Betsy Teske, the First Plus-Size Model to Walk Alexander McQueen, Dreams of Being in a Victoria's Secret Fashion Show

Two years ago, model Betsy Teske, then a law student, laid down $300 to enter a modeling contest. “I’m not going to say the name, because I don’t want to give them credit,” she told me recently. Though a couple of agents expressed interest, not much came from the competition—until she returned home and connected with what would eventually become her agency: Linda Models, a boutique firm based in Almere, the Netherlands. She embarked on a year of test shoots and preparations before landing in London, shooting a Vogue editorial with Camilla Nickerson, and eventually being selected to walk the Alexander McQueen Spring 2018 show—which was both Teske’s runway debut and the first time that a plus-size model appeared on the McQueen runway.

The response to Teske’s debut—she walked alongside Eline Lykke, a Norwegian curve model, as well as Lady Jean Campbell, Lexi Boling, Vittoria Ceretti, and Rianne van Rompaey—was swift and enthusiastic, earning headlines in Vogue, i-D, and a host of British tabloids. A few months later, Sarah Burton asked Teske to return for the brand’s Fall 2018 show. Now, Teske, 21, has put her law-school career on hiatus to pursue modeling full-time and allow her to bounce between her native Amsterdam, London, and New York. Thanks to the platform granted by back-to-back Alexander McQueen shows, more and more brands have begun to invite her to castings—even though, when she started out just two years ago, she was assured there would be no work for her on the runway.

When I met Teske, on an early March afternoon in New York, she had just wrapped up a shoot for W’s spring solstice astrology portfolio. We sat down in the lobby at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where she excitedly noted she had seen her first McQueen look on a garment rack upstairs: “I was like, ‘Oh, my god, that’s mine,’” she said, laughing, with the softest trace of a Dutch accent. “Even in the pair of shoes I wore, it still says, ‘Betsy look.’” Five months out from that fateful first show, we discussed size diversity on the runway and what has changed since she earned Sarah Burton’s stamp of approval.

Do you remember the first time you met Sarah Burton?

I did Vogue, and Camilla Nickerson was so amazed by me, she told Sarah Burton, “Oh, yeah, this girl, you have to look at her.” So they brought me in. I was at Gare du Nord in Paris when my agent called me. Normally, she talks like, “Oh, yeah, la la la,” always very calm, but this time she called me and was like, “Betsy, oh my God.” I was like, “What’s going on?” She’s like, “You’re going to do, maybe, Alexander McQueen.” [squeals] The next week I came back; she seemed to like me, and then she told me, “I’ll see you in Paris,” and I was like, “Does this mean I’m confirmed?” Then I did the show—and everything exploded. Now, all the other brands want to do castings with me. I’m standing between all these straight-size models being the only curvy. I’m like, [pulls a face] “What?”

So that was your first runway show, right?

Yeah. It was crazy. As a curvy model, you never walk on the catwalk. They basically tell you when you sign to an agency, you can try, but you’re never going to. It’s the reality, and I’m being honest. But then, they told me, you’re going to do it. So I had catwalk training for two full days before the show, and I just walked—the whole day, you could hear, clunk, clunk, clunk, clunk, which was me just walking. I had someone help me—a girl that has worked for McQueen a long time—and she was like, bigger steps, bigger steps. It was very different from what you see in other shows, because McQueen is very different, very tough. So it wasn’t as dainty and pretty as the other castings or shows.

Because it is still, unfortunately, not that common that models who are not straight sizes appear on runways, after that show, there was a huge response. It was the first time for McQueen; it’s not that common in general. Did you anticipate that response?

Yes. We were excited. We were like, “What? What is happening?” I mean, it’s logical that would happen, and I think, in a way, it’s also disappointing that there was such a positive backlash, because if it’s something that happens all the time, there wouldn’t be feedback. So I’d rather just have people go, “Okay,” instead of, “Oh, my God.” I’m happy it was for me, but for the general curvy market, I hope it’s calm, more. I hope they’re going to use curvy models more.

