Nancy UptonLook up the word “irony” in the dictionary right now and you just might see the logo of clothing retailer American Apparel (AA). The company, often at the center of controversy, sponsored an online contest recently in an attempt to repair its fractured public image. The result? A big ol’ bite in the butt for AA.

The contest, dubbed “The Next BIG Thing,” was a search for a plus-size model to help advertise the retailer’s new extended sizes. A public vote would determine a grand prize winner, and AA would select the model from among the top 10 choices. Both the extended sizes and the contest were in response to accusations of sizeism and sexism within AA.

The contest, however, along with its marketing, only attracted further negative attention. Kelsey Wallace, Web editor for feminist magazine Bitch, explains,

The contest itself, which asks readers to vote on their favorite XL models, is rife with questionable language (‘booty-ful,’ for starters) and creepy caps (‘the next BIG thing’). In fact, the whole deal has a creepy vibe, complete with a ranking system (women can score between a 1 and 5) and the overall weirdness that is women competing to model for American Apparel, even though they likely know full well that they’ll have to pose for problematic photo shoots and possibly end up suing their boss for harassment if they win. So yeah, it’s dicey.

AA also wasn’t counting on Nancy Upton. The 24-year-old, size-12 model decided to enter the contest with satirical photos to poke fun at the entire contest as well as AA’s language and approach to the search. Upton’s entry featured her in a series of photos involving food because, as Upton says, tongue-in-cheek, “I just couldn’t stop eating.” The pictures also parodied the soft-core porn approach of AA’s typical photo spreads.

One photo, shown here in this blog post, depicts Upton posing on a dining room table on a bed of lettuce with an apple in her mouth, mimicking a roast pig served up for dinner. Other photos show her drenched in salad dressing and lying in a bathtub, in a swimming pool gnawing on a chicken wing, covered in pie, or doused in chocolate syrup.

When Upton actually won the contest, beating nearly 1,000 other entrants, it was AA who had egg on its face. Upton had already publicly stated she wouldn’t accept the prize if it was offered to her, however, because she does not agree with the company’s business practices.

Still, Iris Alonzo, AA creative director and co-creator of the campaign, sent an email to Upton and copied members of the media. The letter started off alright, but veered straight into the territory of rude and unprofessional with this sentence:

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.

If that’s not a lesson for companies to not allow non-PR folks to handle media exposure, I don’t know what is. Since then, Alonzo has said she received both positive and negative feedback — mostly the latter — to her email. Meanwhile, Upton was also praised by some, and painted by others as the stereotypical “sad/angry fat girl.”

AA has now offered to fly Upton and her photographer friend, Shannon Skloss, who took her spoof pictures, out to its headquarters in Los Angeles to tour the factories and meet with its creative team. Alonzo has also apologized to Upton. Unfortunately, AA’s recovery attempts regarding its “BIG” contest might be too little, too late.

Source: “American Apparel’s Next XL Top Model,” Bitch, 09/07/11
Source: “Breaking: American Apparel officially responds to plus-sized model search winner Nancy Upton (and it ain’t booty-ful),” Culture Map Austin, 09/13/11
Source: “American Apparel Creative Director: ‘I’m Not a Mean Girl’,” Adages (Advertising Age blog), 09/16/11
Source: “American Apparel Caves to Plus-Size Protester, Flying Her Out for Meeting,”, 09/19/11
Source: “American Apparel Snubs Plus-Size Model Contest Top Vote-Getter,” ABC News, 09/15/11
Image of Nancy Upton by Shannon Skloss, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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