Misia O’Brien headed off toward her big dream the way many young people from Central Massachusetts do — on a Peter Pan bus ride to New York City.
At 18 years old, she had sent some informal photos to a lot of modeling agencies, some of which called her back. “So, I basically just took a spontaneous Peter Pan bus trip down to New York with my sister,” O’Brien, of Southborough, says. “We took a few days and met with each of them and some said, ‘Oh, you’re not the right size, and you have to change your hair, or you have to gain weight, or you have to lose weight,’ and hearing that as an 18-year-old, it builds a lot of insecurities when someone is telling you straight up, ‘You don’t fit the mold,’ or ‘We don’t want you.’”
Indeed, O’Brien did not fit the standard model mold. She wasn’t a size 2 with coltish legs stretching for days. Instead, she was trying to break into the profession as what is generally called a “plus-size” model, although her size and shape likely would be called closer to normal-size by most women, very few of whom are in the six-foot-two and 100-pounds range.
Undaunted by the inevitable rejections, she pressed on and soon found one agency willing to take a chance on a bright newcomer. “I signed with IPM Model Management, which strictly represents plus size and curvy women,” she says. “I thought it was a great fit just starting out, so that’s where this whole thing got started.”
That “whole thing” is a successful modeling career for the now 21-year-old O’Brien, daughter of former Worcester City Manager Michael V. O’Brien and his wife, Beata O’Brien. She has walked fashion-week runways in the Big Apple and landed gigs with large corporate clients including Land’s End, for whom she appeared in a recent catalog.
Her first big-time professional shoot was for Bombas socks when they were coming out with a campaign for active wear and athleisure line. “It’s a reputable brand and it’s a big company so of course I felt a little insecure. I was working for the first time in front of a well-known photographer and everything, but it was a wonderful experience.”
Although she had always loved fashion and had dabbled in a few local modeling stints here and there, a professional modeling career wasn’t yet high on O’Brien’s agenda when she graduated from Worcester Academy. Instead, she headed off to UMass Amherst that fall, nudged in that direction by the academic expectations of family and friends.
“I was there for a year, but I wasn’t happy,” she said. “I’m very close with my sister. She’s a year older and we have always been inseparable best friends. She had gone to Boston College and was in the city having all this fun. I’m a city girl. I love the fast pace and going out and exploring new places. I just did not click with the rural UMass campus.”
She decided to switch her studies to an online program offered by UMass so she could pursue what she really wanted to do — start a modeling career. But first, she had to tell her family.
“It was a hard thing to trust my instincts and take an unconventional path through college,” she says. “I have a lot of family who are conservative, and they wanted me to stay.” To her great relief, her parents lined up solidly behind her decision to step out in a new direction.
“I’m so grateful that I have very supportive parents who really trusted that I was going to take on this modeling career, do school at the same time, and I was going to succeed,” she says. “Without their trust, and their support, and push, I don’t think I would’ve been able to make the decision that I did.”
O’Brien is a senior in the online program this year, majoring in communications with a minor in business. At UMass commencement in May, she will share the stage with her father, who is a member of the university’s board of trustees. “I’ll be graduating in May and my dad will be handing me my diploma,” she says. “I’m really proud and happy that I’ll have that moment with him.”
O’Brien says her mother’s support also has been crucial, especially as her first modeling jobs began to come in. “She’s my biggest inspiration,” she says. “She loves going on shoots with me and is always pushing me to do different jobs that I might be a little uncomfortable with and to just follow my dreams. She’s always telling me, ‘Walk into that room with your head held high and with your shoulders back,’ and that’s basically what I try to do, no matter how nervous I am. I just try to go into any room like I own it. She’s instilled that in me.”
That advice has served O’Brien well in the competitive and sometimes catty world of fashion modeling. She recalls walking into the hair and make-up area before a big fashion show and having to dig deep to tap into that sense of confidence. “As I walked in, I got the once-over maybe a hundred times,” she says. “All of those models who weren’t curvy looked at me like, ‘Why is she even here?’ They probably thought I was on staff to help work with the show. They were not kind to me at all.”
She remembered her mother’s words of encouragement and took a moment to center herself. “I just had to be like, ‘You know what Misia, you have this opportunity. You’re representing women who look like you. You’re helping a little girl out there to show her that she can do whatever she wants no matter what size she is.’ And that’s what I went with, and later I was told I really killed it.”
O’Brien can empathize with “the little girls out there” who face taunts and insecurity because of their size. She once was just like them.
“Throughout my life, I was the bigger girl,” she says. “I was taller than everybody else in my class (she’s 5’10” now), so I was uncomfortable with the way I looked and the fact that I was so different compared to my peers, and even my sister, who’s the complete opposite of me. She’s tiny and petite.”
But O’Brien’s confidence has grown along with her modeling career — and partly because of it. “I’ve grown to accept my body for what it is and to love the journey I’m on,” she says. It’s still hard sometimes, though. She goes on a lot of calls in New York and that means a lot of no’s, sometimes after just the most cursory of glances.
“For some people, that could really break you down and tear confidence apart because you’re basically getting judged on how you look. That’s hard to take, but I always say to myself, ‘It’s not you, it’s what they’re looking for and you don’t fit that so don’t worry about it. Brush it off and go to the next opportunity because every day you wake up with a new chance to be great.’ That’s what’s in the back of my head each time I get a no. It’s become sort of my motto.”
As she began modeling and landing gig after gig, her growing sense of security led her to want to become an example for younger girls who didn’t have a role model that looked like them, or that they could relate to.
Sometimes even now O’Brien has to remind herself that a quick superficial assessment doesn’t reflect who she is and what she has become. “Everyone has their own insecurities and imperfections and things they don’t like about themselves,” she says. “But I try to show people that our imperfections are what make us unique, and we should try to celebrate those more than tearing ourselves apart because it’s just not worth it in the end. We all look different for a reason. And that’s, to me, that’s beautiful.”