Leyna Bloom on being first trans woman of color in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue: ‘I truly feel worth it’

Kamilah Newton
·9 min read
Leyna Bloom in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. (Photo: leynabloom via Instagram)
Leyna Bloom in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. (Photo: leynabloom via Instagram)

This week, news broke that model and actress Leyna Bloom would be the first Black and Asian transgender woman to be featured in a Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated, which is set to hit shelves in July.

In a statement to CNN Style, Sports Illustrated celebrated Bloom's "undeniable sense of self that shines through the minute she walks on set."

Leyna's story "represents one grounded in resilience and we couldn't be more thrilled to help her tell it," the statement continued. "Her presence as the first trans woman of color to be in our issue is a result of her lifetime dedication to forging her own path that has led to acceptance, love and change. She represents every person's right to love themselves and be who they want to be."

In an interview with Yahoo Life, Bloom talks family, realism and the importance of celebrating history — as well as those who are currently creating it.

Yahoo Lifestyle: First of all, congratulations, because you are making waves out here. How does it feel to be making history with this new Sports Illustrated feature?

Leyna Bloom: I felt really amazing. I truly feel worth it. I felt worthy that I have been selected out of so many other gorgeous trans women, Asian women, Black women — women that have very similar lived experiences… and to see it come out and seeing the reaction has been truly, truly mind blowing for me. I often say that every time I do receive an opportunity that I am making history. This is a huge moment, but what else is there to be done and what am I going to do next? And what am I going to inspire? So you take it in for one day, and then the next day you gotta get back to the vision board.

72nd Cannes Film Festival - Photocall for the film
Leyna Bloom pictured in 2019 in Cannes, France. (Photo: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe)

What are some challenges you've faced while carving this path?

[Trans people] have been on this Earth for centuries. We go back before colonization. In indigenous communities around the world, there's prominent Black and Brown people that are celebrating each other's feminine and masculine characteristics, but through colonization, we kind of erase those sacred things about our communities. And I do feel sacred. So the idea that it’s taken four centuries to get to this point, to receive accolades on this level, is truly, like, why has it taken so long?

…To see our next generation really not understanding the history of where we've come from is painful for my heart. I often have conversations with other trans women that have paved the way for me to be here and they often feel forgotten — and I think I've gotten a little piece of that. This moment reminds a lot of people of the hard work that my trans sisters, leaders and mentors have done for us and what I have done for my community. We just hope that the next generation of trailblazers ... celebrate us and continue holding the torch for our hard work — and give us our flowers while we're still here.

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That's so important, and so rare, as so often we wait until people are long gone to finally acknowledge their greatness.

Social media opens dialogue to pay homage to our leaders — and then social media also creates a fast microwaveable experience that is just like, "Oh, this is happening fast and what's going to happen next week?" …It's like, OK, it's taken 400 years to get to this moment and the next week no one wants to talk about it anymore. Twenty or 10 years ago, when Black people or queer people had a historical moment, we really celebrated [it]. And now history is competing with some Karen crap, so it gets forgotten. I don't want these moments to be forgotten because I don't forget the people like Tyra Banks, who was the first woman of color to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated… I cannot be where I am at if she did not have that first moment.

You are bringing something that doesn’t get enough airtime when it comes to media coverage of marginalized communities: joy and beauty. How important is that part of the equation to you?

We live in a world where people would rather choose sadness over happiness. That's more tantalizing. People truly gravitate to the pain and the loss in society. We don't often celebrate happiness and new forms of ideas around love of the family. What I try to do is bring joy because when I'm speaking to people…there's this universal language that anyone can feel: a smile, a laugh, presence, emotion.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 08: Leyna Bloom attends the Longchamp Fall/Winter 2020 Runway Show at Hudson Commons on February 08, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Longchamp)
Leyna Bloom arriving at the Longchamp Fall/Winter 2020 Runway Show for New York Fashion Week. (Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Longchamp)

Who has inspired you along your journey?

Honestly, there's so many amazing people that have inspired me. I think one thing that they all have in common is it's rooted in "I come from nothing and I'm going to create something." They come from these small towns, projects, or communities where there's no opportunities and there's no education and they navigate themselves and everything they do in every single day to say, "I want more for myself. I want to show up today and be my most authentic self."

When I think of powerful women, I think of someone who is truly unstoppable, especially when they know that they deserve a lot better than what the world offers them. I like people that wake up and tackle their day knowing that they deal with adversity in every room, regardless of where they go. There's people in this industry that want to be famous, just so they can say, "I have some type of power." Then there's some people in this business that want to have purpose over power and popularity. [Those were] a lot of the leaders that I grew up loving…

Especially in the age of social media, so many things are done for clout instead of altruistic reasons.

We need to have some form of realism. Obviously we all love a moment, a laugh or a viral video about booty shaking and stuff like that. I'm from the Southside of Chicago, so I was around that. I love that. That's part of my culture. That's a part of my community. That's how we celebrate ourselves, but we also need to have some realism. We are losing so much of the realism in society, so I want to be intersectional with something that is very fun and entertaining, but also very real.

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What's the significance of being featured in Sports illustrated's Swimsuit Issue, which has a past of being called tone deaf, but seems to have been actively working towards diversity?

We are in a time where the voices of the people that have not been given the opportunity to speak are now front and center, so you must reflect what's happening in the world: Trans women are being murdered, Black men and women are being killed. So in order to bring [proper] representation, you have to balance it out with a historical moment. You have to balance it out with conversations about body positivity, because these are the people in society buying these products and when you're buying a product, you want to look like the person in the advertisement. It's important for us to be on those covers of magazines, because we need to have this moment. We need to stand up and say, "Hey, I too deserve to be seen."

Regardless if it's being sensationalized or sexualized, there's a person in society that has never been seen as beautiful. This is an opportunity for them to feel beautiful …Having these conversations and having ideas of being on the cover or being in magazines, or actually working and getting paid for being your most authentic selves, is something very new.

How have your parents reacted to your success?

Mom lives in the Philippines. She's been living there since she was deported out of the country when I was nine months old, and my father lives in Mexico… He called me when I was on set on Tuesday, when it was announced, and he was just calling me to plant some seeds in me, to remind me how far I've come and how much work I have still to do. My dad has never been the type of person to bring out the balloons. He's the type of person to sit down and say, "Hey, take it all in and it's time to get back to work," — very clean, very to the point. And I love that about him because he does it with love and in the most beautiful way.

That is so amazing. I love to hear about supportive parents, especially when people like Dwayne Wade continue to be slandered for supporting his own daughter, Zaya.

Absolutely, Dwayne Wade — actually, he's from the Southside of Chicago, just like me. We both grew up around the same community and he just recently posted me on his Instagram page showing his respect for the moment. He is raising a beautiful Brown skin, Black queen who is going to be our future and is really out here doing her part. And he's starting her off very young to understand who she is, where she's coming from and who is out here doing the same things she's doing, so she can have a better life for herself. I think that's very powerful.

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Is there anyone in particular that you'd like to shout out who has supported you on your way to this moment?

My mentor, Thaddeus [Laday]. I just want to shout out people like him who also have stories, who also come from trauma experiences and people in our society that are making the most out of life. [Those who say,] "I Don't want to be stuck in a box. I want to break free of this box and go out in the world and make my mark." Shout out to every person right now that has captured their own form of spirituality and their own self love. If you are out here going after everything that you want and need and deserve — that the world tells you that you cannot have — this is your moment: Grab the light, the door is open.

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