The 23-year-old Brazilian beauty is a 2020 Rookie

By Hanna Flanagan
July 10, 2020 09:49 AM
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Josie Clough/Sports Illustrated

Valentina Sampaio can add another milestone to her impressive boundary-breaking résumé: Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model.

The 23-year-old Brazilian beauty was just named a 2020 Rookie for the upcoming issue (on stands July 21), which marks the first time the iconic magazine has featured a transgender model.

"I was filled with so many emotions of happiness when I heard the news. The feeling was surreal," Sampaio exclusively tells PEOPLE about the moment her agent, Christiana Tran at The Lions Talent Management, broke the good news. "Being in SI Swim has always been on my bucket list of things to achieve in my career. It’s a dream come true on so many levels. SI has been a deeply meaningful achievement. To come from a space of fear and marginalization, to now being included in one of the most iconic magazines that truly embraces and celebrates diversity — it is life changing."

Josie Clough/Sports Illustrated

She calls being included in the issue a "major milestone" not only for herself personally, but for the entire LGBTQ+ community.

"As a community, each personal success is a step forward for all. I am very grateful to God and all whom have helped me along my journey so far," she explains. "I honor the challenges of those who have paved the way for me directly or indirectly. They have made where I am today possible. I am committed to keep growing and push boundaries, so that I can in some way, pave the path for others. We are here, we always have been here and we always will be."

Considering the franchise's long history of challenging the traditional perception of beauty and breaking boundaries in the fashion industry, it's no surprise that Sampaio had been on SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day's radar for awhile.

The two finally met in person after sorting through logistics with her modeling agency and "the rest is history," Day tells PEOPLE, adding that it was a "great privilege" to work with Sampaio for the latest issue.

"Every woman that represents a 'first' does so with the understanding that with the accolades and support that accompanies that title, scrutiny and negativity also follows. The strength and resilience of her spirit and selflessness that [Sampaio] possesses must not go unrecognized," Day explains. "I am so proud that she chose to bring her message of hope and acceptance to us here at SI Swimsuit."

She continues, "If that message touches one person and changes their perspective or allows them to see themself represented and celebrated for embracing who they are, then in my opinion, there is no greater measure of success."

Sampaio shot the SI Swim editorial on Scrub Island with photographer Josie Clough and called the experience "truly magical from beginning to end."

"Everyone was supportive and kind. They made me feel very comfortable and safe," she shares. "I am very grateful to MJ and the SI team for seeing and respecting me as I truly am and for understanding that more than anything, I am human. They have supported me in continuing to spread a message of love, compassion and unity for ALL."

Other 2020 Rookies include Lorena Duran, Kim Riekenberg, Brooks Nader, Marquita Pring, Anita Marshall, Hyunjoo Hwang and Jospehine Skriver, who will all be featured in the upcoming issue.

The ground-breaking spot comes one year after Sampaio became the first transgender model to work with Victoria’s Secret, announcing on Instagram that she was joining forces with the brand’s lingerie and apparel line, PINK, for a new campaign.

She garnered much support in the comments of her Instagram post from Victoria’s Secret models and LGBTQ+ activists alike. “Stunning 💗💗💗💗💗💗,” wrote Lily Aldridge, who has walked in the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show nine times and earned her Angel wings.

Transgender actress and activist Laverne Cox cheered on Sampaio, writing, “Wow finally!”

Sampaio has achieved a lot of "firsts" in her career, but she still has more goals to fulfill. "To be on the cover of American Vogue would be epic," she tells PEOPLE, adding. "And I would also love to meet Ellen Degeneres! Ellen has been a true inspiration to me. She is someone I have looked up to in many ways. I hope to meet her one day and express these feelings."

With everything Sampaio has going on in her career, she'll be very hard for DeGeneres to miss.

The 2020 SI Swimsuit issue will be on stands July 21. For exclusive content from the issue, visit swimsuit.si.com and for more with Sampaio, catch her at 1 p.m. ET today as she goes live with GLAAD on SI Swimsuit's Instagram channel (@si_swimsuit).