Every year Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue comes out to thunderous applause, but the 2021 issue is something special. Each of its three covers is dedicated to an inspiring woman. Tennis champion Naomi Osaka represents groundbreaking athletes, hip-hop star Megan Thee Stallion continues to dominate pop culture with her first appearance in SI, and model-actress Layna Bloom shines in a one-piece ivory swimsuit. The latter is making history. As the first transgender person to make the front page of SI’s annual special issue, Leyna Bloom is breaking new ground, of which she is well aware. “We all know that the world [is] in a compassionate space of transformation right now. Any woman of color on the cover of this magazine means that the world is evolving, and I am part of that process,” Bloom shared by phone from Los Angeles. “This moment means we’re going into the future, and this is what that future looks like.”

This accomplishment is something Bloom never imagined for herself. “When I was living in a model apartment, getting the cover of SI was something my roommates dreamed of, [because] it’s the Olympics for models,” she says. “I didn’t expect it to happen to me; I didn’t think it was possible.” Still, growing up, Bloom followed the casting process every year and saw women like Tyra Banks and Beyonce Knowles-the first African-American star and the first non-model or athlete to make the cover of a swimsuit issue, respectively-use their moments in the spotlight, which inspired her. “I was one of the people who watched the castings, [and] how the girls trained and prepared for the shoot,” Bloom says. “You could see how surprised and grateful they were to have this opportunity. I even remember seeing Tyra’s cover for the first time in 1997 because my dad had a copy. Our family celebrated these milestones in the black entertainment industry.”

Bloom’s path to the cover began when she met Sports Illustrated editor-in-chief M.J. Day in the summer of 2020. After her CAA agents put her in touch with Day and her team, the pair sat down for a conversation about modeling for SI that touched on everything from social justice to self-acceptance. “We talked for about two hours, but we didn’t talk about the magazine,” Bloom says. “We talked about space, motherhood, body power, activism, issues within our bodies that we began to appreciate and accept. It wasn’t a clichéd conversation about ‘you absolutely have to go on a diet.’ It was real and human, not at all what I expected, but more than I could have dreamed.” Day’s inclusive vision for the magazine is part of what drew Bloom in. “MJ is really an angel; she represents love, light and inspiration,” Bloom says. “She’s not just looking for the perfect model. She wants people from all walks of life with different stories to tell, all sizes, shapes and all walks of life. She accepted me and accepted every girl who dared to share her story, put on a swimsuit and say, ‘I’m beautiful.'”

Leyna Bloom

Although the pandemonium prevented the round-the-world international journey that SI photo shoots are known for, Bloom’s shoot had personal significance. Don CeSar, the legendary pink hotel in St. Pitts Beach, Florida, which was once the vacation spot of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Franklin D. Roosevelt, served as the backdrop for the pictures taken by Yu Tsai. “I came to this hotel with my boyfriend when I was 19, and it was my first time since then,” Bloom says. “The night before was so powerful and exciting. I came home after my fitting and cried because I had a beach shoot in a few hours. I needed to process everything: past, present and future, to understand what this moment meant.”

Before the shoot, Bloom and her close friend Thaddeus Laday prepared for the event by taking a trip through Sports Illustrated history. “I couldn’t have done it without him. If it was the Olympics, Thaddeus would be my coach,” Bloom says. “He knows everything about athletics – soccer, tennis, basketball, whatever – [and] he’s an epathetic person who also understands fashion and culture. We sat around the table and went through old issues and YouTube, studying every model of color, every model in general who has done this, looking at their photos and listening to their interviews.” On the day of the photo shoot, Bloom thought about trans and non-binary people before her. “I thought about all the people whose work and lives have led up to this moment,” she says. “All the things they went through, all the trials and tribulations, allowed me to make this possible. To be on the cover and represent them is a dream come true.”

Upon seeing the final version, Bloom was touched by both the beauty of the photo and how it reflected her true personality. “It was so symbolic and sexy at the same time,” she says. “I wanted to be in what I was most comfortable in, so I’m in a one-piece suit. Meghan Markle or Michelle Obama could go to the beach in a suit like that! I wanted to be that girl who orders tacos at the beach and feels the atmosphere and doesn’t worry about anything because she’s comfortable and she’s herself – that’s the kind of girl I wanted to represent.”

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