Hunter McGrady has not always benefited from her own no-judgment approach to people of all shapes and sizes. Before she became a plus-size model in her early 20s, she succumbed to industry pressure to be thin, at times starving herself to a level that scared her.
Now Ms. McGrady, 26, has the kind of career most fashion models would trade their most comely Instagram shots for, including a sexy spread in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. But besides a soaring career and the admiration of leagues of body-positivity supporters, Ms. McGrady’s embrace of her size 16 figure has won her an unexpected reward: a Snapchat fan who turned out to be the man of her dreams.
“I remember thinking, ‘Whoever this person is, I want to talk to them. I don’t know if it’s a boy or a girl, but I want to meet them,’” said Ms. McGrady of Brian Keys, who turned out to be a Manhattan advertising executive with a resemblance to the fictional character Clark Kent. Mr. Keys, 42, who preferred to keep his Snapchat handle private, started following Ms. McGrady on the social media platform in late 2015 at the suggestion of a woman he met on a first date in Manhattan — and never saw again.
CreditAlex Welsh for The New York Times
“This girl he was out with was a fan of mine, and during their date she asked him, ‘What’s your type? What kind of girl do you like?’” Ms. McGrady said. “In my opinion that’s an odd question for a first date, but he said, ‘I like tall, curvy blondes.’”
The date implored Mr. Keys to download Snapchat so he could follow Ms. McGrady. “This girl was like, ‘Hunter’s so silly, you’ll love her,’” Ms. McGrady said.
Not much of a social media enthusiast, he expected to be only slightly amused. Instead, Mr. Keys, the vice president and creative director of the BGB Group, was soon hanging on Ms. McGrady’s every Snap, to the point where he worried he might seem like a stalker. “I felt a little weird about just following her, so I had to start adding some of my buddies” to make it look better, he said. Ms. McGrady had hooked him with her freewheeling posts about life as a traveling model from Thousand Oaks, Calif., whose roots in front of the camera run deep. Her mother, Brynja McGrady, was a model with Wilhelmina, the same agency to which Ms. McGrady is signed; her father, Michael McGrady, is an actor.
Glamour, though, was beside the point for Mr. Keys. “She was hysterical,” he said. “That drew me in.”
It inspired him, too. In early 2016, Mr. Keys started matching Ms. McGrady’s witty messages with a few of his own. A Snapchat repartee was born. And then Mr. Keys, the divorced father of an 8-year-old daughter, got bold.
In March 2016, Ms. McGrady flew to New York, as she did every few weeks, for a modeling gig that left her a few extra days to kill. She decided to use that time to explore the city. But she didn’t know exactly what was worth exploring, so she reached out to her Snapchat followers.
“I said, ‘Hey, listen, I’ve never had days off here in New York before. What should I do?’” She doesn’t remember Mr. Keys’ recommendations, only that what he wrote made her laugh and came with an invitation to meet for a drink. “That’s when I figured out, O.K., this is probably a man,” Ms. McGrady said.
Mr. Keys, who grew up in King of Prussia, Pa., and graduated from Hussian College in 1999, had to gather his courage to ask for that drink.
“We had been chatting over Snapchat a little bit, and I would send her a message and then I’d wait, and I remember that feeling when I saw, ‘Hunter McGrady is typing.’ I was like, ‘Holy crap, she’s writing back.’ Then when she said she was in town shooting I thought, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll ask her out and see what happens.”
Before Ms. McGrady agreed to meet him, she did some sleuthing. “I was like, ‘Why don’t I add you on Facebook?’ I wanted to see what he looked like,” she said. What he looked like was someone she had fantasized about meeting: an urban creative type with what she called “a J.Crew aesthetic.”
“I checked out all his photos and went, ‘Holy cow he’s handsome.’ He was so what I had imagined a New York ad man to be like,” she said.
