Chenese Lewis is the epitome of a sophisticated woman entrepreneur and entertainer who has gained international attention as a highly sought-after keynote speaker, expert commentator, as well as a positive body image and self-esteem advocate.
In 2014 Ebony.com recognized Chenese’s ever-lasting impression on the plus size industry by naming her one of “The Top Six Plus Fashion Power Players in the Plus Industry” for her direct connection and extreme passion for the plus community.
Chenese made history by being the first woman crowned Miss Plus America in 2003 which helped give career momentum in the plus size market. Chenese has since worked with various plus-size brands in different capacities. She has modeled for the national chain Torrid and was the Coast-to-Coast Curves Spokesperson for Ashley Stewart. A guru in the plus industry, Chenese has appeared as an expert on Dr. Phil, Huffington Post Live, and quoted in USA Today. Ebony.com stated that Chenese is “integral in laying the foundation for plus size fashion!”
Chenese continues to make a splash in the mainstream market as well. She is an in-demand host for major fashion and beauty events. She has hosted large-scale fashion events during New York Fashion Week, Los Angeles Fashion Week, and abroad in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition, she graced the cover of VICE Magazine UK’s 10th anniversary issue, a mainstream publication distributed worldwide. She has also posed for the popular celebrity driven NOH8 Campaign and served as the face of Aida Cosmetics’ “Confidence and Glamour” campaign for three consecutive years. In 2015 Chenese was honored by Baton Rouge Fashion Week with the Fashion Icon Award recognizing her outstanding achievements as a fashion trailblazer from Louisiana.
Along with fashion, Chenese is also a trailblazer in the podcasting field. In 2008 she introduced PLUS Model Radio, the #1 podcast for plus-size women, which she served as host for five years, before renaming her podcast The Chenese Lewis Show. Her podcast features in-depth interviews for curvy women including up-close and personal conversations with a wide range of industry experts. Chenese was accepted to participate on Radio Row for the Essence Music Festival, one of the largest consumer live events in the U.S., with more than 550,000 attendees.
As a philanthropist, Chenese served as a former president of the National Organization for Women Hollywood Chapter. For six years Chenese produced the Hollywood NOW “Love Your Body Day”, an annual event where women of all sizes come together to celebrate a day of self-acceptance and to promote positive body image. The Mayor of West Hollywood as well as the city itself sponsored the event, which brought out celebrity hosts such as Kim Coles, Mia Tyler, Meghan McCain and Lisa Ann Walter. The 2010 Love Your Body Campaign, made International news and magnified Chenese’s role as a leading positive body image advocate when she posed nude with America’s Next Top Model cycle 10 winner, Whitney Thompson. Coverage was seen on E! News, Extra, People.com, National Examiner and many other entertainment news outlets worldwide.
Chenese has also been praised as an actress for her work as a cast member on B.E.T’s “Hell Date,” which was one of the most popular shows in BET history. The show allowed Chenese to showcase her impeccable improvisational and comedic skills, and kept millions tuning in weekly. Chenese also won rave reviews for her dramatic portrayal of Connie Williams, a larger-than-life professional baseball player in the NAACP Award-winning play “The Girls of Summer,” set in the 1940s.
Chenese is frequently booked for lectures at national workshops, seminars and universities around the country. The National Eating Disorder Association’s Teen Summit and University of California, Davis’ “Celebrate Your Body Week” benefited greatly from hearing her unique perspective. Chenese also served as a commencement speaker at The Art Institute of California in Hollywood.
The Louisiana native is the Chief Creative Officer for Chenese Lewis Productions, LLC, a media company she established in 2007.
Chenese genuinely embraces whom she is, inside and out, and it shows every time she steps into the spotlight. Chenese attributes her success by not conforming to society’s ideals of beauty, but rather showing by example that you can be beautiful and confident regardless of your size. Considered an icon within the plus size industry, Chenese shows no signs of stopping her ambitious efforts any time soon.
First of all, congratulations on all your success. You have been in the industry for well over a decade and have played an instrumental role in the community and main stream media. Why don’t you take some time to walk us through how you got into the industry and some of your highlights and success?
I learned about plus size modeling in the Summer of 2000 when I heard an advertisement on the radio about a model search coming to my town looking exclusively for plus sizes. Prior to hearing that ad, I did not know plus size models existed! I went to the model search and got selected to attend a modeling convention, I attended the convention spent lots of money and long story short it did not help me break into the industry at all. After the fact, I decided to research plus size modeling online and discovered I did not have the stats that modeling agencies required to be signed, I was too short and too big. Disappointed, I decided to find opportunities for myself to get exposure in the industry, through researching online I stumbled upon an event called the Miss Plus America Pageant, a pageant that had just started for women size 14 and up. I decided to enter without any previous pageant experience and won the national title! With my title, I decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a plus size model and actress, despite the odds being against me. I did not have any connections with anyone in entertainment who could help me, I just took a risk and moved on faith. Three weeks after moving to Los Angeles I booked my first gig without an agent as a lead role in a music video and felt it was confirmation that I had made the right decision to pursue my dreams. I went on to model for various indie designers in Los Angeles, as well as the national chain Torrid. I appeared in music videos and made appearances on various films and television shows. Through opportunities I received, my brand naturally expanded into other areas such as hosting, keynote speaking, event production, and entrepreneurship with body positive projects.
