Naomi Watanabe, the “Beyoncé of Japan,” Is Taking Down Sizeism in Tokyo—And Becoming a Fashion Icon

Photographed by Keiichi Nitta
Naomi Watanabe is gazing out from the 46th floor of a slim glass tower in Tokyo, taking in the sunset. Marveling at the endless expanse of lights before her, it’s almost funny that the comedian should be so enthralled, considering that the city below is pulsing with people who know her name. As we ride the elevator down a few floors to a brasserie, lit by washi paper lanterns, her interpreter warns, “We don’t want to draw too much attention.” But Watanabe knows the drill. Dressed in black sweats, she pulls down a bright blue Lazy Oaf cap stamped with a watermelon and hurries over to our private booth, before she’s spotted and swamped by selfie requests and hysterical whispers of “Watanabe-san!”

It’s tough to overstate how obscenely, impossibly famous Watanabe is in Japan. Billboards across the country are plastered with her face; so are magazine covers and train doors. The day after our interview, her face grins at me from a chewing gum packet as I’m lining up at the supermarket checkout. She is, by turns, a model, talk show host, brand mascot, movie actress, and a fixture on numerous television networks, radio shows, and commercials. Yet Watanabe is first and foremost a comedian, catapulted to fame in 2008 for lip-synching Beyoncé. To “Dream Girls” and “Crazy In Love,” Watanabe whipped her hair, shook her hips, and twisted her face into the wildly comic expressions she is now known for.

She’s been big news in Japan for almost a decade now, but in the past few years, her reputation has extended overseas thanks to a few viral videos—Naomi in a tasseled bumblebee costume, thrusting and trilling to Desiigner’s “Panda,” for example—plus her first international comedy tour last year. There’s a new 224-page photo book, Naomi, which came out this summer to celebrate her 10th year in the business, and her status as Japan’s most-followed person on Instagram. At the time of writing, she sits on a hefty 7.3 million followers; her closest competitors are the Japanese models Kiko Mizuhara (4.8 million) and Rola (4.6 million).

Photographed by Keiichi Nitta
What’s more, she’s lately started gaining major ground as an international fashion icon. Named one of Japanese Vogue’s Women of the Year in 2016, she also stars in a newly released comedy series about a plus-size fashion designer. The show, called Kannasaaan!, is based on a manga comic of the same name, and has Watanabe playing the lead role of Kanna, a “superwife” and fashion designer who finds out her husband is cheating on her. She kicks him out and resolves to raise their son alone, beginning a tale of female empowerment and Ugly Betty-esque endearment. “Kanna is powerful and energetic, but also really sensitive,” says Watanabe. “Someone you want to cheer on.”

The role she plays on Kannasaaan! is in many ways true to life, considering that Watanabe happens to be the plus-size fashion designer behind her own brand, Punyus. With a worldwide fan base that includes Lena Dunham, the label is noted for its pop aesthetic and sense of humor. “With Punyus, I always remember that before anything else, I’m a comedian,” Watanabe says. In a recent campaign, Watanabe dangles seductively from a stripper pole, in a brown dress the color of steak, doing her best impression of a sexy shish kebab. Against the odds, she pulls it off.

It’s worth mentioning that Punyus—contrary to most of its media coverage—is not an exclusively “plus-size” brand. In fact, it stocks everything from a Japanese small all the way up to a 6X large. “I don’t want to discriminate at all,” she explains. “If I did a plus-size only brand, I think it would be discriminatory against smaller sized people.” Due to the country’s narrow beauty standards, where the average woman weighs just 115 pounds and “a lot of womenswear just comes in one size” (Japan is notorious for its lack of sizing), for a brand to have even half of those options is nothing short of revolutionary. “For a lot of Japanese clothing brands, they don’t necessarily care about catering to the consumers,” says Watanabe. “It’s more like, ‘We’re going to make a pair of jeans, and if you can’t fit into them, then it’s your fault.’ ” Her brand is challenging this mentality head-on, driven by body politics and passion.

Beyond her own label, the past few months have seen Watanabe become a familiar face in the front row at Fashion Week. Most recently she attended Gucci’s Spring 2018 runway show, dressing the part in a vibrant pink jacquard Gucci coat, her hair styled into two enormous multicolored braids. Posing for photographs with Anna Dello Russo, Eva Chen, A$AP Rocky, and Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, it’s clear that the fashion industry has fallen for her. Fortunately for them, the feeling is mutual: “I like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and I love Gucci at the moment—so kawaii—but I’m about to go bankrupt,” Watanabe chuckles. “I’m glad I’m plus-size because [most high-end brands] just don’t do a lot of things in my size. If I was any skinnier, I’d be completely broke.”
Watch Naomi Watanabe’s Guide to Glitter Eyes and Bold Lips:
Though it’s a good-natured remark, the truth is that most designers, however kawaii, simply don’t cater to larger-than-average women, even when they’re famous. For a recent Fendi party in Tokyo, finding a Naomi-sized garment meant organizing a stylist search squad: “We had like 50 people trying to find a product I could fit in! Eventually we found a floor-length skirt that worked.” Though she laughs it off, the lack of plus-size options in the fashion industry is an undeniable issue—one that excludes potential (not to mention influential) customers like Watanabe. It’s no surprise, then, that for the moment, she is very much happy staying on the industry’s periphery. “The fashion world is very intense,” she says, eyes wide. “I see it as a huge, shiny, and beautiful pool. I just dip my tiny pinky in there, get scared, and jump back out.”

