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Last year, Tanaye White quit her full-time corporate job to pursue modeling full time — less than a year later, she is one of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s rising star, one of the top six finalists for the magazine’s 2020 Model Search.

And the future is looking bright for the former track and field star.

Since competing in SI’s Swim Search competition, White was featured by Victoria’s Secret and Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine.

Readers were mesmerized when White decided to rock an afro for her recent centerfold in the magazine; a decision White hopes will inspire more Black women modeling for the publication to wear their natural hair.

ShineMyCrown recently spoke to White about her SI journey, natural hair love and more.

ShineMyCrown: How does it feel to be the newest face of Sports Illustrated?

Tanaye White: Oh my goodness. I don’t really know how to feel. I feel like it’s a lot coming at me at once, but I’m just trying to take it all in one day at a time.

SMC: How did you celebrate?

TW: Actually, that night, I went out with some of my girlfriends. We went to Top Golf, and then the weekend prior, my boyfriend took me out to a nice little fancy dinner.

SMC: Do you feel like you’re a celebrity?

TW: Not at all! I mean, I’ve been on TV like twice already, which is awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever been on TV before, but I don’t think I’ve reached celebrity [status] yet.

SMC: How significant was it for you to rock an afro in Sports Illustrated?

TW: I’m really proud to be in this year’s issue representing women who do have naturally curly hair and kinky hair, because it’s not something that we see too much in the magazine, and also not too much we see in the industry and in the media as a whole. So, I love that in this movement that we’re moving in of inclusivity and diversity. I love that I could be a face for it.

SMC: Right. Do you think that Sports Illustrated will now be doing more natural hair photoshoots in the future?

TW: It’s hard to say. They actually let you come as you are. They asked me how my hair was going to be because they know that I switch up my hair a lot between wearing it in the Afro and then also wearing straight wigs. It’s really about how you want to show up to the magazine, which is something I really appreciate because, with other magazines and other brands, they always have a specific look for you.

But with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, it’s more of a come as you are, and whichever way you come, you’ll be accepted. So, I think it’s a matter of, will they have more women with natural hair who are courageous enough to actually wear their natural hair?

SMC: Behind the scenes, the modeling industry, and being notoriously discriminatory against Black women, have you found this to be your experiences?

TW: For me, I’ve noticed a common thread when I’m attending photo shoots, which is that they rarely ever have my foundation color, which is so sad, or the hair artists on set does not know how to do natural hair. So, a lot of times, I make it a point to always bring my own foundation just in case. Then I also usually do my hair that night before. Usually, before a photo shoot, they’ll send you a sheet that has everyone who’s going to be attending, and I’ll go to the hairstylist’s Instagram page, and I’ll see that they’ve never worked with a natural hair girl before, or even a Black model before. So that sort of sets me up to prepare.

It’s like, okay, I know she or he is not going to know how to do my hair. Let me just show up how I think I would look the best, and then we can go from there, and if they want to tweak it, they can.

But usually, especially if I’m doing a photoshoot in my natural hair, they sort of just leave my hair as it is, which is sort of sad, but I’m really hoping by, especially the open conversations and dialogue we’re having today, that we can really be more inclusive of not just Black models, but of Black hair artists, and Black photographers, and Black makeup artists, because in today’s age, in 2020, it really doesn’t make any sense for people not to know how to do the hair or makeup of women, of all different colors and hair types.

SMC: A lot of Black girls grow up having a love, hate relationship with their hair because of the conflicting messages that they’ve received, like, everywhere you turn, media, film, was that your reality?

TW: Yeah, that definitely, unfortunately, was the reality for me. I was born in Baltimore, where I was one of many. I saw so many people who had my same skin color and who had my same hair type. Then when I was five years old, I moved to Connecticut, where I was literally the only Black person in my town or one of the few. So, because of that extreme shock, I always felt like I stood out, and I hated that.

So, I was begging my mom for years and years, please, mom, just make my hair straight. She would always make these cute little braided styles, but I didn’t want that. I just wanted to lay down like everyone else.

I think around the time I was eight years old, she finally gave in and gave me my first relaxer. So, I had relaxed hair up until three years ago. I gave myself a big chop. I shaved all of my hair off.

Then, over the past three years, I’ve been growing my natural hair out. So, I think to be in this publication with the Afro that I’m still getting adjusted to myself, it feels really empowering for me because I’ve finally seen what my real hair looks like after two decades, and I can show other girls, other little girls, who may not have seen themselves in magazines or in the makeup aisle like I had growing up, they can see themselves in this magazine and know that they’re visible, and they’re represented, and they’re beautiful.

SMC: A few celebrities have had a big chop lately. Most recently, Tiffany Haddish. She received really mixed reactions about the chop, a lot positive, but still quite a lot of negativity. How did those around you, and also your colleagues, embrace it when you did decide to cut your hair?

TW: At the time, I was in an office space where most of the employees were Black. So, everyone embraced the change. I have to admit, when I did my big chop, I looked a mess. My hair was uneven. I had some straight pieces still hanging out. It was not pretty at all, but a lot of the women, especially the Black women in my office, most of them were natural, or they had been natural at one point.

So, they understood that journey, and they were really positive and caring towards me and wanted to share with me all of their hair secrets and tips and tricks so that I could start growing out my hair and get out of the awkward phase.

SMC: Awesome. How do you keep your hair looking healthy? What is your hair regime?

