Maya Stepper Stays True To Who She Is

Maya Stepper on becoming a model as an adult, how social media has had a positive influence in her life, and why she wants to continue modeling for as long as she can.
Maya Stepper Stays True To Who She Is

“It almost feels like, in this industry, no matter if you’re plus sized or a size zero, you’re never right compared to real life. Growing up, I was always super skinny. People would always tell me, ‘eat eat eat!’ and I was eating like a bear. And then as a model there’s a certain shape that is expected — silently expected. No one talks about it, but I notice I work much more when I’m skinny, clients look at me differently when I’m very skinny. But then in real life, I feel like I often get negative backlash about being skinny. Everyone has an opinion.

Maya wears the Balc in Blush

When people tell me to eat, it’s freaking rude — I would never tell someone to stop eating. It’s body shaming. It’s really hurtful. I don’t respond to those people generally — I’ve found my way to be comfortable in my own body and I’m like OK, that’s your issue because you’re thinking about it. I’m not. When I was a teenager I was so uncomfortable with my body. That’s the age where I guess you’re comparing yourself so much to others. I really stopped doing that. I think it’s the healthiest thing, to just stop comparing yourself to others. We’re all built a certain way, and if something doesn’t come naturally, it’s probably not meant to be you. You can manage to have a crazy diet and be totally out of your proportion skinny or the other way around, but it will not long-term work for you because you’re not meant to be this way.

I was already in my mid-twenties when I started modeling. I studied industrial design for a while and my whole life was that. I got scouted on the street and booked one really big job — I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Like this was super fun, thank you guys, and I went back to studying. But requests kept coming in after the campaign went up. I was at university, no life, studying studying, and I was like, ‘Fuck, is this really what I want to do? Do I really want to be in the office 24/7, do I really want to fulfill other people’s dreams?’ One day I was supposed to walk in to my reading, and I just turned around and I walked in to the office and I was like, ‘sign me out.’ And I came home and my boyfriend back then was sitting on the couch on his lunch break, and he was like, ‘what are you doing here?’ and I was like, ‘I just signed out, I’m going to model.’ And he was like, ‘you’re fucking crazy.’ And I was like, ‘yeah, yeah I’m crazy, but I’d rather be crazy than bored.’ And I signed with an agency like three days later. I flew to Cape Town and was there for three months, I booked lots of work, and I met Deniz there, too. She was one of the first people to take my photo. We really clicked right away.

Until now, it took me a long time to realize that I’m a model. I can actually really be this. You know, you see a billboard somewhere with a beautiful woman and clothes, but I never had that string of thought that like, this is a job, this woman goes to a studio to take these pictures to sell these jeans. I never realized it was an actual job. That’s how much I didn't think about it. And now, I feel like I really have found something that I enjoy doing. I feel like a lot of people don’t realize what an insight [models have] into a creative world. You learn so much. I feel like I’m in a position where I can watch everyone on set, I can see how everyone works. That’s really cool. It opens a lot of doors. And I soak it all up. Coming from a creative background, studying arts and architecture, I feel like my ears are always open. I hope it’s going to be more and more fluid, where I’m not just a face, I’m also a creator.

Maya wears the Balc in White. 

I read a quote once somewhere and it goes, ‘the girl in the magazine wishes she looked like the girl in the magazine.’ And I think what I would explain is that we are always looking at such an idealistic picture of things, or we’re so used to that, seeing so much perfection, and a lot of people don’t realize how much is behind that. How much work goes into a perfect picture and a woman looking the way she looks in a magazine cover. That’s a day’s work. Constant touch ups, perfect lighting, retouching, styling, a whole team that sits there to make a woman as beautiful as possible. Like, of course she doesn’t look like this walking in the door in the morning. It’s hard work. So much work and dedication goes into that from a big team of people. It’s not just someone sitting there pretty.

I get treated [as just a face] a lot of the time. Where people treat me almost like an object. It’s frustrating. But I feel like I’ve found a really good way, through social media — which is a very powerful tool if you use it the right way — of showing people I have so many more nuances to me than just my look. I take photos as well, I write poetry here and there... it’s always interesting seeing people’s reactions being like, ‘Oh, I didn't know you liked jazz music,’ or ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were taking photos of your friends.’ I’m really going to focus on showing more of my hobbies. I think it inspires people a lot.

Maya wears the Plunge in Black

I think I’m going to model for a long time. People always ask models ‘what are you going to do after modeling,’ and like, I don’t freaking know. I don’t ask other people either what they’re planning to do after their career. I’m not going to go to a painter and ask what they’re going to do after this. It’s not necessarily a job that’s a forever job, but actually, for a lot of people it is. I’ve met a lot of models in their old age and they’re doing great. As long as you have fun in a job and as long as you manage to do this job well, why not do it for a long time?

