When 16-year-old Natalie Nootenboom got the call that she would be walking in New York Fashion Week this past September, the usually self-assured teenager found herself unusually terrified. “It was insane,” she recounts. “I was like, ‘How in the world am I going to do this?’ I barely know how to walk in heels, let alone walk down a runway in front of hundreds of people.”

Nootenboom took matters into her own hands — and feet. “I decided to walk in heels every day for a week and a half to get used to it,” she says. “I feel like I did pretty well.”

Though she’s still taking her first steps in the modeling industry, the half-Japanese, 5-foot-11 stunner is already making a big impact, both for her racially ambiguous looks and her body-confident style.

This fall, Nootenboom became the first plus-size model to walk for Anna Sui, during the designer’s spring/summer 18 runway show. What is more, the teenager found herself walking in the same show as three of her favorites models — Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid and Taylor Hill — in her first full season of modeling. That Nootenboom was cast in a major, mainstream show not only illustrated the changing perceptions of plus-size models, but it was also a solid step forward in the fashion industry’s commitment to diversity and inclusion with the casting of an Asian plus-size model – something without a lot of precedent.

Nootenboom says she hasn’t had to gain or lose any weight for modeling. The only aesthetic change she had to make was a necessary one. “I tried to go blonde but it became an orange blond and the agency was like, ‘No way honey,’” she says with a laugh.

As for the “plus-size” label? While other prominent models, like Ashley Graham, have spoken out against the term, Nootenboom says it doesn’t bother her. Still, she’s quick to add, “The biggest barriers we put in our society are labels. Models are models. Women are women. Why can’t we just be who we are?”

Nootenboom’s got a lot she wants to do with her career, and it’s easy to believe that she’ll actually accomplish everything, too. It’s also easy to forget that she’s still just a 16-year-old.

“At the [Anna Sui] show, I was around Gigi, Bella and Taylor, and I was like, ‘Omigosh, this is actually happening,’” Nootenboom says. “I really wanted to take a picture with Gigi but didn’t get a chance to do it and I stressed about it for a minute,” she admits. “But then I thought, ‘it’s okay,’ because I’ll have another show with her. I’ll get my photo then.”

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