What do you love about it?

Aside from the competitive aspect of the game, my favorite thing about Overwatch is the number of AMAZING female heroines you can choose from to play. Yes, I am the type of woman who picks girl characters to play but that’s because I strongly believe in representation and that if I can master a female character, I feel empowered.

What other fandoms are you into?

-Some of the other fandoms I’m into that I haven’t yet mentioned are Supernatural, Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead, Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl, and Star Wars.

As a proud Puerto Rican, do you have any thoughts about representation, or the lack thereof, when it comes to Latinos in geek culture?

I absolutely wish there was a stronger Latinx presence in geek culture. I have loved the diversity I see in Riverdale with the Lodge family but wish that the representation of the Latinx community wasn’t just thin men and women. I’d personally love to see members of the Latinx community added to Marvel and superhero films because most Latinx are represented in films as criminals in gangs or drug dealers.

Puerto Ricans are especially proud of who we are as a people and, during times like these when the island is still without power in most places, having a Puerto Rican superhero who saves the day could be just the type of hope and encouragement children on the island need.

Black Panther was such a wonderful example of how members of minority groups have been craving to see themselves represented in film and TV roles outside of the awful stereotypes that were placed upon them. I think it’s time that we stop giving these degrading roles to minorities and instead lift them up for the representation they deserve.

Name your five favorite fashion items in your closet right now.

My Hot Topic Southside Serpents Leather Jacket.

My Sailor Venus Headband from Universal Studios Japan Sailor Moon experience.

My Pinup Girl Clothing Jenny Dress in Snow White Print.

My extensive collection of Minnie Mouse Ear Headbands.

My Hogwarts school uniform skirt from Hot Topic.

If your wildest dreams came true, what would your modeling career look like?

My career would include more geek culture clothing designed by me as well as working with top geek media outlets on the importance of body positivity and size inclusivity in comics and geek culture. I would be modeling online for top geek brands like Her Universe, Hot Topic and Torrid.

What’s left on your geek bucket list?

After crossing San Diego Comic-Con off my list this year, my next major bucket list item would be to attend several other popular geek conventions all over the world. I also have a few cosplays I’d like to work on in preparation for those cons, like Faith Herbert of Valiant Entertainment, who is the first plus-size superhero. I’d love to get to visit the set of some of my favorite CW shows, like Riverdale, Supernatural, and Arrow.

The beauty of my bucket list is that it’s a never-ending list of trying new things. Every time I think I’ve crossed something off, several more things takes its place.

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