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#SISwimSearch Sweet 17: Meet Clarissa Bowers

Get to know #SISwimSearch contestant Clarissa Bowers!

Sports Illustrated: Did you have experience modeling before submitting an IG video or showing up in-person for #SISwimSearch? 
Clarissa Bowers: I grew up with three older brothers. I often wore their hand-me-downs and was always running around with them playing in the dirt or playing sports as a little girl. I was quite the tomboy in my early years, and if you had told my younger self that she would be a model one day, she would have thought you were very kind, but also absolutely nuts.

I was introduced to the world of modeling at age 13, when I was asked to model at a local charity event. I then began to see it as an opportunity to travel outside of the small town I grew up in and experience other cultures while saving money for my education. That year, I hit a significant growth spurt. At the same time, I submitted to the “professional recommendations” I had received to maintain a very restrictive diet, and I thinned out quickly and drastically. With my thinner frame, suddenly agencies were taking an interest in me, but they still wanted me to be thinner.

I was very grateful for the opportunities that modeling brought me, but I found it very difficult to maintain a “model’s diet” on an athlete’s pace. In the early stages, I was elated to be selected from a casting. However, I soon found my emotions to shift from elation to sadness, as I knew I would be receiving more “professional advice” to not eat until that booking was completed.

This made me decide to leave the world of modeling to focus on my academic and athletic goals. I resumed playing sports and eating a healthy diet and gained about 30 pounds. After a few years had passed, I finally found my voice and began to surround myself with agencies and brands that embraced my curvier figure, and together we found a place for me in the industry where I could be a college volleyball player with muscular legs and curvy hips and still model.

Though I had modeled on and off for several years before taking a leap of faith and attending the #SISwimSearch Open Casting, I had never before felt so comfortable and authentic while modeling. 

SI: You’re a student at Vanderbilt studying neuroscience. What made you want to go into that field of study? Do you ever face backlash as a woman who embraces both her sexy side and her intelligence?
CB: The brain is like a new frontier, as vast and full of the unknown as space. I have always been fascinated with the human mind and understanding why people do what they do on a neurobiological basis.

It is very exciting to be a part of a field in which so many discoveries are made each day, and I knew this was a field that would constantly present me with new and exciting challenges. From an early age, I had a deep desire to help improve the lives of others, and I felt that medicine was the best way for me to accomplish that.

When selecting my pre-med major, I gravitated towards Vanderbilt’s neuroscience program. I knew it would be a challenging program, but one of great interest to me as I prepared for medical school and the years ahead.

It has been an interesting experience balancing both education and modeling. I have been very fortunate to surround myself with family, friends, and colleagues who support me in all of my endeavors. However, I am no stranger to being told I do not belong in my field after someone has taken a glance at my social media. I often feel as though I have to work and study twice as hard in order to earn the respect of my peers and be taken seriously in academic environments.

SI: What was your casting experience like in Miami? 
CB: You would be amazed by the instant connections formed when waiting in line in the pouring rain at 3am with a group of extraordinary women all sharing the same dream. Within the first 10 minutes, we were huddled under umbrellas together laughing and sharing our life stories that had led us to that moment.

The Sports Illustrated casting is very unlike typical Miami Swim Week castings. The SI team takes the time to genuinely get to know the brilliant minds and kind souls behind all of the beautiful faces. For this reason, SI unifies and attracts women of all shapes, sizes, ages, careers, and cultures from all corners of the world. This was made all the more evident by the women I met in line.

The open casting call draws in an incredibly well-rounded group of women, all seeking to empower and support one another. I found myself mesmerized by all of the stories I heard while waiting and by the end of the casting process, I had formed friendships with women from all over the country and even the world.


SI: What does being a part of the SI Swimsuit model search mean to you? How do you plan to use this platform?
CB: Having the opportunity to embark on this journey with the Sports Illustrated team and 16 other outstanding women means the absolute world to me. Baby Clarissa never would have imagined this opportunity coming her way. Being a part of the SI Swimsuit model search means that I am able to be in a unique position to empower people on a much larger scale than I would otherwise be able to.

I want to serve as an example for all of the little girls, little boys, and even big girls and big boys out there that you do not need to compromise your own values, morals, or health in order to accomplish your dreams.

