Name: Tanaye White
Agency: Wilhelmina NY | Click Models | T.H.E.
Claim To Fame: White is one of 2020’s Top 6 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Models.
Sitting behind her desk at a defense and aerospace agency, Tanaye White had a secret. She was having a thought that was uncommon among the staff at one of the largest providers for military “arms and ammunition” on the planet, a thought that would disappoint her employers and their high profile clients.
The communication specialist wasn’t pilfering state secrets, or spying on their competitors, she was thinking about getting a new gig- as a supermodel.
“I was their social media manager for two years before I left to do something completely different with modeling some suits and everything else,” White told HelloBeautiful.
It was a job she was well prepared for. “I actually have my master’s degree from Georgetown in public relations and corporate communications with a focus in digital communication.”
“My parents are people who have always stressed to me the importance of education, which is why I had ended up in the corporate sector,” she said.
She had dabbled in the modeling industry at the local level but her plan was to climb tax brackets by using her education, not her beauty. “I modeled on and off, casually, sort of as a hobby,” she said. “But when the opportunity to try out for Sports Illustrated, search came about, that sort of reignited my childhood passion for modeling and pursuing it as a career. And so that, um, ultimately led to me quitting my corporate job and modeling school time.”
“It was a really hard decision,” said White. Learning she had potential nudged her towards making the leap.
“When I made it to the Sweet 16 for Sports Illustrated in what would be the 2019 issue, I had decided that, you know, what? I’ve had a taste of it. And let me see if I can actually pursue it full force.”
That pursuit meant making some major sacrifices.
“Around February of 2019, I had decided not to renew my lease with my apartment. I moved back in with my parents and I started saving up that money to go towards transitioning into modeling full-time,” she said.
After watching their daughter leave a certain path to the C-suite for a chance at the spotlight her parents were a little shaken.
“They were really hesitant when I first told them my plan about how I wanted to make a career change. But they also knew that I am a person who thinks things out thoroughly. And so although they were hesitant and maybe a little worried about my decision, they knew that I would be making all the right steps and so they were very supportive,” she continued. “I think they could see how passionate I was about it and how I’m structured.”
White shared their surprise, changing courses was not a part of her plan.
“When I tried out for Sports Illustrated, my first year, in 2018, I just wanted to give it a go. I had talked to a friend of mine and it was probably the first time I’d actually said it out loud that I had a dream of trying to be and wanting to be a Sports Illustrated model. And that a few months after that I saw their advertisement for their open casting call, where any girl doesn’t matter if she was highly experienced or not could apply. And so I was like, you know what, let me give it a go.”
She had no idea it would mean walking away from the life she had built.
“I had always been driven to, you know, get my education, go to college, graduate and a corporate job, work myself up the ranks of the corporate ladder. And so this change is definitely something that we both weren’t really expecting at all.”
Her track record of excellence provided comfort for her parents. They didn’t know what exactly she was going after, but they knew she knew how to get it.
“Being goal driven and career oriented, those characteristics of mine really helped me to advance,” she said. “I’ve always been a type A person. I’ve always been an A student or tried to be. I’ve always been in sports and just trying to be an exemplary person that would make my parents proud. That was one of my primary goals,” she added.
She was soon making them proud on sets. Shortly after they opened their doors to her, the industry opened theirs. “Literally a month after that I was featured in Victoria’s Secret. So it was really cool to see how it all played out,” she said.
“I think the return on investment has proven to, you know, calm their nerves a bit.”
Two years after she made the decision to pursue modeling she made it beyond the Sports Illustrated Sweet 16 and onto the glossy pages of the 2020 spread.
“It was the most beautiful and uplifting experience,” she said. “I was really nervous because I wasn’t sure what to expect. And even though I had been watching sports illustrated videos of, you know, other supermodels and their journey and what it was like, nothing can really prepare you for what your own personal experience is going to be like. The entire sports illustrated team is all women. They’re really empowering. They really make it a mission to make you feel comfortable, and feel like you can be yourself.”
White was a little concerned her full self would not be welcome on the white sand beaches of Turks and Caicos. Not many of the women in past swimsuit issues of the magazine have worn their natural hair, making her wonder if her choosing to embrace her curls would be an issue.
‘When I was preparing to fly to Turks and Caicos for the shoot. The biggest question I had in my mind was what is going to be my hair,” she said. Unlike in the high fashion or beauty world where a designer or creative director is exclusively calling the shots the protocol was here was unclear.
“They actually asked me a few weeks before how my hair was going to be just so that they could prepare and make sure that, you know, they have all the right tools and products for me and I let them know,” she said. “They were all for it. They never pushed me to, you know, go in one way or the other.”
One editor even listened to her concerns about making sure her for looked its best. “I just asked her to make sure that my Afro, didn’t get lopsided. It was really windy that day,” she added.
“I wear wigs. I switch up my hair, look a lot. And I had ultimately decided that I wanted to wear my natural hair because it’s 100% me” she continued. “And I think that it would be so incredible to represent for women who have 4C hair or kinky hair. And you know, it was something that we don’t, we haven’t seen too often in the pages of Sports Illustrated, swimsuit so I thought it definitely would make a statement and really empower, and embolden, you know, Black women, who don’t typically see themselves in magazines in the industry.”
White grew up not seeing herself on the newsstands or in her neighborhood. “I had always begged my mom to give me perms because I grew up in a town where I was one of the only Black people,” she said, “I didn’t like the fact that I didn’t blend in with everyone else. And one of the ways I felt like I could sort of, you know, look like my peers was by having regular or what, I guess when I was kid, I would call it regular, but it would be straight hair.”
She began noticing the absence of people who looked like her when she was around six years old.
“I was born in Baltimore, and I moved to Connecticut when I was six years old. And, um, I think that that environment change really affected how I wanted to put, portray myself to, you know, my community and to those around me. And so I think that’s when I really started to, um, be influenced by what I saw around me and asked my mom, to just sort of have regular hair styles. Uh, and I think ultimately after a few years, that’s when my mom gave in and just let me have straight hair. I was around seven or eight years old when I got my first relaxer,” she said.
“When I was a young girl, I didn’t see myself in magazines and makeup, aisles barely at hair aisles. And so to know that now I can, you know, be one of, one of the faces that young girls, young Black girls do see in such a world renowned publication means so much to me and I hope that by having young Black and Brown skin, girls see someone who looks like me with my dark skin, with my Black features and with my big kinky hair, I hope that they know they’re, they’re seen they’re represented. Um, and I hope they know that they’re beautiful. I feel like a lot of times when we don’t see ourselves in and our surroundings, we think that because it’s not seen, it’s not considered beautiful.”
“I would love to work, uh, to walk down the runway for Laquan Smith. His entire collection is incredible. And every time I’ve seen one of his New York fashion Week, runway shows, I’ve just been so empowered because he really does push the boundaries for inclusivity,” she said.
White chose to become a model so that she could fulfill her own passions but she sees her career as something that can go beyond her personal satisfaction.
“Being able to represent myself, not only as a Black woman in the pages, but a Black woman with a gigantic Afro really empowered me to do my best, to do the photo shoots and to, make sure that I left an impression and an imprint on the magazine that would sort of transcend just my own personal journey,” she said.
“I think that although we have such a long way to go with inclusion, I think that we’re definitely making leaps and bounds for sure, but I think that we still have a way to go.”