I met Chenese Lewis about a month ago at the POSH LA fashion event in Los Angeles. I knew who she was immediately–who doesn’t? I passed her in the hallway just outside the main room. She smiled at me and said, “I know you! You’re a blogger right? It’s so nice to finally meet you.” Then she gave a me big hug. I was astounded she knew who I was and even more surprised at her genuine positivity. I emailed her few weeks later to ask her for an interview, and she obliged. What I learned is that Ms. Lewis is a no nonsense southern belle with tons of ambition, a big message and an even bigger heart.
ME: You recently celebrated 5 years on the air with Plus Model Radio. How did the idea come about–how did it all start?
CL: Well I moved to LA to pursue a career in modeling and acting. But a couple of years after I got out here, somebody told me about hosting classes and maybe that was something I was interested in getting into to add to what I was already doing. So I went to the class and I loved it and I was great at it. And I was just looking for a way to practice my skills and find a platform for myself. So I approached Maddy with Plus Model Magazine. I was already part of the magazine as the empowerment editor. It was an easy sell. They said they had been thinking about that since podcasts were getting more and more popular. They just didn’t know who was a going to do it. The very first episode had over a thousand listeners. So it was successful from day one.
ME: That’s pretty amazing! On that note, what’s been your favorite interview so far?
CL: Hmmmm. That’s a tough one. I really like when I interview someone I look up to. I mostly interview people in the plus size community, but I also do interview celebrities. So when I can interview a celebrity I’ve admired, that’s really exciting. I’ve had the opportunity to interview Kimberly Locke from American Idol on the show. Also Emme and Mia Tyler. It was exciting that they were willing to do my podcast and second that I had the opportunity to use my platform to promote them as well. So it was a win win situation.
ME: Let me ask you about Love Your Body day and NOW (National Organization for Women). How did that idea come about?
CL: The Love Your Body Day concept came about way before I even got involved. After I moved to Los Angeles and I was looking for ways to promote myself, somebody mentioned to me that NOW had this event. So I did some research, went to the local chapter to join and it just so happened the Hollywood chapter, when they were brand new and forming, they were looking for people to take leadership roles to build the chapter. So I told them I was already doing things in the area of positive body image and empowering plus size women and that I wanted to be part of the Love Your Body Day initiative. They were like, that’s great. Anything you want to do we support you. So I created the event on my own and it went on for six years. It grew bigger and bigger every year. I had celebrity hosts. I had fashion shows. I don’t do it anymore, but Love Your Body Day still happens.
ME: Who have been some of your idols in Hollywood?
CL: I really look up to Oprah, as I’m sure everyone does. She inspires me not only with her business sense, but as a philanthropist as well. I love Queen Latifah as well and how she shaped her career as far as her size not being the forefront of her career. Because I’m heavy into the plus size community but I also like to do mainstream things even more. Because I’m plus size wherever I go. It doesn’t have to be a plus size event or focus. I just want to be able to do business and have opportunities like everybody else.
ME: Where do you see the future of plus size fashion in 5 years? We’ve already seen so many strides and have many more options than we did 5 or 10 years ago. Where do you see it going?
CL: I see it booming. There are still parts of the market that are untapped. There is still room for emerging designers. You know it’s still room to grow and be in the forefront and be in mainstream magazines. I think it’s going to continue to boom and continue to be a striving industry. I would also love to see more plus size women in leading roles. On TV and movies and we’re starting to see that now with Melissa McCarthy in lead roles. And she’s opening the door for more to happen—for more opportunities with her success. I’m an actor myself, so I’m always looking for projects and working on creating some as well.
ME: You are an ambassador for BEDA (Binge Eating Disorder Association). Why are you passionate about that?
CL: Well, the exposure I got from Love Your Body Day was so massive that it exposed me to new people and a new audience. I was my own PR person and I was able to get lots of press, especially in 2010 when I did the nude Love Your Body Day shoot with model Whitney Thompson. That skyrocketed and gave us international press. With the press coverage, one of the communities that discovered me was the eating disorder community. I already had a relationship with the (NEDA) National Eating Disorders Associationand I wanted to do more with them, but I guess they already had spokeswomen in place so they didn’t have a fit for me. So someone from the NEDA introduced me to the founder of BEDA (Binge Eating Disorder Association) and we immediately clicked. Not because I had the disorder, but just to be a positive role model. Prior to that I had no idea what binge eating was. I never had an eating disorder personally. One of the things that eating disorder stems from is lack of confidence and poor body image. When I found out that binge eating is the most common eating disorder among plus size women, I was shocked because prior to this I didn’t know a plus size women could have an eating disorder because I have such a strong plus size following. So this is actually something great to promote because it appeals to my demographic.
ME: Were you always a really confident person and comfortable with your body image?
CL: Always! I’m originally from Louisiana—I’m from the south so part of my environmentwas that they appreciate a fuller figure with the southern cuisine [she laughs]. I’m African-American so culturally we prefer a curvier more fuller shape. [And growing up] my parents didn’t belittle me because of my weight. ou know at a young age my mom told me I was smart and beautiful and that if anyone had anything negative to say about me, to ignore them. I remember her telling me that in elementary school, so it really impacted me. I was very blessed to be in a situation and an environment where I didn’t think anything was wrong with me because I didn’t have negative feedback. You only think something is wrong with you if somebody is telling you negative things. But if you don’t have anything to question you don’t have those feelings. So I never had those feelings. I got positive feedback in school—I was popular. I didn’t have negativity period.
ME: You were blessed. I know so many women who didn’t have that. They had parents who would comfort them with food and then the next minute tell them they needed to be on a diet. Between that and the messages we see in the media it’s hard. I really appreciate your story.
CL: I know I’m very blessed. Maybe that’s why I’m able to be such a good spokesperson for this area because I have so much confidence I have enough to share.
ME: Well, I love it! I know you travel a lot. How do you balance your personal life and your career?
CL: [She chuckles] It’s not really balance. I’m still young, I’m not married and I don’t have any kids. So I feel this is the prime time for me to focus on my career. I do want kids and a family in the future, but I’m only 33 years old. So I still have time.
ME: You have plenty of time. So, what do you have coming down the pipeline? What’s next for you?
CL: Well I have some major stuff coming up but I can’t give it a way just yet. But maybe in a couple of months.
ME: Can you give us a tiny little hint?
CL: Well it has something to do with television. So I should have a super-duper major exciting announcement. But besides that I’m always traveling, hosting plus size events, being a part of the
plus size community. And now I’m getting into the natural hair too. So that’s even more things added to my schedule. You know I just love to interact with people. I’m southern, so I never meet a stranger. I love to talk, shake hands and take pictures—just spread some positivity and love to everybody.