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Ashley Byrd was determined to become a model – so she took on the role of a construction worker.
The Amite, Louisiana, native had big dreams that went beyond her small town, and her grueling gig not only gave her the funds she needed to make her goals a reality, but she developed a group of lifelong friends along the way. Now, those pals are cheering her on as she makes her mark in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
Byrd, a finalist in the 2022 SI Swim Search, was chosen among thousands of submissions to be photographed by acclaimed SI photographer Yu Tsai. The winner of the annual casting call will become a rookie in the 2023 issue.
Byrd spoke to Fox News Digital about why she was so determined to follow in Beyonce’s footsteps, the biggest lesson she learned in her brief construction stint and why she is feeling hopeful now more than ever about her future.
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Fox News: What was it about the SI Swim Search that made you want to try it out?
Ashley Byrd: Honestly, it’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for years, but I would somehow talk myself out of it. I just thought, “They’re not going to pay attention to me.” But finally, I decided I wasn’t going to overthink it anymore… So I grabbed my tripod and my phone and I just filmed a video explaining why I felt I could be a good fit. I figured, whatever happens, happens. It’s out of my hands now. Well, here we are *laughs*.
Fox News: Growing up, were you familiar with SI Swimsuit?
Byrd: At first no because where I come from, modeling isn’t this big thing. And I grew up playing sports – I wanted to be a WNBA star. But as I got older, I thought about modeling and wanting to do my own thing. I remember seeing Beyonce and Danielle Harrington on the cover. When I saw them, I felt empowered, like “I could do this.” It was inspiring for someone like me, a Louisiana lady *laughs*. I didn’t think I could be an SI model, but I certainly was going to try. They encouraged me and gave me the drive to make my own mark.
Fox News: You initially were hesitant to try out for the Swim Search. What was your reaction to learning that you’re a finalist?
Byrd: I couldn’t stop screaming *laughs*. Who would have thought that after the first time, I would hear, “Hey, you’re moving on to the next step.” I was honestly in complete shock. Because remember, I did stop myself from trying before because I didn’t think I could do it. And finally, I just did, without giving it a second thought. I certainly wasn’t thinking I was going to be chosen. I was just glad that I finally tried it after all these years of talking myself out of it.
I just remember saying “Thank you Jesus” over and over after I got the news. I think every girl dreams of being an SI model at some point in her life. So when I finally got that call, I couldn’t stop screaming. I even had to apologize when I got the news, but I was told, “Go ahead, have your moment.” And I did. Somehow, this girl from a small town in Louisiana made it this far.
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Fox News: Is it true you worked in construction before modeling?
Byrd: Yes, ma’am. I did construction for a couple of years. After I graduated college, I had a few jobs. But construction came about because I knew I wanted to move eventually to either Los Angeles or New York to pursue a modeling career. And working in Louisiana construction meant more money. I needed to save money quickly to make that happen. So I tried it.
I thought it was going to be a short-term gig. But I worked in construction for years. I started off working in the scaffolding area which is pure hard work nonstop. And then I moved on up. At first, it felt intimidating, but I’ve always been a tomboy and comfortable around guys. My brothers are my best friends. So I knew how to handle myself around a group of guys. I’m also very social. I could talk to anybody.
When I first entered the construction industry, it was certainly different. The moment these guys see a woman, oh my God, they’re all over the place *laughs*. But you become one of the guys very quickly. You even dress like them. And I easily adapted. For me, it was all about business. It was a stepping stone leading me to where I needed to be, which was to ultimately pursue the modeling industry. But one thing about construction is you meet people from all types of backgrounds and cultures.
I’ve always loved that. And these are folks I still keep in contact with. They become family. So it was an amazing experience. And it made me realize I could handle anything. If I could handle the construction industry, then I could tackle any challenge that comes my way. I was working during freezing weather in the wintertime and while burning up in the summertime. It requires a different kind of hustle. So modeling? That’s a breeze in comparison *laughs*.
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Fox News: Did any of your construction pals have anything to say about you being a finalist in the SI Swim Search?
Byrd: Oh, they’re so proud of me. They couldn’t stop congratulating me. They’ve been buying the issue and taking photos with it. They’re thrilled that I made my dream happen. In construction, it’s easy to stay in that groove. The money is great. We’re getting paid every week. You’re making over a thousand dollars a week. But it’s exhausting work. You’re working six, sometimes seven days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day. But we love that money.
It’s easy to get caught up in it and forget about your dreams or plans. So I am happy I decided to leave because I did find myself staying a little longer than I expected. It was easy to get comfortable. But one day, I just had to take a step back and decide what I really wanted to do with my life. And I knew I had this dream, and it was only going to happen if I followed through with it. So I took a chance. And I’m so glad that I did. It’s so surreal.
Fox News: Your SI shoot took place in the Dominican Republic. What was that like?
Byrd: It’s a beautiful destination. From the moment you step off that plane, you’re immediately welcomed by so many people. They’re so grateful that you made it there. People are so attentive to you and want to make sure that you have one of the best experiences ever. Everything felt like a dream. The experience made me feel seen and valued as a person. The weather was amazing, the food was incredible, and the beach was just paradise. I had the time of my life.
Fox News: How did you physically prepare for your shoot?
Byrd: I’m an athlete, so I work out regularly. For me, it was about mental preparation. I wanted to be in a great mental space. I wanted to take it all in without overthinking again. So I did lots of praying and meditating before my shoot. SI is very inclusive, so you’re not expected to show up looking a certain way. You’re expected to show up looking like you. So I never had that moment of, “My shoot is coming up, I need to be at the gym all day, every day.” At the end of the day, I wanted them to see who I am as a person. I wanted to be me.
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Fox News: This year’s issue is being celebrated as the most diverse ever.
Byrd: And I think that’s so important. When I started my modeling journey, it was incredibly difficult for me. You want to be able to pick up a magazine and feel seen. You want to feel that you matter and your features are beautiful. Getting that recognition as a model makes you feel worthy. And it’s a privilege to know that someone can pick up the magazine and feel seen because you’re a part of it.
I’ve tried out for plenty of agencies and jobs in the past. I heard plenty of nos. As a model, especially a Black model, it can be very disheartening. Even I felt like I wouldn’t get noticed because I don’t have 100K followers on social media. That can take a toll on you because you start to believe you’re not good enough. But SI’s message is, “You’re beautiful, and you matter.” They’re showing other brands how it’s done, and it is possible. And people want this.
Fox News: After constantly getting rejected in the modeling industry, what kept you going?
Byrd: That’s tough because I felt so discouraged. I’ve done this all by myself. I moved from Louisiana to LA so I can open more doors for myself. But I didn’t have the resources or support to pursue modeling. It’s been difficult. I tried breaking into the New York market and again, lots of nos. I was so down that I didn’t know what to do. I started to wonder if I made a mistake.
But as quickly as I had that thought, I immediately thought about my other support system – my friends, who were cheering me on. And thank God for that. During those moments when I wanted to give up, they would tell me, “Look how far you’ve come – you’ve got this, keep going. If it doesn’t happen today, that’s OK, try tomorrow.” They encouraged me to keep trying. They made me feel like it was possible when I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t. Those nos don’t affect me as much now because I know I can do this. I just have to keep on pushing until I get that door fully open.
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In this industry especially, you’re going to hear a lot of nos. You’re going to spend a lot of money building your portfolio and making sure your photos stand out. But over the years, I’ve developed some thick skin because you absolutely have to have that to survive this industry. I choose to pray and meditate, especially on days when I do feel discouraged. It can be difficult, but God doesn’t give you challenges you can’t overcome.