This article first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to www.harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The September 2020 issue is out on newsstands now.
Beautiful, intelligent and a role model to millions, supermodel Ashley Graham is now a mother.
The body positivity advocate chose Harper’s Bazaar for her first major shoot and interview following the birth of her baby boy in January.
Then the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and she and her family left New York to quarantine in Nebraska, where she was brought up. Rather than cancel the shoot, the magazine asked Graham’s husband, cinematographer Justin Ervin, if he would take the photographs.
Shot over two days amid the rolling grassland and in the deserted towns near her mother’s home, those intimate pictures of Graham and her son Isaac, along with her memories of the past momentous months, are a testament to the eternal joy of family love and the beauty to be found in the human experience even during an unprecedented crisis.
Here, she talks about some of the milestones in her journey to becoming a mother for the first time.
Graham was pregnant with her first baby. “I was so excited. I knew immediately I was going to be a great mum.”
But the poster girl for body positivity found it unexpectedly hard to cope with the changes of her own body. “That was the wildest part. I thought, ‘What about the things I’ve told myself? What about the affirmations I’ve gone through?’ None of these mattered because my body was changing so rapidly. It really took me some time to figure it out mentally, because it was like there was an alien taking over my body.”
She thinks she had prenatal depression. “When you go from laughing to crying in 30 seconds, you do wonder if you are okay. Unbeknown to me, that’s pregnancy.
“One of the best things I did for myself was to make pregnant friends – and then I realised I wasn’t alone, I was normal, and that calmed me down. I started to enjoy being pregnant in my third trimester.”
JAN 18, 2020
Graham and her husband of 10 years had long ago decided on a home birth.
At 7am, she woke up with contractions. Her plan was to continue with the day: go out to brunch, take a yoga class and get a pedicure. But her waters broke while she was doing a cat-cow stretch.
“It was the first really big contraction. I started crying and I was like, wow, game on.”
Two midwives and a doula arrived and set up a birthing pool in the living room of the couple’s Brooklyn apartment.
“Justin wanted to be as helpful as possible and the midwife told him, ‘There’s nothing you can do, nothing.’ There’s a photo of him rubbing my arm as I’m hanging over the edge of the pool, gazing into the eyes of the midwife, who’s keeping me focused and helping me count.
“You can tell there’s a tear running down his face – it was agonising for him to see me in so much pain and not be able to do anything about it.”
In the end, Ervin decided to make dinner in case Graham was hungry after giving birth. She says: “I was in the pool and I looked over to see him in the kitchen cutting up meat and adding seasoning, because it was all he could do.”
A baby boy weighing 3.3kg was born at 6.05pm. “It was a euphoric experience, seeing my son with my husband in the pool. We manoeuvred into my bedroom and we all lay on our bed, and that was where he got weighed and measured and examined.”
The baby is called Isaac.
“When he was in high school, Justin decided that if he had a son, he would call him Isaac. In the Bible, it means laughter. We kept telling him that in utero, and sure enough, he came out with a smile on his face. He’s one of the happiest babies I’ve ever met,” says Graham.
She later campaigned against coronavirus protocols in hospitals that require women to give birth alone. “If I hadn’t had my midwives or even Justin in the room, the whole experience would have been very different for me,” she says.
In March, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing all women in the state to have a partner in the delivery room.
By this time, Isaac was almost two months old and Graham’s planned maternity leave was drawing to a close. When she went back to modelling, her mother Linda was going to help look after the baby.
But in New York, cases of Covid-19 were mounting, residents were self-quarantining and the apartment had no outside space. Linda suggested they all decamp to the family home in Nebraska.
“She talked us into it. She said, ‘It’s 20 hours, let’s just go and I’ll drive all the way’,” says Graham.
They packed a suitcase each – “I thought we’d be away only a couple of weeks” – and borrowed a friend’s sport utility vehicle.
“Justin had just made a lamb roast and he said, ‘We’re not throwing this away’, so we put it in the back of the car and that was what we ate on the trip.”
They left New York at 4am on Friday, March 13. “My mum says it’s nice to see the sunrise in the car.”
The 2,092km journey took them in a straight line across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.