What makes this industry so interesting is that it constantly changes. I see very positive changes. I see that people are unapologetically themselves, especially models. Like, ‘listen up, I’m actually a curvy girl. I tried to be a size zero model for five years and now I’m the shape I was meant to be.’ And all of a sudden they blow up because it’s so empowering and it makes people feel good. I think at the end of the day we all want to feel good and it’s much more refreshing to look at someone who has that aura of confidence. The times are now that we realize that people come in all shapes and sizes and characters. It’s about being authentic.

I feel most insecure when I do something that I feel like just wasn’t me. And of course, I get really insecure about certain things, but I don’t let it get to me too much. I don’t know how to explain it — I don’t even want to speak about [my insecurities] because I’d rather move on. And that’s what always makes me happiest. Like yeah, I’m insecure, but fuck it. I can get into that mindset now. I’m also not really trying to change it that much. Everyone has their little parts they don’t like. And everyone looks different in someone else’s eyes as well, you know? Someone can be like, ‘Oh I hate my thighs,’ and it can be like, ‘Oh, well, I’ve only been seeing your beautiful eyes all day.’

Maya wears the Plunge in Black

Something that really stuck with me is when I was a teenager and I was feeling awkward about my body, always complaining. My mom would stand me in front of a mirror and she would be like, ‘OK, what don’t you like, what’s your problem right now, what bothers you?’ And I’d be like ‘this and that.’ And she’d be like ‘OK fine, you don’t like that. Now find at least the same amount of things that you like. Now you have that. You probably will not be able to change what you don’t like, so just drop it. And try to see these other things.’ It was very interesting. My mom has been a huge influence in my life. Lots of confidence I learned from her. I was such a mean teenager. You know when you’re a teen and you think your parents are so embarrassing and so stupid and you’re awkward all the time. I’d be so mean like, ‘you look stupid in that dress,’ and she was always like, ‘No I don’t. I look fabulous.’ And she’d just walk off. I sort of feel like I’ve become this person now. I don’t freaking care what other people think — if I love this dress, I’m going to wear it. And I think this attitude makes people look at you in a different way.

I was really lucky to be raised in a way where I was taught to be myself, and to be confident. I do care what people think if it’s about how I make them feel. But if it’s about a look, or if it’s unreasonable, I generally don’t care. If someone starts comparing me, I have just learned to not let it get to me. My friends call me Iron Maya. [Laughs] 

Maya wears the Plunge in Black

I would be lying if I said social media hasn’t affected me. When a lot of people wouldn’t believe in me, it was a tool for me to show my own vibe and my character. I’ve always had a lot of fun taking photos, curating a feed, creating a vibe. I do get a lot of messages — I really, really try to answer as much as I can. I think interaction is really important, because you are putting something out there, and I almost feel rude to not answer after that. So I try to be in touch with followers, I try to answer their questions. Sadly, a lot of the time, it's about what I eat. ‘What is your diet?’ I always feel weird about that because what should I tell you? How does it influence someone else if I tell them what I eat in a day? Are they going to sit down and eat that exact thing? Where does this question even come from and what is the expected response? Because again, everyone has their own body type, and even if I would eat what one of my friends eat, it wouldn't make me the same as them. It’s so individual. I’m built the way I was built. I’m not doing any crazy diets or anything, I really don’t believe in that. I think it’s important to eat healthy. Treat yourself here and there — if I don’t eat the foods I crave, I just get sad. And I eat them later anyway. But I don't stop myself from having snacks, I don't stop myself from eating sweets. I just eat good foods, nutritious foods. People totally think I’m starving myself. Sometimes it almost feels like people wish I would say, ‘yeah I don't eat and I work out every day.’ Everybody is built differently, there are all different body types. At the end of the day, you try to be the healthiest and best version of yourself — not of someone else.

My mom would always say, ‘you need to be true to yourself.’ I actually have that tattooed on my ribs here, it’s from Shakespeare, ‘to thine own self be true.’ It’s from Hamlet. And that’s in my mother’s handwriting, and it’s what she always told me was the most important part of your own life. To be true to you, true to who you are and not trying to be anything else. Also, not trying to make other people be anything else. If I would care what people think about me, I could just stay home. I could lock myself up. [Laughs]”

Photographed by Deniz Alaca. Interview by Anna Jube. Styled by Emily Newman.

Tags: bodytalk , Self

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