Kate Hogan
August 20, 2012 01:00 PM

Courtesy Wilhelmina Models

Aussie Robyn Lawley has a lingerie campaign, covered Vogue Italia last year and is one of the newest faces of Ralph Lauren. She also happens to be a size 10 (update: actually a 12/14 in the U.S.), considered a plus size in today’s fashion world.

“I had to go through my own self-love, self-hate to get to where I am,” the 23-year-old tells PEOPLE. “It took me years to watch other plus-size models be so confident with themselves. But then I realized that I could use my voice to be a positive role model for girls. When I found plus-size modeling, it was such a relief to be just me.”

At age 16, Lawley entered a modeling competition, eventually signing with an agency at 19. Now, she’s a Wilhelmina model, traveling the globe to shoot ads with some of fashion’s biggest names.

“It feels really good,” she says of her recent success. “I feel it’s been a really long time coming, but it feels like it was meant to happen now.”

In her earlier days, Lawley admits she was pressured to lose weight. “I was told I’d be a huge success,” she says. “I was told to eat less, exercise more. But the thing with my body is that I’m big-boned; I have broad shoulders, I’m really tall, have big hips — it’s just not my body. And I love food! I don’t want to give it up for something that would make me unhappy.”

Indeed; the model runs a mouth-watering food blog, full of photos of her kitchen creations and on-set snacks. “It’s a nice hobby; it challenges me and I get to do my food photography, which I love doing,” she shares.

Inspired by “strong, not-too-skinny” models of the 1990s, like Linda Evangelista, Lawley hopes she can be a source of inspiration for others, as well. “I do try to respond to comments I receive on Facebook,” she says. “Some girls struggle with confidence, so it’s nice to be able to talk to them.”

She’s excited to have her body representing the “real woman,” too. “When I signed on as a plus-size model my friends and family were shocked because I’m a normal girl,” she says. “My friends are my size. They see their bodies in mine, so it gives them hope. They can see me in a lingerie ad and say, ‘I want to buy that lingerie, I’ll look amazing.’ If people can relate to me, it’s a good thing.”

And if modeling doesn’t work out, Lawley can always fall back on a second career in the food business.

“I hope I’m one of those people that if it doesn’t keep getting better, I will switch careers,” she says. “I can see myself really enjoying opening restaurants, doing cooking shows.”

But for now, she’s a model on a mission. “I genuinely want companies to take notice and start being more realistic about who their customer really is,” she adds. “I hope to keep breaking down those barriers.” Hear more from Lawley in an upcoming issue of PEOPLE.

–Kate Hogan


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