I’m sure the journey to embracing your own body and who you are as a woman played a foundational role in all that you do – can you tell us a little bit about that?
Fortunately, I never had any issues with body image. Even though I have been plus size my entire life it has never been a challenge or obstacle for me. Growing up I was never belittled for my size, my parents instilled confidence in me at an early age. When I was in elementary school, my mother told me that I was smart and beautiful and if anybody had anything negative to say about me to ignore them. I am so blessed to have had positive affirmations spoken to me versus the opposite. Also, being African-American and growing up in the South, my community was a little more accepting of fuller figures.
Why do you think it is so important to keep sharing the message of body positivity, self love and encouraging plus woman to embrace all of who they are?
Promoting positive body image has always been something very important to me. In our society, many struggle to achieve the standards plastered on billboards, magazines, movies, and advertisements. When we are unable to conform to these standards, we look for faults in ourselves rather than society. In recent years, there has been a rise in plastic surgery because people are striving to attain the unattainable. Low body positivity and low self-esteem can lead to depression, social isolation, eating disorders and even suicide. Body positivity is important because it focuses on encouraging individuals to fight against unrealistic standards of beauty and love your body just the way it is.
We are finally starting to see more diversity in size in the media – what are your thoughts on what we are currently seeing and where do you think we will be in the next 5 years or so?
Mainstream media is getting better with diversity, but there is still a long way to go. For instance, for the few plus size actresses we can point out working in television and film, there is triple the number of thin actresses working who are still getting most of the leading roles. I think Hollywood is starting to realize that people are interested in seeing images and stories that represent them which they can relate to. Five years from now I hope to see even more diversity in all forms of media not only with size, but also with more representations of different races and ethnicities.
In addition to your modeling, hosting, podcast (and so much more) you have also been in tv and film. We often see plus women portrayed as the ‘funny fat girl’ or the token ‘friend’ and we often don’t see a lot of diversity in size – what are your thoughts on that and how can we demand to see more diversity in more media?
I think the recurring stereotypes you see in television and film are a result of the content creators behind the scenes. Often there is no diversity with the writers who are creating scripts or the execs who are greenlighting these projects. Not only do we need more diversity in front of the camera but behind it as well. In many cases to tell the story of a group of people authentically, you need a representative of the group involved in the project. I think more plus size women should get into creating content for TV, film, and online. A great example is this magazine, when you are not seeing the images that you can relate to or content that reflects your stories, create it yourself!
I feel that many influencers and platforms in the plus size community that have found some mainstream notoriety are focused on fashion and modeling, which is great, but most don’t advocate for much beyond that. Mainstream media is a business, for better representation in the media we must support with our dollars, our voices, and cross promote on our platforms. Instead of always bashing what we hate, or bashing projects that don’t include us we should be more focused more on promoting what we love and projects that celebrate us.
Can you talk to us a little bit about your experience in the pageant and modeling world? What have been your favourite parts, challenges, highlights, etc?
I have had positive experiences in both pageants and modeling. Pageantry was a great platform for me to get started because I wasn’t the right size or height to be a professional plus size model. After I won my national title and moved to Los Angeles I used my title to give me an extra edge from others to stand out. A challenge was not having a pre-arranged itinerary prepared for me or a publicist provided for me upon winning, so I had to work hard and seek opportunities for myself. Since I was the first woman ever to hold the title, many had never heard of Miss Plus America, but were intrigued when I told them about it, it made me interesting and memorable. I leveraged the title to my advantage to help get exposure until it was no longer necessary because I had gained other notable accomplishments under my belt.
In modeling, I never had the opportunity to reach my full potential because of the industries size limitations and lack of diversity. Despite the obstacles, I still have been able to break barriers with some of the things I’ve been able to achieve. Some of my highlights in modeling have been the nude Love Your Body campaign that went viral, modeling for Torrid, and being on the cover of Vice Magazine. My favorite part of it all is being able to inspire someone to have confidence and pursue their dreams regardless of their size.
What has been your favourite experience thus far and why?
My favorite experience thus far has been the ability to connect with people who, if I had not been involved in this community, I would not have the opportunity to meet. Through social media we can connect with new people all over the world who share similar interests and experiences.
In August 2016, three days of record-breaking rain in Southern Louisiana resulted in catastrophic flooding that submerged my hometown of Baton Rouge. My family and I lost everything in the flood and currently still in the process of rebuilding. Out of all my networks, I got the most love and support from the plus size community. To my surprise individuals and brands sent monetary donations, clothing, and care packages. I feel blessed to be a part of a community that not only has my back against society’s unrealistic beauty standards, but also in my time of need.
What are your plans for the future, what else in store for you?
I will continue to be a positive body image and self-esteem advocate through keynote speaking, event hosting, and sometimes even modeling if the opportunity arises! Also, look out for new episodes of my podcast The Chenese Lewis Show coming soon! To keep up with my schedule visit my website www.CheneseLewis.com and follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook at @CheneseLewis