"[Sports Illustrated Swimsuit] is a bold depiction of strong, unapologetic women embracing their truths."

May 08, 2019

I didn’t know too much about Sports Illustrated Swimsuit before this journey began. I knew what a typical reader did. Just like many young women, I excitedly bought the issue when it would hit newsstands each February. I made sure to watch every latenight show to see when the cover was announced. I idolized the women on the pages. They were beautiful. They were poised. They were sexy. They were well-spoken. They were everything I wanted to be. Little did I know, this journey would teach me that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit represents so much more than beauties in bikinis. 

Growing up in a typical Minnesota family, you don’t spend too much time thinking about your seemingly impossible dream of becoming an SI Swimsuit model. The illustrious world of exotic places, red carpets, and high fashion photoshoots seems unreachable. As a child of two engineers, it was impressed upon me that my mind was my most powerful tool for success. If I worked hard, remained humble, and treated everyone with respect, I could achieve my goals. 

From a young age, I was fascinated by the sciences. I excelled at science and math. I was a member of the mathletes and chess team. I started studying college level calculus at the age of 15. Because I was focused on my schooling, I was definitely not a member of the “cool kid’s club.” Throughout my middle school and high school years, I was the nerd — a label that made my dreams of becoming a model seem even more preposterous. 

In hopes of pursuing medicine, I studied biomedical sciences and psychology in college. I graduated Summa Cum Laude from the honors college with a 4.0 major GPA. During my college years, I volunteered at the local hospital and worked among my peers in an immunology lab. My academic achievements are among my proudest accomplishments. 

Yu Tsai

A few months after my graduation, I saw the SI Swimsuit model search competition on Instagram. Finally, this was a chance to make my dream a reality. So I set up my camera phone, turned it on selfie mode, and filmed a video explaining why I should be the next Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model. Little did I know, this 60-second video would change my life forever. 

When I received word that I had made it to the next round, I couldn’t believe it. Was this a mistake? Did they mean to send this congratulations letter to someone else? How among all these stunning women did they even notice my video? I was used to excelling in an academic setting, but the modeling world was daunting. 

Arriving in Brooklyn for my casting, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, being the nerd that I am, I watched every SI Swimsuit video I could get my hands on. I watched last year’s casting videos. I watched every “Making of SI Swimsuit” I could find on YouTube. I even searched for model’s blogs talking about their casting experience. I treated this casting like a test and I wanted to come prepared.

I was the last of my casting group to interview with the SI Swimsuit team. I had no idea what to expect as I waited for an interview with the individuals who had the power to turn my dreams into a reality. As I walked through the door, I was immediately surprised. They were ALL women. The magazine that so many people wrongly categorize as androcentric was run by an all-female editing team. I was thrilled. From the second I sat down, these powerful women just wanted to get to know me — the real me. They asked me about my life and about my education. They asked me about my husband and my family. Never once did they ask for my height, my weight, or my agency (which as a non-model, I did not have). Although it was a short interview, these women were able cultivate an environment of complete acceptance. 

From that moment on, I embarked on a journey of firsts. I would walk in my first fashion show. I would shoot my first brand campaign. I would interview with many national news organizations. And, most importantly, I would shoot for the magazine for the first time. 

I never truly understood the power of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit until I spend two years of my life seeing the passion, dedication, and diligence of the team firsthand. They not only create beautiful, bold images — something SI Swimsuit is most known for, but they also use the platform to start conversations about diversity, body positivity, and the multidimensionality of the modern-day woman. 

Yu Tsai

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit was the first major fashion publication to humanize the model. It wasn’t just model “x.” It was Cheryl Tiegs. It was Kathy Ireland. It was Tyra Banks. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit gave models a platform to show the world they were so much more than just a pretty face. And the models took full advantage of that opportunity, turning themselves into business moguls, entrepreneurs, and household names. This is why SI Swimsuit has created a legacy of powerful women; they were one of the first to give these women a voice. 

I am honored to be a rookie for the 2019 issue. To see myself in the same magazine as my childhood idols still baffles me. I can’t believe this science nerd from Minnesota is able to be a part of such a powerful legacy. I hope to be an example to anyone who believes their dreams are too big that anything is possible. 

A woman can be intelligent AND sexy. She can be an academic and a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model. She can graduate Summa Cum Laude and still embrace her body in a tiny bikini. The former does not negate the later and I hope to encourage women to pursue their passions despite social constructs.  

This journey has shattered my perception of what Sports Illustrated Swimsuit represents. I entered the SI Swim Search because it was a dream of mine to model for this iconic brand. And now, I have been given the privilege of contributing to the legacy.... because SI Swimsuit is so much more than beauties in bikinis, it’s a bold depiction of strong, unapologetic women embracing their truths. 

See all of Haley's gorgeous photos from SI Swimsuit 2019:

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