The former youth counselor and model is the owner of Voluptuous Clothing, a trendy plus-size boutique that has been catering to modern women for over 13 years. But the road to success didn’t come easy for Samuels. Before she could start her incredible journey, she had to first conquer her biggest obstacle: her low self-image.
TorontoVerve met with Samuels at her 636 Queen Street West location (she has another in Ajax) to talk about her inspirational story.
TorontoVerve: Tell us about your childhood. What kind of kid were you?
Angela Samuels: I was a bad kid. I was really a bad kid (laughs). I gave my mom a very hard time, and I think one of the reasons for that was because I wasn’t accepted by my peers. I was living in Calgary. I remember Roots: the mini-series was on TV when I was going to school and it was the worst thing. I got labelled “Aunt Jemima.” I was quite heavy at 240 pounds. I beat up everybody because I was in a bad place in my life.
TV: You weren’t accepted for your size or race?
AS: I think it was both. The population of Blacks in Calgary wasn’t huge and being a plus-size didn’t help.
TV: Did you have many black friends?
AS: I had a few. There were a lot of bi-racial kids in Calgary at the time. I didn’t see any other big people except for myself. I don’t know why (laughs).
TV: Really? There aren’t any big people in Calgary?
AS: I’m sure there are, but I was always the biggest person among my peers.
TV: Did you get much support from your family for your teen struggles?
AS: Coming from a Jamaican background, size is not a big thing. I mean, they love size down there. So I was encouraged to eat as much as I could. In the mornings, there was ackee and salt fish with dumplings and yams. Being bigger was great in my house. If you were skinny, you weren’t healthy.
TV: How was your social life?
AS: It was horrible. No boys wanted to date me. I fought a lot. It’s true what they say about bullies: they don’t feel good about themselves so they feel the need to fight or pick on somebody to divert the negative attention from themselves.
TV: What was it like growing up with 5 siblings?
AS: It was rough. My mom was a single parent. Mothers in Caribbean households are quite strict. No boys allowed. On top of that, I grew up as a Seventh-day Adventist so on Friday nights you had to be in the house. No partying. There was no TV-watching. No cartoons on Saturday mornings. I couldn’t see then what my mother was trying to teach me, but I definitely see it now. I was also a nurturing and loving person to my mom, and she gravitated more towards me. My brothers and sisters didn’t get along with me because they felt that I was the favourite child.
TV: How would you describe your parents?
AS: My mom and dad are the world to me. I can’t function without my mother. My mom makes me whole. I’m eternally grateful for all the sacrifices that she made for me. I am the person that I am today because of her. Now that she’s older, I feel an obligation to make sure that she’s taken care of for the rest of her life.
TV: What kind of sacrifices did she make for you?
AS: She first came to Canada because she was hired as a nanny, but when she got to the border, she found out that the family had cancelled her work permit. So there she was, alone, in Pearson International Airport with nowhere to go. While she was there, she met a gentleman who sympathized for her situation and took her in. From that moment on, my mother scrubbed people’s toilets for a living. When she was financially stable, she brought all her children to Toronto and we lived together in St. James Town. We later moved to Calgary, but eventually returned to Toronto and lived at Jane and Finch. No one would think that we were brought up by a single mom. We were the best dressed in school. We had everything that two parents could ever provide their children. I also had a connection with my father in Jamaica. My mother reminded me that he let us go because he wanted a better life for us.
TV: How did fashion play in your youth?
AS: Everyone used to tell me, “you have a pretty face,” and that’s where it stopped. So I was always aware that my face was ok, but not my body. I desired to look like everybody else. I just didn’t want to be different.
TV: How did everyone else look?
AS: They got to go to every trendy store and buy anything that they wanted. I couldn’t. All the stuff I wanted to wear, didn’t look good on me. I squeezed into spandex, which wasn’t flattering. I was very self-conscious and aware that boys didn’t want me because I was fat. In Calgary, I didn’t have a date for the prom. A friend forced a boy to take me, and he wanted to go with someone else (laughs).
TV: Did you guys have a good time at the prom?
AS: He eventually met up with the girl and left me alone at the prom, but I was just happy I made it there. I was ready for the new chapter in my life.
TV: And that new chapter was in Toronto?
TV: How did Toronto improve your life as an adult?
AS: When I came to Toronto, I noticed that there were a lot more people who looked like me. The Caribbean culture was a lot bigger and I also noticed more bigger people. That was also the time the plus-size fashion industry was picking up so I decided that I would become a plus-size model.
TV: How did you begin a career in modeling?
AS: I went to an agency called Big, Bold and Beautiful on Bloor and they agreed to represent me, but I wasn’t there for long because I had to conform to wearing matronly styles that covered everything. It was like I was in Church and I had enough of that (laughs). I wanted to wear what the skinny girls were wearing. Why can’t I look sexy too? That’s when Norwayne Anderson of Normayne Anderson Management discovered me. At first, he refused me because he didn’t know how to work with plus-size models, and I said, “it’s the same as working with skinny models. Just take a chance on me. Send me out there. I will book those jobs.” After two hours, I persuaded him to sign me. Things really changed for me when Brian Bailey Fashions hired me. I was the first plus-size woman to walk on his runway during Toronto Fashion Week. I was excited. I said, “Yes! I arrived! I did it! You see, Norwayne, I told you!” Afterwards, I appeared in Bay, Sears and K-mart catalogues, and a few shows for small designers. Unfortunately, the plus-size fashions were still unflattering.