I’ve spoken with people who sort of bristle at the idea that there are models, and then there are curvy models. Do you feel like that?

This is something that changes for me every day. At the moment, I think for the designers, it’s very useful to have a separation, because if you’re designing for a straight-size model and a curvy model comes in and you have made clothes for a straight-size model, it’s going to be a problem. But definitions are definitions. You have to call people what they are—this is a laptop, this is a phone, this is a cup, but we have to have more laptops. We have to have more curvy models. I’m not saying we should ban straight-size models, because there are also girls who are naturally that size, but let’s make curvy models more pronounced.

Keeping them in separate categories might also reinforce the same structures that have, so far, kept women who are not straight sizes off the runway.

Yeah, but when I meet people, they don’t call me a curvy model. They just say, “Oh, we have models,” but before you choose someone, you address them as curvy so designers know what’s going on. So I don’t think it’s a bad thing; it’s just calling them what they are. I’m curvy. I’m not straight-size. That’s just life. It might be better to have straight-size models and curvy models and have something in front—not just “models,” because then, it’s like, this is normal. But I don’t really care that much, honestly.

So then, you walked McQueen again this season. How did it happen a second time?

Yes! [claps] I think they just were like, “Oh, yeah, we want Betsy again.” It was better this time, because I had the fitting, and what normally happens with me going to a fitting, or to anything, really—to a casting—they have the straight-size clothing and they put it on my body and it doesn’t fit because my boobs are here. [laughs] This time, when I went to the casting, they had my shape already, so they had a dress that fit—that actually fit. So it might be easier for designers to have more, because then, they have my shape, and they’ll get another curvy model and have their shape. So if they come in for a fitting, it isn’t stressing out, what does she have to wear, how does it fit?

There was this huge response in October. Did you notice a difference in the response to you doing it a second time?

I haven’t noticed a response—that was the big difference. So that’s good. It normalizes it. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, there’s Betsy.” I’m in the summary. “She’s doing it; she’s doing it; Betsy’s doing it”—it’s not like, “She’s doing it—and there’s a curvy model. Her name is Betsy. This is amazing.” Worse for me, better for the curvies.

What’s your next dream project?

Well, my dream is Victoria’s Secret, but it’s never going to happen. When you read what the designers at Victoria’s Secret say, they want “strong models,” so if I ever want to… I mean, Ashley Graham doesn’t do Victoria’s Secret, even though she’s up there, of all the curvy models. So I hope they’re going to add someone, and it doesn’t have to be me, but let’s just broaden our view.

You’ve put law school on hold, but when did you decide you wanted to do law?

I always wanted to do acting or other creative things, and I auditioned for the arts school in the Netherlands, but they always denied me, so I was like, I don’t know what I want to do. So I chose English as plan B and law as plan C: I went to an English class to try out, and I didn’t like it at all. It was teacher stuff, and I don’t want to teach. Then I went to law, and I loved it. I sat in the college; I was like, this is it, I’m done. I really love how language influences our society. A tiny difference in words, a tiny difference in punctuation, can change everything.

What else are you working on right now?

I’m writing a book. It’s about a robot. Last time I was in New York, I was in the subway and I was just looking around and everyone was on their phone, and that made me think, what happens if artificial intelligence gets to be the newest thing, and if we didn’t have the newest Gucci bag, but instead we had the newest intelligence? How that would work out? So there is a robot, but she’s human-like—she doesn’t look like a robot anymore—and you can put her to work as you like, but she’s sentient, and she’s able to say no to her owners. She’s the first to be able to say no. The other robots, they know what’s going on, but they can’t say no. So if they’re being abused or misused, they know, but they can’t do anything about it. So then, she fights her way out of the family she’s in—and then, I don’t know yet.

I feel like that’s very topical—a woman, or woman robot, finally being able to be like, no, this isn’t okay.

Very feminist.