Our Interview with Russian Model Katya Zharkova
Katya Zharkova is a plus model from Russia. She was born in a small city called Smolensk, and she grew up in Moscow. Katya started modeling at age fourteen, and still models today at almost thirty years old. She graduated from Moscow University of Art and Culture as a TV producer. She created shows on Russian TV. Her friends advised her to go to a casting call for a TV show in Moscow and she got a second job as a TV presenter. She hosted a show where she helped women love themselves. Before coming to the United States, Katya worked with Russian and European designers. She decided to come to Los Angeles, and signed a contract with Wilhelmina agency and moved to New York. She has worked with Forever 21, Silver Jeans, Pure Energy, Cabi, Avenue, Macys, MC Patterns, Ulla Poken, and Fashion To Figure. Now, she is working on an autobiography – it’s a story about a plus-size model traveling all over the world.
Please tell us how you started your career as a model?
My mom is a photographer. I wasn’t the prettiest newborn, and my grandmother always use to say that I would turn from an ugly duckling into a swan. My mom use to take pictures of me every day thinking that it would help me become prettier. When I was nine, somebody told my mom you have a very cute boy, she decided I should be acting. So, I got the role of a girl who wasn’t very attractive, and every day she sat down in front of the mirror trying to persuade herself she was the most beautiful and charming person in the world. At the end of the movie, she really blossoms into this beautiful thing. That taught me to do the same thing in real life. Later in life, my friend took me to a modeling agency, and the first thing they told me was that they would accept me only if I lost weight and they gave me six months. I tried but didn’t succeed, and in 1997, they opened a plus-size department in her agency. Since then, some of the designers in my town started sewing a plus-size line especially for me. That made me realize I could be on the covers of major magazines and every boy at school who was teasing me about being fat was wrong! At one of the runway shows, I was seen by the editors of Moscow Fashion Magazine and moved to Moscow to work for them and study at the University.
Did you always dream of modeling and why?
My dream started in childhood when I believed in myself and thought I was beautiful, but boys were saying I was fat. I was never skinny, and I liked the fact that I was healthy. I wish there were more people like me on the covers of major magazines–healthy and confident! I want young girls to eat properly without starving themselves just because being skinny is in fashion. I want all the runway models to be size 8-16 and not 0-6. I want plus-size modeling to be popular in fashion all over the world along with the skinny models.
What do you think people would find most surprising about modeling?
There are no real rules in modeling; you never know what will happen tomorrow. You can be very talented with a great portfolio and a great body, but there are millions of beautiful and talented people. You have to be very lucky to get the job. It’s the way things happen. Modeling is a very tough job and you have to be at the right time at the right place.
Did modeling come naturally to you?
I think I blossomed thanks to my beautiful photos that say a lot! I want people to realize that you can be beautiful no matter what size you are. It’s very important to love yourself the way you are!
What did you study while attending Moscow State University?
At the University of Art and Culture, I studied acting, filmmaking, and producing. I use to work and study at the same time, but my mom was always strict with me regarding my education. If I wouldn’t get a degree, she wouldn’t let me go to the United States, so it’s thanks to my mom that I successfully graduated with a degree in Organization of Student Festivals, and wrote a thesis called “Education of young people through TV media”. As I was an experienced model by that time, I was able to work as a host of one of the shows and viewers were happy to see a healthy and beautiful woman. I think the fact that I was plus size made me unique and it also helped me believe that one day I will be on the cover of major fashion magazine.
When you made the decision to move to NYC, what would you say was the biggest culture shock? Did you know how to speak English?
I moved to NY in a rush. I was already living in Los Angeles and working at Wilhelmina. I was enjoying a slow and relaxing way of life–swimming in the ocean and studying English. On the 29th of September, I got an email form Ameerah (she works at Wilhelmina in NYC), and she told me she really liked me and would love to represent me, but that I would have to move to NYC in order to work with her. We discussed it with my LA agent Tricia, and she told me I should definitely go. I already worked with the big labels like Forever 21, Pure Energy, Silver Jeans, and Cabi, so moving to NYC seemed quite logical and it was kind of the next step in my career. So, I rented a car and drove all the way to New York, thinking I must be crazy but that I was reaching my dream. I had a funny incident on the way to New York. I ran out of gas in Philadelphia, so I left the car and had to walk two miles to the nearest gas station. Right after I walked out of the car, I saw a police officer looking at me with a smile and asking me what has happened and if he could help; that was like a scene from a movie. That was a real shocker! He drove me all the way to the gas station and then back leaving with the words, “Welcome to Philadelphia!” All I said was, “I Love you America!”
What do you miss most about your homeland, Russia?
My entire family lives in Russia, and I really miss them. I miss my mom, my niece, my brothers, and my husband. I have a huge family but thanks to Skype, I can see everybody I miss every single day.
What do you love most about living in NYC?
I love the weather in New York; it changes quite fast. Everybody is extremely friendly, and you can say hi to hundreds of people and everybody will react positive.
What would you say is the best advice you have been given, in terms of your career as a model?
Never postpone anything for tomorrow! Love yourself the way you are and people will start loving you. Never give up and all you dreams will come true.
What has been your most memorable modeling experience and why?
