Zach Miko Broke Modeling Barriers, Then Came the Hard Work

Zach Miko Broke Modeling Barriers, Then Came the Hard Work

by Evan Ross Katz

Five years ago, with just above zero modeling experience under his belt, Zach Miko started generating headline after headline. He'd been signed by IMG, as the agency's first-ever plus-sized model, under their newly minted Brawn division. "The Plus-Size Modeling World Has a New Star: And It's a Guy," read a New York Times headline. Then 26, the Times declared Mike "the model of the moment." Vogueintroduced him to their readers as "the plus-size male model out to change the fashion industry." The expectations were grand, considering Miko's first gig — modeling for Target's Mossimo collection in September 2015 — was but a few months earlier. Prior to that, Miko was tending bar at Rockwood Music Hall in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Between his Target appearance going viral and his breaking barriers with his modeling contract, Miko was the man everybody wanted to talk to. Good Morning America, New York Magazine, People, Entertainment Tonight, Teen Vogue, The Guardian, Marie Claire and more all came calling. Everyone was clamoring to speak with the man who'd been unwittingly chosen to propel the fashion world, a notoriously body exclusionary industry, into a new era. To his credit, Miko rose to the occasion, seizing on the opportunity to shift the conversation around who gets to be part of the fashion industry.

Appearances on America's Next Top Model, the Dolce & Gabbana runway and Gap campaigns followed for Miko. He funneled his success into meaningful conversations on his podcast Big Things, which allowed him to have conversations with others making waves and pushing boundaries. Then the pandemic happened.

Below, a candid chat with Miko about his meteoric rise and the pressures that put on him, the expectation to keep body positivity positive and whether he thinks the industry is continuing to change.

Let me start by asking you how you're doing. How has COVID affected you both personally and professionally?

I'm doing well in COVID-adjusted terms. 2020 wasn't fun for anyone, but I've been really lucky to have way more quality time with my daughter than I ever thought I would. We are all happy and healthy, so I feel very lucky. Professionally, this pandemic has been really rough on the fashion industry in general, and even harder on the big and tall/men's plus industry. Shoots were shut down for more than half the year, and when shooting finally resumed again, big and tall shoots were hardest hit by brands' budget cuts. Thankfully, things have really picked back up and 2021 is looking very bright.

When you first signed with IMG in 2016 you made a ton of headlines for being the first plus-size male signed to a major contract. Obviously that must have been exciting, but did you feel any pressure at the outset?

I absolutely felt a lot of pressure. I had only ever done a few jobs before signing to IMG and was still learning how to model, then all of a sudden, I was the face of something so much bigger than myself. It was a real baptism by fire kind of moment. We had broken through and gotten all this press, but then it was time to do the work and get brands to actually sign on to this new "crazy" idea of using a plus sized guy to advertise plus sized clothes.

Have you felt or do you feel a pressure to represent plus-size men everywhere being that there are still so few in mainstream fashion? I imagine that has to be a burden in that all bodies are different and there is no one "plus-size" that fits all.

You bring up a really good point in that. I was lucky to be "the first" plus man in the fashion mainstream. However, there are a lot of times people will comment that they don't feel represented by me because I'm not big enough, or I'm too big, or I don't represent their identity, and well — they're totally right. I am by no means the be all, end all of what it means to be a plus male model. I may have been the first, but I by no means am the last. There are a ton of working plus male models now of all sizes, shapes and identities. Men's plus is still grossly under represented in the marketplace, but that is changing slowly but surely.

Did you have any reaction to this post from Jonah Hill? It felt like one of the few times a mainstream male celeb addressed body image, and in a meaningful way at that.

Oh my god, did I ever have a reaction. I reposted it, put it in my stories, and did an Instagram Live about it. Jonah Hill spoke a truth that every big guy holds deep in their core. I take my shirt off professionally and still have a knot in my stomach worrying about what people might say. I feel confident in who I am and I personally have vowed never to wear a shirt in the pool ever again, but still at any moment I know that 13-year-old Zach and his insecurities can come roaring back. Jonah Hill may never know how many guys he made feel seen with that post.

In what ways do you think the body positive movement is coming up short? From my perspective, I wish there was more room to address people who don't love their bodies and not making loving your body the end goal. For me, hating my body less has been the journey. Which I realize is a less marketable sentiment. But curious if you have any reaction to that?

I think one of the main pitfalls the body positive movement falls into is thinking that there is an end goal. Like you said, just hating your body a little less can be a huge step. There is no one way to be body positive. There have been times in my short career that I have weighed more, there are times that I have weighed less, I have felt great about how I looked and felt horrible about it. I see in our community sometimes people coming at others for losing weight, or gaining weight, almost as if changing your body in any way is somehow betraying the "body positive movement." I believe the movement is about accepting who you are and not hating yourself, no more no less. It's fine if you gain weight or lose weight, it's your body and no one else but you gets a say in how it looks or how you feel about it.

