Sports Illustrated: Did you have experience modeling before submitting an IG video or showing up in-person for #SISwimSearch?
Soraya Yd: Yes, I had experience modeling prior to showing up in person to the #SISwimSearch. I started freelancing after turning 18, and a few years later I signed with my current agency in NYC, MMG.
I’ve always been very passionate about my career and it’s an emotion that I emanate in front of the camera or while working on set. I strongly believe in living life without regrets, I always give 200% and never hold back.
I love that every day is a new day, a new adventure, a new group of coworkers, new friendships are built, and new lessons are learned. I enjoy that I never know what or where my next booking or job will take place. I wake up with so much gratitude every day for being able to work in a career that I love, because “when you choose a job you love, you will never have to work a day in your life!”
SI: What was your casting experience like in Miami?
SY: My casting experience in Miami was extremely surreal and life-changing from the moment it started! Everyone on the Sports Illustrated team, including models and production, were very sweet, kind and attentive. MJ impacted my life in more ways than one that day, and I can’t express my gratitude towards her enough.
I remember at one point while waiting to meet with the SI team, I was looking around and thinking how much I loved seeing women of different ages, heights, physical features, and body types! During the one-on-one interview part of my casting I was honest, unapologetically raw, and spoke from my heart, while being as transparent as possible. I shared part of my family’s story, my modeling story, and my goals for my family, career, and society. I smiled, laughed, and even teared up during my interview. I walked away happy knowing I was able to share so much about my true self, while also leaving a little bit of me behind.
One of the highlights of my casting experience was when Myla Dalbesio sat with us and openly shared her story about losing her parents at a young age, and dealing with anxiety as an adult. When it was time to share our stories, she was very supportive and gave us one-on-one feedback. Her empathy towards each of us showed what a beautiful human she is from the inside out, and I was touched by the supportive words she gave me.
The next part of the process was the photoshoot with world-renowned photographer, Yu Tsai. I couldn’t believe this experience and interaction was happening–it was one for the books! The amount of teamwork and dedication from the whole SI brand was quite noticeable and admirable. They offered us racks filled with bikini options that we could choose from to help us feel more confident and comfortable in front of the camera.
They also had personnel outside of the changing rooms to assist us with questions, bikini fits, and help guide us in the right direction. Beside the changing rooms were two tables with lotion, scrunchies, styling products, mirrors, and robes to make us feel and look our best. I was touched by all the thoughtful efforts the team made to make this such an awesome experience for all.
I tried a few bikini options, but chose to keep my Sports Illustrated 25th anniversary bikini, as I felt it best described my personality: eccentric, vibrant, and unique.
I’ve never seen a photographer so invested with models as I did that day. He was very encouraging while helping those who were shy to break out of their shell. He showed models how to pose and express themselves in front of the camera, and It was truly a joy watching him instruct us. Right after each model’s shoot was done, MJ chose the image, pose, and emotion that complimented us best. I loved being able to witness her go through the selection process for each model, and her excitement as she exclaimed when she’d find “the one.”
When it was time to hear the names of the top 16 models, it was a very emotional moment for all. The Sports Illustrated team shared a few words with us, once again helping us feel proud, loved, supported and inspired. When Camille Kostek began to speak, I knew the time had come, she started with a beautiful message and transitioned to calling names. As she went down the list, my hands got clammier, my heartbeat grew faster, my legs felt like angel hair pasta, and I KNEW that this moment could change my life forever.
By the time she called number eight I thought to myself, “wow, there's only eight more names that will be announced, will I be a part of this group?” Camille then announced number nine, and that's when I felt the huge knot in my throat begin to grow. That’s when I heard “number 10, Soraya Yd.” She flips over the picture MJ chose from the shoot earlier on in the day. I'm in shock, my heart stops, the world stops, everything around me goes silent, and I can barely breathe. My eyes fill up with tears and my brain starts processing that Camille has called my name, and that the girl on that glossy paper is me.
By the time they called number 16, I knew it was official and this was my REALITY. I made the cut and a new chapter in my life was about to unfold. To our lovely surprise, Camille called 17 names instead of 16 and we rejoiced in happiness while taking pictures for the official #SISwimSearch public announcement.
Once I grabbed my things, I stepped outside where my rental car was parked. I sat on the curb before even making it to my car. I started sobbing deeply while thanking God, the universe, and my family and my friends for everything. I needed to have a “pinch me’ moment to process everything that happened that day.
I’ve never gone to bed with such a big smile in my heart and soul as I did that night. I woke up the next morning thinking it may have all been a dream, but a quick look at the SI Instagram reminded me that later on that day, I would be taking part in one of the most important events of my life.
SI: What does being a part of the SI Swimsuit model search mean to you?
SY: Being a part of the SI Swimsuit model search means breaking down stereotypes in the modeling industry, as well as in society. It’s living proof for other young women and little girls around the world that they should never stop dreaming, because anything you put your mind to can be accomplished.
