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Photo by Chris Smith
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Amy Lemons, wearing one of the dresses she designed, talks about her modeling career while relaxing at Caffespresso on Gaskins Road. Photo by Chris Smith
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Sporting a boyish haircut in fourth grade, Lemons (left) poses with best friend Alden Ramsey. Photo provided by Amy Lemons.
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Lemons gets the current lowdown on high school from Collegiate School soccer players. Photo by Chris Smith.
Supermodel Amy Lemons enjoys kicking around a soccer ball as much as she loves eating her father's homemade Italian dinners. At 30, the former Richmonder takes pride in her healthy appearance and her size 8 frame even if it means she's now considered a "curvy" model.
At 5-foot-11, Lemons is a fresh, natural beauty with an outgoing personality, a head for business and a heart for helping those who may be vunerable to mistreatment. Since beginning her modeling career at age 14, she has graced the covers of Italian Vogue, British Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Elle and Marie Claire. She has appeared in a variety of national ad campaigns, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren Polo and Louis Vuitton.
A sought-after model, Lemons also advocates for models' rights. She serves as an advisory board member for The Model Alliance , founded by supermodel Sara Ziff in 2011. The nonprofit organization aims to improve working conditions and treatment of models.
"I feel really passionate about it because I lived through it," Lemons says, recalling some marathon shoots with no breaks for lunch and insufficient time for rest, along with pressure to go on extreme weight-loss diets.
"Modeling is the wild, wild West," she says. "There are no rules. There are terrible things that can happen to girls if they are not protected legally. I look at it as a labor issue."
The Model Alliance aims to establish standards such as not using girls younger than 16 on the runway. During Fashion Week in New York this year, the group started an initiative to ensure that models can have privacy when changing clothes. The group is supporting the Freelancer Payment Protection Act to help protect freelance models from wage theft.
Lemons also hopes the alliance can help change the expectation that most runway models must fit into a size zero to 2. "At 17, they tell you a certain number you have to have in measurements but give you no idea how to get to those measurements," she says. "They don't give you positive ways to do it healthfully."
As an advocate for healthier work standards in the fashion industry as well as a more realistic portrayal of women's bodies in ads, Lemons was scheduled to join a panel discussion on April 20 as part of the Fashion Law Institute's second annual symposium at Fordham Law School in New York.
When she was young, Lemons and her family lived on Kennondale Lane off Cary Street Road and then moved to Ashland. Tall, lanky, broad-shouldered and agile, she was a student-athlete at Collegiate School, playing varsity soccer, lacrosse and field hockey.
"I had no interest in modeling," she says. It was the secretary in her orthodontist's office who suggested Lemons think about modeling as a career.
Her mother, Carol, says she didn't consider Amy the modeling type. "She was pretty, but she was always a tomboy." Her father, Donald Lemons, a Virginia Supreme Court justice, also was surprised at the mention of modeling. He remembers when 5-year-old Amy announced that she was not going to wear a dress for the rest of her life. All of that changed when she was 13 1/2 and made a call to her father's office with a request. "She said, ‘Dad, I would like to get a dress,' " he recalls. "I canceled all my appointments to take her to the mall to get a dress. She bought three dresses. Almost two years later, she was on the cover of Italian Vogue."
Stacie Vanchieri, president of Richmond-based Modelogic [Wilhelmina], signed Lemons when she was 14 and still works with her as her "mother agent," overseeing her career.
"Amy is the kind of girl you wait for," Vanchieri says. "Her look was in at the moment. I sent her picture to agencies in New York and had a huge response. Everybody wanted to meet with her."
That kind of feedback was unusual, she adds. "Usually you have to beg to get girls to be seen. There is always something missing, but Amy had everything — the height, face, skin — and a supportive family."
After Modelogic arranged visits with several agencies in New York, Lemons signed with IMG, one of the top international modeling agencies. Her changeable looks — think freckled beach beauty or Scandinavian siren — immediately caught the eye of American fashion photographer Bruce Weber, who was shooting an ad campaign for Abercrombie & Fitch on the University of Virginia campus.
"It all started as a fun ride," Lemons says.
During the summer of her sophomore year in high school, Lemons and her mother went to New York and London, where she was singled out by iconic fashion photographer Steven Meisel, who shot her for the cover of Italian Vogue. "Everything took off after that," her mother says. "She did [high fashion] shows in Milan and New York."