TV: You started selling clothes from the trunk of your car. What was that like?
AS: I bought sexy plus-size fashions in the States because they were more open-minded down there when it came to fashion and bigger women. I drove to different clubs and grabbed the bigger ladies. “Come look at my stuff!” It was fun. I loved it because I was changing women’s lives. Let’s face it, women go to clubs to meet men and get their groove on. To do that, they need to look sexy. It was a good opportunity to help those women look fantastic and it felt great.
TV: How would you describe the fashions that Voluptuous carries?
AS: When I opened my first store at Sheraton Mall in 2001, the styles were very youthful. I felt that there was nothing that plus-size women couldn’t wear. I encouraged my vendors to cut bigger sizes of the sexier designs. I told them, “we will wear them. Trust me,” and they did it. Americans immediately loved my styles. Canadians slowly came around. The styles really hugged the figure and accentuated the breasts. Dresses were short, shimmery and had holes in the sides and stomach. Fashions that would make any woman appealing to whomever they were trying to attract.
TV: What about your fashions today? Have they evolved from when you first started?
AS: Yes, they’ve definitely evolved (laughs). The women whom I served grew up. They have kids and a professional life. That’s the main reason I had to evolve.
TV: Were you reluctant to evolve?
AS: Extremely reluctant (laughs). Two years ago, my creative director advised me [to change my business strategy]. He said, “We have to grow up because our customers grew up.” We needed to cater to our more sophisticated and classy clientele.
TV: And how’s it going?
AS: I think he saved my company. [Men judge women by their appearance]. If a woman only wears short dresses with holes all over the place, men will never want to marry her. They’ll just want her for one night.
TV: What sizes does Voluptuous offer?
AS: We carry sizes from 14 to 22. I always felt that there are a lot of health risks beyond those sizes. Someone once asked me, “are you encouraging obesity?” I’m not. I’m saying that there are bigger women who deserve to wear trendy styles.
TV: Why would someone ask you that question?
AS: People wonder why I sell clothes to big women. “They’re big. They need to lose weight.” I don’t consider myself obese. When I look in the mirror now, I love what I see. Actually, when I started to love me, I began to take care of me. I go to the gym, eat properly and treat myself to manicures and pedicures. I live a healthy lifestyle.
TV: How would you describe a woman who shops at Voluptuous?
AS: She’s fashion savvy. She’s knowledgeable about where fashion is going, and she’s ready to experiment. She’s ready to jump out of the norm and do something different. She wants to really express herself.
TV: When you started, there weren’t many stores offering plus-size women trendy options. Why do you think it took so long for the fashion industry to catch on?
AS: Retailers offer what the public wants. As society changed, plus-size women became more confident and their voices started getting heard -- especially through social media. Now they’re making a whole lot of noise. So the fashion industry had to evolve and cater to them because they’re no longer silent.
TV: You once you said that you faced many challenges being a black woman in the corporate world. What were some of those challenges?
AS: There’s a before and there’s a now. Before, everyone thought that I was crazy. I literally had to kick down doors to open my stores in malls. People thought that I couldn’t run a business. “Who is she?” Some customers didn’t believe I was the owner. They would ask to speak to my boss. I think there are many challenges black businesswomen face. Now, on Queen Street West, it’s a different story. Two days ago, someone approached me and said, “You’re Angela Samuels. You’re the woman who started it all. You proved that [plus-size women] can look sexy.” It felt so good to receive that kind of acknowledgement. My customers tell me that people tell them: “you look great! Where did you get that dress?” Hearing that means the world to plus-size women. I often tell my staff, “if an outfit doesn’t look good on a customer, go find something else because we need her to get that compliment.” Once she receives that compliment, she’s hooked. Incidentally, a lot of slim women walk into my store and they’re quite upset when we tell them that we don’t carry their size.
TV: How often do you turn slim women away?
AS: Quite a bit. We tell them that we only have sizes 14 and up, and they ask, “what do you mean? You must have a small.” They get offended because we can’t serve them.
TV: As a mother with three children (11, 5 and 18 months), how difficult is it for you to run your business?
AS: It’s the hardest thing in my life. That’s partly why I had to downsize from five stores to two. I lost touch with my business because I was focussed on my children. It was a learning process. I’m a business mom, a dance mom, a basketball mom and a soccer mom (laughs). After running my business for the day, I have to run home to prepare dinner for the family and help my kids with homework. It’s a balancing act.
TV: Does your husband help you run the business?
AS: He’s very supportive and a great dad, but Voluptuous is me.
TV: Are you happy?
AS: Yes, it’s been a long journey. I’ve evolved and the flower is now blossoming. I’m in a good place now.
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Follow Angela Samuels on Twitter and Instagram
Voluptuous on Twitter and Instagram.
Voluptuous Clothing is located at 636 Queen Street West in Toronto and at 100 Kingston Road East in Ajax.