Rosie Mercado remembers getting interested calls from top modeling agencies that received her headshot, only to be told they couldn’t work with her after finding out her size.
At the time, the mother-of-three, now 35, had reached a high weight of 410 lbs. Mercado says she had a “not-so-good relationship with food” that was made worse when she endured several traumatic life events over a short period of time.
“I hit rock bottom about eight years ago, and started gaining a lot of weight,” she tells PEOPLE. “My son was diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, my marriage fell apart. Everything that could possibly happen happened.”
For a while, Mercado resigned herself to being larger, even though her quality of life was plummeting.
“For me it was normal for me to have to think about fitting at a table or booth,” she says. “I couldn’t go to the movies. I couldn’t go to Disneyland – I had to hire a nanny so my kids could have fun because I was too heavy for the rides.”
Mercado had a wake up call when an airline employee told her she needed to purchase a second seat to fit on a plane.
“They were really rude,” she says. “They announced it in front of everyone that I needed to buy an additional ticket. That was an ‘aha’ moment for me – either I choose to continue living this lifestyle, or I make a wise decision and take responsibility for my life.”
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The L.A. and Vegas-based model began working out regularly – mixing up boot camp, running, boxing and yoga – and eliminated fast food from her diet.
“It just really comes down to eating habits,” she says of dropping 210 lbs. over a 2-year period. “I do have my cheat meal once a week, but everything other than that meal is high-protein, low-carb, and dairy-free. I eat lots of vegetables and drink lots of water.”
Since dropping the weight, Mercado has seen her modeling career take off, and has just been named the face of plus-size retailer Igigi.com for their holiday campaign.
“I was told that I’d never get a campaign,” she says. “That was huge.”
Another major plus of her weight loss is being able to spend more time being active with her children, aged 8, 9 and 15.
“Just being able to enjoy the outdoors with my kids, that’s phenomenal,” says Mercado. “I can go hiking, I can ride a bike.”
Mercado is continuing her weight loss journey – though clarifies her “goal is not to be a size 2 or 4; that’s not who I am” – but she’s enjoying life right where she is at this moment.
“I feel so confident because of my quality life,” she says. “I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.”