Khrystyana's Road to Self-Love and Acceptance

You don’t have to watch America’s Next Top Model to appreciate the beauty and intelligence that is Khrystyana. The 32-year-old plus-size model from Siberia brought her bubbly personality to the popular VH1 series and totally slayed the competition. Week after week, she proved herself a talented model when it came to commercial and runway challenges, while staying modest throughout the entire process. Outside of the competition, she is a fierce activist for women’s rights and body confidence, penning inspiring messages daily for her 219K + Instagram followers. Khrystyana and I had a long, deep discussion about her journey to success and how she came to love herself, curves and all. Although there were tears, trust me, we shared tons of laughs, too.

How did you get into modeling?

When I was 24, a friend of mine, who was 16 at the time, got into a scam where somebody promised her some kind of modeling career if she paid ‘such and such.’ After that, I dedicated a few days to finding resources for how to become a model in order to help her. At the time, I didn’t even think of myself as a model or even care about modeling that much; I didn’t think I was pretty. But when I took my friend to photo shoots, photographers would shoot me as well, since she was petite and I’m taller. That’s how I got a bunch of photos [for my portfolio]. I was surprised that I was actually able to get into modeling, though, since you’re sort of “expired” by the time you’re 24.

Was there a particular moment that really lit a fire under you and inspired you to become a model?

I’ve been working nine to five jobs since I was 12 years old. As a child, my mom was single and I would help her after school every day at the store she worked at. I didn’t have a childhood, technically speaking. I didn’t have fun at all. So when the opportunity to model came up, I thought that if I signed with an agency, I would be able to move to a bigger city. It was also exciting to me that I could do something a little bit more creative with my time. But when I was 24, I definitely had super low self-esteem, I remember thinking that I wanted to validate myself somehow, and prove to myself that I was pretty.

Tell me a little bit about how you use modeling as a body-positive platform.

I have always been thicker, but back then, I really tried to be skinny. I would spend a lot of time at the gym, and even tried to starve. I wanted to be like the girls I saw on the magazines, specifically Guess and Victoria’s Secret girls. I thought that the big eyes, the long, healthy hair, and the skinny waist looked pretty. I thought that if I looked like that, then I would start to book jobs.

How painful was it for you to try and conform to that image of “the ideal model?”

It messed with my brain, damaging my self-esteem, my friendships, and even my relationship with my family. But then I realized that what I thought was “pretty” would never really be me. I am a dork who dresses in baggy clothes and likes reading comics and playing games. I’m living the opposite lifestyle. I realized that it’s cool to be a plus-size model, especially in New York, which is why I moved there.

Have you been embracing your size with open arms ever since?

Actually, after some time, it started to mess with me here in New York. In order to be a plus-size model, you have to be between a size 12 and 14. But I’m a size 8 to 10, so I was having trouble booking any job at all. So then I got super depressed. I told myself that I’d been wasting time trying to get into modeling. And then, I guess I had an awakening. I was really exhausted from my mind chatter and negative thoughts. I was just exhausted, so my mind stopped talking. And that was the beginning of me realizing, “Oh, this is me. This is who I am.”

Do you feel like people accepted you for the real you?

A lot of people did. But there were also a ton of negative comments. People said, “You used to be pretty before, and now you’re not.” But I was actually the same person all along. Before, I was just photoshopped. Although a lot of people were upset with how I started to present myself, my following grew a lot from being real. It was shocking to me how so many people were interested in the no-makeup version of me, the woman who was showing her authentic body. I also started to write longer Instagram captions that would resonate with my followers. Since [Russian is my first language and] English is my second language, I used to be embarrassed to write. But now I feel like people can all relate to my awkward English and poetry! Haha.

Who are some of your inspirations in the modeling industry?

I love Coco Rocha a lot because she’s so expressive and different. She has also helped me learn not to judge myself or others who don’t look like me.

What advice can you give to young women who judge themselves so harshly, like you said you used to?

In order to believe in your own beauty, you have to look at yourself in the mirror. Words may come and go, but you need to let them pass through. Just keep looking at yourself until you see all of your beauty. There’s a lot of power in looking at yourself. Most people just glimpse at themselves and judge their pimples, their lumps and bumps, or the fact that their hair is falling out. They become obsessed with these little things. I’m like that sometimes still. But what I’m trying to say is to just look at yourself calmly. Allow thoughts to come and go until you are able to look at yourself without any negative nouns or adjectives. You know, if you start crying, that’s not a bad thing. If you cry naturally, let it out until you’re ready to embrace your beauty. Those tears are usually of joy--you’ll be so fascinated with your own beauty. I promise you will.

