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Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor MJ Day can't wait until hiring transgender models 'isn't a big deal'

MJ Day talks about what it takes to be a catalyst for change within the modeling industry. (Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images)
MJ Day talks about what it takes to be a catalyst for change within the modeling industry. (Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images) (Aaron Davidson via Getty Images)

As Sports Illustrated Swimsuit continues to announce its roster of beautifully diverse women for the 2021 issue, editor-in-chief MJ Day wants to make it clear that tokenism isn't what the magazine is after. Instead, she's focused on introducing and maintaining a level of inclusivity that the rest of the modeling and media industries lack, explaining that while the task is a difficult one, finding "firsts" is too easy.

"There's a lot of work to be done. This industry is unfortunately a very stunted one. So, where it shouldn't be so easy to have firsts, it is. And that says a lot about what we can do as an industry, globally, and how we can change," Day tells Yahoo Life while reflecting on the mission of the magazine under her leadership. "Improving upon ourselves every year is absolutely a priority, in terms of the content and the messaging and what we can bring the readership. But also, keeping very front of mind the current state of the conversation in the world, especially as it pertains to women and beauty and what we're not doing enough of."

The editor, who came to Sports Illustrated with a background in magazines, went onto say that her work at the famous publication is "not about checking a box," but rather representing every type of person she can within the limitation of 20 slots. This point she and her team made clear when inviting Valentina Sampaio to make her second consecutive appearance in the magazine after becoming SI's first transgender model in 2020, alongside the recent debut of the magazine's first transgender woman of color, Leyna Bloom.

"It's not like, 'Oh, we featured a trans woman last year, so we've checked that box, we can move on. It never is," she says. "Tokenism is something that I'm very, very sensitive to and I never want that to be confused with this."


And while Day wants to make change by featuring a diverse range of models that will spark conversations about representation — or lack thereof — of women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds, she does hope that the "shockwaves" that erupt with each of SI's debuts will settle.

"When you go back to the first Tyra Banks cover, it was a welcome breath of fresh air for people. And then when Kate Upton got all of that heat for being what they were calling a 'nontraditional' model size. For people to rally around her and demand retractions from other media outlets that called her negative things," she continues. "To Ashley Graham being on the cover — the world responded to her with such enthusiasm and support, but at the time there was like this shockwave because it was a first. But now it's normal, now it's normalized."

"With Leyna even on this shoot I said, 'I can't wait until we get to a point where this type of inclusion, you being in the magazine, isn't a big deal,'" she recalls. "It's great and I’m thrilled that the world is rallying around it in the way that they are and everybody wants to talk about it because a very, very important, critical component to changing anything is having the dialogue. But one day, it will be normalized. One day, we won't be talking about all of these firsts because they'll be part of the normal fabric of our day-to-day. And that's the ultimate goal."

Still, Day explains that the seemingly positive responses to this type of representation isn't so reflective of the fight that it's taken to get here — especially with a magazine that had a past without her.

"The struggle is allowing the brand to be this place for these important conversations because historically, there’s an assumption about Sports Illustrated that's rooted in decades before I even existed here where it's like, 'They have no business being the brand that represents this, that and the other thing.' And that's unfair too, because we as a brand are evolving very purposefully. Let us evolve and let us be the place to be able to shine a light on these important things," she explains. "We can get the world's attention. We're happy to do. We've been doing so consistently for at least the duration of my position here in charge of it. ... This is all not by accident. This is very purposeful because it's something that I believe in and my team believes in."

In the meantime, Day is happy to take on the responsibility and the work that comes with it in order to better the world.

"You just have to put your head down and just keep blasting through," she says. "Not hearing the people who are trying to judge and try to derail you and say, 'Oh, you have no business doing that.' But we do. We do, we have, we will, we will continue to do so and hopefully that consistently speaks for itself."

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