So far, the most memorable experience for me was the first shoot abroad–the shoot for the Elena Miro’s magazine. It was shot in Egypt. We were shooting the Spring/Summer collection, and I couldn’t speak English at all. It was a week in a sunny Egypt and my first modeling experience outside of Russia–I was crying from happiness. I realized that my dream came true, and I’m on the cover!
Do you feel plus modeling is helping redefine beauty?
I do believe that plus-size modeling has redefined all the usual beauty standards. It’s very important to live in harmony, be yourself, and do what you love the most. You have to be confident and that’s the only reason I’m here in America right now. I don’t want my kids to ever experience what I went through. Every time I go shopping in Moscow, it’s impossible for me to find anything in my size, especially if it’s something trendy and fashionable. Size 8 is usually the biggest size they carry. My husband and I, once tried to purchase jeans in my size and the shop assistant offered me a men’s model. Of course, we laughed and didn’t take it seriously, but can you imagine how many young girls went through the same issue, thinking, “I’m so big that there are no jeans for me”. And that kills your confidence, society and media creates insecurity for people who are bigger than size 8. That’s how young girls become depressed. I’m strong, but even I had issues trying to find myself and it wasn’t easy.
Have you ever suffered from body image issues? If so, what advice would you give to young girls and women who are currently struggling?
We worry about the way we look because we are trying to find love. We want to be liked. Unfortunately, the reflection in the mirror won’t help you find happiness. If you have a strong personality, and if you can laugh and enjoy yourself, people will accept you the way you are. Also, you might think that skinny and beautiful women are happy, that’s not always true. I know so many examples that contradict that. I know so many beautiful Russian celebrities who are miserable in their life! When I ask my husband how he fell in love with me, being so big and not perfect, he doesn’t even understand what I’m talking about. I’m the most perfect person in the whole world for him and the only thing that he remembers when he first met me was my laugh. I truly love to smile. So my advice is the more you laugh the better.
What do you wish you would have known in high school?
My dream from my childhood finally came true, and I see all the boys from school grow up. I see what kind of girls they like now and they realize I’m not fat at all anymore. I would love to have known that in school. Though, I did believe that being slightly bigger than others would help me in life.
Where you ever teased or bullied?
I was teased at school; they used to call me a train and I never understood that. Can I be that huge?
Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?
Would love to be at the Oscars with one in my hands
What is your dream job as a model?
The cover of US Vogue–impossible sometimes can be possible.
On a day off, what would your perfect day consist of?
If I was able to meet up with my friends and enjoy the weekend in a great mood – that means it was a perfect day! Also, I love dancing – it’s always fun!
What is a fun fact about you?
I’m far from perfect when it comes to speaking English and because of that, many of the things that I say generate much laughter among my friends, many times unintentional. But I’m very sincere and emotional, so everybody understands me.
Is there something you have always wanted to learn or try, but haven’t yet?
I want to learn skydiving; one day I’ll do it!
We love your Silver Jeans shots! Please tell us about your experience modeling for Silver Jeans?
I really loved their concept. It’s basically friends on vacation. It was just like my weekends in real life. Talented people around you–jokes, guitar, dancing, and lots of fun. I grew up with my older brother and he always used to invite friends to our parent’s country house; that was a lot of fun. That’s what I experienced again at the Silver jeans shoot. That was a reminder that my dreams were meant to come true, and I was there despite the fact that I’m size 10-12. I was with three beautiful American boys, three skinny models, and me Katya Zharkova, a plus-size model. What else do you need to become happy? Pair of comfortable jeans and real friends close to you.
Do you have a favorite pair of jeans?
My favorite pair of jeans are waiting for me in LA. I was in such a rush when I was moving to New York that I forgot them at my friend’s place. They are light blue in color and they are vintage in look now. They are completely ripped at the knees; that means they went through a lot and you have to respect that. Hopefully, I will be able to get them back soon.
Where so you love to shop for clothes?
I like really unique things and my taste is very eclectic. Clothes reflect your mood and also remind you of the favorite moments of your past. That’s why I kept a lot of pieces that remind me of certain things in my life. When I shop, I usually look for something special. Something that my girlfriend would never pick–something that will show my unique style and reflect my personality. Shopping in the US is amazing because there is a great variety of things in my size and that lets you experiment and find the new you. And, that makes it so interesting.
Who is your style icon?
I would say Marilyn Monroe is a style icon because of her Hollywood glamour and a breezy sensuality.
What is your go-to outfit?
Black leather jacket, a pair of dark blue jeans, and of course, a pair of high heels. Russian girls love high heels.
What are your must-haves in your make-up bag?
I always have waterproof mascara. You never know what can happen, so you always want your eyelashes to be at their best! Powder, blush, and, the most important thing–pink lipstick.
Where is your favorite place to snowboard?
I think the mountains of Vancouver are the best place to go snowboarding!
What do you love about yourself and why?
I like the fact that I can enjoy life. I can wake up in the morning and say, “Life I love you”. I can walk around the city, enjoying every moment of it
How do you stay healthy and fit?
Every morning, I eat oatmeal; I also do yoga twice a week–that’s my secret to beauty.
What are you excited about right now?
I’m really excited about going to Seattle, and working for Nordstrom’s. I’ve seen Seattle in so many movies; I would love to see it in real life. And, I’m always looking forward to work!
*Thank you, Katya!