The SI Swimsuit model search offers an amazing platform that I would love to use to further share the work being done by the amazing non-profit organizations that have helped shape me into the person I am today. The athletes of the Miracle League, the youth of Best Buddies, and the sweet patients of Healing the Children are the driving forces behind all that I do.

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Seeing a child struggle to run the bases at a Saturday Miracle League game is moving. Witnessing a child with intellectual or developmental disabilities gain confidence and friendships through a Best Buddies event will warm your heart. Watching a child walk into the hospital with a mask on to cover a facial deformity, too embarrassed to even smile in public–that will bring you to tears.

It is the most heartwarming feeling in the world to witness those same children persevering to make it to home plate, making new friends without fear of judgement, and walking out of the hospital after their reconstructive surgery with no mask, and excited to look at their own reflection.

It is much different from the typical type of body positivity movement we see in the United States, but it is just as important. I want these communities to know that they are beautiful and deserving of love and respect, always. I want to shed light on an underserved and often overlooked group of children and adults who were not dealt a fair hand in life, and advocate for the amazing non-profits that work tirelessly to serve these beautiful communities.

Every child deserves the opportunity to experience childhood–to run and play, to be healthy, to enjoy special moments with friends without fear of ridicule. I would like to expand upon my current relationships and forge new ones with similar organizations to speak up for those that are unable to speak for themselves.

SI: How does modeling compare to being in the pageant world?
CB: Growing up with three older brothers, always playing sports and being a bit of a tomboy, I never imagined that I would enter a pageant or model. I dove into the deep end when a close friend of mine encouraged me to enter the Miss World America pageant a few years ago.

Prior to that, I hadn’t had any pageant experience and I really didn’t know what to expect. Fortunately, I ended up having the opportunity to represent the United States as Miss World America for one year. The Miss World system placed a lot of value in charity, which is what drew me to that particular organization. My year as Miss World America offered me great opportunities to travel and help children all around the world for which I am incredibly grateful.

I never saw myself becoming a “pageant girl” but my time as Miss World America taught me so much about finding my voice and being less timid.

There are numerous parallels between the worlds of pageantry and modeling. Both industries place importance on aesthetics. However, I am excited to see both industries making strides to become more inclusive and showcase all varieties of beauty!

Both pageants and modeling have provided invaluable opportunities and experiences, allowing me to travel to six continents by my 21st birthday and gain a deep appreciation for not only cultural diversity, but for the similarities shared among people from around the world as well.

SI: Tell us more about your work with Healing the Children. 
CB: I’ll never be able to say enough wonderful things about this lovely organization. I was introduced to Healing the Children in 2017, and they have been my second family ever since. Healing the Children is an extraordinary international non-profit organization that provides free medical care to children in need around the world.

Stateside, I began my work with HTC by assisting in neurological screenings for children with epilepsy. In 2018, I went on my first overseas medical mission trip with HTC to Neiva, Colombia as an oral and maxillofacial surgical assistant.

Families traveled to Neiva from all corners of Colombia by plane, train, car, and even foot for their children to be treated by our skilled surgeons. While in Neiva, our medical team comprised of orthopedic, plastic, and oral and maxillofacial specialists provided free surgeries to 151 sweet children in need. I was awestruck. It is an indescribable feeling to bear witness to something so much greater than yourself, and I knew I would be returning to Neiva.

On our 2019 medical mission to Neiva, our team completed 174 surgeries, and Healing the Children’s impact continues to grow with every passing year. Our team tackles congenital malformations such as cleft lip and palate, microtia (a malformation of the ear), and club foot, to name a few. It is the most heartwarming feeling in the world to watch a child go from struggling to maintain proper nutrition and covering their face constantly for fear of their peers seeing their cleft lip, to running around playing and finally having the childhood they always deserved.

On our most recent medical mission in May of 2019, Dr. David Hoffman of Staten Island University Hospital and I introduced a new post-operative care program to improve the surgical results of our patients even after our medical team has left Neiva.

I work with Dr. Hoffman and our other skilled oral surgeons alongside chefs, nutritionists, speech pathologists, and the Colombian Hospital staff to maximize the impact of our procedures long after our team has returned home. I hope to continue returning to Neiva with HTC for many years to come to continue our mission to change the world, one child at a time.

See photos from our unforgettable runway show at Miami Swim Week: