Meet The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models Redefining “Beach Body” On Their Terms
The 2022 SI Swimsuit class gets candid about their BTS experiences in the modeling industry.
The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is back, and the 2022 roster is stacked. Models like Hunter McGrady, Duckie Thot, Marquita Pring, Tanaye White, and Cindy Kimberly all grace the pages this year, each of them, in their own way, continuing the magazine’s legacy of proving that all kinds of bodies are beautiful. This visibility is especially important as summer approaches and the fat-shaming “beach body” ideal starts making the rounds in fitness ads and on social media. By showing up and showing out, these women are redefining “beach body” on their own, diverse terms.
But even though they’re changing the game — representing body diversity and redefining global beauty to span models from four continents — they all know there’s still plenty of work to be done. I spoke to five of the 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models about their personal behind-the-scenes experiences of the iconic shoot, the modeling industry at large, and how they’ve learned to love themselves, on and off set.
Across the board, all of these gorgeous young women have more than a few things in common: They have all struggled with self-esteem and learning to value their bodies. They’ve all seen the modeling industry embrace diversity and inclusion more and more over the past few years (though there’s still more change needed). And, perhaps most surprisingly, none of them have ever felt as confident as they do when they’re in a swimsuit posing for Sports Illustrated.
“Most of the time, I show up and it just feels very much like work. Get in, get what we need, and then get out. This always feels different,” Hunter McGrady, a self-identifying plus-size model, tells me over Zoom. The 29-year-old is a new mom, a third-generation model, and her 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue will be her fifth time in the magazine.
Despite having modeled since the age of 18, she’s never felt quite as embraced as she does when shooting with MJ Day, the editor of the magazine and the director of the Swimsuit shoots. “The team is everything,” McGrady says. “That's one of the things that I love so much about MJ Day. She creates such an incredibly positive environment.”
As a young girl, McGrady was aware of Sports Illustrated — “I saw the issues growing up. I just remember seeing them and thinking, ‘Oh, my God, the most beautiful women are in this’” — but didn’t feel represented in the pages. As we talk about representation in the modeling industry, she shares a story that shocks even me, someone with almost a decade in fashion and beauty under their belt. “[My mom] was a size 6 at one point, and they told her that she could no longer model at that size. Even she felt no representation.”
Fellow model Marquita Pring also vividly remembers the beauty of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues as well as feeling excluded from the magic. “It was one thing that I looked forward to every year, seeing all of these different beautiful bodies in bikinis,” the 30-year-old says. “At the time, I couldn't necessarily relate to those women, because I was a very plump, round, young teenage girl.” Pring smiles a little sadly, recalling how it felt to await the Swimsuit issues with a mix of excitement and something less pleasant.
“I think deep down, I knew I could never really look like that. So it was kind of a funny juxtaposition of goals and dreams and also thinking ‘I also want to see somebody like me in there too,’” she says. While the size and shape of her body didn’t prevent Pring from following her dream of becoming a model, it did limit the choices she had when she began pursuing a professional career around the age of 15.
Pring’s career began in Utica, New York, at an open casting call at the local Radisson Hotel. According to the model, there were “reputable agencies there that happened to be at the forefront of the plus curvy movement” that told her she wouldn’t have to change her size, which made a career in New York City seem possible to the then-teenaged Pring. The downside: Out of the 100 or so agencies in attendance at the casting call, only two were accepting curvy models. To reiterate, only 2% of the agencies looked beyond straight sizes.
Like McGrady, Pring agrees that the industry is changing, but it has a long way to go. “[Plus-size models] are also starting to tap into the high fashion industry, which has always been a goal of mine. It's like, we need to be in the advertisements of Chloé and Chanel and Dior,” she says, while also acknowledging there’s far more work available for curvy models than there was when she started her career as a teenager. At the time, the lack of representation “was devastating.”
“I grew up in upstate New York, where I was the biggest, brownest girl in my whole life,” she says. “I don't think I was aware of the need to fix [it]. It was just kind of, you're getting what you're served. You're not happy with it, but it's what you've got. At that point, you don't realize that you can be part of the change.”
In 2015, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit featured model Robyn Lawley, who wears between a size 12 and 15, in its pages. To some, this was a sign that the brand was ready to embrace body diversity. But it wasn’t until the following year — when Ashley Graham, then a size 16, was featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue — that people truly felt like they’d seen a sign of changing times. (According to a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education, the average American woman is between a size 16 and 18.)
Pring calls Graham’s cover “a really pivotal moment,” but adds that Sports Illustrated wasn’t so much defining the changing times as it was keeping in step with them. “Sports Illustrated was absolutely on par,” she says, “[and] on the same page with everybody else evolving into the body positivity space.”
Since then, the magazine has featured an array of different body types in the pages of its most iconic issue. Models with stretch marks and belly fat are photographed with the same sultry expressions and vivacity as their size 2 counterparts. Even more affirming to anyone who jiggles, models of all sizes are front and center. No one is hiding what makes them different. Differences — cellulite, scars, anything — can be centerfold-worthy in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. This year’s issue features a model smiling and showing off her C-section scar, a model older than 70, and a vast array of body types.
In the past five years, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issues have also featured women with a wide range of skin tones and hair types, trans women, and mothers — all women who have been, at one time or another, unwelcomed by the fashion industry at large. As for the future of the industry in terms of body type inclusion, McGrady is hopeful but realistic. “I think that we're just scratching the surface,” she says.
Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has featured body diversity frequently in the past five years or so, but it has been featuring another type of diversity for far longer: skin tone, ethnicity, and hair texture.
“We have icons, the Black model icons, like Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell. And we have OG legends like Beverly Johnson,” says Tanaye White, a model who worked for BAE systems, one of the largest aerospace agencies in the world, before trying out for Sports Illustrated’s open casting call. “But I would say that as far as seeing models with Afros or models with more Afrocentric facial features, like a wider nose or a fuller lips, it’s much harder to come by.”
Sports Illustrated is one magazine that does feature an array of skin tones in its pages, but that’s not something that many people of color grew up seeing. Even now, the fashion industry as a whole still isn’t always equipped to work with Black models. “To this day, I still bring my model kit, with extra foundation and extra hair tools [to set],” says White. For her rookie shoot in 2021, White wore her gorgeous, curly hair in its natural texture, a choice she was able to make. Since models are still sharing stories of MUAs and stylists who don’t know how to style Black hair and don’t have shades for darker skin tones in their kits, White’s experience was refreshing to hear.
I’ve had experiences with stylists who don’t know how to do my hair because we're still in the process of being in an industry that truly embraces diversity and inclusion.
“In the past, I’ve had experiences with stylists who don’t know how to do my hair because we're still in the process of being in an industry that truly embraces diversity and inclusion. Not all hair stylists understand Afro hair or kinky hair,” White says, before sharing that Sports Illustrated made sure to have hair and makeup team members on set who could work with her hair when she expressed she wanted to have her curls out.
This experience stuck with White because of its rarity. “A lot of models who have hair like mine or even skin tones like mine rarely ever have the ability to speak so openly about how they want to feel most comfortable when they come to set, so I really appreciate that when I tell Sports Illustrated, ‘Hey, I would love to come on set with my natural hair,’ they've never had any issues with it,” White shares. “I also love that they're open to feedback about which hairstylists I would recommend.”
Even so-called “straight size” models — between a size 0 and a size 6 — face challenges in the modeling industry as a whole that are alleviated on a Sports Illustrated set. Cindy Kimberly, a Spanish and Indonesian model with nearly 7 million Instagram followers, wasn’t always comfortable with her ethnic features. “I grew up in Spain. I think [when] people hear Spanish, they think it's more ethnic, but Spanish people from Spain are mostly white,” she says. “Growing up, I had an idea of ‘white, blond, straight hair, and skinny’ being the beauty standard. And I didn't really feel like I fit into that.”
Like many biracial or nonwhite kids in predominately white communities, Kimberly, who began modeling at 16, did what she could to fit in, including changing her hair texture and eye color. When she tells me she began straightening her hair at the age of 8, my heart breaks a little bit — this girl is straight up gorgeous — but later, I have to smile. I’m scrolling through Kimberly’s Instagram and see that she dropped a sneak peek of her Sports Illustrated rookie shoot back in February. In it, she’s beaming and her dark hair is damp and wavy, another sign that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit likes to capture natural beauty.
While Kimberly does say that the beauty standards have changed — “At the end of the day, it's just a made-up concept and it changes throughout the years” — and she now fits into what most people find attractive, she grew up believing a modeling career would be impossible because she didn’t see models or actors who looked like her. “Back in the day, Sports Illustrated was one of the first [places] where I felt like I was seeing people that like looked like me and was seeing different body types being represented. When I was growing up, it wasn't as common as it is now.”
Seeing beauty redefined in countless different skin tones with cellulite and “imperfections” is a meaningful experience for all types of people, even supermodels like Duckie Thot, who remembers seeing the American magazine in her native Australia. “I think everyone, in every corner of the world, knew about Sports Illustrated growing up,” she says. “I just thought that all [the models] looked really beautiful and really happy. You could feel the energy coming from the pictures which was what was so captivating about the issue.”
It’s Thot’s rookie year and “truly an honor,” she says. As a model with a huge career, Thot has worked with brands from Fenty to Yeezy, but being a part of 2022’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue was special to her because this brand in particular has featured meaningful diversity. “I don't think I fully saw myself [represented in magazines] growing up, and that was challenging for me, so I think it's crucial that brands are willing to represent people everywhere,” she says. Though Thot believes that the fashion industry has made some progress toward more inclusivity, especially in the past couple of years, she feels that Sports Illustrated began redefining beauty before other brands did.
“They've been doing it for years. They were at the forefront, and they were one of the top brands to do it as well,” Thot says. “So just to know that they took the initiative when a lot of clients really weren't, a lot of brands weren't at the time, it's even more exciting to work with them now.”
Thot’s rookie experience was made extra special by the team, since she was feeling some insecurities at the time of the shoot. “I wasn't really in my normal model shape, which was uncomfortable for me. I was bigger than I normally was, and as a model, that was really challenging, but they made me feel special,” Thot says. She smiles, almost to herself, and then adds, “They made me feel seen just as I am.”
If life imitates art, then the modeling industry as a whole would be just as diverse as the cast of undeniably beautiful women rolling in the sand and beaming in the photos of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. And while the modeling industry has a long way to go before it is truly an inclusive space, there are moments of real acceptance to be had on set for the Sports Illustrated models. Whether it’s body acceptance or acceptance of features that don’t fit into most of today’s beauty standards, the magazine that was once considered too sultry for newsstands has become a haven for body diversity. The 2022 issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is brimming with beautiful beach bodies. All shapes. All sizes. All proof that beauty has no standard size, shade, or texture.
The 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is available on newsstands on May 19.