SI Swimsuit model Haley Kalil says people are shocked by her science degree: ‘It about changing the narrative’

The Minnesota native made her modeling debut in 2018 as a part of the franchise's first-ever open casting call

EXCLUSIVE: Haley Kalil is all about proudly flaunting her brains and beauty.

The Minnesota native made her Sports Illustrated Swimsuit debut in 2018 after participating in the franchise’s first-ever open casting call. She was named the co-winner alongside Camille Kostek. This year, she’s back for the upcoming issue which is slated to drop sometime this summer.

Before Kalil made her modeling debut, she was already making a splash in the science world. She graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University with a 4.0 in biomedical sciences and psychology with a minor in chemistry. According to SI, the 28-year-old also published award-winning immunological research and worked with numerous local science programs to encourage young women to pursue STEM fields. Now, she’s launching The Nerd Herd, an organization that aims to empower women to love their bodies while pursuing STEM studies.

Kalil spoke to Fox News about appearing in SI Swimsuit for the fourth time, the moment she nearly gave up her career, and how she deals with stereotypes.

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Haley Kalil walks the runway during the 2019 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Runway Show During Miami Swim Week At W South Beach.

Haley Kalil walks the runway during the 2019 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Runway Show During Miami Swim Week At W South Beach. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

Fox News: This will be your fourth year in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. What’s that been like?  

Haley Kalil: Honestly, I still can’t believe it. It seems like just yesterday that I was making a video for them in hopes that I’ll ever be considered. I never dreamed that I would be shooting my fourth spread for them. It’s mind-blowing. I’m honestly honored.

I’m honored because this is how I got my start in modeling. Swim Search was my first access to the modeling world. And it has allowed me to inspire so many other women to celebrate their bodies. And I’m repping all the ginger nerds out there *laughs*. But really, representation is everything. It’s one of the real reasons I wanted to be a part of Sports Illustrated because they were one of the first major fashion publications where I saw a redhead for the first time. And I thought, "Wow, everyone teases me at school for being a redhead. Here’s this model who’s beautiful and also a redhead." I felt I could be beautiful, too.  

So for me, it’s all about being that representation for someone else. I hope someone can look at me and go, "I see myself in her." That’s really my ultimate goal with every single year that I shoot with SI.

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Haley Kalil will be appearing in this year's SI Swimsuit issue.

Haley Kalil will be appearing in this year's SI Swimsuit issue. (Nick Suarez)

Fox News: How will this year’s spread be different?

Kalil: It’s really quite a growth. It’s growth with a family that you feel so comfortable with. Especially during my first year, there was this overthinking of "Oh, don’t mess up" or "I have no idea what I’m doing." But now, it’s like going to the beach with all your friends and family. I felt so at ease and not in my head. I hope that this year I give the world the best images that they’ve seen of me.

Fox News: How did you physically prepare for this year’s shoot?

Kalil: You know, the great thing about SI is that they don’t really care about what physical shape you are in. They just want you to be yourself and confident in your body. I never felt like I had to be a certain size or have certain measurements because they love you just the way you are.  

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Models Haley Kalil (L) and Camille Kostek (2nd L) attend Sports Illustrated Swimsuit's new issue launch and model search winners celebration at Encore Beach Club in Wynn Las Vegas on March 24, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada.  

Models Haley Kalil (L) and Camille Kostek (2nd L) attend Sports Illustrated Swimsuit's new issue launch and model search winners celebration at Encore Beach Club in Wynn Las Vegas on March 24, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada.   (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images  for Wynn Nightlife)

But for my shoot, I wanted to look and feel my best. So I worked with a trainer every day. We focused on getting the abs tight, the arms tight. I never want to project any unreal expectations for what a woman’s body should look like. So I’m never going to cut calories. I’m never going to run for hours on a treadmill hoping that I’ll lose weight. That’s not something I want to put out in this universe. I want to be in my natural shape and size, just the tighter, more toned version of it. So instead of dieting and cutting calories, I focus on eating healthy. I rely on things that will make you feel good like salmon, broccoli, squash, brown rice – all the good stuff. I’ll have my Domino’s lava cake but I’ll also put in the work at the gym.  

