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Heavyweight Champ

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LAINA PECORA GIVES NEW MEANING TO having your cake and eating it too—especially when she lunches with other models. “They’re picking at their little lettuce, and there’s my chicken and potatoes and my salad,” she says. “A couple of them have said, ‘I fight my weight every day. It would be really cool to be normal. How do you do it?’ ”

Pecora, at 28 America’s most successful large-size model, did it by breaking her profession’s cardinal rule: She gained weight. In 1982, when she came to New York City to become a high-fashion model, the 5’9″ Pecora weighed a bony 96 lbs. “I’d struggled for a whole year to get really thin,” she recalls. “I walked into the Elite Modeling Agency, and they thought I was the best thing in the world. They said I was going to be a star. But I was miserable because I just didn’t eat.”

At least not at first. But even as she was putting her portfolio together, her weight started to creep up; in six months she put on 24 lbs. and had gone from a size 4/6 to a 6/8. “The clients were getting mad,” she says. And as the pressure piled on, so did more pounds. Elite refused to send her on appointments until she got back to 110 lbs.

She never did. Between 1982 and 1986 she managed a New York City health club. In 1985 she underwent bunion surgery, and during the six months she was off her feet and on crutches, she ballooned to 185. In a mere three years, she had practically doubled her body weight—and apparently eaten herself out of a career.

In 1986, while shopping in her neighborhood supermarket in Manhattan, Pecora was intercepted by Tim Arnold, former art director for Lane Bryant, a chain store specializing in large-size women’s apparel. He told her she would be a natural at modeling their clothes. A year later she signed with Ford Models 12 Plus/Big Beauties division, and the offers started to pour in. “It was the first time I felt really good about modeling; now I’m at a perfect working weight—155,” says Pecora, who pulls down $1,250 a day (though it’s petite next to the $25,000 a day rate of Linda Evangelista).

Pecora got into the beauty business early. The second of four children, she grew up in Pittsburgh, where her father worked as a salesman and her mother as a real estate appraiser. Laina entered her first beauty pageant sponsored by her local newspaper at 13. At 18, with runner-up titles in three teen pageants, she left La Roche College after one semester and headed for the bright strobes of New York City.

These days Pecora’s modeling schedule leaves her little opportunity for her favorite activity—seeking out vintage bathing suits. The free time she does have nowadays is devoted to her new fiancé, Craig Schechtman, 38, a San Diego manufacturer of frozen pizzas. And though she was at first hesitant to tell him that she’s a large-size model, he says, “If she’s not a size 3, I don’t care.” And happily, now, neither does she.