Ashley Graham on "Pressure" of Executive Producing 'American Beauty Star'

Courtesy of Lifetime
Ashley Graham

The supermodel and host speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about taking on the task of giving the Lifetime beauty competition series a "makeover," while opening up about the need for more inclusivity.

Ashley Graham is many things: supermodel, author, body-positive activist, to name a few. But, now, the multihyphenate has added one more title: executive producer.

Earlier this year, Graham signed on to host season two of Lifetime's American Beauty Star, taking over for the reality beauty competition series' inaugural host, Adriana Lima. But Graham didn't want to just be the new face of the show; she wanted to be at its helm. Although she admits to The Hollywood Reporter that producing was more work than she expected — "It was definitely no joke!" she says — Graham ultimately found the experience rewarding.

"It's a lot of back-end work that I didn't really realize. There was pressure," says the star, who is producing the show alongside Lima, Norton Herrick and Ross Elliot, plus Lifetime's Gena McCarthy, Christian Murphy and James Bolosh, among others. "The work that happens on the flipside of making a TV show is wild. I was working with the most incredible crew and every morning I asked them, 'What time did you go to bed?' And they would tell me that they hadn't gone to bed until like 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. We were on set at 6 a.m. every day."

Adds Graham: "So, it was intense — and I got just a piece of it. It's a lot of hard work, but I had so much fun in having my hands behind-the-scenes."

After gracing the covers of glossies like Sports Illustrated, Vogue, Elle and Harper's Bazaar; penning a memoir; serving as a judge on America's Next Top Model; making history as the first plus-size model to star in a Revlon campaign; and launching a podcast, Graham felt like producing television was the "perfect next step" in her career.

According to Graham, watching Tyra Banks juggle hosting and producing responsibilities during her tenure on ANTM helped prepare her for taking on double duty herself. "I watched her not only host but produce America's Next Top Model," says Graham, who participated in cycles 23 and 24 of the VH1 show from 2016 until 2018. "Tyra didn't need cue cards, she didn’t need a teleprompter, she didn't need an earbud. She just had it. She is America's Next Top Model."

Like Banks has done with Top Model, it became Graham's goal to put her own stamp on American Beauty Star. "I wanted to embody her spirit in American Beauty Star and I wanted to walk in with a little bit of my Tyra-isms. Walking in with the intention each day of who I am and what I want to portray in the show really helped. Tyra has been such an incredible mentor to me ever since I met her," says Graham, who filmed ABS this summer over the span of a few weeks in Atlanta. "I definitely took some cues from the queen walking into this — but I made it my own."

Joining Graham is beauty guru Sir John, who returns to American Beauty Star as a mentor, and Christie Brinkley, celebrity photographer Yu Tsai and Hearst chief beauty director Leah Wyar, who round out the panel of judges. The second season features 14 hair and makeup artists who will compete in a series of intense challenges, from creating high-end editorial looks to the latest red carpet and runway-ready beauty trends.

Below, Graham opens up some more to THR about American Beauty Star's "makeover," shares her thoughts about the current state of inclusivity in fashion and reveals how she believes the industry has changed one year after the #MeToo movement was born.

How does season two of American Beauty Star compare to season one?

It got a makeover! First of all, new host, new judges and, obviously, all new contestants. The challenges and the format are very similar, but I have to say, I feel like the level of talent we have is even stronger. And I think that's the whole point — to continue to find better and better talent. Hair and makeup is taking off by storm, especially with social media. We need to glorify these people because they are a huge part of when you see any celebrity in a movie, on a red carpet or even on social media.

How did your experience as a judge on America's Next Top Model prep you to host and produce American Beauty Star?

The biggest thing I learned from Tyra is that no matter if you make a mistake, just know that we all make mistakes and keep it moving. You can put so much pressure on yourself and tell yourself that you have to be so good and you have to be so great and you can't make any mistakes. But this is a TV show. You can stop. You can edit. You can always ask for a redo. It was important for me to remind myself that there will be mistakes and that's OK. That really gave me a huge sense of ease walking into this and it gave me a lot of confidence. Tyra has always been herself and that's exactly what I did. I was just Ashley all day long!

How did you make your mark as an executive producer?

I wanted to make sure that it was very personal and relatable. It needed to feel personal. We really got to know the contestants and love it or hate it, I went in on some of them. I told them, "I know you can do better than this." It's that tough love that I feel like a lot of people need. That's really how I got to be better as a model and a businesswoman, was with tough love, and that's what I give a lot of these contestants. And there's a moment where I start hysterically crying because there was a contestant who I did not feel should go home, but they had to go home because they just did not do well in one of the challenges. It's reality TV and it really is reality. None of it is fake. None of this is airbrushed, honey!

After getting to know the contestants, would you trust any of them with your own glam?