What was it like competing on America’s Next Top Model?

Insane! It’s a hundred times more difficult than you can possibly imagine. Even though I read tons of articles online from contestants and felt ready to go two months with literally no sleep, I was not as prepared as I thought I was.

What was the hardest challenge you think you faced on the show?

Definitely the raw photo shoot where Tyra Banks shot pictures of us without any makeup and had the other models place their hands all over the girl being photographed. It brought back the memories of when I was molested at 11 years old. The situation was very similar to when he put his hands all over my body. It was really hard to think about that difficult time in my life, but it was also very rewarding to be able to share my story. I definitely hope that a lot more boys and girls speak out so we can prevent those situations. I stayed quiet about my story until I was 32 years old. I didn’t even tell my parents. America’s Next Top Model was the first time I said anything about what happened to me.

Was there a reason that you didn’t speak out sooner?

I just felt so dirty about it. It was such a dark thought that made me cringe inside. It was also one of the main roots of self-hate for me. But by speaking out, I felt a sense of forgiveness towards myself. I felt guilty during all of my childhood.

What was your favorite challenge on ANTM?

Definitely the LGBTQIA one! For pride week, we went to Micky’s Bar and walked the runway for Christian Cowan. We had 15 minutes to style our own outfits, which was really fun. They didn’t show this on the show, but for that challenge, I spray painted my hair pink, but because my hair is so white, it absorbed the color and it couldn’t wash out for weeks. I joked in the house that I was bringing out my inner Liz! (Liz is a model who was eliminated on the show)

Which girls could you confide in on the show and had your back throughout the whole experience?

I had a lot of fun with Coura. She’s so sweet and I felt at ease when I hung out with her. Rio also had my back the entire time. Even when I was made fun of sometimes in the house, Rio stood by me. We also recorded a lot of videos in the confession room talking about body positivity and the importance of people embracing their true selves.

What is the number one lesson you learned on America’s Next Top Model?

As a model, I learned to take risks and let my crazy out! I try to push past boundaries, maybe even towards a place that’s not classically pretty.

How about the lessons you learned as a person?

As a person, I’ve learned to speak up for myself and for others. If someone’s in trouble, I’ll definitely help them.

What advice do you have for aspiring models?

First, figure out if you really want to model. If you just want to see yourself in a magazine or earn money, then you don’t really care about modeling. Polishing your wants is the first step. If you decide that you’re really passionate about it, then there are a bunch of tools online than can help you get where you want to be.

What are your future plans in the modeling industry?

I want to dedicate my time to doing meet-ups and also a little bit of public speaking. I also want to teach modeling classes to people in the future!

Khrystyana is second from right

6 Things You Don’t Know About Khrystyana:

1. “I’m a savage at board games! I’m not a competitive person, as you can see on America’s Next Top Model, so this goes against my nature. Oh my goodness, put me in a room with advanced Euro board game players and I can play games that last up to 12 hours each!”

2. “I’m a face mask addict. I have something mask related on my face daily. Smoothies, drinks, and foods always end up being on my face, partially because I’m a very clumsy eater but also because I’m curious about how it’s going to affect my skin.”

3. “I write poetry and songs dedicated to women empowerment, body positivity, and equality every day. I post many of them as captions on my Instagram photos but I’m mostly embarrassed to show them because English is my second language. I write with my heart and emotions, so there’s not too much time to do a proper grammar check...hehe.”

4. “I graduated from a comedy school! I’ve always been a fan of comedy; growing up socially awkward, where my best friends were books, I knew that comedy was where I’d land eventually. I even did some stand-up comedy shows in New York and a ton of improv. But look at me now...I’m kind of a model! What?!”

5. “Now that the world knows my #MeToo story, I wonder if my exes know why I had some attachment or intimacy issues. I’ve been called an asexual prude a lot, and I’m comfortable with it. Now I lean towards demisexual though, after really getting to understand the terms more. So while physical intimacy doesn’t come that easy for me, at least not until I feel in love and safe with a person, it doesn’t stop me from having tons of crushes on a daily basis. I get excited about things and people so easily. I had a crush on Katya [the guest drag queen] on ANTM, but not in a sexual way. It’s like getting excited about ice cream or watermelon, I guess? People tend to misinterpret my enthusiasm with something sexual, but it’s not. I just love the feeling of excitement! Plus, it makes the other person feel great.”

6. “Speaking of watermelons, they are my one true love.”

Follow Krystyana on Social Media:

Instagram: @khrystyana

Twitter: @iamkhrystyana