On February 19, when I text my friend Sofia that I’m on my way to see Ashley Nell Tipton in her new home in Hillcrest, she responds:
“Her HOME?!! Her place of residence? Where she LIVES, and SLEEPS and eats CEREAL?!!!!!! I am green right now!! GREEN!!!!! Can you sneak me a scrap of her fabric from the floor that she is not using??? Have her sign a Von’s bag? SOMETHING?????? Tell her u have a plus sized BFF stay at home mom who is 5´9 (say 5´10…sounds better) and is available to be her mannequin to try on cloths she makes.”
The dramatic response is to be expected from Sofia (who is very dramatic), but I feel the same way, though maybe for a different reason.
For Sofia and a bazillion other fans and followers, Tipton’s rise to stardom began on season 14 of Project Runway — where she became the first contestant to send a plus-size collection down the runway at Fashion Week…and then won.
Back in November 2015, hundreds of San Diegans packed the rooftop bar at the then W (now Renaissance) Hotel’s Rooftop Bar to watch the season’s final episode projected onto the side of the building. The crappy sound-projection caused friction between the shushers and the talkers as the two-hour episode ran. But everyone was there to find out did our girl win?
Tipton sat with her family on a couch at the front, her back to the rest of us. During commercial breaks, her friends and family members took the microphone and told stories about how they’ve always known Tipton was destined for stardom and that no matter what happened tonight, she’d always be a winner in their eyes. Every few minutes, someone announced that Tipton would be available for a meet-and-greet after the show, but for now, please give her a little space. An entertainment news network snuck around with their bright camera lights, reminding everyone that this was a big moment. It was impossible to imagine how this crowd would respond if she didn’t take home the top prize.
But she did. And the moment Heidi Klum announced Tipton’s win, the finale party crowd released its held breath, and the air over West B Street detonated with cheer.
I am that person
Ashley Nell Tipton’s tagline is “Fun, Funky, and Fat,” perfectly befitting of a 24-year-old girl with lavender hair and a bright and flirty wardrobe who weighs in at 384 pounds.
Tipton’s mission, as it reads on her website, is “to represent for full-figured women and enable them to have options to express their style and individuality through fashion just like women who wear ‘standard’ size.”
I met Tipton in the summer of 2014, a few months after I began to follow her on Instagram. I don’t remember how I ended up on her Instagram feed, but I remember the first photo because it was the one that compelled me to follow her feed and eventually chase her down under the guise of local journalism.
In the picture, she’s floating in a Jacuzzi in an inner tube shaped like a pink-frosted donut with a bite out of the side. She’s wearing a beaming smile and a “fatkini,” and she looks likes she’s living the best life ever.
“When I took that picture, I didn’t care. I felt confident and I was with a group of people who embraced who I was,” Tipton says of the photo.
We’re sitting in the upstairs loft of her new home in Hillcrest. She’s moved here from her sister’s home in Chula Vista a few days/weeks ago. Although most of the house is still fairly furniture-less and unlived-in, up here in the studio, she has already set up her three sewing machines, a floor-to-ceiling shelf of fabrics, a wall hung with spools of thread and zippers in multiple colors, a couple of dress forms, two desks with Apple computers, an inspiration bulletin board featuring an article about Rebel Wilson, and a white board on which someone has scrawled a to-do list:
“Decide on cards/ stationary... Watch PR... Decide on theme tagline... Create talking points.”
Tipton and I sit on stools at the large cutting table in the middle of the room. Her wiry and muscular manager (and former teacher) Andrew Bisaha sits with us, on an exercise ball.
I have just asked Tipton how much she weighs. The question agitates Bisaha, “What’s that have to do with it?” he asks. “Like, who cares if she’s 384?”
I explain that it matters to me because the Instagram photo that originally compelled me to seek Ashley out is of a young woman who weighs X and is happily wearing a bikini anyway. If I can’t ask that question, and she can’t answer it, then it’s just going to sit there unasked and unanswered, and that self-acceptance we’ve been talking about for two hours now — in fact, almost two years — has reached its limits.
Bisaha remains tensed up and narrow-eyed while I speak, but Tipton is quicker to recover. “You just opened my eyes to how other people see me,” she says. “Because sometimes I reflect back on what I do, and I’m, like, ‘How did I have the nerve to do that?’ It makes me feel like, ‘I want to be that person.’ But wait, I am that person.’”
A couple of tears fall, making shiny tracks in her matte makeup. She wipes them away.
“Now that it’s out in the world, it’s something I don’t have to be afraid of anymore,” she says.
Why did I go to New York?
Tipton grew up in Encanto, surrounded by her parents, her grandmother, an older sister, and two older brothers — all more than a decade older than her. She attended University City High School and then later Fashion Careers College. The Bay Park college has since closed. Tipton was in the school’s last graduating class in 2012. Her grandmother taught her to sew.
Although many designers may have taken the ($100,000 prize) money and run from their hometown, Tipton isn’t going anywhere for now. Her family, friends, and two managers are in San Diego, and this is where she wants to stay. If you ask her what she loves most about San Diego, her first answer is her support network. Second?