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"I am so grateful to be a part of a group of finalists who all represent completely different messages, yet have the same goal, to further inclusivity," the Minnesota native tells PEOPLE

By Hanna Flanagan and Brittany Talarico
April 05, 2021 03:14 PM
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SI Swim Search Finalists
Credit: Lewis Freese

Lewis Freese is challenging the norm.

The Minnesota native and full-time student just became the first male finalist in the history of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit's annual Swim Search, an open casting call that gives fresh faces and established models alike the opportunity to prove why they would be a great addition to the franchise's iconic Swimsuit Issue.

Speaking with PEOPLE exclusively, Freese says he's happy to be part of a larger conversation about inclusivity, but "the entire concept of being the first male does not phase me."

"I really don't view myself as the first but as the next," he continues. "The next model to break a barrier, the next model to have these uncomfortable conversations, the next model to be unapologetically myself. I am so grateful to be a part of a group of finalists who all represent completely different messages, yet have the same goal, to further inclusivity."

Below, the 2021 SI Swimsuit Issue hopeful opens up about why he wanted to enter the annual Swim Search contest and what it would mean to him to be one of the six finalists featured in the upcoming issue.

PEOPLE: What inspired you to enter? 

Freese: When I first applied for Swim Search in 2019, I was dealing with a lot of confusion. I was confused about my identity, my gender, and really where I was going to go. It was hard for me to find a lot of people on mainstream media platforms discussing these issues. Being that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has always led the conversation of inclusion and diversity, I thought why not bring this discussion to the brand? There have been thousands of transgender, queer, and nonbinary activists like Marsha P. Johnson and CeCe McDonald who have inspired me to continue the conversation they started. I think it's ironic for me to be doing a swimsuit competition when swimsuits have been the downfall of my confidence in the past. Swimwear is one of the most binary forms of clothing and I believe Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has redefined the true meaning of what a swimsuit embodies. So Swim Search was and is the best avenue for me to not only continue this conversation, but to take back the power that a swimsuit has had over me for so long. 

What was the message behind the video you sent in?

Freese: Being that this is my second year to apply to Swim Search, I love going back and comparing the two videos. My messaging at its core has always been the same, but my understanding of it has completely transformed in the past two years. It used to revolve around being male and how important it is to feel empowered by all, women, men, or nonbinary people. However, as I've continued down this path of self-discovery, I've realized my message is so much more about gender variety and how every person's gender presents itself differently. With those differences comes a need for acceptance so we can all inspire, encourage, and love each other regardless of how we identify. Growing up I always felt the need to suppress any form of femininity, however, brands like Sports Illustrated Swimsuit instilled confidence and hope in me. I was able to experience — through their platform — the opportunity one can find when being authentically themselves. People need to know that feeling internally and externally different about your identity is okay and by taking things day by day you will slowly discover yourself. 

Why are you inspired by SI Swim's message on inclusivity?

Freese: It comes down to their courage. There are very few prominent brands that choose to represent a form of inclusivity that stretches far beyond a "trend." I really hope it becomes more clear each year that SI Swimsuit is truly a brand that cares about representation. As I work more with [editor] MJ Day and the entire SI Swim team, you can hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes that they care so deeply about each of our stories. I want to follow in the footsteps of the entire brand by never letting anything overpower my moral and ethical compass. Inclusivity means so much more than just checking boxes, it's creating new ones that eventually become universally required.

How do you hope your finalist achievement in Swim Search will inspire others who may be struggling with their gender identity?

Freese: It is so exciting that I'm doing this at this stage of my life right now. I'm only 21 and I feel like I just started my road of coming out. Even since the beginning of my Swim Search journey last August, I've discovered that my gender fluidity is always present and some days I wake up feeling like I fall under multiple gender identifications. I describe myself to others as just Lewis because identifying with one set of pronouns or gender makes me feel so limited. From all of that, I want to be very public about how I'm feeling during the journey. I know things will fluctuate and I want those who too are struggling to know I am too. It's such a confusing and lonely path to go down sometimes as it seems like all those around you have it figured out. One of my favorites things I've ever heard is that "people don't like those within the queer and trans community because we actually have the audacity to be and present our most authentic version". I love it because it's so true. It takes guts to admit to yourself that you're different and it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to explore one's self-identity. For anyone struggling, just know I see you, I hear you, and I will work every day to help bring more visibility to this community. 

Why is it important to you to highlight gender fluidity and nonbinary culture in the modeling world?

Freese: When I was explaining the concept of gender to my family, I used a pretty simple, yet complex example. I said to them when you walk into an ice cream shop you're never presented with just chocolate and vanilla, but there are tens if not hundreds of flavors. In my opinion, that's how gender can be thought of. The variations are truly endless and gender stretches far beyond what we are born to believe. However, we don't view gender as that today, we view it in a very chocolate and vanilla way, a.k.a. through a binary lens. The modeling industry has so much impact because it's really how the fashion, cosmetics and entertainment industries present themselves. If we can increase the number of times we see different gender and sexualities in advertisements and campaigns, those variations can become more accessible and respected. Although it's important to highlight these issues in the modeling world, I think it's more important to highlight these concepts in mainstream media channels and modern politics. As we increase the amount of social activism in these industries, I hope it can result in larger national and worldwide conversations. 

How do you feel like the industry has evolved and how do you feel it can do better with inclusivity?

Freese: The industry is truly always changing. With that said, there is an enormous amount of brands that are not being held accountable for blatantly ignoring inclusivity and representation requests. At the end of the day, yes, a brand has the full capacity and right to make its own decisions but once an organization obtains a large enough platform, they have a civic duty to discuss these issues. I really hope that throughout my own work, I can highlight the smaller, more inclusive brands that are not getting the recognition they deserve. I would love to see more transgender, queer, and nonbinary representation as well. These identities are so much more common in our world than society wants to believe. Brands have a social responsibility to promote these types of gender and sexual identities to not only broaden the discussion but to provide safe spaces for these varying identities. 

Where do you see your career in 5 years? 10 years? (SI Swim COVER!?) 

Freese: Give this question to me a year ago, I could probably give you an answer. However, based on the year I and the rest of the world just had, I try to take a day-by-day approach. I'm undoubtedly a dreamer. I'm still in school currently designing my own major that will consist of business marketing, gender women sexuality studies and retail merchandising. I have my eyes set on my own business promoting or creating gender-neutral products. I also want to get into legislative work revolving around trans, queer, and nonbinary reform to improve our community's accessibility to safety, health care, housing and education. However right now, yes, landing the cover for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is now on my bucket list. Crazily enough, I've never thought modeling could be a reality, but now my current manifestations will be with Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, landing the top six, and being in the next issue!