Immigrating from Siberia to Hawaii at 20 with her mom, then moving to San Fransisco and finally settling down in New York, KhrystyAna Kazakova has been staying in the United States for almost 13 years. KhrystyAna gets her fame from the popular reality TV show, America’s Next Top Model, but she is not your stereotypical model. In weekdays, she might be doing shoots, while in her spare time, she would attend or host events to practice her beliefs in “be proud of your own body” and “respect every gender identity.”
In terms of age and body type, KhrystyAna is not a typical model.
She isn’t a model until the age of 25, which is a fairly old age to start in the model industry. She is also a plus-size model, even though she looks just like a normal size American woman. Many journalists would describe KhrystyAna as bubbly. However, under her radiant smile, shiny confidence and bubbly personality, KhrystyAna actually has something more to tell.
Elise: Can you please share with us what’s the most important thing you’ve learned in America’s Next Top Model?
KhrystyAna: In America’s Next Top Model, I learned to be more confident, to own myself more I’d say, but that was in the very end of the show. When I was in the show, I cared so much about how people saw me. I was desperate for validation because I wasn’t confident enough. Sometimes I might think what I just said over and over again and kept criticizing myself for saying that. But at the end of show, I realized I’d been at the very bottom, but so what? I didn’t know I was gonna survive that long. From then on, I learned to not punish myself and to believe in myself more.
Elise: Is there any difference between keeping updating your life on social media and starring in a reality TV show? What’s your insights about these two?
KhrystyAna: The biggest difference between these two is the control you own. On your own social media, you can decide what to share and what to be shown to people. But on reality TV, people edit it for you. For example, when I was in America’s Next Top Model, I sometimes told a really bad joke, but when the episode was out, the joke was edited. Most of the time, they only showed my cute side. I’m actually a crazy and goofy person. Don’t get me wrong, I really like their edits. But if I had control of what to show, I’d hope to show the public more about the real me. Everyone has their good side and bad side. I want people to know every side of me. I want to make people laugh.
I feel like whoever’s successful on social media is probably the biggest control freak in life ever.
I want to show the real me on social media. But sometimes, being not real is part of the real. Some people stick to never editing their photos, or to always using the same filter, or only posting photos in specific categories: fashion, travel for example. However, I feel people are putting themselves in a box. You’re limiting yourself by doing so. And after you limit yourself in specific categories, people have expectations on you. If you don’t post as what you used to, people get disappointed. They start to feel like you’re not the real you anymore.
My social media is to embrace all of me, instead of parts of me. My followers have no expectations for me. Sometimes I post unedited photos, sometimes I post edited photos. Sometimes I post my model work, sometimes I post some silly but funny videos my friends took for me. I post whatever I like. I think without the limits, I’m not putting myself in a box. I have no idea what I’m going to post next. I feel like “not knowing” is a good thing. It brings you to places you’ve never imagined.
Elise: How do you deal with hateful messages and comments? And how do you see the dominance of social media in the fashion industry?
KhrystyAna: Actually I didn’t get much criticism or hateful comments. Probably my followers have already known me and what I stand for before they decide to follow me. But if I get hateful messages or comments, when I get a chance, I’ll try to reply them myself. Starting a conversation is always the best way to end hatred or misunderstanding. And you have to always be ready. I know not everyone is always ready, or have the courage to stand up to a bully. I just do it. I kinda enjoy it. I used to argue with my mom. I always feel if I can stand up to my mom, I can stand up to anybody. Besides, I don’t really care about haters.
I think social media is the new norm nowadays. After all, every generation has their own thing. In this generation, there’s no such thing as “real life” and “social media life.” There’s not much wall between these two. For 12-year-olds, they know how to do it all. For them, everything’s so natural. I really feel the kids’ brains are expanding, so they’re able to do so many things at the same time. But for me, I’m 33. There’s still a difference with cell phone time and talking time.
I think there’s something very important to know. That is, social media is not “another” life or a “different” life. It is just part of our life. It’s such like everything else. It’s like going to the coffee shop. Some people need to drink so much coffee everyday, some people just get addicted. But some people just go there for a cup of coffee and for the pastry. It’s just personal choice. You can’t say social media is bad. It only depends on the people using it.
Elise: Can you share with us one of the most frustrating and one of the most unforgettable experience in your model career?
KhrystyAna: The most frustrating is that the makeup artist is dirty! I don’t know why some famous makeup artists are so dirty. They do every model with the same brush! Wash your brush or use disposable ones!
I look so puffy right now just because the makeup artist is dirty, but he is also dramatic. I didn’t want to get into trouble, so I didn’t say anything then. So I ended up like this for so many days!
I’m very lucky that I don’t have any #MeToo moments during my model career. Sexual harassment is a big issue in the model industry. But I feel like there’s less sexual harassment happening in New York recent years.
