Yumi Nu Becomes First Asian Curve Model for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: 'Still Pinching Myself'

Yumi Nu is breaking down barriers.

The model and singer-songwriter makes her debut in the upcoming 2021 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, becoming the first Asian curve model to grace the pages of the magazine. "I'm so beyond honored to be a part of the SI Swim family and to represent my Asian curve girls," Nu tells PEOPLE.

"It's such an iconic magazine and I'm still pinching myself that it happened!" adds Nu, who has been a plus-size model for over a decade.

The Japanese-Dutch star further opens up to PEOPLE below about everything from her favorite memory from her shoot, how she approaches social media, her music career, when she feels most confident, speaking out against anti-Asian violence and more.

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Model Marquita Pring Takes Us Behind-the-Scenes at Her 2021 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Photo Shoot

PEOPLE: SI Swim is rooted in inclusivity — what do you find most inspiring about the brand's messaging?

Nu: The fact that SI Swimsuit has the platform that they have and they choose to focus their power on inclusivity means so much to me. Women of all ages, sizes and colors are represented, and it was one of the first big publications to do that. I can see their heart is authentic in making the world a more diverse place. It's been amazing to see that ripple effect on the industry and mainstream media.

PEOPLE: Tell us about your shoot! What were the nerves like?

Nu: My shoot was incredible! We shot in Tampa, Florida in December, and it was so beautiful to be able to get away and be on the beach with such a kind and charismatic team. I was so nervous on the flight there but once I got to the fitting the night before the shoot, I felt a lot of peace after hanging out with [SI Swim editor-in-chief] MJ Day and the team. They are truly the best, and made me feel like family.

PEOPLE: What's your favorite memory?

Nu: It's actually funny that this is my favorite memory because a lot of the team was stressed about this part of the day — there was a huge rainstorm in the middle of our shoot and we all had to huddle under these tents that were almost blowing away. MJ was so worried. The photographer, Yu Tsai, was cracking jokes to lighten the mood (he is so funny). Then we had to run back to our vans and wait for the storm to pass. We ate snacks and talked.

After that, the sun came out and there was a new energy for the shoot and we captured some amazing shots. It was beautiful!

PEOPLE: When do you feel most confident?

Nu: I feel the most confident when I'm grounded in the belief that my worthiness can't be earned — I have always been, always will be worthy. With that mindset, I can do anything I want!

PEOPLE: Do you get more nervous performing and singing in front of people or posing in a bikini for a photo shoot?

Nu: I definitely get more nervous performing. I've been doing both modeling and music for the same amount of time, but my relationship with music has had more ups and downs. It's a more vulnerable part of myself being expressed through my songwriting, and I've been so afraid of rejection at times that it has paralyzed me and my art.

I'm in a way better place now, getting ready to debut my first song after a two-year break!

PEOPLE: What's your relationship with social media — how do you find strength in the platform? How do you turn off negativity that can come from the internet?

Nu: My relationship with social media has gradually gotten better, but I'll always have my hard days with it. It's an incredible tool and teacher in some ways, but can also be extremely draining. We are all so sensitive to the energy we consume, whether we like it or not. If I start comparing myself to others too much or I'm just feeling low from being on my phone 24/7, I like to take a break to do guided meditations or go on a nice walk. It's so important to connect with our body, mind and spirit.

PEOPLE: You recently shared a very powerful post about learning to connect with your Japanese heritage in light of all the anti-Asian violence that's happening right now. Why was it important to you to share your story?

Nu: The Asian community isn't always a loud one. Our society's view of Asians in the model minority myth lens has silenced us for many years. In this time of anti-Asian violence, it's so important now more than ever for Asian people to be heard and supported. The division and racism in our world has gotten so bad; we've grown so far from love and connection. I want to create a space for people to feel heard and safe. That's my purpose on this earth.

PEOPLE: What has been your reaction to seeing this, and what are ways you encourage others to be allies?

Nu: I'm heavy-hearted to see the continual violence on Asian people who look like they could be my family members, but I'm also hopeful seeing how people are coming together to support. I encourage people to donate to AAPI funds and volunteer where they can, but the best thing they can do is listen. People want to be heard. Ask your Asian friends how you can show up for them.

The 2021 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue hits newsstands on July 20.


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