BuzzFeed: There's been a huge response to your H&M swimwear campaign. Did that come as a surprise?
Runk: Absolutely. It was just another job for me. I saw the pictures afterwards and thought, oh, these were pretty photos — but that was all. After all, I see myself in a bikini or underwear all the time! So the response has been quite a surprise. I can't complain about it, though.
You've been modeling for over a decade now. How did you get started in the industry?
I was scouted while I was volunteering at a PetSmart store, actually, in Missouri where I grew up. I was 13. I said "no thanks" [to the scouts] at first, but my mom talked me into it. My mom is my number one fan. So I worked in development in the midwest before moving to New York — there I signed first with Wilhelmina, and then later with Ford.
Have you always been on your agency's plus-size books?
From the beginning of my career, yes. The scouts said I could either lose some weight and do "regular" modeling or gain a little bit and go plus. I was a size 8, so I could have either dropped down to a size 4 or bump up to a size 10. I didn't even consider losing all that weight an option – I knew that it would be an unhealthy process for me and my body and I wasn't not going to put myself through that.
A lot of people think the "plus-size" label should be abolished, and every model known as just a model. Does it bother you?
I don't have any issues with the term "plus-size." It's just a label. The only problem I see is the negative connotations attached to it. There shouldn't be anything wrong with calling a model plus-size, because there's nothing wrong with being plus-size.
Do you feel a responsibility as a plus-size model to get that message out there?
I've always thought of myself as a role model to anyone younger. So many of the messages I've had on Facebook [in response to my H&M campaign] have been from girls talking about how empowering they found the photos. Some look up to actresses, some to writers, some to models and I want to give them the opportunity to look up to a plus-size girl too.
And who are some of your industry inspirations?
Most of the other plus-size models I've met, they've all been huge inspirations to me. Whenever I go to a casting I'll generally run into the others and we catch up. We all get along. I've worked with Candice [Huffine] and Danielle [van Grondelle] and Crystal Renn a lot — right from the beginning of my career, even, and they've all taught me so much about the industry and how to succeed in it. Also about, you know, not letting criticism get to you.
Jennie (far right) with fellow plus-size models in a 2009 issue of Glamour.
Where does that criticism come from?
Well I've definitely struggled with body confidence in the past – when I first got discovered I was just bewildered by it all. Being a teenager is awkward for everyone and I definitely wasn't comfortable with my body and myself when I was 13. It took me a very long time to feel that confidence — I have to say it's something not many people out there are teaching and it's very hard to do on your own.
What would be some advice you would give, as a "body confidence teacher"?
I would say that the most important thing is just to get to know yourself. Be the best possible you that you can be. Be your own best friend and your own biggest supporter to the point that if someone tries to say something bad that it just doesn't register. Because it shouldn't.
Jennie in the 2005 "Shape Issue" of Vogue.
That seems like a tough message to pass on to young girls when the media constantly suggests the opposite.
I've been a Girl Scout since I was 5 years old. It was always a really empowering experience for me. My mom was my troop leader — she always made sure that we were in charge of our learning and growth as Scouts. Whenever we'd have badge ceremonies she would book somewhere with a stage so we'd get more comfortable with public speaking, and putting ourselves out there. Of course I sold Girl Scout cookies too, which I think is a nice way of teaching that you have to follow through with your commitments.
Are you still involved with the organization?
I'm still registered! Though it's difficult to find time to do much, with my schedule at the moment, but whenever I can get time to go home [to Missouri] I'll help out. Being a troop leader was very important to me — I once had a conversation with my troop about all this, actually. At one of our meetings I brought in a magazine I'd featured in and I had them all point out the differences between me in the photos and me in person. They were all pointing out things like "your hair is a mess" and "oh, you're not wearing make-up" and, you know, "today you're just in a t-shirt." I think they found it really eye-opening that models don't look like they do in magazines all the time — I know I don't — so don't strive for something unattainable. These images are meant to be something beautiful to look at in a magazine but they don't have to represent reality.
How do you feel about the Boy Scouts repealing their ban on gay members last week?
I think it's definitely progress in the right direction. I think it's important, especially for kids, to find a group of friends where you feel comfortable being yourself — and to find people to look up to. Being a Girl Scout I looked up to older girls who were always so nice and responsible.
And what else should we know about Jennie Runk?
I love poetry. And, oh, well I love all kinds of animals — but I'm a cat person.