FEW ADOLESCENT AGONIES STING MORE PAINFULLY THAN THE puerile nickname, as Kate Dillon, 26, learned in the seventh grade. "Kids would jump up and down on the school bus and chant, 'Overweight Kate,' " recalls Dillon, who currently graces ads for Gucci and Liz Claiborne. "It was horrible." At 12, she shed her nom de shame, and too much of her weight, after watching a TV movie with an anorectic teenage character. "I thought, 'She's cute, good idea,' " says Dillon. "The fact that the girl died in the movie didn't seem to deter me somehow." Five years later, in 1991, a severely underweight Kate was discovered by a photographer in her hometown of San Diego. She came in third in Elite's Look of the Year contest, winning a $75,000 contract. The 5'11" Dillon was soon slinking down Paris runways and appearing in Vogue
. Yet by age 19, her lifestyle, sustained by a two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, had taken its toll. "I just couldn't keep starving myself," she says. Dillon visited a nutritionist and quickly added 15 lbs. but lost her modeling cachet. "I was only a size 8, yet I was told I was huge and disgusting," she says. After gaining another 15 lbs. ("I'd discovered food for the first time in seven years and wanted to eat"), Dillon quit the business and returned home to her parents, Tom, 56, a scientist, and Carol, 54, a retired preschool teacher. In 1996 she moved to New York City to study elementary art education. There she followed a friend's suggestion that she try plus-size modeling. Just two weeks after meeting with Susan Georget of the Wilhelmina agency, Dillon was booked for the Spiegel catalog. "She is everything plus-size models should be," says Georget. "Like real models, just fuller." Dillon's pal and modeling peer Emme, 36, agrees: "She has beautiful skin, great, full lips and wonderful curves. There's a reason why she is working so much." The unmarried Dillon, who has two tattoos on her left ankle and three on her lower back ("the big one is based on a symbol that means eternity," she says), also lectures nationwide about eating disorders and is the founder of Echo, a nonprofit organization benefiting art programs for children. While she limits her beloved steak and trench fries to once a week, the now nonsmoking Dillon keeps fit with regular runs and black-belt training in martial arts, She says she still worries about her weight—sort of. "My goal is to stay right where I am, forever," she declares.