Ask as many questions as possible. Nobody expects you to know how to run your own organization based off of your inspiration to do so! Setting meetings and asking questions to all types of people (friends, models, creatives, PR professionals) has been one of the best ways to gather perspective and take stock in what I do.
As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Phoebe “Pojo” Joseph.
Phoebe, also known as Pojo, is a 21-year-old model based in NYC. After getting scouted to model at just eleven, she signed to an agency and began working with clients from DELiA*s and Macy’s, to Thom Browne and Off-White.
Pojo started the Instagram account @models.that.eat during Fashion Week when she was sixteen, documenting her meals between castings with friends. What started as a playful photo diary began to transform into a passionate community, which led her to interviewing industry leaders on her YouTube channel, traveling across the world to Tokyo to host her debut exhibition, and a feature in Dazed100. Through it all, food and body image have always been the focus of her work.
Models That Eat is an online platform created and curated by Phoebe Pojo, exploring the diets of models and their personal stories. Role models. Real stories. Ridiculously amazing food!
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
My name is Phoebe but everyone calls me Pojo. I grew up in South Orange, NJ in a family of soccer players, sports were a big part of my upbringing. I grew up around all types of food. My father is Lebonese so that was always an influence. My town was home to inspiring artists like SZA and Lauryn Hill, so art has always been embraced around me. My dad is a salesman and my mom is a professional calligrapher, so business-meets-creative surrounded and fueled me. In 7th grade, I was scouted by Teen Vogue to model in a cafeteria (very fitting). This kicked off my modeling career in New York which was never something I imagined. I was a scrawny 13 year old with no confidence and somehow had a spread in Teen Vogue; this parlayed into working with great clients like Macys, DELiA*s, and more. I had a double life: balancing school work and varsity soccer with a bizarre-but-balanced life as a working teen. It was a bit of a fake-it-til-you-make-it story for me. I went into high school and was treated well because of the assumptions around what a model is in society. That comfort level from the title plus the separation between me and my peers created a level of exploration and curiosity for me, allowing me to feel liberated through my job. New York City brought me my closest lifelong friends (outside of the “normal” high school structure). I had a private life in New York, and that was an outlet I loved, one that fed my confidence.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
My mom gave me the Dr. Seuss book Oh, The Places You’ll Go at 16. It was a simple sweet narrative, it really resonated with me. When I read it, I could see my life snowballing into a collection of crazy coincidences and experiences. It embodies how I feel about the future at all times, blindly optimistic. The book and her note is something I always carry with me.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
From the gaze of my work, with Models That Eat, I’ve pondered a lot what my purpose is and what it means to make a difference. To me, it’s changing people’s perspective on the world at large, and in my case, the modeling industry. It’s a place with a lot of assumptions and harsh realities; people jump to conclusions. It affects the way people feel about their body image and treatment of others. I’ve had the opportunity to see the models’ side of the industry, and that’s what my platform does for others. There was a moment when I felt I was making a difference; people on the street started coming up to me in New York, not asking for a photo and leaving — they’d come up to me with tears in their eyes or tell me their story, sharing how they watched a Models That Eat video and the story they watched helped them. Many of these people have ended up becoming friends of mine in the long-run. This shows me I’m not only creating a community of people who care, but I’m impacting the way people see the world. I hope to give a softer lens, one that’s kinder and based in reality rather than in the fantasy world of sunshine and rainbows the modeling industry manufactures. Models That Eat makes a difference by discussing the real stuff.
Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?
