American Apparel Can't Take a Fat Joke

Nancy Upton placed first in American Apparel's plus-sized contest but the company won't give her the win

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Players: Nancy Upton, a Dallas-resident and student who "entered" American Apparel's plus-sized model contest; Iris Alonzo, creative director for American Apparel

The Opening Serve:  This summer, American Apparel launched a search for plus-sized models to promote the XL sizing of some of their wares. "Calling curvy ladies everywhere! Our best-selling Disco Pant (and around 10 other sexy styles) are now available in size XL, for those of us who need a little extra wiggle room where it counts," the campaign read.  "We’re looking for fresh faces (and curvaceous bods) to fill these babies out. If you think you’ve got what it takes to be the next XLent model, send us photos of you and your junk to back it up... We’ll select a winner to be flown out to our Los Angeles headquarters to star in your own bootylicious photoshoot."  Upton, an SMU student , decided to call the company out on their play of words. "The puns, the insulting, giggly tones, and the over-used euphemisms for fat that were scattered throughout the campaign’s solicitation began to crystalize an opinion in my mind," wrote Upton in the Daily Beast.  "How offensive the campaign was... How apparently there were no words in existence to accurately describe the way American Apparel felt about a sexy, large woman, and so phrases like 'booty-ful' and 'XLent' would need to be invented for us—not only to fill this void in American vocabulary, but also make the company seem like a relatable [sic], sassy friend to fat chicks." Upton then entered the contest, sending photos of her bathing in ranch dressing, eating fried chicken in a pool, or gorging on cherry pie--a subversive spoof on the company's contest call.

The Return Volley:  Sites like Jezebel and Feministing hopped on the Upton love train.  And so did the voting public. Upton came in first and remained there until the contest closed, but was told last night that she didn't win. Iris Alonzo, creative director of American Apparel, sent her (and media outlets) an e-mail detailing her non-win. "Our only motive was to discover and celebrate the many beautiful XL women around the globe who enjoy our brand, and to promote the recent size additions to our collection. Nothing more, nothing less," Alonzo wrote. "It’s a shame that your project attempts to discredit the positive intentions of our challenge based on your personal distaste for our use of light-hearted language, and that 'bootylicous' was too much for you to handle. While we may be a bit TOO inspired by Beyoncé, and do have a tendency to occasionally go pun-crazy, we try not to take ourselves too seriously around here." Alonzo goes on to defend the "decision-makers" in the American Apparel company, over half of whom Alonzo says are women. "I can’t speak for everyone, but I can represent of a ton of people I know when I say that we really like Dov and we passionately believe in his vision for a beautiful factory with sustainable practices," she wrote. "A lot of people would be very sad if this company wasn’t around." Alonzo concludes, "Oh -- and regarding winning the contest, while you were clearly the popular choice, we have decided to award the prizes to other contestants that we feel truly exemplify the idea of beauty inside and out, and whom we will be proud to have representing our company."  The response must have surprised Upton, who predicted another outcome in her Daily Beast column. "Will I wake up to an email from the company in the next month offering me my first (and quite potentially only) professional modeling opportunity? Or will I get a phone call from someone who will explain they decided to go in a “different direction”?" She wrote. "I don’t really think either of those things will happen. I doubt that I will ever hear a response from American Apparel. And that’s just fine."

What They Say They're Fighting About: If the "Next Big Thing" contest was condescending and if Upton "exemplifies the idea of beauty inside and out."  Clearly both sides are split.

What They're Really Fighting About: American Apparel's history. Upton was certainly miffed with the language used in the contest, but it seems she was fighting something bigger here and the same goes for Alonzo's defense: the reputation of American Apparel and its CEO Dov Charney.  Whether it's the history of sexual harassment lawsuits, the controversy of their too-sexy marketing, the company's financial state, or the company's treatment of women--Alonzo seems to be spending a lot of effort describing the woman-powered corporate structure of her company for this to be just about a clumsy marketing in the plus-sized contest.

Who's Winning Now: Upton. Didn't she just win a contest that was voted on by the public? American Apparel might have been better-served swallowing its pride and giving Upton the win, or maybe issued an apology for the clunky advertisements. Sure she would have said no, but that must be better than looking vindictive.  The company's reputation, already mired in controversy, isn't going to change anyone's minds with this decision and just reaffirms the negative thoughts critics already have about the company.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.