Throughout my modeling career, I’ve been rejected in many ways. When I first started, I had a casting director ask me “what are you” because I wasn’t “dark enough” or “light enough” for the casting. I was flabbergasted by her question, and began to explain my ethnic background in hopes I would be allowed into the casting room. I soon realized that being of olive complexion with big curly hair and dark features wasn’t to the liking of some, but I didn’t let someone’s thoughts or comments get in the way of my goals.
I’ve been told I’m “too short,” “too tan,” have “too much booty,” that I’m “too commercial,” my hair is “too thick,” that I’m not “editorial enough”–the list goes on and on.
If I had listened to all the criticism I've received throughout the years, I wouldn’t have continued to push forward towards my dreams and be where I am today. It’s very empowering to be part of such an inclusive brand that represents women of all types and sizes.
Not only does the model search look beyond the industry’s prerequisites, but it also creates an equal opportunity for all women to be seen and heard. We’re able to show that beauty is not only skin deep, and that there is depth beyond what you see not only in a model, but also in a woman.
This is an international platform where we can use our voices to make an impact and difference in society. It allows us to share our stories in hopes of inspiring and motivating people in many ways. Sports Illustrated is such an iconic brand that has worked with the biggest names in the modeling industry and has started the careers of many others. They are setting the tone in an industry that has been closed off for far too long, and it is an absolute honor to be part of this progressive evolution.
SI: Tell us about some of the current challenges you are facing at home and how they impacted your decision to come to the open casting call in Miami?
SY: I’m currently a full-time model and my mom’s full-time caretaker. She is suffering from stage four Alzheimer’s, which is pretty severe and extremely heartbreaking. She’s not coherent, nor cognitive, doesn’t know who my dad and I are, and has to be completely supervised from the moment she wakes up until the moment she gets carried into bed.
Paying for a home attendant out of pocket has become quite expensive throughout the years. By 2018, I was living an extremely unstable and bi-coastal life having to constantly fly back and forth from Los Angeles (where I lived) to New York City while juggling my mom’s condition and my career. I decided it would be best to move back home to New York City, so I could be closer to my mom and also help alleviate the financial strain.
Soon after my move, my mom suffered a bad fall, and a pretty bad health scare followed. Unfortunately, her falls have caused her ailment to get worse, and simple things like speaking, sitting, standing, staying awake, or eating have become very difficult to do. She was diagnosed with bronchitis and silent aspiration which means she can choke on her food, sometimes even silently, which is very dangerous.
It can also lead to bronchial pneumonia, a severely life-threatening condition for a fragile, 75-pound woman like herself. I had to change my mom’s diet to pureed food and thickened liquids to prevent further health complications.
Since being back home, my everyday responsibilities have grown immensely. I buy the groceries every week, cook all the meals for both my parents, puree all of my mom’s meals, change her diapers, bathe her, feed her, track her weight every week to make sure it hasn’t dangerously dropped, dress her, order all her necessities (diapers, wipes, bed pads, medicine,) and make and take her to all appointments.
On days I’ve had castings or bookings, I've coordinated with my dad so he can relieve me of my duties while I step out. As of late, leaving my mom with my dad doesn't make me feel at ease since he is elderly and also starting to show signs of forgetfulness just like my mom’s initial symptoms. I decided it would be best to hire a caretaker for a few hours or the day when I have to step out. These duties and tasks pretty much sum up the challenges I currently face at home.
When summer first started, I put together a plan to see both sides of my family. One half lives in Miami, and the other half lives in Colombia. When I realized I had missed the video submission deadline for Sports Illustrated, I decided to plan our family trip around the in-person casting call. With my mom’s health condition rapidly declining, I knew this trip was a priority.
Though this all may seem extremely overwhelming, I reminded myself that my mom would never allow me to give up on my goals, career or myself. Her love and support for all that I accomplished during her cognizant and healthier years has made me continue pushing forward while keeping my eye on the prize.
I want to excel in my career so I can give my mom the life and proper care she truly deserves before it’s too late. Even with her condition, she still gives me the push and motivation I need in order to face my everyday hurdles. For her, I'll happily do it all, and so much more.
I booked our trip not knowing how special it would be, and what an immensely positive effect it would have on my mom. She hasn’t seen since her family since her condition first began five years ago. I knew that although she may not recognize anyone anymore or have the ability to speak well, her soul would finally be happy and at peace.
SI: How do you hope to use the SI Swimsuit platform? What message do you want to share with others?
SY: I strongly believe I exist in this world to make an impact and difference in society. I plan on doing so by being as transparent as possible, while leading with an open heart. My goal is to inspire and motivate people to never give up on their dreams no matter the cards they’ve been dealt.
I have chosen to go about life approaching my situations with “a glass half full,” versus “a glass half empty” mentality. Yes, I'm human, and there have been times I’ve felt that I couldn’t handle any more. However, when push comes to shove, I’ve learned it’s best to let it all out and allow myself to feel.
