SI Swimsuit's Manuela Alvarez Hernandez says she’s grateful for getting a degree before modeling

Manuela Alvarez Hernandez, a Florida International University graduate, didn’t think she would find herself posing in a skimpy bikini — but she did and it was quite the accomplishment.

The model from Medellin, Colombia, is one of six finalists of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s model search competition, which earned her a ticket to Atlantis, The Bahamas, to shoot with photographer Yu Tsai.

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After the shoot, the 23-year-old, along with 30 other models, headed to Miami for “SI Swimsuit on Location,” a two-day ticketed exhibition that gave fans the opportunity to explore one-of-a-kind installations and photo experiences.

The magazine’s stars all celebrated at Mynt and Myn-Tu, the newly opened Japanese-French concept restaurant by Romain Zago next to the lounge. It was there where they all candidly shared their experiences posing in the sizzling issue, which hit newsstands earlier in May of this year.

“It honestly feels like a crazy dream,” Hernandez said at the venue’s red carpet affair. “It’s insane to see that it’s becoming a reality and I’m living it. Honestly, I’m really glad that I went to school and got my degree and that now I have the chance to do modeling all the time. Now I’m in LA, so it’s honestly just been amazing.”

“It’s definitely more than I thought it would be,” admitted Hernandez. “I honestly wasn’t expecting anything. I just wanted to live in the moment and really take it all in and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing and I’m just so happy to be here.”

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Before Hernandez made a big splash in the magazine, she struggled to find her footing as a model after she earned her diploma.

Hernandez recently told HOLA! USA she was initially turned down from every single modeling agency in Miami. Yet it was in Miami where she landed the second round of castings for the magazine. Hernandez initially entered the open call by submitting a video about herself on Instagram.

According to the publication, Hernandez is now officially the first Colombian Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model.

“It’s an honor,” she told HOLA! USA. “And for me, it’s huge because coming from Medellin and moving to the U.S., I didn’t really think that my life was going to take this direction. The fact that I’m following my dreams, and I get to be myself and represent Latinas is truly an honor.”

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But Hernandez admitted preparing to pose for the magazine required a no-nonsense health regimen.

“I knew that the day of the shoot I wanted to feel my best and feel confident,” she said. “A few weeks before, I did work out a lot. I would go to the gym once or twice a day every single day. I tried to cut out dairy, meat and tried to have mainly a plant-based diet. It was really hard for me just because I love food. I love pizza; I love carbs. It really did take a lot for me to restrain myself from eating meat and all the fried foods and all the good stuff. That’s probably the best shape I’ve been in in my life.”

Holding back on her guilty pleasures was worth it, said Hernandez. It allowed her to strip down to rock one daring ensemble.

“Oh my gosh, I love a cheeky bottom,” she gushed. “I love tanning and I love being in a bikini, but I definitely have to say cheeky is my favorite.”

The winner for the SI Swim Search hasn’t been announced quite yet. Still, Hernandez is looking forward to what the future holds for her.

“Victoria’s Secret would also be another huge dream come true and another way to show people that we’re breaking barriers,” she said. “I want to do it all. I am in the SI Swim Search, and it would mean the world to me to keep on working with the Sports Illustrated family and to hopefully make it to be a Rookie next year.”