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Secrets of Walnut Creek's curvy Sports Illustrated model

Like a lot of young women who have moved to Los Angeles over the past 100 years, Ella Halikas has big dreams of becoming a star. But she wants to do it on her own terms, as a curvy model in a fashion industry that prizes Size 2 bodies.

For the 24-year-old from Walnut Creek, that has meant fending off such comments as, "Stop promoting obesity" and "She'd be so hot if she lost weight."

So far Halikas' plan is working. Among her recent accomplishments are a photo shoot in November for high-end designer Hervé Leger after reaching another major stepping stone for aspiring models: Being named as one of 2021's 13 finalists for Sports Illustrated's annual Swim Search. This distinction has given the budding entrepreneur additional confidence about other projects, including collaborating with a swimsuit company to design her own collection of "size-inclusive" swimwear.

Like any Gen Z-er, Halikas has embraced the need to control her own brand via social media. She's established herself as a "content creator," or "influencer," sharing personal stories about self-confidence, body positivity and life as an up-and-coming model. For her hundreds of thousands of fans on YouTube, Instagram and especially TikTok, she dances, models, laughs off fat-shamers and talks about overcoming self-doubt. Here, she talks candidly about leaving the Bay Area to make it in L.A.

Q: So you're from the East Bay!

A: I grew up in Walnut Creek and graduated from Northgate High School. With college, I really wanted to go out of state. I went to Washington State. But after a year, I wondered, why am I in Pullman, Washington, when I love the sun and I'm a total beach person? I ended up going to the University of Hawaii at Manoa on the island of Oahu.

Q: How did you get into modeling?

A: I actually studied journalism. I wanted to be a news anchor. In my senior year, I started taking photos of the beach for my Instagram. I had just found this self-love and confidence about my body. People would look at my photos and say, you can do this. I just didn't think it was possible because we're so used to seeing such small women modeling.

Q: How did you feel about your body growing up?

A: I was a huge athlete. I played soccer for 15 years. I did swim team. I didn't develop a womanly shape until junior year of high school. But I didn't like the way my body looked. I never felt I was good enough. I always felt that if I got skinny and could fit into a certain pair of jeans, I'd be happy.

Q: Did you go to extremes to fit a certain ideal?

A: Totally. I did all the fad diets, cleanses and skinny teas. And nothing was working. Thankfully, I didn't struggle with anorexia and bulimia, but I did struggle with binge eating and a bad relationship with food. Now I don't restrict myself. If I want to eat something, I have it, but I'm more mindful.

Q: How did you end up in L.A.?

A: After I graduated from college, I moved back to my mom's home in August 2019. I worked as a server at Telefèric Barcelona to make some money. But with COVID, the restaurant shut down, and I lost my job. I really wanted to go to L.A., and the pandemic made me just do it. I moved down here in May 2020 with no friends or any modeling work lined up. It was a big risk. But I knew I was going to make it happen.

Q: How did you get into Sports Illustrated?

A: I tried out for three years. Every year they do an open casting call. You basically submit a video and either they see (it) or they don't. By 2019, I hired a videographer to make a video. I also flew myself all the way to Miami to do the casting call in person. The line starts all the way around the building. It's just so crazy. The judges were all other S.I. models, and you have 10 minutes to explain yourself, who you are and why you deserve this. I was very upset I didn't get it.

Fast forward to 2020. With the pandemic, there was no going to Miami for the casting call. I filmed another video. They finally noticed me.

Q: You do a lot of social media. You share images from photo shoots and talk candidly about your struggles. Is social media now required for models to get noticed?

A: I like being a storyteller. TikTok is my main thing. It lets me use my personality to connect to an audience. Being on social media goes hand in hand with being a model. The more followers you grow, it can help with getting a photo shoot. But I also want to have a voice and speak out about things I care about.

It took me five or six years to get to the point I'm at. You need to break down the stigmas that we place on ourselves, the way society has made us believe that only skinny is beautiful and deserving of love. You have to tell yourself "no." The second you have a bad thought or an insecurity or self-doubt, you have to train yourself to turn that thought off.

Q: How do you feel now about posing in a bikini in front of people?

A: Don't get me wrong. I had to break out of my fear of people watching me. We recently did a photo shoot in front of so many people on the Santa Monica pier with a famous photographer. It was awesome. I know I'm curvier, I'm here, and I'm showing off my skin. I can say now, I don't have a problem with it.

Q: The #MeToo movement revealed stories about photographers and powerful men sexually abusing young women trying to make it as models. Has anything like that ever happened to you?

A: Luckily, knock on wood, no. I mostly work with female photographers, who are some of my best friends. I don't work with too many straight men. There is that line, where they might be like, "What if you took off your top?" I had one (male) photographer in Hawaii, who told me to "Suck it in," even though the photo was about embracing my curves. I was so turned off by that comment.

Q: What's next for you?

A: I have a ton of goals. (For my swimwear collection), I believe that the usual plus-sized swimwear is so outdated. I really want to bring more sexy confidence into the realm of plus-sized swim wear. I want it to be, "Let's stop covering up our curves."

I'd also like to write a book one day and start a tour, speaking to high school and college students regarding self-love and confidence. I think there's a lot of work to be done.

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