En route, they listened to podcasts, Bill Withers and Aretha Franklin; ate cold lamb; and stopped only when Isaac needed a feed. Linda drove for the first 16 hours straight, Ervin took the last four and they arrived in Lincoln, Nebraska, around midnight on the following day.
The family is now ensconced in the large, ranch-style house in which Graham lived with her sisters from the age of 13, a short drive from the farm where her uncle still grows corn.
During the day, she and Ervin colonised the basement, which had been kitted out with yoga mats, weights and TRX resistance bands. “It’s bigger than our entire Brooklyn apartment,” says Graham.
Mornings started with an online workout led by celebrity trainer Kira Stokes. After that, Graham worked – in Zoom meetings or filming for her numerous commitments.
“I’ve just shot for Ellentube (Ellen DeGeneres’ YouTube channel) – Justin had to set up three cameras, so thank God he’s a cinematographer. And we’ve figured out how to shoot my podcast, Pretty Big Deal, remotely.
“But I’m also handling newborn stuff every day. The good thing is, if I tilt my computer screen upwards, I can feed the baby without anybody seeing.”
Afternoons were mostly dedicated to Isaac. “He’s such an outside baby – he likes the grass, he likes the sun.”
Once a week, the couple went on a date. “All we’re doing is driving to the park, watching the sunset, having a kiss in the car. It’s the simplest thing, but it’s a game changer.”
After the spring snow, the weather turned sufficiently sunny for the Harper’s Bazaar photo shoot.
Ervin and the magazine’s creative director Jo Goodby agreed on a vision of classic Americana, inspired by Graham’s journey across America and the gentle hills and broad skies of Nebraska.
On Ervin’s mood board was a picture of Andrew Wyeth’s famous 1948 painting, Christina’s World, showing a young woman lying in a wide, grassy landscape, gazing up at a distant house.
Graham says: “Justin saw this one little white house on a hill and that became the focal point for the whole shoot.”
They decided to work in two locations: the nearby fields of the Pioneers Park nature reserve and on Graham’s uncle’s farm, an hour away.
A limited selection of clothes had been sent directly to the house, but lockdown guidelines meant that no outsiders could join the shoot.
On the day, the team consisted only of Graham, Ervin, Linda and her boyfriend, Michael.
“Michael was Justin’s personal assistant, lighting man, the guy who did the Starbucks run. My mum was taking care of Isaac the whole time, carrying him in a front-facing sling, but she was also holding a light reflector.”
Graham did her own hair and make-up. “I kept it easy breezy, I let my hair air-dry and I didn’t even wear mascara because I’m the kind of girl who runs around like this. I also did the styling and helped to art direct.”
Meanwhile, Ervin was the photographer, cinematographer, art director and fashion assistant.
“Everyone knew his role, but man, it was a lot of work,” Graham says.
Shot over two afternoons – “We wanted the beautiful, magic-hour light” – it was one of the most personally meaningful shoots she had ever participated in.
“We took one picture inside my grandfather’s truck. He (died) six years ago and my mum left everything inside the same, from his ChapStick to his licence in the visor and the money in the ashtray.
“There were five more minutes of sunlight; my mum was on one side with a reflector, Michael was on the other side with another reflector and we got the shot.
“I remember looking at the photo and thinking, ‘This is so cool. The four of us put this together, and it’s so cinematic.’ It’s a beautiful moment to look back on during these weird times, and to remember that we had so much joy.”
Graham Skyped the magazine from the basement of her mother’s ranch, having just finished a workout with Stokes. She was not wearing make-up, her hair was pulled back from her face and she was in a sweatshirt and leggings, but she could grace any magazine cover.
Despite the fact that Isaac had been waking her every couple of hours to feed, her skin was flawless, her eyes wide and bright.
“I actually feel really good,” she says. “I don’t know what it is – mother resilience? I’ve learnt that I can function without sleep – I didn’t know that.”
It was not the only source of surprise. The weeks of quarantine brought some worry and sadness – the couple lost a friend to Covid-19 and many other friends contracted the illness.
Nevertheless, she says, “the silver lining is having all of these incredible, special moments with Isaac and the nostalgia of being with my son in the home I grew up in. I’ve had time to focus and I’m so grateful”.
Once the crisis is past, Graham believes society will “have a deeper respect for patience, kindness and gratitude. And I really want to be that role model for my son”.