The most unforgettable experience is working with Todd Haido. Todd Haido is a famous artist and photographer. He’s been to all over the world for shoots. When you are a model, you’re asked to smile. When you’re a plus-size model, you’re asked to smile more, you’re supposed to be happier. However, Todd Haido can see my darkness. He actually likes darkness. He would say, “You’ve been through a shitty year. Show me how shitty your year has been.”
Under his lens, modeling is like a therapy, an artistic therapy. I feel like my childhood trauma and my adulthood wounds are all healed. When I work with Todd Haido, I’m not afraid of showing my darkness. When I am photographed, I know I could finally treat them as past and move on. I shouldn’t bring them into my present life anymore.
In commercial shoots, most of the time I need to act. I need to smile a lot. But working with Todd Haido, I was asked to show, not act. I can really show what I’m feeling.
For anyone reading this interview, if you’re not a model but want to try artistic therapy, I’ll recommend photography. When you’re being shot, you can be free. You can do whatever you want with your own body. Nudes are beautiful as well. Many people might have some ill thoughts about nude photography, but it is actually a real and pure form of art.
I started working as a model when I was 25. That was when I decided to be an artist.
I always think a lot and have so many things to pursue. I think the most important thing is that don’t be afraid to seek or to search for yourself.
Elise: Does your childhood experience in Russia affect how you see things?
KhrystyAna: Of course! In Russia, I’m considered pretty fat! The beauty standard in Russia and that in the US is so different. In the little town in Siberia where I grew up, only bodies that are below size 4 are considered beautiful. It’s the only acceptable size for the society. It’s a different form of body shame. In Siberia, there’s only one size of clothes in shops. Only sample size. That’s what they think of beauty. I believe in Moscow things will be different.
As for me, I’m size 8 to size 10. In America, I’m just an ordinary woman, but in the model industry, I’m a plus-size model. The beauty standard in the model industry is pretty much like that in Russia.
In the small town I used to live in Siberia, because there are more women than men, it’s kind of competitive. You have to be very feminine. And it’s impossible to go without makeup. If you don’t do this, people will criticize you. For example, I dress very hobo today, wearing baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants. I don’t have makeup on and I also wear glasses. If my mom knew, she would absolutely criticize me of how I look. But in New York, nobody thinks it’s a big deal. It only matters that I’m okay with it and I’m happy.
Elise: How do you like New York? How do you feel like working in fashion in New York?
KhrystyAna: New York is the BEST! There are all kinds of people here: different race, ethnicity, age and gender. It’s truly a melting pot. You start to feel okay about who you are. I don’t have a single friend that has the same background here. I can befriend with people around my age. I can also have a cup of coffee with a 65-year-old or a 12-year-old. There’s so much freedom here. I can do whatever I like and be whoever I want. Nobody will think anything of you. I think mutual respect is the reason why this melting pot can keep embracing all kinds of different people here.
Although I was born in Russia, I felt like I was reborn in New York.
There are so many opportunities of self-discovery in New York for you to explore who you are. I grow so fast here. I know myself more, and I can easier accept who I really am. Although I’m dating a gender straight guy, I still identity myself as a queer person. Russia is not the safest place to come out, especially in the small town in Siberia. I might not be accepted by the public. My life might even be threatened or killed, maybe by the government or maybe by the people I don’t know. It’s not impossible.
For me, moving to New York is a dream comes true. I mean, it’s New York! People love New York. It sounds a bit scary, but I finally brave up to face my fear. Here, I get the chance to discover who I am, what I like, what I was like, what I was asked and taught to be, what I was wanted to be and what I actually want to be. My mom always wants me to be a programmer. But here in New York, I’m able to listen to my inner self to become an artist. Before becoming an artist, I’ve done so many different jobs. I have so much different experience. For me, being an artist is a scary path, but in New York, I learn to embrace what I really want and try to accept who I really am.
I think respect is the key factor why fashion industry in New York can work so well.
In New York, model is a respectable profession. People know how much effort you’ve made to get here as a model. When I was working in San Fransisco, people didn’t take models seriously. They always said, “Everybody here is a model or an influencer” something like that. For example, I charge $2,000 for e-commerce shoot. In New York, if they don’t have the budget, they will genuinely tell me so and discuss with me, while on the West Coast, people would just say, “Come on, seriously?” They don’t really respect me.
Elise: In previous interviews, you’ve mentioned multiple times that you’re actually shy and introverted. But in the fashion industry, especially working as a model, you must act very outgoing, active and of course social in order to excel. How do you balance between your real self and your work/presentable self?
KhrystyAna: If I go out more often, I will absolutely be more successful. But sometimes I just don’t wanna go out. I know I should hang out more, but I always make my decision at the last second of not going out. Every time I make the decision, I feel so happy, as if that was the best thing in the world. Not going out really affects my career. If I go to my friends’ birthday parties more often, or go to gallery openings, I definitely will have more opportunities than I have now.
