Former school teacher Jeff Jenkins discovered a passion for travel during a life-changing trip to Rwanda in 2018. Although the Austinite was committed to seeing the world, he realized resources were sparse for plus-size travelers like him. So he created the website chubbydiaries.com with a mission of helping and empowering fellow plus-size travelers to “live life now.”
Fast forward five years and Jenkins is now a renowned travel journalist and influencer who has visited 45 countries and has more than 117,000 followers on Instagram. And now he’s headed to TV—he has a brand new National Geographic TV series, Never Say Never with Jeff Jenkins, premiering on July 9.
We caught up with Jenkins, who was just back from Malta and London, to learn about his path to becoming a travel influencer, the goal of his new TV show, and why moving to Texas is the best decision he ever made.
How did you get into being a travel influencer?
I used to be a teacher, and I was part of a water well project in Rwanda. While I was there building my first well is when I started asking myself the question of, “What do I truly want to do in life?” I came to the conclusion that I wanted to travel the world. But how do you make money traveling? There’s travel journalism, travel blogging, travel content creation. That’s what made me decide that this was the career path that I was going to go with.
How intimidating was it to start the process of becoming a travel influencer?
Although I committed, which is the toughest thing to do, everything else was intimidating. But I knew I was going to do it. It was something I said out of my mouth for the first time ever: “This is what I really want to do.”
Jeff Jenkins’ Texas Top 5
Dripping Springs: “They have great barbecue out there and great distilleries and wineries. It’s one of the best-kept secrets that I’m loving right now.”
Austin: “Austin is different from all of the other major cities, and it’s full of amazing food spots. Austin has a culture that is different from the rest of Texas.”
Waco: “I love Waco. Waco is on the rise. It continues to just grow and grow. Waco is a fantastic place.”
San Antonio: “San Antonio is growing and the new development coming in is bringing in a lot of activities as well. And they have my favorite zoo. Their zoo is massive. You can pet rhinos.”
Big Bend: Jenkins hasn’t been to the park yet, but “that’s always been on my list.”
How long did it take to get the traction you wanted?
I looked at it as a business. With any business, it can take months to years before things start to pick up. I didn’t get notoriety and get people to actually notice me for four to five months. I didn’t get my first paid gig until a year. I started making my teacher salary by the third year.
What do you try to convey to people who consume your content?
I felt like the travel industry as a whole marginalized [plus-size people], and it was an untapped market. I knew all the struggles and challenges that came with being a plus-size traveler, and I wanted to speak on it and I wanted people to feel like they’re human.
You moved to Austin from Florida in 2012. How has Texas treated you?
It was initially between me moving to Nashville or Chicago. I called my friend who lived in Austin and he was like, “You should just move to Texas.” I was like, “I should just move to Texas.” I’d never set foot on Texas ground until I moved here, and it was the best decision I ever made.
What tips do you have for plus-size travelers?
It sounds very minute, but a lot of times in the past plus-size people weren’t traveling because of the fear of getting on a plane—will it be accessible and accommodating for them? So that’s the first thing: Commit to going. Then do your research. You can now find out if there are size and weight restrictions on different excursions before you ever get on an airplane. It’s good to know before you go, so you don’t experience embarrassment or isolation.
What was your reaction when a production studio reached out to you about doing a series for National Geographic?
I know the difficulties of people getting shows and going through this process, so, although I was optimistic, I still had caution. Now [that it’s happening], I am excited and ecstatic. It’s surreal in some ways, because this has been a two-year journey.
What’s the theme of the show?
The theme of the show is life begins where your comfort zone ends. It’s a feel-good show where I’m doing things outside of my comfort zone and pushing myself with the hope that, as people see me, it’ll motivate and encourage them to go and try these activities out. We’re breaking all the social and travel norms of what you would normally see a person doing.
Your favorite place is Japan, and you filmed an episode there. Where’s one place you haven’t been that you’re eager to visit?
I’ve definitely got to get to Antarctica one day because I want to be able to mark off that I’ve been to all seven continents. I want to see some penguins, I want to be able to experience that cold weather, that sense of man, I’m on the bottom of the world.
Have you received pushback for normalizing plus-size travel?
When I first started, my uncle asked me, “Why don’t you just teach people to lose weight and then you don’t have to do this?” I told him there are so many other platforms out there on how to lose weight or go on that dream trip once you get to your ideal weight. But there was no one speaking to the person where they’re at right now.
What is it like hearing from travelers you inspired?
It’s been fantastic. It warms my heart and it continues to drive me forward because there always are challenges that come from people who are opposed to me wanting to help plus-size people be active. They look at it from the wrong lens. I have to continue to inspire people to see what I’m doing for others as a good thing. I’m not here to promote obesity. My goal is to help people live life now.