Jason Hetherington
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May 18, 2016 12:00 PM

These days, Ashley Graham is a household name thanks to her groundbreaking Sports Illustrated cover and her role as a voice for curvy women everywhere. But it wasn’t always so easy for the supermodel.

The 28-year-old Graham has some horror stories from when she started out in the industry.

“I had agencies telling me that I had to lose weight,” Graham tells PEOPLE. “I had one that waved money in my face and said, ‘If you lose more “lb’s” – pounds – you can make a lot more of this,’ and he was waving $20 bills in my face.”

“That wasn’t even a motivator for me to lose weight. I was peaking at a size 18, and in the plus size fashion industry, models go from a size 8 to a size 16/18. So if you’re on the smaller size or the bigger size, you’re not going to work as much as if you’re in the middle. So he was trying to encourage me to lose weight but it didn’t work, because I was that person where if you told me to go on a diet and lose weight, I’m just going to gain weight.”

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Comments like that were also harmful to Graham’s self-esteem. While she grew up with a generally positive body image thanks to her mom, who would make her feel better when she was teased at school for her size (“I was called all kinds of ugly names – cottage cheese thighs, thunder thighs”), Graham struggled when she moved from her home in Nebraska to New York City at age 17.

“I had gained a lot of weight because my mom wasn’t cooking for me and I wasn’t working out,” she says. “I started to really hate myself. I would literally just look in the mirror, and I would be disgusted. It was a constant degrading of my body. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re worthless. I’m surprised you’re a model. Are some of the things I would say to myself.”

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“And as the years went on, I really started to believe it, and not that I saw my work deplete, but I saw that my work couldn’t go any farther than what it was.”

Turning her words around is what helped Graham breakthrough the negativity.

“A lot of taking care of my body and my mind and my soul had to do with talking to myself and actually giving myself affirmations,” she says. “It got me out of my funk. I still had cellulite, I still had back fat, I still had jiggly arms, and I decided to love every part of it.”

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