As rain sprinkled down on set in the picturesque Montenegrin countryside, model Yumi Nu was having the time of her life posing for her second appearance in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. Landing another spot in the magazine’s iconic swim edition certainly made sense with the natural progression of Nu’s rapid career ascension — after all, she secured a headline-making Victoria’s Secret campaign and appearances on the covers of Vogue, Vogue Japan, and Teen Vogue all within the last year. But honored as she was to be shooting for the magazine in back-to-back editions, she had no idea that this time around she was slated to be an SI cover star (along with Kim Kardashian, Maye Musk, and Ciara), making her the first plus-size Asian American woman to hold that distinction.
“I’ve never been more surprised in my life, I’m not kidding,” Nu says, recounting the fake interview her team orchestrated as a way to reveal her SI Swim 2022 cover, during which a screen bedside her lit up with the image from her shoot in Montenegro. Not much gets past Nu, who describes herself as a control freak. In fact, her agent had to artfully dodge her many inquiries about the faux-interview to disguise the plan. “I like to know every single detail. I’m a professional!”
After making history with her feature for last year’s SI Swimsuit issue, which marked the first time a plus-size model of Asian descent graced the magazine’s pages at all, Nu is grateful to be the representation she didn’t see on newsstands growing up. Poised and powerful as ever on its glossy front page, one would imagine she simply wakes up like that, but the kind of self-possession that shows up on a cover is more of a practice than a magical natural talent for the 25-year-old. She’s been in the business for over a decade and in that time she’s learned to put on confidence like she would a pair of shoes: every day until she breaks it in.
“So much of feeling sexy is this internal work,” she says. “I don’t wake up often feeling like, ‘Damn, I look hot today!’ [laughs] It’s telling myself affirmations and putting on confidence and after a while, it starts to change my attitude and my perception of myself because what we feed ourselves is essentially what we become.”
Having the right mindset is an integral part of the job. Nu likes to prep with face masks and practices her angles in the mirror to make sure she has a solid number of poses in her arsenal to go to. Before she steps on set, she curates a playlist to have on deck that makes her feel strong and sexy.
And if anxiety strikes? Nu listens to meditations to ensure she’s grounded and good to go by call time. The pressure of the job can be a challenge, especially when it comes to swimsuit modeling. She has a few favorite go-to bathing suit brands (including Frankies Bikinis and the UK-based Youswim), but Nu admits swimwear has been nerve wracking territory to get comfortable with just on a personal level, much less in front of a global audience.
“Swimwear hasn’t always been comfortable for plus-sized people and I think a lot of plus-sized fashion gets it wrong,” she says. “Clothing in general is still very tricky for me.”
Nu has experienced fashion’s shortcomings both as an everyday consumer and as a model — she says some of the brands she’s worked with in the past haven’t been prepared with clothing her size on set. To improve the industry’s offerings for plus-sized buyers and “fill in the gaps” she sees in the market, she plans to start her own fashion line. For one, she wants to make clothes that are both sustainably made and stylish. But another major issue she sees is that even some of the brands that boast size-inclusive offerings fail to fully deliver on those promises.
While she can’t yet reveal specific details on her upcoming line, she’s currently looking at a fall launch and vows to produce styles in a range of sizes that are actually plus-size friendly.
“I’m doing sizes large through 6X because I think a big part of fashion ignores sizes 20 to 30, which is a huge portion of the plus-size community,” she says. “I find it sometimes to be inauthentic, because it’s like, you’re only catering to half of a community but you’re [still] advertising like you are plus-size friendly.”
Indeed, the demographic has long been overlooked in the fashion world, infamous for its lack of body diversity on runways and magazines. Being an Asian American plus-size model to have broken into its elite ranks puts Nu in an even smaller group. She says she probably wouldn’t have struggled with her self-image the way that she did through middle and high school if she’d seen more people like herself, in bathing suits and being celebrated for their beauty, featured on the cover of the likes of SI Swim.
“It’s helpful for the mental health of a lot of people, especially the youth, to see those who look like them have the space to be themselves,” says Nu. “That’s something that’s being normalized now because of publications like Sports Illustrated.”
She explains that Asian culture has been somewhat slower than others to embrace body diversity. Comments from relatives on her diet and her size were commonplace growing up, an experience she knows is shared among many women of Asian descent.
“There’s this pressure to be as skinny and dainty as possible and to not take up too much space in any form — not just physically,” she says. “I’m hoping to get into the Asian fashion industry more and shake it up in the best way possible because of what I think a lot of Asian women go through. [I hear about] experiences through my mom and my grandma, some of the things that they’ve internalized that sometimes they’re aware of and sometimes they’re not — which is fine, we’re all doing our own work. But the culture tends to be not so encouraging of being comfortable in your skin, unless it’s up to a certain [unrealistic] standard.”
Nu does believe positive change is already happening. Case in point: her cover for Vogue Japan’s April issue was the first time a plus-size model appeared on its front page. It’s an achievement Nu had previously considered her ultimate dream, and she didn’t expect to reach it quite so fast, but no matter: She has plenty else to keep her busy. In addition to her work as a model, Nu is a pop singer-songwriter. She started pursuing her musical inclinations throughout her teenage years and signed with Dim Mak, the record label founded by her uncle, megastar DJ Steve Aoki.
Both in modeling and in her lyrics, Nu explores a raw and personal space, proving that vulnerability is one of her greatest strengths.
“Anything I do, I want to feel like I'm being open,” she says. “When I’m scared or anxious, I love talking to people and being like, ‘Oh my gosh you experienced that too?’ I think that gets us through life, having shared experiences and [knowing] that we’re not alone in those things and that it’s normal to be insecure. In my music, in my swimwear shoots, in anything I do, I just want people to feel like they’re less alone.”
Her EP debuts on Friday and is titled HaJiMe, meaning “beginning” in Japanese. And with new music, a fashion line in the works, and a red-hot modeling career, it’s safe to say she’s off to a strong start.