Veronica Pome’e’s life forever changed when she received a phone call from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor MJ Day.
Back in March, Glamour Magazine UK reported the 29-year-old was one of six finalists for the 2019 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model search competition, making her the first Polynesian woman to pose for the magazine.
Pome’e’s family comes the Kingdom of Tonga, a small island nation in the South Pacific.
“The day that I received the call from MJ Day, I screamed, I dropped my phone and then I cried,” the plus-size pinup told Fox News. “I forgot she was on the phone. It’s one of those experiences where you don’t really know what’s going on, but you have so much excitement, you have so much gratitude. … I didn’t even know what to say to her. The first thing that came to mind was, ‘I can’t wait to tell my parents.’”
The Perris, Calif. native, who is signed to Wilhelmina Models, said she took a chance when she decided to participate in the model search during the summer of last year. Glamour Magazine UK reported the editors whittled down 10,000 audition tapes from the open-call competition to a pool of 16 finalists, before narrowing them down again to six models who will appear in the upcoming issue.
Pome’e soon found herself soaking up the sun in the Bahamas in front of photographers.
“I was really nervous,” she explained. “I was always the bigger girl, the bigger plus size model. [But] having girls like Ashley Graham, Hunter McGrady and Tabria Majors, having them pioneer this force in the industry to be reckoned with… it just made me feel so much more comfortable and confident.”
“That day, although I was nervous, when we went on set, every fear or insecurity or doubt just vanished,” Pome’e continued. “I’m here to represent the vast majority of women who don’t feel represented, and to encourage them to feel comfortable and more confident in their bodies. I feel honored and privileged to be in that lineup with those other women who are doing the same thing. I can say that I’m part of the change. I’m part of this conversation that we need to have.”
But breaking down barriers isn’t always smooth sailing. Pome’e, who has nearly 40,000 followers on Instagram, admitted she’s still learning how to deal with online bullies who are quick to share harsh criticism. Thankfully, she’s received some guidance from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s newest rookie.
“Tara Lynn, who’s one of the top curvy models in the world… gave me some great advice about how she handles her trolls,” said Pome’e. “If they come and leave a hateful comment on her Instagram, she’ll go back and comment something really something nice and sweet on there. It just changes the whole energy. It’s like, ‘Wow, I just said some really hateful things to her and she’s still being super nice and sweet to me.’ That was a good way to just change [how]… I take in those hateful comments. Sometimes, those people don’t even really understand who they are, so they inflict that type of insecurity that they have on other people.”
And while being the first Polynesian model has plenty of perks, Pome’e insisted the title comes with great responsibility — one she refuses to take lightly.
“Now that I’m here, in that position, I understand that there’s so much more to it,” said Pome’e. “I’m [learning] a lot about kids in Fiji — and not just Polynesia itself but Micronesia, Melanesia — the kids are really celebrating me. They have pictures, printed-out posters of me, all over the island. And when they found out that I made the top six, everyone was cheering me on. Hearing that just makes me feel like there’s so much more responsibility for me on this platform. [I just want to] really raise awareness that people come from those small islands. Maybe they are unheard and unseen and feel like they’re not part of the world, but we very much are. I have the opportunity to really shed light on that, so it makes me feel proud.”
Pome’e shared that her parents are just as excited over the sizzling snaps and feel her image will truly shine a light on her roots.
“I don’t think they really understand the magnitude of Sports Illustrated and the platform,” she chuckled. “And I like that because for me, there’s so much more than I want to really show them and just make them proud as a daughter and first generation of immigrant parents.”
But these days, Pome’e isn’t sitting back and waiting for her highly anticipated issue to hit newsstands in May. She’s keeping busy, working on a cause that hits close to home.
Pome’e is currently working with Hon. Frederica Tuita Filipe, a member of the Tongan royal family, to bring awareness on the rising sea levels throughout Polynesia. Pome’e is the spokesmodel for Sea Level Rising, which aims to educate others on how pollution and the effects of global warming are devastating the islands her ancestors have called home for centuries.
“The biggest thing is working with the royal family,” said Pome’e. “There’s an erosion of land, the water is being contaminated from the rising sea levels and it’s affecting families. Their survival is their crops. It’s how they grow their food. So it’s important for me because these are things that my generation doesn’t really care for or doesn’t really understand how it can really affect us in the long term. Working with the royal family and the initiative… it’s just opening my eyes up to what really needs to be done.”
Pome’e said she is thankful for the chance to proudly embrace her figure for a magazine like Sports Illustrated. And she’s hoping her photos will inspire other women to do the same.
“I would say my confidence just comes from having a stronger sense of self,” she explained. “I feel like when you really know who you are and you’re aware of your strengths and your weaknesses, that helps shape how you view yourself and how you compare yourself to the outside world. But once you really master that within, you’re able to face anything. … Just being aware of what makes you special… and being able to amplify on those skills."
"I think once people are able to identify what those things are, it’s a lot easier to really maneuver through the world and all of the hate that we’re going to go through," added Pome'e. "I think it’s all about having a strong sense of self and knowing who you are.”