Avoiding your feelings is never the answer, you must get through your problems in order to solve them. Too often, society makes us feel that we are robots that need to push our feelings aside and keep going about life. Instead, we should allow ourselves a moment to process and resolve our emotions more, so that we can continue evolving into better humans for ourselves and society.
If we were to lead by example, we can help make a long-lasting difference in our society and in the world. I grew up in a household where domestic violence and abuse was the norm. I eventually learned to stand up for myself both verbally and physically, but grew a tough shell around a very hurt soul.
Later on in life, my role model and sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 25. She ran away from home, and for a whole year lived on the streets of New York City, which caused a lot of pain upon our family, especially my mom. Eventually, she crossed paths with my sister and was able to admit her into a hospital.
At that point, I was 12 years old and my environment made me mature faster than the average kid. Fortunately, no matter what I had going on with my family, I never allowed my issues to affect my interactions with people in society. I quickly learned that everyone has their own trials and tribulations, but what matters most is how you choose to carry yourself because of them.
My coping mechanism was to make the best out of every experience around me because I knew once I got home, my painful reality would set in. I was always upbeat, bubbly and grateful for all the people, and experiences I would encounter.
I eventually decided to move out and I began a new life on my own, in a different state, with barely any friends. Little did I know, my mom would begin to lose her memory within 30 days of my move. Two years into her illness, after finally being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my sister committed suicide. I felt I had lost the two most important women and role models in my life. It’s now been threw years since my sister passed, and five years since my mom’s ailment began. With every passing day, week, and month, my mom’s condition continues to regress.
A year ago, I was physically, mentally and emotionally abused by a man that I trusted, once again continuing the cycle of domestic abuse. At the climax of all these occurrences, I started going out more and dancing into the wee hours of the night because that was my therapy. I started dabbling in drinking, something I never did before, but I refused to become dependent on it and any substances that would blur the lines of reality.
I knew once I’d go down that dark road, there was no going back. I got to a point where I realized I needed to snap out of it and keep working towards my goals in life. I chose to look at the good in my life, the friends and support system I had, and the things I had accomplished in my career. I looked at my mom, and reminded myself that I needed to get through all the hurdles and trauma, so I could give her the best quality of life in her final years. I snapped back into the swing of things, and allowed myself to go through the motions while creating a more balanced life.
I started using social media as a platform to voice my experiences with my mom’s ailment and the loss of my sister. I began to share videos of my day-to-day life while being my mom’s caretaker, full-time model, and building my on-camera hosting career. I realized that the more I shared, the bigger my online community of support began to grow. Every time my mom was on my stories or live, my inbox would be inundated with beautiful messages of inspiration, hope, support and prayers.
The way the Instagram community reacted made me realize that people want to see others be more human and raw. They began to show interest in the reality of my life, even more than the scheduled Instagram posts with vacations or modeling shoots. It was me speaking from my heart that made more people interested in my story. I’m as transparent as possible, and I just want people to know that in the end, we’re all human and go through the same things.
I’m currently working on a movement to use these platforms as a tool to not only highlight the best of our lives, but also bring more genuine, and raw truth in this blurred reality we now live in. Social media can be an amazing tool to help open the eyes, minds and hearts of many, but if abused, it can cause depression and mental health issues, amongst many other things. Instagram has become a world were we curate a picture perfect and distorted reality. Many just see the good and happy times, but what if we shared the not so good, the bad, the terrible?
What if we could support one another by creating common ground even when many think they have no similarities with that influencer with a following of two million people? What if we could just be real and not live behind the facade or up to the standards that these platforms make us think we’re supposed to live by? I would like to shed more light on the issues that are now affecting our generations to come, as well as create awareness and methods to help aid those in need.
SI: From a briefcase model on Deal or No Deal, to an on-camera host, you’re no stranger to being in front of the camera. Where does that confidence and personality come from?
SY: As a kid, I aspired to be just like my mom. She has been one of the biggest influences in my life and personality. Growing up, I watched as she'd effortlessly light up a room, and enchanted everyone she crossed paths with. She wasn’t perfect and at times misunderstood, but she kept true to herself no matter what.
She was confident, had a huge heart, embodied the true definition of a social butterfly, and was always willing to help those in need. She walked around life with an “open book” type of personality and would interact with just about anyone and everyone.
I was a witness to her easy going approach of creating long-lasting friendships with strangers she’d meet from around the world. All these factors conditioned my soul and personality into being the human I am today.
With time and experiences, my confidence has evolved as well. Through the years, I’ve learned that the more honest and true to myself I’ve been, the better life has unraveled and more opportunities have come about.
I'm fortunate to say that I’ve chosen careers where I get to be myself: bubbly, confident, and goofy–all personality traits that I owe to my mom. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced the qualities I have, and the human that I’ve become. We live in a world where each of us evolve into such unique and special beings, it’s only right that we share it with the world. There is only one you in this lifetime. That on its own is priceless.
See photos from our unforgettable runway show at Miami Swim Week: