Model Yumi Nu Says Teen Self 'Would Have Lived a Different Life' If She Saw Her 'SI Swimsuit' Cover

The rising model, musician and fashion entrepreneur opens up to PEOPLE about bringing diversity to the cover of 2022 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Cover
Photo: James Macari/Sports Illustrated

Last year, Yumi Nu made history as the first Asian curve model to grace the pages of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. Now, she's on the cover.

"It's hard to even process or say out loud because I still can't believe it," Nu, 25, says of her cover moment. "It truly shattered the ceiling of what I knew to be possible for myself. I'm eternally grateful."

Nu has taken the fashion industry by storm over the past year. After making her SI Swimsuit debut in 2021, she appeared on the September 2021 issue of Vogue, shot a Victoria's Secret fragrance campaign, landed a solo cover of Vogue Japan and even launched a music career.

"Collaboration with SI Swim is a no brainer for me — they aren't afraid to push the boundaries of what used to be normal for the media," Nu tells PEOPLE of working with the iconic brand. "I think we both have the same intention. We want people to feel good in their skin. We want to be on the frontline of change in the industry.

Nu joins Kim Kardashian, Maye Musk and Ciara as part of this year's SI Swimsuit cover class. For her shoot, the rising star traveled to Montenegro and was photographed by James Macari.

"The journey we've been on — to break out of the mold the world put us in — may sound familiar. It's certainly familiar to the women we've chosen to be our cover models: Maye, Ciara, Yumi, Kim," MJ Day, Editor in Chief of SI Swimsuit, said in a statement. "In her first year of being in the spotlight, Yumi is coming into who she is and taking on the responsibility of what she stands for. "

For her cover story, Nu wrote an essay titled "My Year of Visibility," where she opened up about changing perceptions in the industry — and the work there still is to be done.

"Even here in the U.S., where a lot of the fashion industry has become more inclusive toward people with bodies like mine in the last few years, some people — for example, designers at certain high-fashion houses and dumb, angry guys on the internet, among others — just haven't quite figured out yet that people who look like me belong," she wrote.

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2021 Issue Concert - Arrivals
Aaron Davidson/Getty

She also spoke about what it means to be a second-generation Japanese American woman in the fashion spotlight.

"Japanese culture values being skinny, dainty and small, so for me to be on the cover of Vogue Japan meant being seen and being honored by a culture that often makes people with bigger bodies like mine feel invisible," she shared.

Read on for our exclusive chat with Nu, below.

Who was the first person you told when you found out you landed the cover?

I told my boyfriend first! He was so excited and he said that his teenage self is freaking out at the fact that he's now dating a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover model.

How have you transformed in the past year?

I've become a lot more comfortable in my skin. I've really started to trust myself more and second guess myself less. It feels really good, and it actually makes me look forward to getting older.

What are three emotions you feel when you look at the cover?

Shocked, humbled and grateful.

How did you feel in that gorgeous cover swimsuit?

I felt so good! I'm always a huge fan of a black cut out swim piece. This Michael Costello x Revolve style was so form-fitting and made me feel so sexy.

Take us back to shoot day. What was the vibe like?

The shoot was absolutely ethereal. We were in the mountains of Montenegro, and I was walking around barefoot with long hair extensions that fell to my lower back. I felt like a sexy forest creature. I always have a playlist I like to prepare for these shoots so I'm sure there was some Meg The Stallion playing. I've been wanting to shoot with James Macari for the longest time so it was such a dream come true. He has such a calming energy that makes it so easy to be on set. The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit team has become like family to me so to have them surrounding me with kind words and energy all day really helped me bring the next level confidence I needed.

When do you feel like the most confident version of yourself?

I feel the most confident when I'm in pursuit of things I love, when I'm actively writing music and creating. I'm a creator at my core. When I'm doing and making things I really feel connected with, I'm glowing.

What would your 13-year-old self think of this cover moment?

I think my 13 year old self had already been tainted by societal beliefs of what you need to look like to be on a cover. If she would've saw it before she saw anything else, I think she would have lived a different life with a different head space. That's why this is important now and has always been needed.

What advice would you like to share with young curve models looking to break into the industry?

Think big, leave so much room for yourself to do what you might think is impossible. It's easier to think small because you're less likely to get hurt, but when we do that we put ourself in a cage of what we can accomplish.

The 2022 Issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is available on newsstands May 19.

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