Victoria Janashvili
April 27, 2015 02:30 PM

Denise Bidot has been a successful plus-size model for the past eight years, but her career – which has included major ad campaigns and shows in New York Fashion Week – actually began by chance.

“I just got lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” she tells PEOPLE.

Bidot originally moved to Los Angeles at the age of 18 to pursue acting, but she was constantly told she needed to lose 10 to 15 lbs.

“I’d be like, ‘No! How dare you? You should love me the way I am. There’s nothing wrong,’ ” says the Puerto Rican and Middle Eastern beauty, 28. “I just didn’t want to compromise who I was and what I believed in for an industry, no matter how much I loved it.”

So Bidot began working behind the scenes as a makeup artist, when she was discovered by a photographer.

“She’s like, ‘Have you ever thought of modeling?’ I’m like, ‘Look, I’m short and chubby – are you serious? What kind of modeling am I going to do?’ ” she recalls. “She changed my life.”

Since then, Bidot has booked international and domestic campaigns – including ads for Forever 21 and, most recently, Lilly Pulitzer for Target – and opened the CHROMAT show in New York Fashion Week, breaking boundaries that had never been crossed before. But her modeling gigs weren’t always so glamorous.

“Eight years ago we had the ugliest clothes!” exclaims the Miami native, who currently resides in N.Y.C. “It was muumuus and stuff my grandma would want to wear. You didn’t feel sexy wearing the stuff.”

Slowly, the industry began to change.

“I started seeing the progression,” she says. “There started being junior brands that started popping up. There are so much cooler, hipper clothes now because I think people finally opened their eyes and realized every girl wants to feel strong, she wants to be cool. We want to look fabulous, the same as anyone else.”

Bidot believes availability of clothes for women of all sizes has helped alter attitudes as well.

“When the clothes change, the women change,” she says. “They start feeling more confident and then all of a sudden, people start seeing them differently. It’s been a really, really cool thing to see from the inside out.”

The perception of plus-size models was also transformed.

“We were like the stepchild back in the day, but now we’re not,” Bidot says. “We’re right there in line with these girls, we’re included in the lineup, we’re in the mix. Plus-size girls are now doing beauty campaigns and hair campaigns and so many different things that for so long we fought for and wanted. We’re in a really great place in the fashion industry, and now it’s rippling into TV and film. It’s really wonderful to see.”

Though a boom in the plus-size modeling industry also means more competition, Bidot doesn’t mind.

“There was a handful of us back in the day, and there’s a big pool right now,” she says. “It’s nice to see. I think there’s room for everyone. A lot of girls get caught up looking at what other people are doing. You’ve just got to stay in your lane. You’ve just got to go forward and know that whatever is meant for you is going to come your way.”

No matter what, Bidot knows that her biggest fan and cheerleader is at home: her 6-year-old daughter, Jocelyn.

“I always laugh about it because when I come in with hair extensions or lashes or all this makeup, she’s like, ‘Take it off, mommy, you’re beautiful just the way you are,’ ” she says. “It’s amazing to think that a 6-year-old can have what so many women of my generation are struggling to figure out. We can change their mentality growing up, to let them always know that they’re perfect they way they are. She understands.”

RELATED VIDEO: Meet Ashley Graham, the First Plus-Size Model to Be Featured in the SI Swimsuit Issue

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