Talking to Chenese Lewis about her 20-year journey in the Plus industry feels like a history lesson. Between her many firsts (becoming Miss Plus America and producing Hollywood NOW’s Love Your Body day), to hosting events for some of the most recognizable names in the industry, and creating viral campaigns, her trajectory is one that’s worth following if you want to be a success.
I believe in giving people their flowers when they’re living. I also think it’s important to study and learn from the past before boldly sashaying into the future so when I was thinking of a woman to feature on our 2021 inaugural cover, Chenese Lewis was the first person that I thought of.
During this lengthy interview, Ms. Lewis dropped so many gems that I decided to break it up into 3-parts. During the first part of the interview, Chenese shares the many hats she wears, how she got her start, and events that would eventually develop the skills that she’s known for today.
Stephanie: How would you describe what you do and the impact that you’ve had on the plus-size industry?
Chenese: To put one name over everything I do would be hard. Maybe an influencer? But that’s kind of limiting. There’s actress/host/speaker because it’s hard to put everything under one title. I do some things geared toward the plus industry, but some things are geared toward mainstream too.
Stephanie: If you had to describe yourself in 3 words, which words would you use to describe what you do?
Chenese: I would definitely say host because I host live events and a podcast. I don’t like to say model, because I don’t model anymore, but people always put that in my interviews, but I really don’t model anymore, but I used to. So I would say host, speaker, influencer.
Stephanie: What type of impact do you think that you’ve had on the industry?
Chenese: I think my biggest impact is being a visibly plus-size person in mainstream media. I came out before social media and I was featured in the press many moons ago. I was doing press, representing our community, and on television. Even as an actress on BET, I was the only plus-size actress on that show [Hell Date]. I’ve helped bring awareness and plus representation to the forefront.
Stephanie: You made history as the 1st Miss Plus America in 2003. What prompted you to enter that pageant?
Chenese: Well, because I got the bug to pursue plus-size modeling and acting. I wanted to be involved in it but I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 20 years ago it wasn’t really that many things happening in entertainment in the South. Today is different. Atlanta is popping, New Orleans has some things, but when I was trying to get into the industry it wasn’t a lot of things happening.
I was searching online, looking for opportunities and as a matter of fact, I came across this website that had a message board with modeling opportunities and upcoming things, and the website was named VenusDivas.com and that is where I saw a post about a new pageant that was being introduced called Miss Plus America. My reason for entering was to get exposure because no matter what you’re doing (modeling, acting, or selling something) people need to know who you are, so I did it for exposure which I believed would lead me to more opportunities.
Stephanie: Which it did, right?
Chenese: It didn’t have a big PR backing behind it with opportunities waiting for me but I used the title to my advantage and did self-promotion.
Stephanie: I think you’re the Queen of self-promotion. You could teach a class on the topic.
Chenese: I just learned on my own. You’re not the first person to tell me this. I’m really good at branding myself and I make sure my website looks really nice. I just had to learn to do all of that on my own because I was in Los Angeles and I was competing with people who have more resources than me and people who had a whole team and so had to figure out how I could look comparable to my competition. I always tried to look as polished as I could.
Stephanie: When you became Miss Plus America, was there a specific situation or event that would eventually shape how you would evolve in the industry?
Chenese: Before I became Miss Plus America, I was Miss Plus Louisiana. I won the State title and had to promote myself in the State.
I had to do an appearance once a month to promote my title and to promote my platform. The platform I chose in 2002 was positive body image. I was doing things once a month making appearances and I was promoting my platform and so
After I won the national title and continued on with my career although I made appearances once a month. It was the catalyst for my brand because from 2002 until now I’m still promoting positive body image so it was the catalyst for my brand early on.
Stephanie: Speaking of body image. You also created Love Your Body day for Hollywood Now tell me about your involvement.
Chenese: I moved to Los Angeles in February of 2004. One of the skills I have (besides promoting myself) is networking. I was trying to get acting and modeling gigs and I was just networking with people. I met a lady with a plus size clothing line that I was trying to model for that told me about this organization called the national organization for women. I never heard of the organization and she told me about their love your body day and she told me about their Los Angeles chapter. She suggested that I reach out to them because you’re Miss Plus America and you’re promoting positive body image, and maybe you can link with that organization. She wasn’t affiliated with them, she was just giving me the information. I looked up the organization and she was right, there was a local chapter in Hollywood that was just launching. I don’t know how I get stuff when it’s just launching, but I found out about Miss Plus America when they were just launching as well. They (NOW Hollywood) were trying to get members and get people to become active with the local chapter. At the initial meeting, I introduced myself as Miss Plus America, I’m interested in Love Your Body day and I would love to do something for this chapter for Love Your Body Day. I picked what I wanted to do and they were happy and they backed me up. I did that event for 6 years. When I first produced the event, I had no experience in event production, I did not know about P.R. I did not know a lot of things. I learned a lot of skills from hands-on experience and making mistakes. Producing that event taught me a lot about event production and about promoting my brand.
Come back next Monday for Part 2 of the Chenese Lewis interview!