By Dan Jewel
January 27, 1997 12:00 PM

AS A CHILD, MELISSA MILLER WAS big for her age, and her stepfather, she says, never let her forget it. Heavy himself, he imposed a strict low-fat regimen, carted the family with him to a weight-loss program in North Carolina in lieu of a summer vacation and subjected Miller and her two younger siblings to frequent weigh-ins, while charting their results on a wall. “Eating,” says Melissa, “was not a time of joy in my home.”

Those days are long over. Miller—now known simply by her nickname, Emme (pronounced “Emmy”)—has turned her 5’11”, 190-lb., size 14-16 frame into a source of pride. As the leading model in the “plus-size” category (about size 14 and above), Emme, 33, has graced magazines and TV ads clad in everything from swimsuits to snowsuits. Now she is sharing her life story and words of advice in a book, True Beauty. Her message, she says, is that women “don’t have to be a perfect size 6 to be happy.”

Not that she thinks people should gorge whenever the urge strikes. “I give myself anything I want,” she says. “But you treat certain foods with respect. You can have ice cream, but not in pints.” Besides eating sensibly, Emme swims and runs on a treadmill three times a week.

Finding this healthy medium has been a lifelong struggle. Emme recalls being happy as a very young child, living in Manhattan with a divorced mother who worked as a secretary and who “showered me with unconditional love.” But for much of her youth, Emme had a troubled relationship with food—starving herself at meals and then bingeing on M&Ms when she was alone at night. When she was about 5, her mother, Sally Miller, married a man named Bill, and the family moved’ to Saudi Arabia, where he taught music at a secondary school. Bill—who admits he was “a disciplinarian, but with love”—seemed preoccupied with the eating habits of Emme and the two children he had with Sally. They felt as if they were always teetering on the edge of obesity, says Emme’s half brother Chip, now 26 and a Wall Street trader (as well as a part-time plus-size model), and “that if we ate one more cookie we’d be over.”

At Kent boarding school in Connecticut, which she attended starting at age 15, Emme joined the crew team and began feeling comfortable with her body. “I felt so strong,” she says. “With that came confidence.” But her mother had been diagnosed with bone cancer in 1978, and dealing with Sally’s illness and death the following year led to binges. “I would eat,” Emme says, “to satisfy the emptiness.”

After graduating from Syracuse University, she tried her hand as an on-camera reporter for an NBC affiliate in Flagstaff, Ariz., for two years before discovering modeling—and self-acceptance. At the suggestion of friends, she showed up at the Plus Models agency in New York City one day in 1989. “She was the best thing that walked through my door,” recalls then-agency head Susan Georget. “She was toned, athletic and proportional.” Emme spent her first modeling paycheck on a therapist who, she says, helped her accept her size. After six months at Plus, she moved on to the Ford agency where she has thrived.

With True Beauty, Emme says she hopes to help fellow plus-sizers—some 60 percent of American women—gain self-esteem. (Sample tip: “Let’s all go out and bury our bathroom scales.”) She has already reached her half sister Melanie, 24, herself a plus-size model. And though Emme does not speak to her stepfather, Melanie reports that “he is very proud of her. He doesn’t know how to show it.”

The other man in Emme’s life certainly does. In 1989 she married ad exec Phillip Aronson, 34, whom she had met at Syracuse. “You couldn’t miss her—a big, strong, Amazon woman,” recalls Aronson. At first, Emme confesses, she thought his 5’11”, 150-lb. physique was too scrawny for her (“I had reverse prejudice,” she says), but he won her over. The two, who live in Leonia, N.J., now enjoy biking and cross-country skiing on weekends. They hope to have a child in the next few years, and though Emme will surely put on pounds in the process, Aronson won’t mind. “I love every inch of her,” he gushes. “She’s sexy, curvaceous, more than a handful. And when I’m tired, she can give me a piggyback ride.”