The impression was reinforced when she opened the door at Bobo, a bar in Manhattan’s West Village, on March 11, 2016. “I walked in and he couldn’t see me, but I could see him,” she said. “I knew right then he was going to be my husband. I was thinking, I’m going to have to move to New York, because I’m going to marry this man.”
She was just as certain she wasn’t going to have to stage an elaborate seduction to set things in motion.
“The first words out of my mouth to him were, ‘I’m sorry I’m sweating’,” she said, “not the flirtiest of openers.”
“I was sweating because I was nervous and excited,” she added.
What she didn’t feel was over-the-moon elation. And that was a good sign: “Buddha or whoever says your soul mate is not someone you get giddy over. It’s someone you can talk to.”
Ms. McGrady and Mr. Keys talked effortlessly that night and into the wee hours. Before they went their separate ways, and after a first kiss, they made plans for a same-day Champagne cruise around Manhattan. And even that wasn’t enough togetherness before Ms. McGrady’s flight departed on March 13. By the time she boarded her plane, the couple had squeezed in a brunch and a daylong stroll through the city. Back home in California, her older sister, Michaela McGrady, 31, was concerned.
“I don’t ever go 45 minutes without talking to my sister,” Ms. McGrady said, and that included the whirlwind few days she had spent getting to know Mr. Keys. The trip to New York was supposed to have been strictly work, with a little healing time mixed in. “I had just broken it off with a guy, and I said to my agent, book me work in New York, just so I can get away,” Ms. McGrady said. “I was done with guys. Then I told my sister about Brian and she was like, ‘What? You said you were done!’”
Michaela McGrady managed to keep an open mind. “When your sister tells you she met a guy through Snapchat, you worry,” she said. “But Hunter had never sounded so excited about anyone.”
Three months later, when Mr. Keys flew to L.A. to meet the McGrady family, the big-sister wariness vanished.
“When you’re in an industry like Hunter’s it can be really hard to find people who genuinely support you,” Michaela McGrady said. “But the way Brian acted around her — he was so attentive, and he looked at her with these puppy-dog eyes. You could tell there was something wonderful there. I knew she had found her person.”
For Mr. Keys, finding someone to love in a lasting way had posed challenges in the past. He was divorced in 2011, before his daughter’s first birthday. “It was a really hard time sharing custody when she was a baby,” he said. (For privacy reasons, the family prefers not to disclose her first name.) His mother, Patricia Covone, flew up regularly from Florida to help him through the infant stage. An aunt pitched in, too. “They went over the top to help me,” he said.
The result is a father-daughter relationship that Ms. McGrady deeply admires. “His daughter is the most spectacular little girl I’ve ever known,” she said. “When I first met her, Brian told me she might be a little standoffish, and I was nervous. But after 10 minutes, she said, ‘Daddy, can Hunter come over and play?’ I saw that as a testament to the way Brian and her mother are raising her. She’s got so much love around her.”
Just after Mr. Keys met the family, including Ms. McGrady’s younger brother, Tynan, 21, Ms. McGrady packed her bags to move to New York. Though she wasn’t sure of the timing, she still felt sure she was going to marry Mr. Keys. She rented an apartment near Columbus Circle in Manhattan.
“I wanted my Carrie Bradshaw moment,” she said. When her lease was up a year later, in 2017, that moment had passed. She moved into Mr. Keys’s Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, apartment.
“It was all very seamless with the exception of, I left my doorman elevator building for a fourth-floor walk-up,” she said.
The move to Bay Ridge afforded her more time with Mr. Keys’s daughter, a transition that also proved seamless. And that helped Mr. Keys feel the limitlessness of his love for Ms. McGrady. “For me, that relationship had to work,” he said. “If, God forbid, it didn’t, it would not have been easy for us.”
On Dec. 29, 2017, Mr. Keys made a dinner reservation for three at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. “He said, dress really nice, because the way they do it up at Christmas is magical,” Ms. McGrady said. “I’m a Christmas junkie. He knew I always wanted to go there.”