Fox News: This year is special for you because you’re also launching The Nerd Herd.

Kalil: It’s been my passion project. It’s been in the works in my brain for quite some time. I was super excited to finally make it a reality. The idea came about when I was in middle school and high school. I was in the nerdiest clubs, like chess, mock playing the United Nations – you name it. My sister would always tell me, "Oh my goodness, Haley’s going off to her nerd herd." But as I grew older, I thought it was pretty cool. Like heck yeah. I should have taken it as a compliment.

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Haley Kalil is launching The Nerd Herd to help empower women to celebrate their bodies and passions for STEM studies.

Haley Kalil is launching The Nerd Herd to help empower women to celebrate their bodies and passions for STEM studies. (Christian Michel)

So then it started off as a social media post where I talked about the stark contrast between being a woman in the sciences and being a woman in the modeling industry, along with the insane standards that are put on both women. If you’re in the sciences, you’re supposed to cover every part of your sensuality, your femininity, and not celebrate it whatsoever.  

Like for example, my best friend is a doctor. When we go on vacation together, she’ll pose in a bikini for a picture but will be afraid to post it because she thinks families or her co-workers won’t respect her as a physician. And it’s the exact opposite in the modeling industry. You could be wearing a bikini and it will be totally fine. But people will assume you have nothing else going on in your brain. You have nothing else to offer beyond being a physical image.

I wanted to address that. I posted a side-by-side [photo] of me graduating from college and wearing a bikini where I explained my backstory. So many women resonated with this because it’s an issue that every woman faces, especially career-driven women in the sciences. And nerd herd was born. It became a hashtag, but I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted to make it something that gives back.

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Haley Kalil, the daughter of engineers, graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University with a 4.0 in biomedical sciences and psychology with a minor in chemistry. 

Haley Kalil, the daughter of engineers, graduated summa cum laude from St. Cloud State University with a 4.0 in biomedical sciences and psychology with a minor in chemistry.  (Photo by Gilbert Carrasquillo/GC Images/Getty Images)

Fox News: How does The Nerd Herd give back?

Kalil: Quarantine gave me the idea to launch some loungewear. For my first drop, a hundred percent of the proceeds will go to an organization called Black Girls Code, which helps young girls get involved in computer programming and technology at an early age. I just thought that was amazing. And then after that, all of my preceding drops will have a charitable aspect to them where part of the money will go to organizations that help get young women involved in STEM.

Fox News: When did you realize that you wanted to encourage young girls to embrace STEM?

Kalil: I think it was really born out of the fact that both of my parents are engineers. I have a very strong mother and I’m so grateful for her presence in my life because she has shown me what an independent, intelligent female looks like… And my interest in science and math started at a very young age. I pursue it in college. And I noticed a lot of women were hesitant to pursue STEM-based careers because they were going to be one of only five or six women in a class of 100. I wanted to help raise awareness and make a change with any platform that I had.

Fox News: Some critics may argue that a swimsuit model isn’t exactly the first person one would think of as a role model for young girls. What would you tell those people?

Kalil: I would say that women’s bodies belong to them and them alone. Why is it that a male doctor can post a photo of himself at the beach and you wouldn’t think twice about it? You would think, "This is just a guy on vacation having a good time. Good for him. He’s taking a break. He needs it. He’s been working hard."

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Haley Kalil said she was mocked for her appearance before modeling.

Haley Kalil said she was mocked for her appearance before modeling. (Nick Suarez )

I think it’s something that’s ingrained into our culture. And I think it takes us as women to fight back and say, "No, you don’t own my body. I’m wearing this swimsuit for me and me alone. If you look at me, that’s on you, but this is really for me." And that’s the thing we need to realize. There’s such a stark contrast between how men and women are treated when it comes to swimwear. You don’t see a bunch of people hating on a male model in a swimsuit. You don’t think they’re worthless because of it. So it’s about changing the narrative. I hear it from the mouths of women every day in terms of what they go through. I think we need to show just how important it is for a woman to have ownership of her own body.  

