It’s no secret that social media influencers are more powerful than ever before. From being featured in mega ad campaigns to starting thriving businesses of their own, they’re taking their sway beyond the grid. Alexis Ren is Sports Illustrated’s Rookie of the Year 2018, and as a model and activewear brand founder who got her start largely on Tumblr, she epitomizes what it means to be this new type of power player.
If you have an Instagram account then chances are you follow — or have at least come across — Ren’s Instagram page. The 21-year-old Cali native regularly posts selfies, modeling shots, and other snaps of herself that range from the powerfully sexy to the charmingly silly. She’s a fitness fiend, has a cool, chilled out LA style, and is girl-next-door gorgeous — it’s easy to see why 11.8 million people follow her. “Recently, I’ve been focusing on showing more of my personality [on social media],” she says. “I think it’s important to be vulnerable and open.”
Ren was discovered at age 13 when she was scouted in a clothing store. “I got signed to an agency not long after and I’ve been working full-time ever since,” she reveals. She began building a substantial following on Tumblr and when she moved to Instagram her fans moved with her. From fitness tips to inspirational quotes to intensely personal life stories, Ren has shared a lot with her followers, which has allowed her to be more than a face on a screen. It’s allowed her fans to feel like they’ve grown with her and, in a sense, know her, which is so important today for models, musicians, et cetera who get booked partially based on how many followers they have.
The Sports Illustrated Rookie of the Year title itself is awarded by fans. While the publication selects their rookie class, it's up to readers to vote for which member they'd like the honor to be bestowed upon. "I appreciate Sports Illustrated expanding their horizons and bringing me, an influencer, on board,” says Ren, whose fellow rookie classmates include Ebonee Davis, Chase Carter, Raven Lyn, and more. “I know I didn’t come into this industry the same way as most girls, so it’s been a challenge for me to be accepted. I appreciate them giving me a chance.” It's a chance she's been waiting for for awhile.
“I’m team do-whatever-the-f*ck-you-want with your body."
“Being Rookie of the Year has been a goal of mine since I was 13,” she reveals. “I remember marveling over how beautifully powerful the models looked in the magazine with my mom. Sports Illustrated knows how to capture the fire in women. It’s an honor.”
Ren, indeed, looks fierce AF in her photos, which were shot on a gorgeous beach in Aruba. Wearing an array of suits — from a velvet bikini to a nude one-piece — she poses laying down in the idyllic sand and sitting in shallow water. An ex-dancer of ten years, Ren is also captured in beautifully poetic poses with a billowing scarf in hand. The entire shoot exudes confidence and sexiness, and celebrates the beautiful thing that is the female body. “Sports Illustrated features empowering females flaunting what the universe gifted us. Female energy is something this world needs more of,” says Ren. “I wanted my shoot to convey power, strength, and love.”
The 2018 Swimsuit Issue as a whole has a decidedly more feminist lean to it, with one shoot in particular standing out. Called “In Her Own Words,” it features models including Sailor Brinkley Cook and Robyn Lawley posing nude with words of their own choosing (“natural,” “truth,” “mother,” to name a few) painted across their body. Essentially, the shoot allows the models to be heard rather than just seen.
In light of the #MeToo era, it’s a fitting feature. To those who say nude or nearly nude modeling does more to hurt the feminist movement than to progress it, Ren says, “I’m team do-whatever-the-f*ck-you-want with your body, it’s yours. Live life how you please. You cannot control people’s reactions, but you can control your own [actions].”
Along with modeling, Ren runs her recently-launched activewear brand, Ren Active, which speaks to her passion for fitness. “I have always been a very physically active human being. I was a dancer for ten years and use my body like an artist uses their paintbrush. It gives me a high like no other and and it’s so crucial for my well-being.”
Ultimately, she hopes to use her platform to “bring girls together, to help them find themselves, to help the, love themselves, and to give them any tips in life that I have learned,” she says. “I’m currently working on self-love and being more compassionate towards myself. You are all you’ve got, and you’re so much more than your physical being. Be you.”