The name I was given at birth is Precious Lee, but when I graduated from college and moved to New York City to pursue modeling, my agent suggested I change my name to something more mainstream. I was surprised—my entire life, people had told me “Precious” sounded like a stage name—but I figured my agent knew best at that time, so I decided to along with it.
I told him a story about how I was supposed to be named “Victoria” but that, when I was born, my dad said I was so precious. And all of a sudden, before I knew it, everyone was like, “Perfect, that’s it! Victoria.”
I quickly realized I didn’t connect with the name. I would go into casting and write down “Precious” by mistake—or they would call for “Victoria,” and I wouldn’t answer. I went to my agents at the time and asked if I could start going by “Precious” professionally, but they said they thought it was best I stick with “Victoria.”
I changed agencies a year later and worked with completely different agents, but I still didn’t feel like myself. It wasn’t just my name, either: When I cut my hair short last year, my agents weren’t very happy with me—even though I told them I could wear extensions. And there are still stipulations within the plus-size industry as far as measurements go. Some clients like you to be bigger, some clients like you to be smaller, but hat’s a whole other story. It’s easy to get confused by ideas of what people want you to be in this industry.
I’ve always felt that models don’t all have to look a certain way, especially in the plus-size industry, which is supposed to promote diversity—but I guess it just goes to show that there are still beauty ideals, even in plus-size modeling. (I don’t mind the term plus-size, by the way—I just wish society would realize that your size doesn’t have to determine how happy you are.)
Eventually, I got tired of being told what my name should be, how I should wear my hair and how I should dress. So in 2015, I switched agencies and signed with IMG. I told them I didn’t want to feel like my working identity was so disconnected from my personal one. I said I wanted to change my name back to “Precious” and that I was going to keep my hair short. They were like, “Great, we love that.”
To finally be able to use my own name, which for years I’d been told wasn’t “right” for my career, was amazing—and once I started sticking to my guns and trusting my own voice, that’s when everything started to click for me.
Within a month, I had booked Lane Bryant’s #ImNoAngel campaign—and they loved my short hair. That campaign went viral, and I truly believe that taking back control of my identity contributed to my booking that job, especially since it was all about being stripped down and feeling confident.
Now, I’m happy to say that a lot of my clients shoot me with short hair—that’s how I wore it for the Lane Bryant swimsuit ad that appeared in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue.
You don’t have to be in modeling to experience the same types of issues I did. I think a lot of women do everything they can to fit into the mold they feel others want them to fit into.
No matter what industry you work in, a lot of people will try to manipulate you. It’s so easy to take in everything that you hear and let others’ voices drown out your own. You can be completely manipulated into acting, doing and saying whatever other people want you to.
Some people will tell you that you should take what you can get and just be grateful for the work you have, but there’s a point in every woman’s career when she has to take control of it and be selective about which suggestions she follows. You can say “no” to opportunities or advice that doesn’t resonate with you—and that’s O.K.
Read more: Career Success Isn’t Just About ‘Leaning In’
Women so often underestimate our own voices, and it’s often scary to say, “No, my reason and feelings are valid, and this doesn’t sit right with me.” But it’s so important to listen to and act on your intuition. You deserve to trust yourself and your instincts.
I was so grateful to see that my saying “no” ultimately opened so many more doors for me. I think Precious is a better model than Victoria ever was. Because when you’re truly connected to yourself, everyone around you can feel it—and if nothing else, whatever you achieve will be accomplished on your own terms.
Precious Lee became the first African-African plus-size model to appear in Sports Illustrated’s annual Swimsuit Issue in 2016. She also starred in Lane Bryant’s viral campaigns #ImNoAngel, #PlusIsEqual and #ThisBody.