Being a model is a 24/7 job. You have to keep socializing, keep making connections, keep shooting, and not to mention you have to keep control of your diet and keep working out. It never ends. Being a model is never that easy as people see it. Especially for me, I don’t really like to go out. It’s also harder for me to build connections, which makes things even harder.
I won’t say there’s a “balance” between what I show and who I really am. I always want to show the world the real me. I won’t force myself to do something I don’t like or I don’t want to, so there’s actually no balance. It’s always the real me.
Elise: What triggers you to be a body positivity activist? What have you learned through all the events and statements?
KhrystyAna: There’s nothing “triggers” me to do it. I just fall for it. I’ve never thought: “Oh, I want to be a body positivity activist, or I want to promote gender equality!” I just share my own stories or what happened around my friends very naturally. When people start to call me a body positivity activist or something like that, I would think, “Oh, I’m a body positivity activist! That sounds cool.”
If advocating body positivity comes from love, from self-discovery, then promoting gender equality comes from the anger I see how my friends are treated. But even anger comes from love. It just has different energy.
My best friend is a trans-gender. Before having the surgery, she would be judged or even humiliated when she was going to restrooms in cafes at Bay area, even when she still looked very feminine. I couldn’t do anything about it. I just see it happen all the time, and it’s frustrating. But why should she be treated like that? Because of the anger, I started to notice the importance of gender equality, and started to share my thoughts on the Internet.
The Real Catwalk that I hosted on Times Square in 2017 is the most successful and fulfilling event I’ve ever held. It is a runway open for everybody. It’s open and it’s real. It doesn’t matter what race, age, body type or sexuality you are. As long as you want to walk the runway, then go. I think that’s the real inclusive and open fashion for everybody.
Elise: How do you see the phenomenon of luxury brands following the “rules” of diversity and inclusivity? Do you think they really embrace the concepts, or do they fall into tokenism and just want to avoid criticism and be politically correct?
KhrystyAna: I think it’s the latter. Most of the brands just make their decisions to avoid criticism and for fear of being left behind.
Many people working in the fashion industry don’t know how influential they are. Sometimes a decision made on the one side of the planet might affect the other side of it. The butterfly effect is huge. In this current era, nothing is impossible, especially in fashion. The freedom in fashion is cool. This is fashion, but it is also how it’s gonna be in the world as well. It makes you breathe.
Some brands market themselves as diverse and inclusive, and gain so much applause. But it turns out that their inclusivity and diversity are limited to the minority. Normal people don’t get a chance. It’s nice for the minority to finally be heard, but then you can’t say yourself inclusive and diverse. It’s the wrong terminology to use.
Elise: Who’s your role model or style icon in the fashion industry? And why?
KhrystyAna: Jillian Mercado! She’s my friend. She’s perfect. She can go out everyday and all dress up and have the perfect makeup. I really admire her. Recently, she launched her own accessory line, not only for people in wheel chairs, but for all people.
Elise: Where do you see yourself in five years? Do you have any other projects or plans coming up?
KhrystyAna: I don’t mind keeping modeling till I’m 79 or 100 years old, but I actually really want to try art direction. I’m really interested in visual presentation. Many people will recreate my vision. Being recreated on the one hand gives me a sense of satisfaction that people do like my stuff, but on the other, it’s a bit annoying. That’s my creativity!
For the future, I don’t have limitations. I’ll keep working as a model, but I also want to try some visual-related works.
Elise: For you, what is fashion? How will you define contemporary fashion?
KhrystyAna: Fashion for me, is an art expression through clothes. That’s it.
I really like contemporary fashion. It doesn’t have a specific traits like the past. It’s like a smoothie of everything. It’s fashion becoming. It’s pretty cool. In the past, if fashion magazines wanted to represent friendship, they might have two happy friends smiling at each other; but now, it might be three grumpy kids sit together. It’s more real.
Fashion is also healing. It affects the world’s unhappiness and depression. It’s not only for individual, but for the whole world. I see fashion as the most powerful tool in the world in all human kind. It makes people see more options and possibilities.
For KhrystyAna, model is not just a medium for beautiful clothes, but an artist expressing her thoughts and emotions through her body.
After this one and a half hour interview, I find KhrystyAna not as bubbly as she is always depicted on media. She is friendly and lovely indeed. But to put forth, she is actually a philosopher. She came all along the way from Siberia to New York. she’s done all kinds of jobs and finally landed on being a model. She has contemplated so much about her body, her gender and as far as her life.
KhrystyAna says she loves to think, but always thinks too much. But maybe it’s exactly this overthink that makes her so spiritual and so different.