Sports Illustrated is leading the way with diverse model casting - while Victoria's Secret still lags behind
In recent years, Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue has become an unlikely champion of diversity in its pages.
From 2015, the magazine answered the call for inclusion across body types, ages and abilities, first by featuring a 56-year-old model in a campaign and then by 2016, when it made Ashley Graham its first plus-size cover girl. The positive headlines around the world changed the perception of the brand - among both men and women - for the better.
During Miami Swim Week, the magazine, which publishes its swimsuit issue annually, holds a fashion show in coordination with their open castings for the 'next big thing' in swimsuit modelling and this year's showcase was in keeping with its all-embracing ethos.
Kathy Jacobs, a 55-year-old model with grey hair, has been working as a model and actress for more than 30 years, but always qualified as a petite model, which wasn't exactly a booming market in the '90s and noughties. She was picked as a finalist in the top 17 of the search, landing her a place in the show walking alongside last year's cover star Camille Kostak.
"As a 5’3” tall, 55-year-old woman who has been told she is too short to be a model her whole life — and is now being told that she too old as well, my heart is filled with deep gratitude," she wrote on Instagram.
Plus-size model and body positive activist Ashley Alexiss hit the runway with glee as she modelled an active one-piece and a black bikini, saying, "It has taken me 10 years to be an overnight success."
"Every good, bad, ugly, moment in my career has brought me to this moment. Always told 'no'. 'You’re too short for runway'. 'You cant be short & fat & expect to be a model'. 'Fat girls shouldn’t wear bikinis'. I’m doing this for ME. I know I was meant for this. I can feel it deep into my bones. And for every single no I’ve ever heard... I only needed one yes."
The magazine's editor MJ Day, the driving force behind the publication's success and agenda-setting change in tone on its pages, has received widespread praise for her adaptive approach to modelling and the spearheading healthier industry standards.
"So many incredible women auditioned for this year’s annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit open casting call, narrowing things down was no easy task," a story featuring the 'Sweet 17' on its website reads.
"Along with several current SI Swimsuit models, they proved that beauty is SO much more than skin deep. We couldn’t have asked for a better group of women and we cannot wait to continue this journey with them.
In yesterday's show at the W hotel, Christie Valdiserri, a 24-year-old with alopecia, sashayed down the runway in a long blonde wig before confidently removing it and posing like a pro. Djaniel Carter, a former dancer who suffered traumatic injuries to her legs and has been battling a yet-to-be-diagnosed medical condition, is a wheelchair user who was escorted down the runway by Ms Day.
Halima Aden, a former Miss Minnesota contestant, first came to prominence in 2016 as the first contestant to wear a burkini and hijab during competition. On Monday, she wore a custom burkini by Cynthia Rowley that read, 'Don't change yourself, change the game' down the sleeves.
Since its launch in 1964, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue has been lambasted for featuring skinny women in bikinis, for the male gaze, until its landmark U-turn just four years ago. Meanwhile, Victoria's Secret is still under continued pressure to be more inclusive in its annual fashion show, after which show boss Ed Razek came under fire for saying he would never cast plus-size or trans models because the show is supposed to be "aspirational".
Former Angel Karlie Kloss, who worked with the brand for five years before a one-time return to walk in the show in 2017, said she cut ties with them because the brand's ethos no longer aligned with her own.
"The reason I decided to stop working with Victoria’s Secret was I didn’t feel it was an image that was truly reflective of who I am and the kind of message I want to send to young women around the world about what it means to be beautiful," Kloss told British Vogue.
"I think that was a pivotal moment in me stepping into my power as a feminist, being able to make my own choices and my own narrative, whether through the companies I choose to work with, or through the image I put out to the world."