More than 20 years after signing her first contract with Next Model Management, model and entrepreneur Kelly Hughes became the talk of the industry when Sports Illustrated unveiled its annual Swimsuit Issue earlier this year. It featured her flaunting a bikini, a radiant smile – and the scar she has from giving birth to her three-year-old son.
It was the first time in the magazine’s 58-year history that a model had ever bared a visible C-section scar, and for Hughes, who calls it her “superpower,” it’s no longer the source of insecurity it used to be. Instead, the scar is a symbol of boldness and strength, and she wants other people to feel the same when they look at the parts of themselves that they may, at one time or another, have wanted to change. HÜES, her jewelry brand that has been worn by names like JBalvin, Alicia Keys, and Ricky Martin, is an extension of the sense of empowerment Hughes brought to Sports Illustrated in June.
The Untitled Magazine caught up with Kelly to talk about returning to modeling for Sports Illustrated, HÜES, motherhood, and redefining beauty standards with the #ScarLoveChallenge. Read the full interview below.
Tell us about how you got started with your career in modeling.
I was 18, working in a salon, and one of the makeup artists there suggested he wanted to do my makeup and take pictures, so I gave it a shot. Later, I mailed the pictures to a few local agencies and thankfully one of them wanted to represent me.
What made you take a break from modeling in 2009?
I never took a break from modeling; it was just a slow economy with the mortgage crisis in 2009, so work slowed down that year. I was proactive not knowing what was to come, and I got a job at a restaurant part-time. I continued to model and work at the restaurant for about a year, and thankfully I did because it was in this restaurant that I discovered my God-given talent for jewelry and started my jewelry brand, HÜES.
You’re the founder and designer of HÜES! What’s the story behind this endeavor?
This is an awesome story about how it’s sometimes necessary to take a few steps back to take a step forward. It was 2009, and the economy was uncertain due to the mortgage crisis, so I got a second job working at a restaurant part-time in case work got slower. My manager was from Greece, and he was wearing some amazing bracelets from there, so I suggested that I wanted to make him a bracelet to add to his collection. I always enjoyed being creative, but I thought it would be hard to start a business, so I never took anything too seriously. However, once he started wearing his bracelet, I got hundreds of people asking for one too. The amount of support was incredible. Not long after, one of my customers was wearing a bracelet at The Standard Hotel, and one of the owners from the BASE superstore (the coolest store in Miami at that time) saw him wearing it. I got my brand in the first store, and everything came together to create HÜES through word-of-mouth — So many people made it happen. This is why I always say it’s okay to take a few steps back to take a step forward sometimes. I never imagined getting a jewelry business out of working in a restaurant, but you never know what could be waiting for you.
When did it start to become a more serious business for you?
I realized it was a business the minute I got my first check from a store. I not only photocopied the check, but I made sure I did it in color and in perfect quality because I always want to remember that day. That was the minute I believed in myself, and it was all the validation I needed to pursue this business into something bigger.
Your designs have been worn by JBalvin, Ricky Martin, Chayanne, Zion y Lennox, Alicia Keys, Maxwell, Young Thug, and many more. How would you describe your brand vision?
My vision was always to create a brand that was genderless so anyone could wear it. I also always wanted to send a message that you could create your own piece of jewelry because jewelry is something that you identify with — It represents who you are and can even set your mood. It’s the people’s brand, and I never want to limit that. We just added a “Made for You” section on the website so you can customize easier right there on our site www.byhues.com
Who would you love to see wearing your designs next?
I love when I’m walking down the street and see someone wearing one of my pieces. That is the most amazing moment as a designer, but for celebs, I would love to see one of the Kardashians or JLO wearing it. I love their style, and they are strong women that are also moms, so it would be amazing.
Any dream collaborations? Or potential plans to expand your designs?
Fear of God would be my dream collab. I love the brand and its message, and I feel our designs are aligned with each other, so that would be a goal.
I am working on a sustainable collaboration right now, so I’m excited about that, but I definitely feel collaborations are what people want to see and are so fun to do.
This year, you made history being featured in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Can you tell us about the experience and how it impacted your career?
It was such an honor to be featured in Sports Illustrated this year showing my C-section scar. It was so much more than just a photo shoot for me. This was the first time I had ever shown my scar, and the editor of the magazine, MJ Day, made me feel like my scar was the most beautiful thing in the world when we were on set. I never felt more confident, which truly resonated in the photos and impacted so many people around the world because it sent such a huge message. Even for myself, it was so encouraging since I struggled with insecurities from my scar for so long. To know that I was not alone in my journey and that we could bond together in our scars and insecurities to encourage one another was a very powerful moment. This has been so underrepresented in the market —Showing that women are beautiful with their scars gets us one step closer to inclusivity and away from such a narrow idea of what beauty is.
Tell us about your labor story and scar?
