The last two seasons of New York Fashion Week have been some of the most diverse the industry has seen since the event started in the last 20th century. And, when it comes to Latinx and curvy representation, Denise Bidot led the way.
For the last 12 years, Bidot – born in Miami to a Puerto Rican mother and a Kuwaiti father – has conquered modeling on her own terms, facing harsh criticisms, raising a daughter, and educating brands and audiences on why representation and diversity matters. From London and Copenhaguen fashion weeks to Univision’s Nuestra Belleza Latina, Bidot unexpectedly turned into a force for change. And it all started with a TV set in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico.
She spoke to the Emperifollá team about being an Arab Latina, raising a daughter in the 21st century, and how her mother’s struggle with body image shaped her own understanding of physical beauty.
Every summer I would be sent to Puerto Rico, as soon as school ended. I used to hate it because I wanted to hang out with my friends. But it taught me independence. One summer we watched Dirty Dancing and my whole life changed. I wanted to know how I could get on the TV screen. When I turned 18, I left for LA. My life was on a time limit. I knew the older I got the fewer opportunities I would get.
I started going to auditions, meeting with agents. Every audition and every person I met in those first few years told me “no.” When I did get a reason, they’d say “she’s too curvy,” “she’s too tall,” “she’s too ethnic.” If I left it up to them, every single part of me was wrong.
I’m an only child. I’m very rebellious and I moved 3,000 miles away from home. I couldn’t call my mom to say it’s not working out. The more someone told me I had to be something, the less of that I wanted to be.
I went to makeup school because I liked art and painting. I did makeup for a plus-size model and the photographer asked me if I had thought about modeling. I’m 5’6. Naturally, modeling was not something I thought about. I was too short, too chubby. You didn’t see Latina top models out there killing the game, much less curvy ones. She obviously saw something that I am very thankful she saw. I took some pictures with her and before I knew it she had gotten calls from clients and agents inquiring who I was.
On Being An Arab Latina:
I feel like my Spanish accent is a chameleon. I speak very Puerto Rican around other Boricuas, but if I’m in Miami with Venezuelans, I sound Venezuelan, or if I’m with Cubans, I sound Cuban. Growing up, I had no clue who I was. I’m half Latin, half Arabic.
I think this generation is very awesome in that all these boxes that we are meant to be put in don’t exist anymore. Back in the day, I felt a huge weight on my shoulders about my identity. I think that’s why representation matters. Growing up, I felt like I was the only girl in the world that was Latina and Arabic. Then, Shakira started talking about her roots and I was like, “Oh, there’s another person in the world like me.”
The more I talk about my story the more people come to me and DM me, saying that they are also Puerto Rican and Arabic. There are so many more of us than people realize. But we all feel so alone because we are never seen. The same goes for the Afro-Latina community. That’s why I’m so proud to be part of this generation that are pushing the boundaries and that my daughter gets to grow up in a generation that looks like this.
On Her Role in Nuestra Belleza Latina:
When I had the opportunity to work with Univision to develop the new concept for Nuestra Belleza Latina, I was a big part of all the development meetings. I would only do it if I could take part in those. We had hour-long meetings about how messed up it was all set up and why that couldn’t continue.
Unfortunately, the audience doesn’t understand that change because they’ve been taught one thing for so long that then you throw them a curveball and they are unable to process it. It took a very long time – I think until mid-season – that people understood it. The number of nasty comments I got towards the beginning were insane.
I was also very clear in my contract that I was not to be retouched. If I was going to be part of this project, it had to be me and everything I stand for. The first episode hadn’t aired and I got a picture that was retouched. And I said, “Why would you bring me on if you think that’s what I should look like?” I had to make them redo everything. But I took it as a form of education because nobody has ever stood their ground. I’m fine with my stretch marks/ I’m fine with my pimple. And if we don’t start showing all of it, people will never understand what that looks like.
Towards the end, it was a really happy medley of how it can be if people listen. Every time I pushed in a direction they listened and they allowed it. I really believe that this is my purpose. The conversation has changed and I have been able to narrow that growth for so many different audiences. Granted I can never change everyone and there will be a whole slew of people that will never understand it.
A lot of people think fashion is superficial and it can be. But at the end of the day, it’s about you. It’s how you use fashion, and I think it should be an expression of how you feel. I always knew that I liked playing with colors and fabrics. I didn’t always choose the right ones because I grew up in Miami and everything was matchy matchy.
I’d like to say that I now have 70% more availability to fashion than when I started modeling. For a really long time, I wanted to express myself through fashion but I couldn’t find clothes that reflected that in my size.
I love jeans, I have way too many. I’m not a big dress person. I’m chic, minimal New York vibes. I wear too much black. I’m consciously trying to add color to my life. I was happy that yellow was a big color this year because I stocked up on just about every brand that came out with something in yellow. I’m a big shopper for bottoms. I remember at first when people tried to make jeans high waisted and have 10 inches to the seem and that wouldn’t work for me.
On Body Image:
My mom’s generation was programmed differently. They just believed that being fit was the only way to be happy, to get a promotion, to get your man. All these things were based on your physical appearance. Not once did they put any value into our intellect or morals. It was the last thought.
Unfortunately, because of that, she struggled a lot. As a single mom, she dieted a lot throughout my life. She tried diet pills, she was bulimic. She went down every self-destructive path you can think of. What was eye-opening to me was that she was very transparent about it. When it’s just two people in one house, you know what’s going on. Every time she dieted I also had to go through it. She never pressured me but her insecurities were always flowing around the house.
Parents always forget that, no matter how many positive things you tell your children if they don’t see you walking that walk, they don’t digest it the same. My mom could tell me I’m beautiful but I saw her with those insecurities, and it was very easy for those to trickle down to me. But it had the opposite effect. I saw her so unhappy and miserable and I just felt like we all needed to just live. Watching her go through that triggered me to never be that way. When people told me to drop 15, 20 pounds for a role, I knew what path that led me down and I was not interested. It’s the way society has made women value themselves and that value is off of beauty. That’s what I’m trying to change. Having a pretty face can’t be all we celebrate.
On Being Emperifollá:
My mom isn’t a big glam girl. She did grow up with beauty pageants, but once she had me she almost used her physicality in a negative way. She wanted to be single until I was 18, so she let herself gain weight and stopped getting dolled up. None of that. I still thought she was gorgeous. But my grandmother was the opposite. She would get ready and do her hair just to go to the beauty salon. It didn’t make any sense to me. But I think that’s something like I learned from her. A big part of how I see myself and how I present myself is with that undertone of when you walk out of that door, you not only represent yourself, you represent your family, your culture. You have to shine that light as bright as possible.
Emperifollá to me is freedom. It’s freedom to choose who you are and what you are going to present yourself like that day and freedom to do as much or as little as you want to. That’s what we all want.