From the safety of that vantage point, Watanabe observes ongoing trends with glee. “Everyone chases what’s popular where they are,” she says, citing Instagram. “In Japan right now there’s a certain hairstyle that’s popular with the bangs and the longer hair on the side of your face, and everybody takes a selfie and everyone looks exactly the same. In the States, it’s completely different—you show your face and there’s a certain type of makeup, where everybody tries to look like Kylie Jenner—” she sucks her cheeks in and does her best Kardashian pose—“but still, everybody looks the same.” While she doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, she recognizes that standing out from the crowd is what made her and remains inspiringly unapologetic about it. “There are always going to be people tearing you down for your originality. But it’s probably out of jealousy because they can’t do what you can,” she says. “Life would be a lot easier if we didn’t worry about what they think.” (If the comedy dries up, she’ll make a fabulous motivational speaker.)

Not worrying about what others think is, in many ways, the driving force behind her success. At 18, against her mother’s wishes, she left home and enrolled in the comedy school of the company that now manages her. “I’m a girl and an only child, so she just wanted me to have a life where I had enough money . . . this wasn’t really the path she had in mind,” she says. Her mother has softened as the successes have stacked, but she remains Watanabe’s biggest critic. “My mom still tells me I ain’t shit and that I’m not funny,” she says. Really? Watanabe looks down and smiles. “She doesn’t tell me, but I know she tells her neighbors how proud she is.” She should be. In contrast to her Go-Go Juice stage personality, the real Naomi is warm, a touch shy, and disarmingly likable. Her eyes are wide and lit by an infantile enthusiasm, eyebrows zipping up and down, and she speaks softly yet animatedly, her sentences occasionally devolving into a contagious cackle. She’s also incredibly humble—when I tell her that she’s an inspiration for young women everywhere, she vehemently shakes her head.

Naomi (Yoshimoto Books)

Photographed by Keiichi Nitta
Protest as she might, there’s no use denying it. At 220 pounds, Watanabe has quickly found herself a poster girl for body positivity, which is particularly groundbreaking in her homeland. In 2008, the Japanese government implemented a national limit on waistlines to combat obesity (33.5 inches for men; 35.4 for women), and actually began fining companies whose employees’ measurements didn’t fit the bill. “Plus-size people definitely aren’t accepted in Japan,” she sighs. That said, there have been some steps toward inclusivity: La Farfa, a magazine for plus-size women (referred to as “marshmallow girls” by the mag) was founded in 2015 “to make larger Japanese women feel normal by not hiding what’s natural.” Its initial printing of 50,000 sold out, and La Farfa upped its print run and increased frequency from semiannual to bimonthly. Watanabe is a regular cover girl, and I ask her if “marshmallow girl” is a term she identifies with: “I’d rather call myself fat rather than a marshmallow girl, because people get too sensitive and think, Oh should I refer to you as marshmallow girl rather than fat,” she says. “It’s a vague and euphemistic term, not accepting the fact that you’re fat. I don’t want other people to be oversensitive about my size. I just own it.”

She does just that through her signature look (painted toes, double buns) and the way she uses fashion to complement her figure, not disguise it. “I choose clothing that shows my positive parts off,” she says, listing them off. “I often get complimented on my skin, and I like my cleavage too. I have skinny wrists and ankles, and I wear jeans that are cut off to let my ankles show.” Though Watanabe brims with self-confidence now, it took time to get there. “Back in my teens I definitely used to cover up a lot of myself, mainly because I was scared of what people would say about me,” she says. “They would tell me, ‘Don’t you know what your size is? What are you wearing?’ And so I didn’t wear what I wanted to because I didn’t want to get hurt by what people would tell me.”

Happily, things changed. “As I started my career as a comedian, I started to think differently like, ‘Why do they get to tell me what I can and can’t wear? It’s my life, I can do what I want,’ ” she says. Carving out an aesthetic in the country’s male-dominated comedy scene came with its own challenges. “Japan, 10 years ago, being a comedian I was expected to be a tomboy or wear something boyish,” she recalls. “Not many comedians wore heels or makeup or hair extensions, and a lot of male comedians made fun of me for wearing certain things.” Watanabe, not one to compromise, dug her heels in. “Gradually, what I wore became what was expected of me, and that became ‘Naomi.’ I didn’t have to change the minds of others, but just continued to be myself,” she says happily. Later, she puts it in plainer terms.“My message is never to tell other people that they should get fat or put on weight, but I truly believe that I should be happy, and everybody should be happy in their own skin,” she says. “You shouldn’t reject the way you are.” She flashes her Cheshire-cat grin and slurps her iced tea.

By this point, the sun is long gone, and the city twinkles below. Watanabe, never in one place for long, has work to do—in between endless meetings, shoots, and appearances, she is currently taking English classes in preparation for another international tour. And then? Brandishing an imaginary torch like Lady Liberty, she says: “My dream is to be in the 2020 Olympics opening ceremony!” Outsider or not, it’s hard to imagine anyone more perfect for the job.