The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition has traditionally been known more for its scantily clad female models than a commitment to social activism. But Lewis Freese, the 21-year-old Minnesota native who just became the publication's first-ever male finalist for their iconic Swim Search, told People the magazine has been a forward-thinking voice on the issues of diversity and inclusivity, and that he fully intends to use the platform to continue the conversation while also serving as a visible inspiration to others.
Back in 2019 when Freese first applied for Swim Search, the open casting call looking for both established models and fresh faces. The then-teen was "dealing with a lot of confusion" about their gender and identity. Compounding their internal struggle was a lack of external sources providing much needed knowledge and affirmation.
"It was hard for me to find a lot of people on mainstream media platforms discussing these issues," he told People. "Being that Sports Illustrated Swimsuit has always led the conversation of inclusion and diversity, I thought why not bring this discussion to the brand?"
The irony of modeling what Freese called "one of the most binary forms of clothing" to tackle the issues of gender and identity was not lost on the full-time college student -- Frese told Out they currently identify as male but are still exploring their gender fluidity. Still, he called the Swim Search the "best avenue" to "continue this conversation" with a broader audience.
"There are very few prominent brands that choose to represent a form of inclusivity that stretches far beyond a 'trend,'" explained Freese. They are one of 15 finalists, six of whom will appear in the issue. "I really hope it becomes more clear each year that SI Swimsuit is truly a brand that cares about representation," adding they "care so deeply" about the issue "you can hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes."
Freese said being a finalist in Swim Search brought new opportunities to guide his own process of understanding the complexity of his identity and gender.
"I'm only 21 and I feel like I just started my road of coming out," Freese said. "Even since the beginning of my Swim Search journey last August, I've discovered that my gender fluidity is always present and some days I wake up feeling like I fall under multiple gender identifications."
According to Freese, brands have an obligation to follow the lead of Sports Illustrated, saying they have a "social responsibility to promote these types of gender and sexual identities" and "provide safe spaces for these varying identities." Over the past few years that's been evidenced by the casting of Megan Rapinoe, Valentina Sampaio, and Leyna Bloom, who became the first out lesbian, first trans woman, and first Black trans woman respectively to appear in the issue.
If Freese is one of the six finalists to actually appear iin the issue they will appear alongside Bloom who is making their debut, and Sampaio who is returning to the issue for her second year.
Freese said landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is on his bucket list, but he has broader goals to open a business "promoting or creating gender-neutral products." They also hope to make an impact through legislative work benefiting the trans, queer, and nonbinary communities.