Lemons' parents supported her new career but made it clear that school always came first. "She was very proactive in schoolwork," says Carol Lemons, who recently retired from teaching kindergarten at Collegiate. "Her first season in Milan, she did a Versace show and instead of [going to] the party, she stayed in the hotel room and worked on her questions about The Scarlet Letter for her English teacher."
During her early career, Lemons continued participating in sports, coordinating games with her modeling schedule. She would play soccer on a Friday afternoon and walk the runway in New York that night. Bill Rider, the varsity girls' soccer coach at Collegiate, introduced Lemons to the current team when she visited Richmond in late March and dropped in on a practice session. While she chatted with the team, Rider recalled her as "an incredible goal scorer," adding, "I'm not sure she could dribble 50 yards, but if you put her and the ball anywhere near the goal, it was going in."
In Lemons' senior year, she modeled as much as she could. After graduating, she moved to an apartment in New York City. By the time she was 18, her lanky teen frame was filling out, blossoming into a size 6.
"That wasn't accepted on the runways," she says. "When you are taller, you have to be thinner because the camera adds five pounds." At the time, the fashion industry was pushing for models to be thinner and thinner. "I tried dieting for a short time but realized it wasn't working. I didn't feel comfortable being that thin. I didn't want to compromise myself or my values [with] an eating disorder for the business. I also recognized this was negatively affecting women's personas in general."
Frustration set in when she couldn't fit into the clothes she was given to try on. "She would go to Paris and do the shows," her mother says. "That was very difficult for her. The French are not always kind."
Lemons says that she was encouraged to eat less. "I felt like I was compromising who I was. I wasn't being true to myself. I had to get away from the pressure and find out who I am."
At 23, Lemons, who was at the top of her game in the fashion industry, stepped away from modeling and moved to California to attend UCLA; she graduated in 2010 with a degree in history. "It was a godsend for me," she says. "I got into my studies and found myself."
Vanchieri recognized Lemons' strong sense of self when they first met. "She was able to recognize what was happening to her," the Modelogic president says. "She was on request for the biggest jobs. She walked away from it. She loved the business but wanted to do it on her own terms."
Lemons' father was pleased with her decision. "Amy's personality is not as compliant as some," he says. "If she sees something wrong, she will tell you. That's not an attitude shared by a lot of other models."
After she graduated from UCLA, Ford Models asked her to come back and become a "mid-size" model. She worked with Ford until she signed with Wilhelmina Curve in March. "It's frustrating that people don't understand what midsize or plus-size means in the market," she says. "It's a huge market that I didn't know existed."
In 2009, Lemons and several other supermodels posed nude for Glamour magazine to show off their beautiful "mid-size" and "plus-size" bodies. "I became a poster child for this new revolution of pushing back against the size zero standard," Lemons says, noting that she talked about the Glamour photo on the Ellen and Oprah shows. "I felt like different-size women need to be represented in magazines. Women want something real and relatable."
Now living in Charlottesville and commuting to New York, Lemons is still jetting off to fashion shoots in locations such as Miami, New Orleans, London and Cape Town, South Africa. Her face can be seen in ads and fashion layouts for stores such as Macy's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom.
She continues her athletic endeavors, snowboarding and hiking whenever she can. She is also in the midst of writing a model manual for young girls and designing a clothing line called Lemons for taller girls who are curvier. She took a sewing class and learned how to make sample dresses and skirts, using vintage lace pieces and fabric rummaged from bins at shops like Mood Designer Fabrics in New York as well as "recut" dresses from runway shows. A tailor helped her finish some of the details.
"I already have five samples," she says. "I'll do a show and viewing in Charlottesville this summer with dresses." Lemons also hopes to have items available in some of her favorite Richmond stores, such as Roan, Pink and Need Supply.
As part of her advocacy role, Lemons talks with high-school and college-age young women. She tells them to "have a realistic idea of who you are. Never compromise your values. You have to be incredibly thick-skinned and know your end goal and what you want to do in this business. You also have to have a great support system outside of the industry."
Lemons' parents are her support system. Her father sees her as not only beautiful but also a young woman of great character and good judgment. "I'm proud of that more so than the superficial attractiveness you see on the printed page," he says.
She is also proud to be who she is. "Plus size, straight size," Lemons says. "I am just my size."