Bigger Is Better

updated 09/11/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/11/2006 AT 01:00 AM EDT

As one of the fashion industry's top photographers, Steven Meisel regularly shoots the world's most beautiful models, from Linda Evangelista to Daria Werbowy. But when it came time to help designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana select the model for D&G's summer 2006 ad campaign, Meisel went with a relative newcomer: Crystal Renn. His reason? "She has," he says, "an incredible body."

Which is a pretty incredible statement, given that—in an industry ruled by waifs—the 5′9″ Renn weighs a healthy 165 lbs. and wears a size 12. In fact, the 20-year-old plus-size model is one of only a handful of full-figured women (including Sophie Dahl and Kate Dillon) ever to find mainstream fashion success. Last fall, Renn walked the runway for couture king Jean Paul Gaultier ("It was one of the best moments of my life," she says), and she has also been featured in ads for Saks Fifth Avenue and on the pages of Vogue. "It's been a long time since you've heard of a plus-size woman coming out and getting campaigns," says fellow plus-size model Emme. "Crystal's a good model—she has a sexiness about her."

Renn says sexiness is what she lacked during her early years in the business, when she succumbed to anorexia, getting down to just 95 lbs. and a size 0. Only 16 years old at the time, Renn subsisted on little more than steamed vegetables, Fiber One cereal and Diet Coke, while also working out three hours a day. "I didn't have a period for three years, my hair was falling out, my skin was a wreck," Renn says. "I was hurting in a bad way."

And yet she didn't think she had any alternatives if she wanted to model. Raised in Clinton, Miss., by her grandmother, Renn was content as a size-14 eighth-grader ("I wanted to go to Yale and be a lawyer," she says)—until a modeling scout spotted her at age 14 all dolled up at a local etiquette class. "He was like, 'You should be a model, you'd be really good at it,'" she recalls. There was just one catch: The scout told her she'd first have to whittle 10 inches from her 43″ hips.

Initially, Renn embarked on a sensible diet plan. "It started slowly—it was like, 'I'm not going to eat Oreos anymore. I'm going to have whole-wheat bread,'" she says. But after dropping 30 lbs. Renn hit a plateau, and decided to take more drastic measures to get model-skinny. The plan worked, and at 16, she scored a modeling contract and moved to New York City. "I knew I had an eating disorder," she admits. "But I was so focused on what I was doing for the job, I really didn't care."

Within a year, however, Renn's body started to rebel, and she began pushing herself even harder to maintain her stick-thin figure. "This is when it got to be too much," says her grandmother Kathy Renn. "I got quite concerned, and she did too." One night, Renn worked out at the gym for a staggering eight hours ("My body literally felt like it was crumbling," she recalls), and realized finally that something had to change. The next day, Renn confessed her struggles to her agent—who suggested she try plus-size modeling.

Over the next several months, Renn—who relied on support from family and friends instead of a therapist to get past her anorexia—studied nutrition books and focused on eating healthfully, slowly regaining 70 lbs. "It was like, 'I'm going to do what my body wants, and I'm not going to care about [gaining weight],'" she says. Along the way, she also reinvented her career. "From the minute she walked in, tossed that mane of hair and commanded the room, we knew she was a star waiting to happen," says Gary Dakin, a vice-president at Ford Model Management, who signed Renn at a size 12.

With a fashion spread due out in the November issue of German Vogue, Renn continues to work steadily. (She has also modeled for Nine West and Nordstrom.) As rewarding as her success is, however, Renn says her greatest triumph is having a positive body image. "I'm actually truly healed," she says. "And I'm loving this job right now!" Not to mention her new lifestyle, which includes indulging in hamburgers and potato salad at backyard cookouts, and making her favorite bruschetta recipe at the Brooklyn home she shares with her English teacher boyfriend. "If I want anything I just eat it," she says. "I don't think about calories."

What she does think about is her potential to change the way fashion designers view curvy women. "They're starting to realize not all women are a size 0," she says. "It's not like we're saying, 'Let's get rid of all the skinny women.' We're saying, 'Let's use all different types of women!'"

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