Three years ago, at roughly this time of year, I was at Race Street Cafe, a gastropub in Philly’s Old City neighborhood. I was simultaneously riding the high of what had just begun and stressing the next few months and what the future would hold.
A month prior, I had wrapped on a video and photography project called “Never Alone.” We had put it together with a tiny crew of women, all affected by breast cancer, and the survivors who would become our original group of AO Ambassadors. It was just as much, and probably even more so, my passion project alongside the box of bra prototypes in my basement.
I was sharing a plate of nachos and craft beers with a woman I was just getting to know who would later become the Goose to my Maverick through the nail-biting, gravity-defying takeoff and flight of AnaOno. She was mulling over my long spoken aloud thought process of just what to name the bras we’d shot. I was considering using warrior names, but was falling short after the handful I’d rattled off, and knew I’d be stumped to come up with more when the time came to grow the brand.
“Why don’t we just name them after the women who wore them at the shoot?” She suggested.
I sat back, stunned.
“I was wondering the exact same thing the other day! We should, shouldn’t we?” I said.
The conversation we continued to have over bar food and cold beer would be the watershed moment in the branding of AnaOno. And it only grew from there.
I always knew going into the planning of Never Alone - what would become AnaOno’s advertorial, storytelling introduction - that I wanted it to mirror my story as a woman coming from the tough depths of darkness into the light of sisterhood and finding my confidence again. I always considered Ana my alter ego, the woman I wanted to have the strength to become. And I wanted authenticity. My survivor sisters (and my sisters that soon after left this earth) had been a part of my line since the beginning. They were my research and development, my quality assurance, my fit models. It only made sense they would become the faces and names of AnaOno.
In the winter of 2015, a mere three months before AnaOno would celebrate its first birthday, Goose and I were talking on the phone about how we had tried, but failed to secure a Super Bowl ad win through Intuit (nearly a year later, we would try again and finish in the top 10). In that conversation we decided to run our own little Internet ad on Facebook and Twitter tying into the fact Victoria’s Secret was running its first Super Bowl commercial in seven years and Carl’s Jr. had become embroiled in a will-they-or-won’t-they controversy over its overly-sexualized “woman eating a double bacon cheeseburger on a hot rod” ad. We felt, hey, “Survivors are Sexy, Too.” So we took a bit of footage we had for a potential promotion and launched it into the world.
Strutting her stuff in the hot pink bra named after her and a black flounced miniskirt, my best friend and biggest muse, Jill Conley became our own AnaOno “hot chick in lingerie in a Super Bowl ad.” She was battling stage IV breast cancer, with a reconstructed breast on her right and a flat scar on her left where her originally reconstructed breast had been damaged due to radiation, causing her to lose the implant. And she looked AMAZING. Gorgeous Jill, made for the camera and stage, was radiant, sexy, alluring and confident as always. The clip still makes me smile and feel her strong spirit lifting up my own every time I see it.
As it turns out, tens of thousands of people watched that ad.
I have also never been on a mission to change anything but one woman’s life. This hasn’t been about solidifying myself as one of the 35 under 35, or to become a lightning rod for the underserved in this traditional billion dollar lingerie marketplace. I have never set my intention to shine a light on the good I do. I have only made it my intention to shine the light on those who have been underserved.
Within the past year and a half there has been a significant societal upheaval in body awareness in retail ad campaigns. Thin is no longer in and curves grace our billboards and fashion mags. This has led to a domino effect as companies race to show off their diversity in size, race, age and sexual orientation in their lookbooks and advertising. And this is a good thing. A very good thing.
But it is frustrating all the same.
There has been a litany of hashtags, media articles, million-dollar marketing campaigns, blogs, Facebook posts, selfies and Tweets sharing how this company or that company is or is not using models of different sizes, different races, different backgrounds and different orientations.
In late August of this year I saw a post about Lonely, a New Zealand lingerie and swim company, using “real women” wearing lingerie and being photographed in “real life” circumstances. Like hanging out in the bathroom with your girlfriend or lying on your NYC roof deck. Tons of big-time media outlets picked up and ran this “amazingly new revolutionary campaign” presumably because Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke were among the models. I’m sorry, with all due respect to Lena whom I think is fantastic, I call serious bullshit.
