At the urging of her agent, I met a model for drinks at the Mark Hotel. Sounds glamorous. It isn’t.

Meeting with models is excruciating, and not because of their beauty or any feelings of inadequacy I have about my own looks. I don’t like judging anyone’s appearance. I mean, I’m fine being judgy, and I can do snarky, but not in a formal setting. And yet there’s no getting around the fact that when you’re hiring a model—as I did when I was the editor of Allure, and again when I was the chief creative officer of Revlon—judging a person’s looks when they’re standing right in front of you, sometimes trembling, was part of the job. I hated it.

On that night in 2017, there would be no trembling. There would be no judging, either. Because I was meeting with Ashley Graham, so clearly a star, even in those days before she was widely known. Her agent, the late Ivan Bart, who was the president of IMG Models at the time and an established star-maker, just sat back and watched.

One drink turned into dinner, turned into a robust multi-year contract with Revlon. In the first few years of that adventure, I had the pleasure of watching Graham bloom in front of the camera. On our first shoot, in a restaurant in London, she applied lipstick, checked her reflection in a knife, then improvised by climbing onto a table covered in wine glasses. As she danced, the table flipped over, taking Graham with it, broken glass everywhere. And she just got right back up and kept on dancing.

She was ostensibly selling lipstick, but Graham was also on a stealth mission. She was going to change the way people defined beauty. No posturing, no shouting. Over the years, she danced her heart out, sometimes on broken glass.

I don’t like judging anyone’s appearance. I mean, I’m fine being judgy, and I can do snarky, but not in a formal setting.

She started modeling at 12 in Nebraska and didn’t spend time thinking about the shape of her body. “I had grown up in what is now called a body-positive home,” she says. “But we didn’t call it that. We just were running around and nobody said two cents about cellulite or back fat or whatever. It was just normal.”

When she moved to New York, at 17, she was relegated to plus-size jobs and called a curve model. “When everybody put a label on me and called me plus-size, I was like, ‘O.K.’ I just thought you had to accept the label,” Graham says. “As I started growing in my career, I realized that I could tell people that I don’t like having a label over me.”

If Graham seems uncommonly positive, she is, most of the time. And sometimes she’s faking it, flexing her formidable will. During that first year in New York, she called her mother in despair. “I was like, ‘I’m going to quit. I don’t like this career.’” If we learned nothing else from Project Runway, it was the message that “in fashion, either you’re in or you’re out.” Even with every win, Graham says, “the fashion world always tells you what you’re not great at. Or they praise you quickly and then they go into this long diatribe about what actually is in and what is cool. And it has nothing to do with you.”

At that low moment, Graham’s mother told her, “‘You have to stick with it because your body’s going to change somebody’s life.’ And that gave me the courage to stay.”

Graham presents herself—on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue in 2016, at this year’s Academy Awards interviewing a grumpy Hugh Grant, on talk shows and social media—with the kind of easy dignity that looks a lot like radical self-acceptance. “I’ve put myself out there in more ways than the normal person just with showing my stretched-out skin, cellulite, stretch marks,” she says. “I’m doing that for the other woman who feels really bad about herself or for the younger girl who doesn’t know that that exists. I didn’t have anybody growing up that was in the public eye talking about the imperfections of beauty and the ideas of what women are supposed to look like.”

The scrutiny sometimes gets out of hand. When Graham shows an especially grueling workout on social media or when she gains or loses weight, as bodies tend to do, her followers sometimes voice a sense of betrayal. “That somebody would even want to comment on your body—I still don’t understand that concept. It’s never easy. It’s never fun. But I’ve built such a thick skin. I’ve always had people pick apart and manipulate my body with their words.... [But] I don’t think you ever a hundred percent get over it.”

Besides, being the poster child of body positivity is a sizable burden. “In reality, I’ve never claimed that. I’ve just said, Just like who you are.... You’ve been given this one body. Treat it well. And I’ve also asked people to just make bigger clothes, please,” she says. She prefers body neutrality, the kind of innocence she knew as a child before she discovered cellulite.

With the arrival of Ozempic and the existential threat it poses to body positivity and self-acceptance, it’s natural for Graham to have to field queries about that too. When I ask her if she’d ever consider taking the drug, she replies, “Would you?” Fair question. I tell her I’m too afraid. She has a better answer: “I don’t think that I need to.”

Graham is well practiced in flipping the narrative. Her secret weapon is the repetition of affirmations—stop rolling your eyes—to counteract her negative self-talk. “Nowadays, you’re on social media, you’re in the subway, you just see these positive words. It’s almost like toxic positivity now. You’re overwhelmed with affirmations. But I knew that I had to get a grip on what I was doing to myself, because if I kept going in a loop [of self-criticism], it would never end.”

That’s what propelled her to write the newly published A Kids Book About Beauty, filled with the kind of affirmations that helped her. She dedicates it to her nine-year-old self.

Ashley Graham Inc. has grown into a machine beyond the standard model fare of runway work and product endorsements. She now invests in women-led businesses, including ones that make diapers, baby formula, drinks, swimsuits, lingerie, skin-care products, and food. “Modeling has always been my main hustle,” she says. “But this has been my side hustle.” Side Hustlers is the name of the show she co-hosts on Roku, a kind of Shark Tank without the machismo.

Oh, and about those bigger clothes? She has a closet full of them, and they fit her perfectly.

Linda Wells is the Editor at Air Mail Look