Precious Lee: “I will show up in a ballroom gown if I want to”
The supermodel, astrological authority and certified breath worker zooms with Marjon Carlos from her crystal-laden apartment.
Precious Lee’s story originally appeared in i-D's The New Worldwi-De Issue, no. 363, Summer 2021. Order your copy here.
Supermodel Precious Lee is reading me down. With the most casual ease, she’s telling me about myself, my habits, my ticks, my neuroses, and in any other context, that would be a bad thing. But Zooming in from her crystal-laden apartment in downtown New York, Precious, who is also a Level 3 certified breath worker, is relaying nothing but a positive message. Having just learned my sun sign (Aries) and moon sign (Virgo), Lee is tapping into my chaotic astrological chart and telling me what she sees.
She’s a Virgo sun, too, with an unflinching impulse towards perfection and hard work. Her father is an Aries, he taught her how to vouch for herself. “Aries have an instinct to think of their own opinion first, and a lot of people don’t do that,” Precious says, in her Southern accent. It’s sweet and rich and sounds like how all the pretty girls from her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia talk. They know they’re fine and are full of familiarity. Instant kin.
She continues, “But Aries do, and they move from that. That’s what makes them hardheaded. They’re the first of the Zodiac, so they’re used to initiating.” Precious speaks with authority. She tells me that my moon and sun are constantly at odds. “So you initiate something, and then your Virgo moon will come in and just totally take you out!” But what can be done? “You should work with your heart chakra and your solar plexus and breathe into those. Just put some rose quartz on your chest, some green calcite – I love green calcite – and some tiger’s eye for your solar plexus.” I don’t know what any of those things are, but I trust her. She wants to help Black folks to tap into their own magic. Precious radiates as much light as any of the constellations she discusses over our two-hour video call. She describes her spiritual practice as taking in various influences from sound therapy, chakra work, scriptures, astrology, and gospel music.
Precious has been experiencing a spellbinding year of incredible success since walking the Versace SS21 show, and becoming the first non-traditional-sized African-American model to walk the runway of the Italian luxury house. Precious glided through the show’s water-ruined Atlantis set for the production, her endlessly curvaceous form poured into a Day-Glo starfish-patterned mini dress.
While no audience was present to take in the collection live due to Covid-19, Precious’ impact was felt immediately. She lit up the timeline. Mass media clamoured to speak to the history-making model, with Precious appearing on Good Morning America and The Daily Show to discuss her barrier-breaking turn on the catwalk as a size 14 (sometimes 16) model. It was a glimpse of a change in an industry that, amid Black Lives Matter protests last summer, had been aired out for its glaring blind spots and exclusionary praxis when it comes to race, size, age and gender expression. This watershed moment – seeing a self-defined “big, Black girl from Atlanta” take the fashion world by storm – felt as momentous as the first steps on the moon. Like a rocket, off Precious went to star in blockbuster campaign after blockbuster photo spread. She’s had Vogue Italia covers, a star turn in the much-buzzed-about Ivy Park campaign last fall, with even more to follow from Versace, DSquared2, Miu Miu, and Marc Jacobs’ Perfect perfume.
Right now, Precious is breaking down stigmas and conventions that have long plagued the industry, but she was hardly an overnight success. She was first scouted between classes while studying communications at Clark Atlanta University. After graduation, she decided to forgo law school to pursue fashion full time. She gave herself a year to ‘make it’ in New York, or she would go back to school and become an entertainment lawyer. But as soon as she landed in New York, she began working, snatching up lingerie and swim work, two markets that curve or plus-size models often get siloed into. But Precious wanted to work with fashion’s behemoths.
The industry was slow to respond, but she never wavered, and she steadily began booking fashion week appearances and landmark campaigns. As one of the stars of Lane Bryant’s #PlusIsMore in 2015, she became the first African-American curve model to grace the pages of American Vogue when the ad ran in the magazine. Which is all to say that she is not new to the game, but that fashion is catching up with her.
But this is no ‘moment’. That is far too reductive and cursory a term to describe the journey of a non-traditional-sized Black Southern woman to the upper echelons of fashion. Precious sees it as a revolution: “Revolutions have ongoing, lasting, continuous effects. And my quote-unquote ‘moment’ is historical. And because of that, it will never be just a moment. It will always be an indelible part of this industry.”
It’s a revolution that sparks necessary change around inclusion that’s not just diversity theatre but dismembers old systems of casting and image-making entirely. And if we are going to talk about timing, hers is certainly divine. “I always had the goal of wanting to do Versace,” she says. “That was never not there. It’s not like all of a sudden, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m working with these people.’ I’m manifesting every single thing.” She had faith that it would eventually all come to be as it should. “I was like, ‘God said we have it. And I’m supposed to have it when I’m supposed to have it.’”