Fox News: Was there ever a moment where you felt like you weren’t taken as seriously because you're a model?

Kalil: Oh, I’ve had many, many moments *laughs*. It’s funny because I always tell people I used to be respected only for what I do. I was respected for my training, my education, what I could do in a lab. And then instantly, that changed. I used to walk into a room and have everyone ask me about what I studied. It can be really difficult for people to assume you have nothing else going on just because you're a model.

One particular moment sticks out for me. I was at a very important dinner for a social event. I was sitting next to a CEO of a company – a male CEO. He said, "What do you do?" I said, "I’m a model." I cringed a little inside because I already knew this was going to stir up something. Like they’re going to make assumptions about me. Then he said, "I think it’s great that you’re a model. That means you can find a rich man, get married and never have to work a day in your life." I couldn’t believe what I heard. Because in this person’s eyes, I had nothing more to offer in this world than just beauty. Physical beauty. That’s it. I am nothing more than what I look like. I want to change that because I don’t want people to assume that just because you are a model, you have nothing else to give to this world.

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Haley Kalil made her SI Swimsuit debut in 2018.

Haley Kalil made her SI Swimsuit debut in 2018. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for AT&T)

Fox News: What was going through your mind when you heard this?

Kalil: I just simply said, "I don’t really need somebody to take care of me. I have a degree. I studied biomedical sciences and psychology." He was like, "Wait, what?" And then he immediately switched his tone. It’s funny how they switch their tone when you drop that on them *laughs*. It’s actually funny to watch people backtrack. I was an immunologist before I was a model. But why would someone respect an immunologist and not a model? We’re overdue for a change, that’s for sure. You should garner the same amount of respect for either role.

Fox News: You’ve spoken out about being bullied as a child. Have any of your bullies reached out to you since appearing in SI?

Kalil: They have, yes. You can very quickly tell if somebody is reaching out because they’re actually sorry or because they want to be a part of something that you’re doing. I have had two women, in particular, reach out to me and you could tell it was coming from a genuine place. They sent me very heartfelt apologies and expressed how truly sorry they were for how I was treated and the mistakes they made. Those notes meant the world to me. Reading those words truly affected me because it showed that people can change. People can grow.

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Haley Kalil said some of her bullies reached out on social media.

Haley Kalil said some of her bullies reached out on social media. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated)

Fox News: Was there a time where you felt like perhaps modeling wouldn’t be for you?

Kalil: Oh yes. Sports Illustrated was my first professional photoshoot ever. And in the first year that I started modeling, I was thrown into the deep end real quick. I was signed with a modeling agency and I started working. And it was something that I’ve never done before. I remember there was one company – and I won’t say the name because I never want to paint anyone in a bad way. But during the set of their shoot, there was a photographer who wasn’t the kindest to the models. And being someone who’s never had that type of hate was unsettling. I mean… I was teased at school. But it was very different in a professional setting.

I remember how this individual acted and it was very difficult. That day, I went home and cried. I called my mom and just told her that I didn’t think I could do this. I remembered my mom told me to focus on the goal. She reminded me that no matter the field, everyone will experience good days and bad days. But you have to focus on what you want to accomplish. You have to be the one that chooses to stay and pursue this. And I realized that I wasn’t going to let one bad day affect my entire career.  

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Haley Kalil said her friends and family have kept her grounded as a model.

Haley Kalil said her friends and family have kept her grounded as a model. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Fox News: On days when you don’t wake up feeling like a model or STEM superhero, what do you do to feel more confident about yourself?

Kalil: I’m fully honest on social media. Because we’re all human. We all have days when we feel like garbage. But the most important thing is grounding yourself with your friends and family. I give them so much credit for where I am today because I couldn’t have done any of this without their love and support. I couldn’t have faced the pressures of this industry without them. On low days, I call my mom. She’s my rock. She always reminds me that I’m so much more than what’s going on in my head. I have so much more to offer. She grounds me and helps me remember that even on my bad days, I can contribute something positive and beautiful to this world.