My platform is called Models That Eat. It’s a safe space online for models to discuss their relationship with food and their bodies. My goal with the platform is to bridge the gap between people on social media and the models they follow. In a world where there’s more transparency and honesty around models’ relationships with food and their bodies, we can all have a real look at how the world views body narratives and how that creates a dissonance of what’s real and what isn’t. I really value the power of social media, so what I hope to do is reach people through these avenues, showing they have a community online, they’re not alone, and their journeys with food is valid and heard. Whether you’re a teacher, a Door Dasher, a model, we’re all impacted by this industry at large. Coming together to speak our truths can make a huge difference.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I initially started Modes That Eat as an Instagram food account where I would post meals my friends and I were eating between castings. It was a really playful platform for me. I’d post everything from silly recipes to funny photos of us playing with food. It was a response to people who’d make snarky comments to us about our diets, like “models don’t eat” or “eat a burger.” I always thought they were ridiculous claims. As the page grew, I received more and more DM’s saying the account really helped individuals with their personal relationships with food and ED recovery. When models first started saying that to me, I was confused, because my page wasn’t a reflection of my eating issues, it didn’t reflect struggles. I was surprised so many people were going through that parallel to me and yet I had no idea what their experiences were like. Then things really started to change for me when I went to Paris at 18; I was scouted on the street by a worldwide agency; they invited me into their office to see if I’d be a fit. Upon my arrival, they weighed me, took my measurements, and brought me into a room to tell me I was clearly overweight (even though my BMI was lower than what’s considered healthy), had bad skin, my nails were bad, my clothes were bad. They ripped me apart. They said if I ever wanted to be taken seriously I’d have to do better, in vague terms. It really upset me, their assumption I was a naive young model trying to make it — because what I saw wasn’t humiliating, it angered me. I knew it was time for change in the industry. There’s no room for that type of manipulation, at least not in the space I was already occupying in the industry. This feeling of stigmas, taboos, and issues around our relationships with our bodies and food pushed me to extend the platform to what it is today.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
My aha moment came in one of the darkest moments. It was August 2017, I was feeling depressed, my best friend from Australia was staying at my house at the time. I sat down with his dad and I told him how I was feeling: lost, I dropped my agency a few months prior and I felt like I lost the identity I had built from age 13. My friend’s dad said to me “you’ve been wanting to make your Models That Eat channel. Why don’t you make your first video with Tre?” I felt this level of discomfort even asking, like I was asking for a favor I wasn’t worthy of pursuing, but they were eager to do it with me, to make it happen. We went and bought ingredients to make s’mores at the supermarket. We made them in the microwave and filmed our first real video for the channel. I had such a good time filming with him. All my anxiety slipped away while we talked about music, projects, life. Right after posting this video, a major streaming production team reached out with an offer. I was shocked and not at all prepared for that, but I took it as a big sign that this project was bigger than me and I needed to keep going. Having strangers believe in my vision had a huge impact on me, helping me to understand what I was doing was valid. People were looking for this content. It could change the game. That’s where it all began.
Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?
Social media was a huge focus for me when it came to building Models That Eat. It’s community based, so having a presence online and feeding that was a huge part of how we started and why we are who we are today. Working on YouTube helped make the community stronger. My biggest advice is to create a community through an account, following people who align with your morals, ethics, and purpose. Creating that from the start and seeing who comes to you manifests greatly in the results. Working with friends, taking photos with them, eating together, that really fed the brand in a strong way, creating a network on top of a community, and a consistent point of view with a film photo archive. For me, doing it everyday really helped with growth and a consistent brand vision.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
One of my absolute highlights of my career with Models That Eat was a wonderful collaboration with food stylist Kaoru Mitsui. She’s a food stylist based in Tokyo. I fell in love with her Food On A Photograph zine. It felt so aligned with my platform so I took the plunge and emailed her to see if she’d be interested in collaborating. 6 months later, we had our debut exhibition in Tokyo, hosted at Anna Magazine’s gallery in Shinjuku. I flew out to Japan and had the pleasure of working with Kaoru’s team. I met her amazing body positive community of family and friends. Their culture was so delicate and the food was amazing! It inspired me to continue, to let the creative juices flow, to make more memories like that. That trip for me was a direct reflection of what I was manifesting in my career. Seeing my work take me across the world to a country I’ve always admired made me feel eternally grateful. It showed me how important it is to embrace the voice in your head telling you to keep going.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?
