From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Plus-size model Robyn Lawley usually avoids going to H&M, not out of fear that nothing will fit. She cringes at the thought of seeing the store's walls covered with posters of her size 12 figure showcasing their plus-size line. "I'm kind of embarrassed," says the 180-lb. Aussie knockout. "I don't go into stores if I'm in there because that's weird!"

To many, the 6'1" model's enviable curves are a welcome change. Since breaking into the plus-size business in 2008, Lawley, 23, has broken down barriers, landing covers for high fashion publications such as French Elle and Vogue Italia. Most recently she scored the coveted role as the first plus-size model in a Ralph Lauren campaign. "It's rare for a plus-size model to do a mainstream line," says Lawley. "It's a huge step in the right direction."

Starting out, Lawley was headed in the wrong direction. Once a "chubby" kid growing up near Sydney, Lawley was plucked from a modeling competition at age 16 but struggled to keep up with the industry's skinny standards. "I'm big boned. I used to be told to lose weight and exercise more all the time," says Lawley, who dropped to a scant 136 lbs. "I was skipping meals, counting calories to keep under 1,000. I was trying to eat nothing."

After a year she put her career on hold to study in France, where she let herself go and packed on 40 lbs. "In my mind, I had given up," she says. But back home, after trying her hand at college and odd jobs, she noticed a striking full-figured model in ads around town. "I was like, 'She's my size and she's on a bus!'" says Lawley, who signed with a plus-size agency and nabbed a swimwear gig. Seeing herself in a bikini, "I thought, 'I don't look bad. I look hot!'"

Now, to maintain her figure, she swims or works out with a trainer every other day when she's home in New York City. And the avid cook, who runs the blog Robyn Lawley Eats, isn't about to apologize for indulging in her homemade cookies with boyfriend Everest Schmidt, a law student. "I gave up caring what people think," she says. "I love my shape. I love my body. I've come a long way."