The coveted Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue is a big opportunity in the modeling world that jumpstarts careers for lots of girls. For Tanaye White (pronounced Tuh-nay), it was a ‘go big or go home’ leap of faith she knew she had to take when she entered its model search in 2018.
After becoming a finalist, she decided to make the complete career shift into modeling full-time, a stark change from her previous role as senior communications analyst for government agencies and international defense contractors. On top of that, the now 28-year-old beauty was already well past the age that most girls begin modeling.
But White, a competitive cheerleader for most of her teens and a track and field collegiate champion, runs towards challenges like a true athlete. And the very next year she was chosen as a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model for 2020. And not only did she serve true melanin queen realness in her photos, she did it while sporting her big natural Afro.
ESSENCE sat down with the Baltimore native to talk about her win, how COVID-19 is affecting her modeling, and of course, shooting for SI in her glorious ‘fro.
ESSENCE: OK, so tell me about the Afro. What was that process when you decided this would be the look for your shots?
Tanaye White: I’ve actually only been natural for three years. I gave myself a big chop in 2017. I didn’t even know what my actual curl pattern looked like because I had started getting relaxers when I was around seven or eight years old, so I honestly don’t even remember what my hair looked like before then. And so, when I tried out for the competition, I really wanted to go into it as my 100 percent authentic self. In my application video, I told them, ‘I love my hair, but I also love that I can switch it up.’ In my video I showed my Afro and then I also show myself in a wig because I don’t want people to typecast me to just one look. So when it came time to shoot the magazine in Turks and Caicos, they actually emailed me asking which hairstyle am I going in. And I was like, ‘Actually, I’m going to do my Afro.’ And they were like, ‘Okay, awesome.’
Okay Sports Illustrated!
TW: Yeah, they just wanted to make sure that they had all the right hair products and tools to make sure I looked good. They were always supportive of whatever look I showed up in, and I was never pushed one way or another to look a certain way. With Sports Illustrated, it’s not about just looking good in the magazine. It’s about really showing your true spirit through the imagery. The editorial team is 100 percent women of all backgrounds. And they really stress the importance of just loving yourself and they show you love in return.
How has the pandemic affected this amazing moment for you?
TW: It’s really disappointing what’s happening in the world and how it really has affected everyone. With me, this year was crucial because right now would have been launch week, so we would have been on the red carpet and on television and having celebration parties. That’s sort of like the cherry on top of the whole experience. Even though that was taken away from all of us, we’re still being celebrated regardless.
And your modeling is on pause for now?
TW: The modeling industry as a whole has literally come to a standstill because you have to be in person to shoot for the most part and it’s a lot of person to person interaction. I’m still really grateful that despite having such a disappointing modeling a year, we’re still able to celebrate this magazine. And I feel like this year, despite the setbacks of the world, we’re still going to make history with this issue.
I know with 2020 being the mess that it is it’s hard to say, but what’s next?
TW: I think that given the time, especially the sentiment regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and the tragic deaths that we’re seeing or that we have seen recently, I really want to use my voice. While the modeling industry is at a hold right now, I have the ability to focus on that more. I’ve been really trying to use my platform to share and spread more information about Black Lives Matter, and speaking up for people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor who still doesn’t have justice. I think that while the world is sort of looming and sort of hovering in this moment, we have the opportunity to raise our voices to issues that really matter.
Who are the women in the modeling world that inspire you?
TW: I grew up admiring Tyra Banks, of course. And I think it speaks volumes that I can be a part of this issue because she was the first Black woman to ever be on the cover. I really admire Ebonee Davis. She actually was a SI model too, and so, I think when I was going into this industry, I looked at a lot of the work she’s done and how she’s used her platform to inspire others.
Where could we find you on a typical Saturday night before the pandemic?
TW: At the bar. I love to celebrate and I love to have fun! But also you could find me at the library. Since I changed career paths, I still did want to feel connected to my digital communications background. And so, I actually started my own digital marketing agency. So I spend half my time doing that when I’m not modeling.
White joins Brielle Anyea, Jamea Lynn, and Anita Marshall (who dons braids in her photos) as new Black models joining the SI family. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue is on newsstands now.