Three years ago we spent 12 hours a day, three days in a row sweating our asses off with a handful of women I’d met through survivor groups or friends making that first marketing campaign for AnaOno. I did not rely on central casting going through Polaroids of plus-size models, models of color, models of women of a certain age or famous people who’ve had breast cancer. And I certainly wasn’t at the glorious mercy of location scouting, an entourage and a big budget. I was standing in a field in a tank top and rolled up jeans breaking Philadelphia State Park rules while Goose was cutting her yoga pants into shorts with a pair of set scissors before adjusting a camera jib. Our videographer, Tracy, in between scratching the dozens of mosquito bites on her legs was desperately trying to coax yet another smile and twirl from a woman in her 30s who had been in a bra and itchy tulle since 7 a.m. It was 98 degrees, my joints were screaming and our hair stylist was in tears because she was feeling the presence and energy from women who’d died of breast cancer all around us. And we were paying our crew in lukewarm Dunkin’ and deli sandwiches.
In other words, we weren’t doing this to be #ontrend. We were doing this because we loved those we’d lost from the disease, we loved those we’d stood by during treatment and we loved those who were still laughing and running and chasing one another in bras and tutus despite all of our collective exhaustion.
I remember the end of that day as if it were yesterday. We still had one more day left in the shoot - another long, heartbreakingly hot afternoon photographing our survivors in our products for the website - but that evening Jill was flirting with time to wrap up and still make her flight home. She had been put through long day after long day in heels, in pajamas, in tight leather pants, climbing stairs again and again and again, all while battling metastatic pain and fatigue. You could see the weariness in her eyes. But she still kept going, kept cracking jokes, kept following direction, kept snapping into poses. And she made it a point to kiss and hug every single person on set thanking them and telling them she loved them as she hustled off, her black tutu rustling behind her, her fairy makeup still perfect.
This was August 28, 2013. Aerie would launch its Real campaign in Spring 2014, showing unretouched but still gorgeous teen models in its collections. Lane Bryant would begin the curvy revolution a year later. The rest of the lingerie companies would follow suit in 2016.
But we did all of that from DAY ONE. And we did it without any help from a modeling agency. None of the women you have seen in any of our videos, stills and product shots have an agency contract. None of the women have a modeling portfolio for “go sees.” None of the women did this because they fit a body type or skin color. None of the women were under contract or paid a hefty modeling fee. None of the women auditioned for the part.
All of the women were affected by breast cancer.
I have often been asked if I use real women on the AnaOno website. I have to take a pause to keep myself from snapping “As opposed to fake women?”
The women you’ve seen have had two breasts, one breast, no breasts and new breasts. They’ve taken time out of their lives as mothers, bartenders, teachers, accountants, medical billers, lawyers, receptionists, flight attendants and the like to spend a day with us, getting their hair and makeup done, and wearing our products. All so that any one of you around the globe can see our bras on someone we hope looks like you. And we’re still committed to expanding our network of what we like call our AO Ambassadors for our future shoots, with previvors, thrivors, women who’ve had different surgeries, women who are flat, women who are young, and women who are not as young.
This month, Breast Cancer Awareness month, deluge of pink month, some of them will be walking for the cause, some of them will be writing or speaking about breast cancer but many of them will be waking up, looking at their scarred body in the mirror, drinking their coffee, heading out to work, eating takeout and watching Netflix.
Because yes, they are REAL WOMEN. Just like me. Just like you. Just like one out of every eight women you pass on the street or see in the grocery store or sit next to at the nail salon. Just like your sister, your niece, your mom, your daughter, your grandmother, your aunt, your cousin, your best friend or your Facebook friend.
And throughout the rest of this month, and the other 24/7/365, we will be honoring them. Not because we want to call attention to ourselves because, hey, you know, we did it first, thank you very much for not taking the time to blast it out en masse on AdWeek or in every magazine, social media or news outlet. But because they are Rachel, Sandi, Kelly, Jennifer, Alejandra. And they were Miena, Kara and Jill Conley. Not to mention Kathleen, Alison, Allyson, Amanda, Fern, Marenda, Kami, Kathy, Melissa, Jeannine, Sharon and Leah.
We honor them, we talk about them, we photograph them because They Are AnaOno.
And so are you.
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You are not going to look like you used to, and that is OK. With a little ingenuity, anything is possible.