Take this cover, for instance. She’s been dreaming of this shoot since high school, imagining how she would squeeze her eye shut for that wink. But never did she think that it would be produced on location, in her hometown, captured by another fellow ATLien, Tyler Mitchell. Thinking about it all, she says wistfully, “Sounds divine to me”.
Atlanta itself is just a mix of everything. “Being from the South, spirituality was about energy and more about attention and intention. It’s like, ‘Strongly believe in what you believe it is.’” Precious’ spiritual practice helps in creating necessary and healthy boundaries between herself and the demands of her increasingly fast-paced career and the relentless cycle of violence against Black people by the police in America. “Even to be able to transmute the energy of a timeline these days requires so much strength. I don’t think people understand how physically, mentally, emotionally taxing it is to even be able to be informed and be Black. How can you be informed and be African-American and not?” she explains.
The day we speak, the murder of Daunte Wright – a 20-year-old unarmed Black man from Minneapolis who was killed by police officer Kim Potter after a traffic violation relating to an air freshener hanging in his mirror – has filled our timelines and consumed our thoughts. We’re both drained from the onslaught, but Precious sits at an interesting intersection. The trailblazing model is creating imagery to inspire – something that directly counters the narratives of death and violence that media has pushed to define the Black American experience – while still being deeply traumatised by the injustice. “I’ve never seen such consecutive visuals of us being executed, murdered,” Lee says. “And I just feel like because of that, and being able to still actually be a part of something that is creative and uplifting and to try to give people more access to something besides the pain that we’re dealing with and what we’re actually being dealt with… It’s a lot.”
Precious doesn’t doubt for a second that she’s also surrounded by the unrelenting protection of her ancestors – those who laid the groundwork for the model’s destined ascent. “Wow, I’m telling you now, my ancestors, my spirit guides, my God does not play about with Precious Lee. Literally, there is nothing that I feel I’m supposed to have that will not get to me, because I know how connected I am to God,” the model begins. “There is no way in the world, on any realm, I feel in my heart that a seed would be planted in me to have a desire to do something and I couldn’t do it.” In fact, a close read of her family tree and you’ll find that taking up space, entertaining a crowd, and turning a look is simply her destiny. Her father, Rudy, was a well-known hair stylist in Atlanta, keeping the manes of Chaka Khan and the like perfectly coiffed. Precious’ mother was a local style star in her heyday, making club appearances with her equally well-appointed late Uncle Keith. Then there was, of course, Precious’s grandmother, who owned a clothing boutique and passed down her Chanel and Louis Vuitton pieces to her; and her Uncle Clarence sang with The Five Stairsteps soul group. Even her sister was a former ‘straight-figured’ model. In every sense of the saying, she is her ancestor’s wildest dreams.
Since she was a kid, the model’s family has always made her feel unstoppable. She recalls finding old diaries she kept as a child, where she scribbled missives of defiance. “I was just like, ‘I ain’t doing this. I’m doing that. I’m not listening. I’m not letting anybody stop me!’” Amused at her own tenacity, she attributes her parents for that spirit. “I’m just like, ‘Mom, Dad you all showed out with me.’ I was so turned up! I was like, ‘I refuse to let you tell me that I can’t have what I want, and I’m going to do this split in front of this pyramid. I’m going to be the Homecoming queen. And I’m going to be the PRSSA [Public Relations Student Society of America ] president.’” Hindering the growth and policing the bodies of Black girls in American culture – especially those that fit outside traditional sizing – is swift and vicious. But Lee would have no part. “I was the chunky kid that literally would break out, like, ‘Whoa, no.’” she recalls. “These limitations, even the physical limitations we put on little girls – I was never meant for it.”
Besides, she’s a true and true Georgia peach to her core. Growing up in the College Park neighbourhood of Atlanta gave her a swagger, and she fed off the energy of the city, whose denizens are equally as expressive in their dress as they are in their humour. She gained a style and attitude that took no prisoners. “I seriously told people a long time ago, ‘Don’t ask me what I’m wearing to nothing. I will show up in a ballroom gown if I want to’,” she laughs. “So if you’re trying to base what you wear off me, don’t. Wear what you want to wear!”
Photography Tyler Mitchell
Fashion director Carlos Nazario
Hair Latisha Chong using Bumble and bumble.
Make-up Jamal Scott using Hourglass Cosmetics.
Set design Whitney Hellesen.
Photography assistance Zack Forsyth, Owen Smith-Clark and Casanova Cabrera.
Styling assistance Christine Nicholson, Jennifer De La Cruz, Cari Pacheco and Marah Rice.
Tailor Andrea Francis.
Set design assistance Daniel May-Applegate, Erini Sadek and Michael Silvera.
Production Amanda Bertany.
Production coordinator Carson Howell.
Production assistance Mark Wilder and Trenton Davis.
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING.