Beautiful, intelligent and a role model for millions, supermodel Ashley Graham has long been a friend of this magazine. Naturally enough, she chose BAZAAR for her first major shoot and interview following the birth of her baby this January.
Then the coronavirus pandemic took hold, and Ashley and her family left New York to quarantine in Nebraska, where she was brought up. Rather than cancel the shoot, we took the unusual step of asking Ashley’s husband, the cinematographer Justin Ervin, if he would take the photographs.
Shot over two days amid the rolling grassland and in the deserted towns near her mother’s home, these intimate pictures of Ashley and her baby Isaac, along with her memories of the past momentous months, are a testament to the eternal joy of family love, and the beauty to be found in the human experience even during an unprecedented crisis. Here, Ashley talks us through some of the milestones in her journey to becoming a mother for the first time.
Ashley Graham is pregnant with her first baby. “I was so excited. I knew immediately I was going to be a great mum.” But the poster girl for body positivity finds it unexpectedly hard to cope with the changes of her own body. “That was the wildest part. I thought, ‘What about the things I’ve told myself? What about the affirmations I’ve gone through?’ None of these mattered because my body was changing so rapidly. It really took me some time to figure it out mentally, because it was like there was an alien taking over my body.” She thinks she has pre-natal depression. “When you go from laughing to crying in 30 seconds, you do wonder if you are OK. Unbeknown to me, that’s pregnancy!
“One of the best things I did for myself was to make pregnant friends, and then I realised I wasn’t alone, I was normal, and that calmed me down. I started to enjoy being pregnant in my third trimester.’
18 January 2020
Ashley and her husband of 10 years, Justin Ervin, have long ago decided on a home birth. At 7am, Ashley wakes up with contractions. Her plan is to continue with the day: go out to brunch, take a yoga class and get a pedicure. But her waters break while she’s doing a cat-cow stretch. “It was the first really big contraction. I started crying, and I was like, wow, game on.”
Two midwives and a doula arrive and set up a birthing pool in the living-room of the couple’s Brooklyn apartment. “Justin wanted to be as helpful as possible, and the midwife told him: There’s nothing you can do, nothing! There’s a photo of him rubbing my arm as I’m hanging over the edge of the pool, gazing into the eyes of the midwife, who’s keeping me focused and helping me count. You can tell there’s a tear running down his face—it was agonising for him to see me in so much pain and not to be able to do anything about it.” In the end, Justin decides to make dinner in case Ashley is hungry after giving birth. “I was in the pool, and I looked over to see him in the kitchen cutting up meat and adding seasoning, because it was all he could do…”
A baby boy weighing 7lbs 5oz is born at 6.05pm. “It was a euphoric experience, seeing my son with my husband in the pool. We manoeuvred into my bedroom, and we all lay on our bed, and that was where he got weighed and measured and examined.” The baby is called Isaac. “When he was in high school, Justin decided that if he had a son, he would call him Isaac. In the Bible, it means laughter. We kept telling him that in utero, and sure enough, he came out with a smile on his face. He’s one of the happiest little babies I’ve ever met.”
Later, Ashley campaigns against coronavirus protocols in hospital that require women to give birth alone. “If I hadn’t had my midwives or even Justin in the room, the whole experience would have been a very different one for me.” In March, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo signs an executive order allowing all women in the state to have a partner in the delivery room.
Isaac is almost two months old, and Ashley’s planned maternity leave is drawing to a close; when she goes back to modelling, her mother Linda is going to help look after the baby. But in New York, cases of Covid-19 are spiralling, residents are self-quarantining and the apartment has no outside space. Linda suggests they all decamp to the family home in Nebraska. “She talked us into it. She said, ‘It’s 20 hours, let’s just go and I’ll drive all the way.’’’
They pack a suitcase each—“I thought we’d only be away a couple of weeks”—and borrow a friend’s SUV. “Justin had just made a lamb roast, and he said, ‘We’re not throwing this away’, so we put it in the back of the car and that was what we ate on the trip.” They leave New York at 4am on Friday, 13 March. “My mom says it’s nice to see the sunrise in the car.”
The 1,300-mile journey takes them in a straight line across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa. En route, they listen to podcasts, Bill Withers and Aretha Franklin, eat cold lamb and only stop when Isaac needs a feed. Linda drives for the first 16 hours straight, Justin takes the last four, and they arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska, around midnight on the following day.
The family are now ensconced in the large, ranch-style house in which Ashley lived with her sisters from the age of 13, just a short drive from the farm where her uncle still grows corn.
During the day, Ashley and Justin colonise the basement, which has been kitted out with yoga mats, weights and TRX resistance bands. “It’s bigger than our entire Brooklyn apartment!” says Ashley.
Mornings start with an online work-out led by the celebrity trainer, Kira Stokes. “She’s a beast!” After that, Ashley is working, in Zoom meetings or filming for her numerous commitments. “I’ve just shot for EllenTube [Ellen DeGeneres’ YouTube channel]—he had to set up three cameras, so thank God Justin’s a cinematographer. And we’ve figured out how to shoot my podcast, Pretty Big Deal, remotely. But I’m also handling newborn stuff every day. The good thing is if I tilt my computer screen upwards, I can feed the baby without anybody seeing.” Afternoons are mostly dedicated to Isaac. “He’s such an outside baby—he likes the grass, he likes the sun.” Once a week, she and Justin go on a date night. “All we’re doing is driving to the park, watching the sunset, having a kiss in the car. It’s the simplest thing, but it’s a game-changer.”
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After the spring snow, the weather turns sufficiently sunny for this photo shoot. Justin and BAZAAR’s Creative Director Jo Goodby agree on a vision of classic Americana, inspired by Ashley’s journey across America and the gentle hills and broad skies of Nebraska. On Justin’s moodboard is a picture of Andrew Wyeth’s famous 1948 painting, Christina’s World, showing a young woman lying in a wide, grassy landscape, gazing up at a distant house. “Justin saw this one little white house on a hill, and that became the focal point for the whole shoot.” They decide to work in two locations: In the nearby fields of the Pioneers Park nature reserve and on Ashley’s uncle’s farm, an hour away.
A limited selection of clothes has been sent directly to the house, but lockdown guidelines mean that no outsiders can join the shoot. On the day, the team consists only of Ashley, Justin, Linda and her boyfriend, Michael.
“Michael was Justin’s PA, lighting man, assistant, the guy who did the Starbucks run. My mom was taking care of Isaac the whole time, carrying him in a front-facing sling, but she was also holding a light reflector.” Ashley does her own hair and makeup. “I kept it easy breezy, I let my hair air-dry and I didn’t even wear mascara, because I’m the kind of girl who runs around like this,” she says. “I also did the styling and helped to art-direct.”
Meanwhile, Justin is the photographer, cinematographer, art director and fashion assistant. “Everyone knew their role, but man, it was a lot of work!”
Shot over two afternoons—“We wanted the beautiful, magic-hour light”—it is one of the most personally meaningful shoots Ashley has ever participated in. “We took one picture inside my grandfather’s truck. He passed away six years ago and my mum left everything inside the same, from his ChapStick to his licence in the visor and the money in the ashtray. There were five more minutes of sunlight; my mum was on one side with a reflector, Michael was on the other side with another reflector and we got the shot.
“I remember looking at the photo and thinking, ‘This is so cool. The four of us put this together, and it’s so cinematic.’ It’s a beautiful moment to look back on during these weird times, and to remember that we had so much joy.”
Ashley Skypes BAZAAR from the basement of her mother’s ranch, having just finished a workout with Stokes. She’s not wearing any makeup, her hair is pulled back from her face and she’s in a Champion sweatshirt and Lululemon leggings, but she could grace any magazine cover. Despite the fact that Isaac is waking her every couple of hours to feed, her skin is flawless, her eyes wide and bright. “I actually feel really good,” she says. “I don’t know what it is—mother resilience? I’ve learnt that I can function without sleep—I didn’t know that.”
It’s not the only source of surprise. The past few weeks of quarantine have certainly had their share of worry and sadness—the couple have lost a friend to Covid-19, and many other friends have contracted the illness. Nevertheless, says Ashley, “the silver lining is having all of these incredible, special moments with Isaac, and the nostalgia of being with my son in the home I grew up in. I’ve had time to focus, and I’m so grateful.”
Once the crisis is past, she believes society will “have a deeper respect for patience and kindness and gratitude. And I really want to be that role model for my son.”
Below, Graham pens a letter to her newborn son:
2020 is a year we will never forget.
Since your birth on 18 January, our new life has blossomed. As we sit and relax on this beautiful, 70-degree day with the bluest of skies in Lincoln, Nebraska, I reflect on what a gift you are. Watching you grow day by day has been our greatest joy and a consistent source of happiness. Since your birth, you have provided your father and me with a new world full of constant laughter, unlimited cuddles and complete awe. Your early-morning smiles and giggles brighten our days. When we look at you, we see Daddy’s nose, my eyes, and the most perfect lips. And just like Mommy, you love to sing along and look at yourself in the mirror.
Even though you can’t crawl yet, we’ve already experienced amazing adventures together:guesting on Mommy’s podcast, taking a 20-hour road trip from New York City to the heart of theMidwest for our Covid quarantine, participating in shoots with photographer Daddy (you’re his new favourite model, by the way), and even playing outside in the ‘spring snow’. Daddy loves the outdoors, so we’ve been taking you for long walks and visits to Aunt Leta and Uncle Wes’ farm.
We even talk to Oma, Papa, Aunt Abigail and Aunt Rachel on the East Coast through a little screen not much bigger than both of your hands put together, because everyone wants to video-chat with baby Isaac!
Even though we miss our NYC home, we’ve had the unexpected opportunity to temporarily raise you in the house where I grew up, with the company and help of your loving grandparents. Whenever I’m here, I’m reminded of the values my mother instilled in me that I hope to teach you:trust your faith, always treat people with kindness, generosity and respect, and practise gratitude every day.
During this unique time, I’ve also had the chance to reflect on my awesome responsibility as your mother. Raising you is a daily reminder that I am strong and fearless, and I see that same persistent determination reflected in your chocolate-brown eyes – from how you like (and don’t like) to be put in your car seat to your adorable impatience for your meals. You have allowed me to pause in appreciation of each moment we share. I’ll never forget the first time I held you in my arms, changed your diaper and breastfed you, or watched your excitement as Daddy performed a full private concert set to Kanye West’s Jesus is King album.
My heart fills with overwhelming love as I watch you look at your father with hope, and bounce in your chair with joy and anticipation as he does his shadow-box drills in the backyard. Your bond is sacred and a blessing.
No matter the situation, I promise to love, support and protect you infinitely. And while I’ll certainly make mistakes and won’t always know the answers, I promise I will listen, learn and grow alongside you. I will show you, always, that you were born from unconditional love and respect.
I look forward to all of the big and little milestones of your life, and eventually, to the man you will become. From now until eternity, Isaac, you are my world and the rhythm of my heart.
All jewellery throughout, Ashley Graham’s own.
Photographer: Justin Ervin
Photographer’s assistant: Michael Schuler