TW: Oh, my goodness. I could go on for hours about that. Right now, my hair is really loving Cantu leave-in conditioner. I think that’s a staple for most of us.

Then for a curl defining cream, I use one from this brand called Curlsmith. They sell it in Ulta. My hair is really finicky, and every few months or so, it decides it doesn’t like a specific type of oil anymore. So, right now, the oil of the moment is grapeseed oil and flaxseed oil.

SMC: How have you been keeping fit during quarantine? A lot of people are over-snacking. Because they’re in the house a lot more. How are you able to stay healthy?

TW: Well, I’ll say, for the first few months of quarantine, your girl was snacking and drinking all of the wine *laughs* Uber Eats every single night. I was indulging, but I think that, especially once the weather started getting warmer, because I hate to work out when it’s cold.

I really love cardio. I love running, which is so funny to say because when I used to do sports in college, I hated running. But I love cardio to keep me fit. Then, with the gym being closed, I don’t really lift weights, but I’ll do a really tough Ab workout. I love to work on my butt area. So, anything that has to do with the lower body, like squats and stuff like that, those are probably my two focus areas that I work on outside of cardio.

SMC: Okay, what about your spiritual, emotional, mental health? How are you keeping upbeat and positive during this really stressful time?

TW: That’s such a good question. Honestly, mental health is so important to me because it’s something that I battled with as a teenager. I used to be depressed, and at one point, was suicidal. I also lost a close friend when I was a teenager to suicide. So, it’s something very near and dear to my heart. I think given all of the movement we have around the loss of George Floyd, and Brianna Taylor, and Ahmad Arbery, it definitely sent me down a dark path. It really depresses you and saddens you when you see all of this unjust loss of life.

So, I did have to take a break from social media for a little while because there was just so much negativity, that of course, we needed to see and be aware of, but seeing so much of it in one short time span can really affect your mind. So, around that time, I was working out the most I had been since [COVID-19] hit.

Then also, outside of just taking a break from social media and the internet, I also tried to use my platform, when I was it, to spread awareness and spread the fact that, hey, obviously we love the fact that you’re advocating for us, all of our allies are standing strong with the Black community. It’s beautiful to see, but there is no pressure for you to have to post something every single day regarding the movement. You can take a break because you have to care for yourself before you can really care for others.

I think that people felt really pressured to do everything every single day and share every single thing that they’ve seen and everything that they’ve learned. That’s not necessarily the case. I think that when you find a balance where you can protect your own mental space, as well as uplift others, that’s when we can do the best to make sure that we’re all, as a community, moving in a positive direction.

SMC: Right. What’s next? What are you hoping to do next now that conquered Sports Illustrated?

TW: Well, there’s two major things. So firstly, my Sports Illustrated journey is not over. We’re actually, me and the other six finalists who are in the magazine, we’re waiting to see who Sports Illustrated announces as their rookie. The rookie is basically guaranteed a spot in the magazine next year. So, fingers crossed that I make it because this would be the official cherry on top.

SMC: So whoever wins the finals will be in the cover next year?

TW: No. So, whoever wins will be returning next year, the ones who don’t win will not return. So this is like a one and done process most times. They could bring you back, but not necessarily. However, once you’re a rookie, you have the option to become a rookie of the year. Most times, when you become rookie of the year, the next year you are the cover girl.

So, it’s sort of like a step by step process. Yeah. But also, outside of that, obviously with corona, it’s probably not going to happen this year, but I would love to be in a fashion week and walk in a runway show. I think that’s been my dream since I was a little girl walking down the hallway of my grandma’s house. So, I really hope that once the world heals, I’ll be able to fulfill that goal of mine as well.

SMC: Are you still at your corporate gig?

TW: I officially quit last September. However, I have started my own digital marketing agency because, in my corporate job, that’s what I was specializing in. So, I am a business owner, and I do that on the side when I’m not modeling — It’s called Elysium Social.

SMC: Any words of advice to aspiring models, Black girls, who want to follow in your footsteps?

TW: Yes. To any girl who’s aspiring, and especially any young Black girl who’s aspiring to become a model, I just want to let them know that they are beautiful. There’s not a single thing that you need to change. Not your hair, not your nose, not any of your features, and certainly not your skin. Also, even if you do hear a dozen “no’s,” it’s not the end of the world because you have to keep trying, and that yes will come.

For me, all the odds were against me. I’m older than most girls would start out. I’m shorter than what most girls are as a model. Maybe I’m a little more athletic than most models, and I was still able to make it in the industry. Just know that no matter the way you look, how tall you are, how old you are, there is an opportunity, and there is room for you. So, just keep trying and pushing hard, and you will definitely get to your dreams.

SMC: That is so beautiful. Final question, if you had to choose one song as your personal mantra or theme song, what would it be and why?

TW: My childhood favorite band growing up was Coldplay. They had got me out of some really dark times. So, I really love the song, “Fix You” by them. Actually, I made one of their songs my caption when I posted my first Sports Illustrated song. But Fix You sort of commemorates the downtrodden who are sad and don’t feel like they can really make it out. The song ends with a lot of hope.

So, I think that sort of is a symbol of my life because I did have a lot of down periods, especially growing up, and I didn’t even expect myself to make it this far in life. So, I think that it just shows the testament that no matter how hard the times may be right now, or in our health, how far down you fall, you’re going to get back up, and when you do, it’s going to be so, so beautiful and you’re going to be so much happier than you ever have been in your life.

Photos provided by Tanaye White