I had a very long labor over 36 hours. My son was very high, and I had planned for natural birth to have a faster recovery to get back to work. However, longer labor can bring more complications, so I agreed to do the C-section even though it was against my plans. I wanted to keep my son safe, and it was definitely my first lesson in motherhood. My son was born super healthy, and everything seemed okay, however, I got very sick a few days later and had to be rushed back to the hospital. I had an infection from the C-section, and after being in the hospital for 8 days, I had to have another surgery to remove the infection. I was cut open twice for two major abdominal surgeries, and the recovery time got much longer. I felt insecure about my scar and struggled with the changes in my body. There was no “bouncing back” as I planned, and I felt so much pressure from society to get back to work. It was hard because every time I would look at my scar, I would feel pain. But then, I would remind myself that this is where my son came from, which was the most amazing thing in my life. It wasn’t until I truly embraced my scar that I experienced the power in it. Our scars are our superpowers, and I realized if I could get through that, I could do anything. It became my driving force in life to give everything my best no matter what the circumstances. I never understood why I was going through that when all of it was happening, but it all makes sense now, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Our scars are badges of honor.
Do you hope to continue modeling and bringing awareness to the beauty behind scars?
Most definitely. I am investing everything into continuing this conversation in the fashion industry and at large because it’s so underrepresented in the market. I had no idea how many people were struggling with the same pain I felt, and it’s not just with C-section scars, it’s with all scars. No one is having these conversations, which is shocking.
What is your main goal in changing the stigma around scars?
I think the most important goal is that people love their scars and don’t feel they need to hide them. Society puts so much pressure on us today as to what it thinks we should look like or feel, and that’s the stigma that needs to change.
There has been such stigma to hide your scars, so of course, we hide them, but we also hide our pain and become insecure if someone sees them. If they somehow pop out of the clothing, we are wearing can create a feeling of shame. It sets the tone for our mindset, and it needs to be changed as we bring awareness to it.
You’re a single mom to your three-year-old son. Tell us about that part of your life and how it’s changed you and your career path?
Having kids changes things, but it doesn’t mean life stops. There is a lot of stigma around becoming a mom and balancing the life you had before kids and the new life you have after having kids. One thing I do is work harder because my son has given me such a great purpose in life, so I want him to see my example and set out to give life his all. I am more selective with the jobs I take because I have the responsibility for my son, and I don’t want to leave him for long trips that include travel, so normally I bring him with me. However, I definitely feel it shifted my career for a few years as I was trying to discover where I fit in, as my size had changed. I was now a mom, so I felt I had to find my place again, and I think that’s a challenge all working moms face, but it’s okay to pivot and redirect sometimes without losing focus on your main goal.
Did you ever fear your scar being an obstacle in your modeling career due to societal stigmas?
I definitely did. I was concerned that fashion shows or any live event where they couldn’t just photoshop it out could be an issue. I have heard many comments about how the scar sits low enough you don’t see it, however, in many cases, you do. I also have two drain hole scars that I got from my second surgery after my infection, and you always see one of those in a bikini because they are higher. I’m thankful for brands like Sports Illustrated that pave the way for these changes so that these things are embraced and stigmas are broken.
Your partnership with ESTAS Beauty started the #ScarLoveChallenge hashtag on social media. What made you want to start this movement and what is your main goal with the partnership?
I felt a huge responsibility to continue this conversation after reading hundreds of messages from women telling me how they felt about their scars and their stories. ESTAS Beauty reached out to me to send me a scar care kit once they saw the Sports Illustrated post on Instagram. When I read their mission statement, I felt they were a perfect fit because it was about all scars, not just C-section scars. I didn’t want to limit it. My main goal with this movement is for people to see other people loving and embracing their scars so they feel empowered to do the same. I didn’t realize how hard it was for people to show their scars and post a picture of them embracing it, but there is so much healing in just seeing a picture of your scar. You realize how beautiful it truly is.
Were you a part of the process of deciding where the proceeds would go?
Yes, ESTAS Beauty and I had many zoom calls to really make sure that everything was in alignment with our vision. We felt the best charity would be one that helps children since C-section scars are from having a baby. This, to me, was the most important cause to support.
What words of wisdom do you live by when times are tough?
When we shift our mindset to thinking that something isn’t happening to you, it’s happening for you, then we might have a different outcome. I didn’t know why, when I was in that hospital room, this was happening to me. I think often, when times are tough, we are so hard on ourselves and don’t understand it, so we try to avoid it and go around it so we don’t experience pain. I now see why I had to go through that, and I wouldn’t be sharing my story today if things had gone according to my birth plan. I’m so thankful, and the strength and focus I have today is because of it. I have to remind myself daily that, if I went through that, I can go through anything and be okay. I live by the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”
Any upcoming projects this year you’re looking forward to that you can share with us?
So many things in the works. I have always wanted to start a charity for working mothers, and to get started in that direction, I am going to have one of my pieces from my brand HÜES go toward an existing charity very soon.
For more from Kelly, follow her on social media: Instagram