Sports Illustrated's Haley Kalil on being 'pigeonholed' by trolls

·Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
·6-min read

It might sound like a cliché but there is truly more than meets the eye when it comes to Haley Kalil.

On the outside, the 28-year-old redhead is every inch the stunning Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who’s graced the pages of the publication’s iconic Swimsuit Issue three years running.

Haley Kalil wears a bikini at Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Announces Model Search Winners At Encore Beach Club In Wynn Las Vegas on March 24, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Haley kicked off her modelling career by winning Sports Illustrated's first-ever Swim Search back in 2018. Photo: Getty Images.

But Haley has a lot more going on beyond those stop-you-in-your-tracks good looks. She’s also a self-professed sweatpants-loving ‘nerd’ who earned the highest honours in academia when she graduated with a Bachelor of Science a few years ago.

It’s this ‘disconnect’ between her dual passions — modelling and academia — that sometimes leaves people baffled.

“My friends and family are surprised at who I am now,” Haley tells Yahoo Lifestyle in an exclusive chat.

“My friends are like, ‘what, Haley’s a model? What has happened?’ And then people who have followed me [on social media] because of Sports Illustrated are like, ‘Haley’s a nerd?’ she laughs.


Sports Illustrated model Haley Kalil wearing a mortar board and gown at her university graduation.
Self-professed 'nerd' Haley at her university graduation which saw her earn the highest academic honours. Photo: Instagram/haleyybaylee.

From science lab to Sports Illustrated

It’s true that Haley, who previously worked in the medical field, came to her current career in front of the camera relatively late in the game after winning Sports Illustrated’s inaugural open casting call, Swim Search, in 2018.

After that, Haley went from having 50 followers on Instagram to 50,000 almost overnight (she has just over 330k currently) and not all of them were as mild-mannered with their opinions on her model/academic persona.

“Before all of this I wasn’t a model and I wasn’t used to being in the public eye... When you start gaining those followers you start hearing all these voices that you didn’t hear before and sadly a lot of them are very negative,” she reveals.

Haley Kalil wearing a blue swimsuit with cruel messages she's received from trolls online overlaid in white text
Haley shared examples of the cruel messages she's received from trolls online. Photo: Instagram/haleyybaylee.

In the past, Haley has shared examples of the cruel messages she’s received from trolls critiquing her appearance, intelligence and even her sense of humour. The comments always seem to follow one of two themes: she’s either ‘too pretty to be smart’ or ‘not pretty enough to be a model’, both of which are obviously untrue.

It begs the question; why can’t Haley be both intelligent and beautiful? Or, more to the point, why can’t people accept that she is?

“I think it’s funny because we as people kind of pigeonhole each other,” she said.

“I came from one field where I was respected as an intellectual to a different field where it’s assumed that you’re stupid and you’ve got nothing going on or to offer aside from your physical beauty. It’s funny to watch people struggle with that dynamic.”

Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Haley Kalil turns heads in 'dental floss' one-piece. Photo: Instagram/haleyybaylee.
Haley turned heads - and defied her mum's rules - in 'dental floss' one-piece. Photo: Instagram/haleyybaylee.

At first, Haley admits that she ‘internalised’ a lot of the negativity directed to her online before realising that, as loud and incessant as they might be, trolls’ voices had no place taking up space in her mind.

“If your family or friends are telling you something negative then that’s who you should listen to because they probably have your best interests at heart.

“When it’s a troll online they’re just looking for a response and it’s best to go, ‘I don’t need to hear that’.”

One voice Haley couldn’t quite shake during her most recent Sports Illustrated shoot was her mother’s, who asked her daughter to please stick to modelling modest one-piece swimsuits. On the day, Haley cheekily revealed how she skirted her mum’s rule by donning a one-piece that was almost entirely backless save a piece of ‘dental floss’.

“Thank God, my parents have a really great sense of humour, I get that from them. [My mum] laughed, she said ‘I wish it had a little more fabric but I get that it’s a one-piece’. She was cool with it,” Haley says.

Haley Kalil wearing a yellow bikini on the beach
Haley has learnt to embrace her 'weird and quirky' side. Photo: Instagram/haleyybaylee.

‘Quirky, nerdy and awkward’

Once the ‘quiet girl’ in school for fear of saying something ‘weird’, Haley has since learned to embrace the parts of herself that she used to play down.

“I’m very quirky and nerdy and awkward, that’s just who I am and I used to hide those parts of me. Now that I’ve grown in confidence they’re some of my favourite parts. I’m a weirdo and that’s totally ok. It’s what makes me ‘me’.

“It’s so empowering to do and accomplish things as ‘you’.”

That’s not to say Haley’s confidence hasn’t taken any knocks. The daughter of two mechanical engineers, Haley always knew that she would likely follow her parents into the world of science and technology but it was a brief and brutal early experience with modelling that sealed the deal.

“I remember going into the modelling agency when I was 17 and they said I was too short and too big and I was probably 15 pounds lighter than I am now.

Haley Kalil poses in a blue bikini near a pool
Haley reveals she was rejected from a modelling agency at age 17. Photo: Instagram/haleyybaylee.

“They asked me about my plans for the future and I said I wanted to go to medical school and the guy looked me in the eye and said, ‘You should just stick with that,’ so that’s why I fully committed to academia.

“I’m so grateful that the industry has since changed and we’re now at a place where you can embrace the weird, nerdy kid that you are and be the size that you are naturally. I’m grateful for those hurdles and rejections because they made me who I am today.”

Haley wants to inspire other women to reject societal pressures and expectations to pigeonhole themselves and instead ‘take up space’.

“You can be beautiful, you can be intelligent, you can be artistic, you can be all of these things at once,” she says.

Model Haley Kalil is seen arriving to the 2020 amfAR New York Gala at Cipriani Wall Street on February 05, 2020 in New York City.
A glammed-up Haley steps out for an event in February 2020, but she admits she prefers sweatpants and game nights with her family instead. Photo: Getty Images.

With her third Swimsuit Issue shoot under her belt, Haley has her sights set on one day making the cover just like her idols Tyra Banks and Elle Macpherson.

In the meantime, she’s ‘so excited’ to be involved in a ‘feel-good’ social media campaign by Sports Illustrated and beverage brand Vita Coco to help kick off the 2021 digital Swim Search.

So, when does Haley feel really good?

“When I’m in my sweatpants hanging out with my family, having a game night, they’re drinking and eating pretzels. That’s when I feel my best because that’s when I truly feel I’m being myself.”

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