Model Leah Kelley Says She Was Forced to Gain Weight to Make It In the Plus-Size Industry

"I would end every single night with a Häagen-Dazs quart to myself," Leah Kelley, 28, tells PEOPLE

Photo: Anna Shmel

Leah Kelley always wanted to be a model.

But after starting her career at 19 years old as a size 8, she learned quickly that she either had to gain weight or lose it to make it in the business.

“I knew losing weight was not an option for my body shape,” says Kelley, 28. “But if I gained weight, I was told I could travel the world – and I did.”

By the time she was 25, Kelley had gotten up to a size 16, weighing 200 lbs. “I had people always telling me, ‘Oh, you’re beautiful,’ ” she says, adding that she landed campaigns for Calvin Klein and Vogue Germany around that time.

“I discovered penne alla vodka and I would eat that almost every single day,” she says. “Then I would end every single night with a Häagen-Dazs quart to myself.”

But overeating and “avoiding exercise” eventually took a toll on her body.

“I wanted to not be winded when I went up the subway stairs and feel like I was going to pass out. Even sitting up was hard,” she says. “I didn’t want to sacrifice my health anymore for the chance to travel the world and make money.”

So Kelley joined a gym, stopped binge eating, started following inspirational fitness accounts on Instagram and eventually got back down to her natural size 8.

“I actually don t think about what I eat too much anymore,” she says. “I just have what I want and if you’re working out and living an active lifestyle, you can eat whatever you want.”

Despite being told she may never work again if she lost weight, the 5’11” beauty says she is actually more successful now as an “inbetweenie” – although she would prefer to drop labels all together.

“I am someone who does evolve,” says Kelley, who recently started her own fashion and fitness blog, Thick and Toned. “My size can fluctuate and change and I am not defined or constrained by a label.”

Signed with her new modeling agency Wilhelmina, the New Yorker has been able to book campaigns with companies like Target, JCPenny, and model Robyn Lawley’s new swimwear line, all of which embrace her natural size – while still sneaking in the occasional ice cream.

“Now, I enjoy it and I stop when I’ve had enough,” she says. “I know that there’s a certain balance in everything.”

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