Back when Pamela Anderson’s “Barb Wire” hit theaters in 1996, expectations soared. As Anderson swapped out the sexy red swimsuit that made her a television star on “Baywatch” for even sexier black leather, it seemed like the adaptation of the popular Dark Horse comic book was destined for box office gold. But, as William Goldman said, “Nobody knows anything,” and the film was widely viewed as a flop as it failed to break even at the box office.
That being said, teenagers couldn’t possibly care less about how much money a studio makes on a movie. A young Tess Holliday didn’t see a box office bomb when she watched the film, she saw a stunning bombshell in Anderson. She saw a bold woman kicking ass, riding a chopper and looking damn fine while doing so. It was an inspiration.
So when Inked gave Holliday creative control over a photoshoot, recreating the image of Anderson on a motorcycle naturally came to mind. “She was so iconic in that time, and I felt really ready to tackle something like this,” Holliday says. “I practiced Pamela Anderson’s face for a week leading up to the shoot. I just went around doing her faces. I was like, ‘I look like Pamela Anderson on her way to the buffet right now. I look hot as hell on the way to grub.’”
The look of Barb Wire—the leather, the bike, the iconic tattoo wrapping around Anderson’s arm—was firmly rooted in the alternative/punk culture of the time, a world that Holliday had always gravitated towards. She also vividly remembers how in those days the male gaze was firmly fixed upon women with big hair, big boobs, a tan and not too many curves.
"I loved her in that era for obvious reasons,” Holliday explains. “This shoot was my way of reclaiming it a bit. How dope would it have been if we saw someone my size wearing similar shit and being sexy [back then]? We were only seeing one body type [portrayed as sexy]. Now, that’s expanding and changing. I was inspired by her and I wanted to do her justice, but I also wanted to show that I can be just as hot at my size.”
Over a little more than a decade of modelling, Holliday has consistently broken barriers and set new standards within the image-conscious industry. The issue of representation—both for plus-size models and heavily tattooed women—is a very real concern that is always on her mind. It’s why she founded the “Eff Your Beauty Standards” Instagram account as a way to showcase how beautiful people can come in all shapes, sizes and colors no matter what the mainstream standards may be.
As such, every magazine cover or fashion campaign featuring Holliday ends up being a piece of activism for the body positivity movement simply by existing. It can also lead to some ethically murky situations where a model may ask whether she is being used as a prop by a publication wanting to feel good about themselves for including a plus-size model.
“Do I think media publications and the media pat themselves on the back unnecessarily all the time? Absolutely,” Holliday says. “At the same time, would I rather someone be putting someone from a marginalized community—whether that is body, gender, race, abilities, whatever—on a cover so we have these conversations? Absolutely. It’s hard. You have to ask, what’s the intent? Are they being genuine? But you can’t worry about that sometimes.
“Being able to put these people in these magazines and giving them a platform and a voice, I feel like that’s important,” she continues. “Yeah, sometimes I do feel like the token fat person or whatever, but at the same time I’m glad we’re having the conversations. Just give me the mic, I’ll handle the rest. But you’ve got to get the mic first.”
Many others would shy away from being a role model, especially considering all of the pressure that comes along with that responsibility, but Holliday relishes the role. She thinks about being a kid back in rural Mississippi and what it would have meant to her to see a gorgeous, plus-size woman on the cover of Elle or Vogue.
“It would have changed my entire life!” she exclaims. “It would have helped me feel less alone. Representation and diversity truly saves lives. I have been doing this long enough where I’ve had folks tell me, ‘Oh my God, you’re the first plus-sized person who empowered me when I was in high school.’ And now they’re in their twenties and thriving.”
Feeling comfortable in one’s own skin is a challenge every teenager goes through, Holliday being no exception to the rule. And in much the same way she is hoping to instill confidence in young girls who see her in the pages of fashion magazines, Holliday found her own inspiration while working retail in Seattle.
A woman walked into the shop with full sleeves. While that isn’t uncommon in 2021, seeing a woman covered in ink in 2004 was out of the ordinary.
“I was this punk kid who had, like, six tattoos, and I wanted more tattoos, but I was afraid because I never showed my arms,” she recalls. “I was so, so self conscious. I was just so deeply insecure. She was a bigger girl, and she told me, ‘Listen. I used to hate my arms, so I started tattooing them.’”
This chance encounter spurred Holliday on to tattoo her own arms. It’s impossible to look at her without being drawn to the stunning black-and-grey sleeve on her right arm. Most of her tattoo collection is made up of American traditional work, but this sleeve consists of impeccable realism done by the one-and-only Nikko Hurtado.
The sleeve is filled with portraits of people (and Muppets) Holliday feels inspired by. Currently it includes Mae West, Divine, Dolly Parton and Miss Piggy, as well as a magnolia to represent her home state. There’s only space for one more portrait and she is struggling with the decision of whether to fill it with Grace Jones or Anna Nicole Smith.
“It’s inspiring for me to see all these iconic people on my arm as I definitely feel like I carry a little bit of them with me,” Holliday says. “Part of what I love about tattoos is how it has given me back my body autonomy, given me confidence in myself. It’s like, the more I get tattooed, the less clothes I want to wear.”
These days, Holliday gets tattooed by some of the most talented artists in the world, but it hasn’t always been that way. She got her first tattoo on the day she turned 18 from a guy named Mick in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Mick was an old-school street shop tattooer, the kind of guy who had some gaps in his resume from time “spent upstate,” and he gave Holliday the fairy tattoo she had been dreaming of.
“My mom took me to get my tattoo and I was so obsessed with fairies and you couldn’t tell me shit,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘I’m going to get a fairy, not just any fairy, but she’s going to have her dress kind of ripped off, there’s going to be a titty hanging out.’ So that’s what Mick did on my left shoulder blade and I still have it. My best friend tries to clown on me, but you know what, it makes me giggle.”
As wild as that story may sound, the half-naked fairy tattoo ended up being the mildest part of her birthday celebration, much to her mother’s chagrin. “It wasn’t exactly what she wanted me to get,” she laughs, “but also the night before I had let my best friend pierce my nipple with a safety pin in a Mississippi State Park bathroom and she had to help me take it out the morning of my appointment. I think she was just really disappointed by the 24 hours surrounding my eighteenth birthday that the fairy was the least of her worries.”
Tess Holliday has been on quite a journey since she was a small-town girl getting her mind blown watching Pamela Anderson kicking ass as Barb Wire. She’s built a stable career in an industry plenty of people told her she had no business working in, and while doing so she’s been a role model for countless others searching for someone to make them feel a little less alone.
As our conversation with the captivating model and proud mother of two comes to a close, we look back at the path she’s taken.
“What I do feel immensely grateful for is that I know who I am and I know where I’m going,” Holliday says. “I have always been honest and transparent about my fuck-ups and not having all the answers, so I feel like my audience has understood that a bit and they’re a little kinder to me when I fuck up. But if I could do it all over again I wouldn’t change a thing.
“I never imagined that a Southern girl who grew up in a cow pasture would get to be fat Pam Anderson on the cover of a magazine she admires,” she continues, “and get to help and inspire so many folks to be themselves. That’s cool. It can be a lot of pressure, but the rewards of what I do and the life that I’ve created far surpass any of the bullshit.”
photographer: orin fleurimont
video director: nika burnett
director of photography: christian klein
stylists: meaghan o’connor + charlotte harris
hair: angelina panelli
makeup: mariana mcgrath
creative director: nadia aboulhosn
director: darius baptist