My best advice to any film makers out there: do not try and film in a juice shop. I don’t know what inspired me to go into a space where blenders are constantly running. It will not benefit you, I’m baffled that I had to re-film a Dine and Dash episode four times because I kept choosing loud locations! Don’t play yourself, people.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Having creative friends in general has made me feel so supported with the platform. I’ve always felt like my friends ride for me, they want to film. Having a community of models, photographers, creatives around me all the time who inspire and push me to keep working hard motivates me. One piece of advice came from my friend (and photographer) Tyler; he sat me down over food and asked me to make a list of all my favorite brands. At the time I was a model and would take any job, I just wanted to be working! He said, “no you’re a brand. You need to decide what feeds you, what makes you excited on set. If you can decide it, you can receive it.” The list I made is one I still have today in my notebook. It reminds me to hold my values close, to stay true to myself, and to keep growing with those values. Knowing I’m able to evolve (and constantly should be evolving) really motivated my independence today.
Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
One that comes to mind is now a close friend of mine. She is a model and a dancer who reached out to me saying she’d love to eat with me and loved what I was doing. I felt compelled to interview her. Over pizza, she told me her story. She opened up to me about her relationship with food, body image, her ED experience, and it reminded me just how community-based Models That Eat really is. I’ve since watched her grow as a performer, an actress, and all around amazing person. She’s impacted me more than I think I could’ve ever impacted her. Her ability to share and open up to me, to be interested in my work, built a strong bond that changed the way I perceive my own work. I’m so grateful for that.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
At the forefront of my work, I really value the transparency around conversations involving eating disorders. It’s debilitating, especially in the United States, affecting 9% (30 million) Americans; causing over 10K deaths a year — one every hour; 26% of people with ED attempt suicide. ED affects LGBTQ youths and people of color disproportionately. The stigma around larger bodies is really dangerous. ED isn’t just an underweight issue. I wish eating disorders weren’t treated as a taboo. This is something so many people struggle with. You know someone with an eating disorder, by the statistics alone. If we looked at it through this capitalistic gaze, the economic cost of ED is 64.7 billion dollars each year. If we create an education system to combat ED at a younger age, it could make an enormous difference, curbing the judgment of people based on their bodies. It needs to be dismantled on a wide scale.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).
- Ask as many questions as possible. Nobody expects you to know how to run your own organization based off of your inspiration to do so! Setting meetings and asking questions to all types of people (friends, models, creatives, PR professionals) has been one of the best ways to gather perspective and take stock in what I do.
- Build your network. Email people. Cold email even more people. Follow up with those people. Keep trying. If you feel deep down that you should reach out, take it as a sign, you never know where it could go. I cold emailed a food stylist and it led me to Japan to host my own gallery show. Keep going!
- Rejection is a good sign, not a bad sign. I’ve been rejected by agencies, friends, clients, it’s only led me to a bigger and better opportunity whether it’s a day later or a year. Take it as a sign from the universe that this was the right thing to be rejected from.
- Don’t be afraid. I’ve been wary of the future, not knowing what it will hold. Trusting the process has been something I can always rely on.
- Incorporate an element of your daily life in your work. For me, having food be a part of my work has kept me connected to my purpose at all times. I can’t run away from food, it’s everywhere I go, literally feeding me emotionally and mentally. Food is a part of our culture. Find something to incorporate that feels impossible for you to miss.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
When you create a legacy for yourself that’s bigger than your personal benefit, you’re creating a sustainable ideology for you that will carry on throughout your life. The community, the legacy is irreplaceable. You could sell every company you build, but investing your time into something that helps others cannot be bought.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Bella Hadid, give me a call! Let’s have pasta, talk, and change the world. Bella has such an impact as an industry leader. Her influence on others is monumental. For Bella to speak up about the topics that Models That Eat focuses on, like food and her relationship with her body would change the way the world turns, in my humble opinion.
How can our readers follow you online?
YT: Models that Eat
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!