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Model Crystal Renn: Plus-Size Controversy

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Crystal Renn was busy in Paris posing for the French edition of Vogue last month when she started receiving strange e-mails. “People were saying, ‘Are you ok?’ ” recalls the plus-size model. “I had no idea what they were talking about.”

The answer left her dumbfounded: Retouched photos of an alarmingly thin Renn-who famously overcame anorexia seven years ago-hit the Web, igniting a firestorm of controversy that left people wondering if the onetime champion of full-figured fashionistas was caving to the industry’s skinny standards. Or, worse, was she suffering an eating-disorder relapse? None of the above, she insists. “I am healthy. I am toned. I am not like that,” Renn, 24, says of the snapshots, which “upset” her. “I don’t want some girl who’s recovering from anorexia to see that and think, ‘Oh, she actually thinks only being thin is beautiful.’ That is not what I’m about.” But she doesn’t deny that she has dropped 15 lbs. from her 5’9″ frame in the last year. “I started a new workout routine,” says Renn, who now weighs 150 lbs. “I hadn’t exercised in seven years!”

While most people put workouts on hold for something fun like a vacation, the break became a life-saving one for Renn. In addition to anorexia, at age 14 she suffered from “raging” exercise bulimia-a condition where someone works out compulsively to burn calories-which helped her maintain the frighteningly thin 95-lb. frame she needed to book modeling gigs. “I’d work out eight hours a day and eat nothing but lettuce,” she admits. “If I felt like I was going to faint, I would have a zucchini and get just enough sugar to keep going.” After three years of sneaking to different gyms (“My fear was people saying, ‘Why is she on the elliptical for eight hours?’ “), Renn finally cracked and confessed to her agent the extreme measures she was living under to fit into the modeling world’s mold.

She spent the next few months overcoming her disorder and eventually found success as a 175-lb., plus-size model, walking the runway for fashion powerhouses like Jean Paul Gaultier and Chanel and maintaining her voluptuous figure by sticking to a balanced diet (“I eat whatever I want, but I have five servings of vegetables a day”). But Renn steered clear of gyms out of fear her old habits would resurface. “For years I was scared to step close to exercise,” she says. It wasn’t until a hiking vacation in Patagonia last December that she felt ready to add fitness back into her routine. “It’s all new to me,” says the Brooklyn-based model, who practices yoga and hikes in upstate New York. “I don’t know what my body’s going to do.”

Some critics don’t like how her waistline has whittled down. “For fans, there’s a disappointment,” says fellow plus-size star Emme. “They were relating to her as a full-figured woman at a size 14. But if Crystal decided at 5’9″ being a size 10 for her is healthy, then that’s what it’s going to be.” “She’s not a plus-size person,” adds Renn’s agent Gary Dakin. But in fashion, where anything above a sample size 2 is considered big, “she’s still outside the norm.”

If Renn has learned anything in this business, it’s that the only definition of “norm” that counts is the one she establishes for herself. “I can’t conform to a body that other people want from me, whether it’s a 0 or a 16,” she says. “This is me taking care of myself. And I feel the best I ever have right now.”