I am an incessant Twitterer, so I guess it makes sense that I would eventually find some new music there and last February, I happily stumbled across Maiysha, a Minnesota-born singer/songwriter raised on Chicago's South Side who tends to burn the midnight oil on Twitter like me. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, the former teacher's first single from her debut album, the title track "Wanna Be," earned her a 2009 Grammy nomination.
Maiysha is even better known (so far) as a Ford model. In fact, she was one of the most successful plus-size models in the business - until she decided to drop 60 pounds - a decision that changed her life in many ways. I have excerpted segments on fitness, food and her modeling career from my full interview with Maiysha on 55 Secret Street.
Nichelle: You studied vocal performance as well as creative writing and race and gender studies at Sarah Lawrence and worked as a teacher. How did you go from that to a career in modeling?
Maiysha: Modeling was kind of a fluke for me -- I was desperate to pay off my student loans, and happened to be in the right place at the right time. It certainly was never a childhood dream, and even now, I sometimes struggle in front of the camera. That said, it was one of the luckiest accidents of my life, and I owe a great debt (including leaving a dysfunctional relationship, and creating this album) to what I thought was a temporary detour on my path.
Nichelle: You are one of the best known plus-size models out there and were the face for Lane Bryant for many years. Then you lost 60 pounds. How and why did you lose the weight?
Maiysha: Becoming healthy was a very personal choice and challenge for me, and it involved a great deal of risk as far as my modeling career was concerned. But I wasn't healthy, and I wasn't happy -- I'd been living with an eating disorder (compulsive overeating) most of my life, and I knew I couldn't move forward unless I addressed it. I didn't set out with any other goal in mind other than to gain control of my life, and the peace that comes with that. That's still my challenge, every day.
Nichelle: How was your modeling career affected when you lost the weight? Also, how did some of your fans react?
Maiysha: Obviously, it's difficult to maintain a career as a full-figured model when you cease to be considered full-figured by most standards. I was a size 18 at my heaviest -- now I generally hover around an 8, which basically puts you in the "limbo-land" of the fashion world. As a model, I've always been blessed to have the support and respect of some of the most devoted fans in any industry, but I couldn't make this choice about anyone else. So far, most have respected and supported me in that choice, and I'm very grateful for that. Though I was a musician first, it took a long, difficult process to abandon my safety net, and put music -- which is who I really am -- first in my life, even if it meant leaving modeling behind. But the truth is, I'm not really leaving anything or anyone behind. I'm just trying to continue to evolve, and we should all be encouraged to do that, in whatever way we need to.
Maiysha: Admittedly, I was never even a remotely fit person before. I used to go years without setting foot in a gym; now weeks off make me nervous. It was probably after the first few months on a regular cardio routine that I started to see an improvement in my singing -- lung capacity is no small thing when you're a singer. Even now, I notice a difference when I start to slack off, not to mention that exercise just makes me more even-keeled all around (I'm a typical temperamental artist). I also found that as I became more present and proud of the body I was finally taking ownership of, I was much less self-conscious on stage. It may sound superficial, but it's easier to move and commit yourself to your performance when you're not worrying about what might be jiggling!
Nichelle: Let’s talk about the enjoyable side of food. What is your favorite food? Are you able to enjoy food without being paranoid?
Maiysha: I think food paranoia -- that "all or nothing" kind of mania we tend to subscribe to -- is the biggest pitfall for anyone trying to deal with food issues. It has undoubtedly been the source of every setback I've experienced in this process, because it sets you up for failure, and we all know that perfection is impossible. I can't say that I have a favorite food (I love too much of everything), but I hope I never stop enjoying food. The challenge for me has been learning to be consistent with what I need in my life, so that I can feel free to indulge in what I want on a regular basis. Taking care of yourself on a daily basis makes paranoia unnecessary.
Nichelle: How would you describe your personal style? Also, did it change when you lost weight?
Maiysha: To be honest, even at my heaviest, I was known as something of a "fashionista" -- I love color, high-heels, and showing off my curves (which have thankfully only been accentuated by my weight loss). Getting fit just opened up my options, and allowed me to push the envelope more, because I'm not as inhibited. Case in point: as controversial as it was (which I loved), I never would've attempted my Grammy outfit 60 lbs. ago!
Nichelle: Aside from music, what inspires you?
Maiysha: I've been reading since age 3, so books definitely inspire me. Fashion inspires me. My friends inspire me. Passion -- from anger to sex -- inspires me. New York inspires me daily. Struggling inspires me. Inspiration is everywhere!
Nichelle: How do you measure success? These days, I measure my success by my level of happiness. I've been broke, I've been flush, in love and alone, but I find that genuine happiness makes the particular circumstances of any moment irrelevant. So, it's the happiness I'm always seeking.