There's a few I definitely would. I'm a very type-A person when it comes to my hair and makeup. I really enjoy letting my hair and makeup team kind of do what they want. I say, "Here's what I'm wearing. What are you guys thinking? What are you feeling?" I hire them to be creative and then in the midst of it, if I'm really hating it, I'll ask, "What are we doing here?" Or I'll go, "Oh my God, I love it!" There might be a couple in there that I just have to micromanage, but there are a couple who I would definitely let do my hair and makeup. I would even say the final four.

What look from American Beauty Star impressed you the most?

There was one girl who put together a look emulating weather. When I saw the final look, it looked like a dream. It was such a heavenly dream. Because you don't look at it like hair and makeup. You look at it and think art. It was almost like a drawing. It was actual living artwork in front of you and I think that is also something that you get to see in American Beauty Star season two. It's just beyond these little challenges. 

Did any of the contestants' work inspire you to try out new beauty trends?

Yes, definitely. However, I don't ever want to come across like I'm trying to look super-young or so on-trend that I look like a hot mess. I always want to try a little something and then kind of expand on it, but I think I'm more adventurous when it comes to my makeup versus my hair and I don't know why. My hairstylist David Lopez always says, "You definitely let me go there, but then you reel me right back in!"

Speaking of beauty, you became the first plus-size model to star in a Revlon campaign this year. How do you hope that moves the dial when it comes to more representation?

Like I keep saying, lipstick doesn't have a size. Lipstick doesn't have a race. Lipstick doesn't have a religion. At the end of the day, the fact that I'm the first curvy girl of my generation to have this kind of contract is mind-blowing. But it's also proof that Revlon is right on time and now, more than ever, you're seeing curvy girls in campaigns and on covers and in editorials and this was a part of the puzzle that was missing. And there's still so many more pieces of the puzzle that are missing for representation of curvy girls, but this is yet another big milestone that I'm so proud to be a part of. And I really hope that other young girls realize that your size and your weight have nothing to do with your worth or your beauty.

When it comes to more inclusivity in beauty and fashion, what is the next step?

I really feel like there's a lack of women of color when it comes to curvy girls. I talk about this candidly in my book [A New Model] about how women of color have been proud of their curvy bodies and they have been for centuries and generations. To me, seeing more women of color would be very important. And then just more representation all around. And then on the runway. It was really great to see a couple new designers come out this season with curvy girls, but it would be even more exciting to see that number double every season.

Has the industry made significant strides in 2018?

I think every year there's victories. Every year, there's a new "a-ha!" moment where curvy girls are representing us here or representing us there. I know for a fact that curvy girls are not a trend, and this is something that's going to be continued through fashion. Do I feel like we've kind of come to a plateau? Not necessarily. But I do feel like there needs to be yet another big push. People are adding their token curvy model into their campaigns, but I'm ready for someone to come out and just wow us with something.

Would Victoria's Secret casting a plus-size model in their fashion show be the "big push" the industry needs? [Note: This interview took place before Victoria's Secret CMO Ed Razek faced backlash for telling Vogue that plus-size models do not have a place in the fashion show.]

Yeah, can you imagine if Victoria's Secret actually put a curvy girl in their runway show? It would be, to me, a very similar thing to Sports Illustrated putting a curvy girl on the cover. It would be a very similar reaction and I know that it could be possible, but it's just a matter of changing people's minds over there. So that's what I'm talking about. Where's that representation?

Every year, it seems like your fans campaign for you to be in the Victoria's Secret fashion show. If they ever offered you a pair of wings, would you consider?

I've just got to laugh. And this is actually why I created the Ashley Graham line for Addition Elle, my own lingerie show and line. I did that because there isn't sexy lingerie for curvy girls that's not only supportive, but you feel great in it and it lasts a long time. I laugh because I can't fit into Victoria's Secret anyway, so they'd have to make me custom panties. Custom panties and angel wings all at the same time!

At what point in your career did you finally feel embraced by the high-fashion world?

I think the cover of American Vogue was pretty impeccable. I shared it with top models and it was shot by top photographers. We had top hairstylists and makeup artists and we were all wearing custom Prada. I looked at the stylist and I was like, "These shorts are custom Prada?" I have never had custom anything from Prada in my entire life! And, at that point, I don't even think I owned anything Prada yet. And in that moment, I thought, "I have made it. I am officially a fashion girl." But I still don't fit into half of the fashion clothes, so we still have got to fix that!

It's been more than a year since the #MeToo movement began. As someone who's spoken out about experiencing sexual misconduct on set, how do you think the industry has changed in this current social climate?

I've seen a huge change on set. People are actually thinking about their actions and thinking about their words … If this #MeToo movement had not happened, who's to say what would happen to the next generation of girls? I really hope that it protects the next generation of young models. It has given such an incredible voice to women who have felt voiceless, especially as models, because we are the ones who immediately will not get booked for a job. Models are the ones whose careers can die immediately if you speak up about this kind of stuff. So now your career doesn't die, you have a voice and you can use it. And I hope more girls feel empowered by it.

Season two of American Beauty Star premieres on Lifetime Jan. 2 at 10 p.m. ET.