Do you ever feel a need to keep things positive? I feel like for many plus-size folks in the industry, because they're often boxed into the body positive movement (some by their own volition, I realize), there's this expectation to be warm and friendly and happy, and I bet that can be taxing.

So there's a phrase I use a lot that goes "No whining on the yacht." I am very lucky to be able to do what I do. Because of that, I do think I —and a lot of other people in the plus modeling community — feel the need to make sure we are always putting our best foot forward. I know that when I was feeling terrible about my body it would have been huge to have someone who looked like me being happy with who they are and loving themselves, so I think I want to make sure to be that guy for others. It can be taxing at times which is why I have done my best to make sure that while I'm doing my best to be positive, that I be honest too. It's okay to not be okay sometimes.

In the five years you've now been doing this, have you seen strides in terms of brands offering more size-inclusive offerings?

If you go from 2016 to now, the strides have been huge. For one, brands are using actually plus-size men to advertise men's plus clothing. We are seeing major brands like Gap, Nike and Lululemon using visibly plus men in their marketing. Brands are expanding their sizing to include larger ranges. But we still have a very long way to go. We won't be don't until all brands offer all sizes, but five to six years ago there wasn't a men's plus modeling industry, today there is.

You launched your podcast in Feb 2018 and produced a ton of great interviews, including with Jillian Mercardo, Barbie Ferreira and Marquita Pring among others. We haven't gotten a new episode since August 2019. Why'd you stop, and any chance you'll be back on the mic?

I can't tell you how excited I am that you are even asking this. I was so proud of my podcast. I had put the show on hiatus because of the impending birth of my daughter, Maggie. I wanted to take time to be with my new family. I had planned on resuming in the spring of 2020, but then COVID hit. The way I produced my show was I met with guests in their personal spaces, whether it was their home, or studio or office to try to have the most intimate and personal conversations possible. This model was impossible in a COVID world, so the hiatus sadly became indefinite. But I miss talking to people who inspire me in such an in depth way. I would absolutely love to bring back the show or even maybe create a new one. As more people have asked me about what happened to Big Things, I've thought more and more to retool it to a digital conversation, just like a little show I know called Shut Up Evan.

I think I've heard of that one. Tell me this: has this modeling journey been what you expected? Are there ways you were hoping it might have been different?

I mean I didn't even expect to be a model, so I guess the short answer is no. I don't think I had any real expectations. To be honest, the first year was spent in utter surprise that it was even happening. There have been a lot of highs and a lot of lows in my modeling journey. Sometimes I've felt on top of the world. Other times I felt crushed. I remember sitting in my seat flying to LA in order to be a guest judge on America's Next Top Model and feeling like a total fraud. Luckily I felt on top of the world again coming home from that same shoot. A career like mine has never existed before, so it's hard to compare it to anything else. You yourself wrote in an article for COOLS that "Miko was branded for a moment called 'the future' without a roadmap or help navigating the present." I never had a road map, but here I am, five years later, doing this interview in a hotel room where I'm shooting a campaign, and now I have worked for over 50 international brands.

What's one runway or campaign you'd love to see yourself in/on?

Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein.

Or five!

[Laughs] These were the great American designers that I knew were fashion before I was even in the fashion industry. These were the brands that epitomized classic American style when I was young and was merely a spectator to fashion. I think it would be such a great full circle moment in my life to be able to walk down a runway wearing the brands I never thought I could as a young man.

What are you most proud of, career-wise, over the last five years?

I am proud of being the first brawn model at IMG. I am proud to have done my first ever underwear shoot on America's Next Top Model. I am proud to have walked the iconic Swim Fashion Show in Sydney, Australia. I am proud to have starred in a Dolce & Gabbana campaign. I am proud to have seen my Gap campaign in lights above Piccadilly Circus. I am proud to have been on the cover of a catalogue alongside my father. I am proud every time I've opened PAPER or Vogue or Cosmo or WWD and seen my name or picture there. I am proud to have consulted a dozen brands on how to improve their fit for plus bodies. I'm proud for every time I've been the "first" for a brand. I am proud to have learned how to model by working alongside my idols like Ashley Graham, Tara Lynn, Georgina Burke, Marquita Pring and Chris Collins. More than anything I am proud that we proved it was possible. I am proud that now almost every major modeling agency in New York has a men's plus board. I am proud every time I see another plus male model star in a campaign. I am proud that young guys can now see models who represent them. I am so proud to be a member of this industry that has changed fashion and is going to continue to do so for years to come. Five years is a pretty short time, and sometimes it may feel like we haven't gone as far as we hoped, but if you really look back I think we have accomplished so much.

Any regrets?

I regret wearing just white dress shirt and a vest to a fashion show once. I looked like a middle school social studies teacher.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

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