He also knew, through Pinterest, what her dream engagement ring looked like. A month earlier, he had bought her a custom version of a cushion cut diamond she pinned at Theseos, in New York.
After the Christmas magic at Tavern on the Green, Mr. Keys told Ms. McGrady and his daughter he wanted to show them something in the park. They bundled up and walked to the famously romantic Bow Bridge in Central Park. There, Ms. McGrady noticed some photographers in the distance, and not the paparazzi type that occasionally follows her around.
“Then I blanked out,” she said. Mr. Keys was on one knee, the diamond ring extended, while the photographers he hired to capture the moment shot pictures.
“He asked me to marry him,” she said, “and then he turned and gave his daughter a Ring Pop and said, ‘We’ve talked about this. We want you in our family.’ I was sobbing. It was a total shock. If you see the pictures, my face is so scrunched.”
Not so scrunched, though, that she couldn’t say yes.
Ms. McGrady has been planning her wedding since she discovered Pinterest at age 14, she said. Being a plus-size model has been useful. “I modeled for Watters Bridal years ago, and I was like, ‘You guys do it right’,” she said, meaning they didn’t limit their gown choices to covered-up looks. After she and Mr. Keys set their June wedding date, she designed two dresses for the wedding — one a lacy, fitted white strapless gown and the other a simpler white floor-length dress, backless and cut high in the front.
She also had no trouble identifying the hair and makeup team she wanted to use to create what her sister called a “chic, tropical vibe.” And she kept working out with BabeBody, an internet group she started with a friend to encourage fitness at all sizes. At different studios in New York, BabeBody women show up to work out and support each other. “We do SoulCycle, Rumble, yoga,” she said. “We work out in our sports bras. And every time, someone cries, saying it’s the first exercise class they’ve been to where they didn’t feel judged.”
On June 16 at Eden Gardens in Moorpark, Calif., Ms. McGrady was ready, of course, for her close up. About 100 guests, including the Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and the actor Hailee Steinfeld, gathered before a pond-side altar to the sounds of chirping birds and swaying palm trees. Ms. McGrady, in the lacy dress and a long veil, walked down an aisle strewn with white rose petals. Her bridal party, including her sister, the matron of honor, wore white jumpsuits. Mr. Keys, in a gray suit with dark tie, wiped tears as his bride approached.
Ms. McGrady’s former pastor from Foursquare Church in Newbury Park, Calif., Gary Dunahoo, officiated during a short ceremony.
“I promise to always be your best friend and biggest supporter,” Mr. Keys said in his vows to her.
Ms. McGrady promised Mr. Keys: “In a sea of people, my eyes will always search for you.”
And then, in a surprise, she recited a different set of vows to her new stepdaughter. “I was not there when you took your first steps or when you got your first tooth, but I will never miss another first,” she said. “I love you as though you were my own.”
ON THIS DAY
When June 16, 2019
Where Eden Gardens, Moorpark, Calif.
Tongue Tied During the ceremony, Mr. Keys momentarily forgot the words the officiant asked him to recite. “I pretty much was just staring at Hunter and I totally forgot where I was at,” he said later.
Runway Ready Ms. McGrady changed into her second bridal gown for a post-wedding reception; she and Mr. Keys sashayed onto an outdoor patio to the Bruno Mars hit “Marry You.”
Happy Father’s Day Michael McGrady, a musician and actor, wrote and recorded an original song, “Daddy’s Little Girl,” for his youngest daughter’s wedding, which was on Father’s Day. Ms. McGrady cried as it played for the father-daughter dance.
Wedding for Three Of her decision to read vows to her stepdaughter Ms. McGrady said: “I just wanted to show her how much it means to me that she’s welcoming me into her family and how we’re becoming one. And I wanted her to know that she’s just as important on this day.”
Shariliz Poveda contributed reporting from Moorpark, Calif.