Sports Illustrated Model Lauren Chan On Discovering Her True Identity In Her 30s

“Society sets us up for straightness.”

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“Atop the list of things I never thought I’d do, in escalating order: be in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, be gay, and come out to the world in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, writes model and entrepreneur Lauren Chan in her April 2023 essay that correlated with her stunning SI shoot as a full-fledged “Rookie” in the Dominican Republic. “But Taylor Swift is single again, so: I’m here! I’m a lesbian! And I’m telling you right now!” While the first-person account (and the additional articles and press surrounding the shoot) marked the first time she discussed her identity to the public at large, Chan’s real coming out moment actually happened a few months prior, via her casting tape.

“I thought that maybe like three people would see it,” says Chan on a Zoom call with TZR. “I didn't really think I was going to say it. It's a blessing in a way. It's reminding me of when I started my [clothing brand] and a lot of people gave you advice of, ‘It's better that you don't know what you're getting into because if you know what you're getting into, you might not do it.’ I think in that video I can see myself really turning a page and reintroducing myself and having this really emotional mixture of relief and pride, which is a really beautiful feeling.”

For context, prior to this moment, the 30-something model, former fashion writer, and designer (Chan founded plus-size clothing brand Henning, which was acquired by Universal Standard this year) was coming off of a divorce to a cis man and in the throes of understanding her identity as a queer individual, something society and her upbringing had conditioned her to suppress for decades.

“I was raised by a first-generation Chinese father and an Armenian mom who is third-generation Canadian,” explains Chan. “I was raised in a household where we were taught to do well, and that's what I did. I didn't really think about my feelings too much, and that served me well for a long time. I had a career that I really cared about and that fulfilled me, because I was connecting with people and being vulnerable in terms of being the size that I am. Experiencing the world that way, and I was able to affect change through fashion.”

And while Chan felt fulfilled in her role as an inclusive fashion advocate, there were other parts of her identity that she now realizes were left very much neglected and ignored, largely due to the aforementioned social conditioning she endured as a child and young adult. “[It’s] the idea of compulsory heterosexuality, which is just a fancy way of saying that society is set up for straightness,” says Chan candidly. “And so if you don't really think about it that much, i.e me, who wasn't feeling my feelings and wasn't too worried about feeling my feelings, then the media, our peers, family structure, legal and tax systems, everything within society just assumes that you will grow up to be a straight person. And that hugely affected me.”

Falling in line with this collective narrative, the model essentially went through the motions of life she thought she was expected to navigate. She worked hard, got into modeling, built a business, and married her now-ex-husband, whom she dated for 10 years prior and describes as her best friend. “We had a wonderful relationship, still do, which is a blessing,” she says. “But I think that there's a bunch of factors that put me in the position that I was in. But societally, I think that that assumption that folks are straight trickles down in so many ways and really can make someone like me not ever ask themselves who they are and what they want.”

In her SI essay, Chan explains that the “rare connections” she’d previously made with men she now understands involved deep friendship that she’d mistaken for sexual or romantic attraction. And any attraction or pull she’d felt toward women she chalked up to the fashion industry she was engrained in that trained her to “appreciate female beauty.”

That is, until the great lockdown of 2020. It was then that all of the outlets Chan had relied on for distraction to keep her from delving too far inward were suddenly taken from her. But with this season of loss came opportunity for reinvention and, most importantly, lots of therapy. “I'd been in therapy ahead of 2020, but my efforts were largely focused on how to deal with being a start-up founder,” says Chan. “Once the initial stress of the pandemic settled down and I reached a place of inertia in my career, my therapy took a natural turn toward myself and how I was feeling.”

This pivot seemingly helped unlock deeper instincts about her identity and her life that Chan had never allowed herself to confront before. Through mindfulness practices, Chan learned to dig a bit more into thoughts and feelings that maybe she would’ve ignored or wouldn’t have given much consideration to in the past. In her essay, she references moments of “fixating on a queer TV character” and allowing herself to delve deeper into the thought — eventually making this a regular practice.

“Some resources that helped me on this journey were the Calm app, I love Jay Shetty's meditations; Audible, where I listened to audiobooks like Glennon Doyle's Untamed; Spotify, where I tuned into podcasts like Bunny Michael's XO Higher Self; and Substack, where I subscribed to newsletters like Kendra Austin's Come Home,” notes Chan. “I also recommend learning mindfulness and practicing meditation — basically, any habits that allow you to step away from the rat race, be still, talk to yourself, and feel your feelings.” These small but crucial steps helped usher in a new life and existence for the model, one that she’s continuing to process.

“The result was the end of a marriage, the sale of a company, the beginning of a new identity, and obviously a new chapter in my work life,” Chan says. “So, yeah, it's all very personal stuff going on behind the curtain that really affected everything.” This also brought up some natural nerves in the days leading up to the April 19 launch and publication of her SI Swimsuit photoshoot.

“I was quite anxious last week around the launch, just with getting all of our ducks in a row ahead of it, anticipating the response, keeping up with all the comments and all the incoming requests,” says Chan of the big unveiling. “But I had therapy the next morning and my therapist asked me what I was proud of on launch day, and my answer was my essay. He asked me to look at the rest of the experience, all the anxiety from the point of view of that pride. That exercise completely took away any stressful feelings. I think that I am [focused on] actively leaning on and calling up my own pride.”

And rightly so. As the first openly queer plus-sized SI model, Chan is connecting and relating to people on a level that extends past size inclusivity. Her vocal Instagram followers are living proof. In response to her shoot and story, positive reinforcement has flooded the model’s feed at a rapid pace:

@lcchan you are on fire!!!! Thank you for writing this. I feel like I am witnessing someone step into their power and it is beyond inspiring.”

“Love this and you 🙌🏼 congratulations Lauren for the SI spread, on all the deep work to find your true self and and for having the courage to share it with your community.”

“Always super inspiring. Keep being authentically you!”

Most important has been the support she’s received from her own inner circle. “My family has been so supportive, I'm very lucky,” says Chan with a smile. “I got a few texts from my cousins with support, with everything from supportive words to pictures of them in front of advertisements of me in Canada — because I'm on a few billboards there right now — with a thumbs up. And, of course, my parents have been cheering me on, as has my brother. So I feel very lucky for sure.”

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