Photo: Tommy Chung

The 16th season of Project Runway marked a major milestone: For the first time, fuller-figured models were featured alongside the typical high-fashion body types on the show’s weekly runway. One of those models was Liris Crosse, who would ultimately become the winner of the franchise’s modeling competition after slaying the runway week after week, often salvaging otherwise questionable designs with her signature walk.

LOAW Model

Of course, anyone already familiar with Crosse wasn’t surprised. Full disclosure: We first met as newbies to the industry at Wilhelmina Models. At the time, Crosse was still in high school, and the plus market was still relegated to the margins of the fashion industry. For black models, the market was even smaller.

But even then, her star quality was undeniable. Crosse quickly became known as the “Naomi Campbell of Plus” for her command of the runway and striking beauty. So to see her quickly—and rightfully—rise to the top of the pack of last season’s models on Project Runway felt like long-overdue praise for one of the plus industry’s longest-running success stories. For Crosse, it felt the same, as she told The Glow Up:

I’ve been around for over a decade, and people [were] like, “Oh my God! Look at the new model, Liris!” I’ll take it, but it’s also like, “Well, you may think it’s an overnight thing, but it ain’t easy. It’s been a journey.”

Now with Dorothy Combs Models, Liris has come a long way since leaving her home city of Baltimore in pursuit of a modeling career. In a career field known for its brevity, to still be working—and achieving new milestones like her success on Runway—is no small feat.

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“But I still tell people that modeling is an art form, and I still practice,” she tells us. “I still work on my walk, I still work on my poses in front of the mirror as if I’m a girl just graduated from high school and moved to New York. I just have a big love for modeling and I respect the art form of it—I’m a model’s model.”

Photo: Caleb and Gladys

Crosse’s career arc began like many models’ do, when she was a little girl obsessed with beauty and fashion. But her first encouragement came while she was still in elementary school, when her father arranged for his family to take part in a campaign shoot while he ran for Congress. After watching her “ham it up” in front of the camera, the photographer told Crosse’s parents that their daughter was photogenic enough to model. “That was the seed [that] was planted,” she told us. “That someone saw my modeling potential.”

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After that early bit of encouragement, Crosse threw herself into learning the modeling world, telling us: “I would do my hair. I would walk around the kitchen with my mama’s heels on. I would read books on fashion. I was obsessed with Paris Fashion Week, New York Fashion Week, Milan Fashion Week. I would devour Fashion TV and think I was Naomi and Tyra, watching them on TV doing the shows ... ”

Crosse’s dedication paid off when she landed a modeling contract with international agency Wilhelmina while still in her teens. Over the next decade, her career would take her around the world, earning her spots in major editorials, campaigns and music videos and even acting roles, like her appearance in the memorable bachelor party scene in 1999’s The Best Man.

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Crosse’s longevity and barrier-breaking work in the industry—including becoming one of the first plus models to garner multipage spreads in Essence and Seventeen magazines—eventually led her to another opportunity: teaching.

Five years ago, observing the rise of the “Instagram model” and the abandonment of many of the professional standards needed to survive in the industry, Crosse designed a model boot camp titled “Life of a Working Model” to offer guidance to aspiring models. “[It] was something I wanted to do for years,” she said. “But I was afraid no one would show up.” Ironically, her first session attracted so many registrants that she had to book a bigger room.

It ended up being an amazing experience, and still is, because as much as I am pouring into the women, just seeing how their light bulbs come on, or how after the boot camp [they] go on and really go after their dreams—those are the moments that make me feel like a proud model mother. That makes me feel as though I impacted the next generation with quality tools, honest dialogue and real experience; I’m known for giving it to them raw and real.

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Open to women of all ages, sizes, heights and races, Crosse says, the curriculum is “a life class meets a modeling class.” Graduates of her traveling boot camp have gone on to walk runway shows in Paris and Full Figured Fashion Week and have been signed by major agencies.

And then there are those who quickly realize how much they don’t know about the industry and what it entails. Crosse is quick to clue them in:

I tell the women to definitely do some research. Find out some of the models who paved the way for you. ... Find out the people who made your rise—even though it still may be hard—a lot easier. Learn how they handled the business of fashion. Learn about their professionalism.

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Understandably, “Life of a Working Model” has been on hold since Crosse’s tenure and subsequent win on Project Runway, which brought a renewed wave of success and attention—as well as new clients and bookings. Notably, her winning quality got the attention of casting directors who asked her to strut her stuff in a recent commercial for the 15th installment of the popular video game “Final Fantasy.” For Crosse, who was previously animated for the 2007 video game “Def Jam: Icon,” it’s another barrier-breaking accomplishment.

They are defying the odds in having me be a part of it. I’m a plus-sized model; that’s defying the odds. And I’m a black model; that’s defying the odds. ... I mean, how many times do you see black, plus-sized bodies promoting video games?

Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire

So, what’s next for Crosse? In addition to rebooting her boot camps, she’s now writing and self-publishing a book called Make the World Your Runway, translating her Project Runway swagger into a primer on self-esteem.

I take principles that I use on the runway and to prepare for the runway, and [show] how you can implement it into your everyday life. You can make the world your runway, too. ... You never know who you’re going to meet or how you’re presenting yourself, so it’s kind of taking the runway confidence that a lot of people said they loved on Project Runway and putting it in a book.

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If it sounds as if Crosse has got a lot on her plate, she has. But it’s the kind of multifaceted grind that is a constant for models with decadeslong careers—like her early idol, Naomi Campbell. And as the opportunities keep rolling in, Crosse is approaching them with the same grace she does the runway.

People have grabbed me on streets ... taken pictures with me at church, and I have not one problem with it, because guess what? It could all be so different. So I appreciate the love. ... So many people who started when I did are no longer around, but I’m still here. And I know I’m here for a purpose, and I’m just gonna keep trying to live it out.

The Glow Up tip: You can follow Liris Crosse at lirisc.com and @lirisc on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Make the World Your Runway is available for preorder now.