How I Came Out, Got Divorced, and Landed In SI Swimsuit

2023 SI Swimsuit rookie, Lauren Chan, gets vulnerable about finding herself and starting anew.

Lauren Chan. Swimsuit by MESHKI. Earrings provided by New York Vintage.<p>James Macari/Sports Illustrated</p>
Lauren Chan. Swimsuit by MESHKI. Earrings provided by New York Vintage.

James Macari/Sports Illustrated

Atop the list of things I never thought I’d do, in escalating order: be in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, be gay and come out to the world in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit. But Taylor Swift is single again, so: I’m here! I’m a lesbian! And I’m telling you right now!

Because I identified as straight until recently, most people I’ve privately come out to have been surprised at this change in my sexuality. First and foremost: me. Believe it or not, I was shocked that I—a 30-something, married to a man, professional purveyor of self-acceptance—am coming out late.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “How the f--- did she not know that?” The answer: I assumed that if I was gay, Jennifer Coolidge would’ve descended from the sky when I hit puberty and handed me an LGBTQ+ membership card. O.K., not really, but I did assume that if I was gay it would have been obvious early on. That wasn’t the case, and instead I earned my queerness in my 30s by getting to know myself deeply.

The key word here is deeply. Like many millennials, I was raised to work hard and achieve plenty—feelings, shmeelings. From the time I was a teenager, I geared most of my life toward the goal of making fashion more size-inclusive. And it worked! I had a busy, successful life as a plus-size model, fashion editor at Glamour and clothing brand founder. Most waking hours, my mind was consumed by work … until the pandemic.

For the first time in my adulthood, I was forced to pause and find non-career-related things to do. It was also the first time I lost faith in a belief system. I’d spent my life buying into the fact that if you worked hard and did what you were supposed to, the world would reward you—what I actually learned was that you can burn yourself out doing everything “right” and the world can still shut down, leaving you sh– out of luck. The resulting concoction of stress and aimlessness drove me to start therapy, where I slowly uncovered my true self.

In my early sessions, I discovered that something in my mental code had caused me to repress my feelings, and therefore, my sexuality. In hindsight, I think the rare connections I had with men were ones of deep friendship or chosen family, which I mistook for sexual or romantic attraction. That’s likely because of compulsory heterosexuality—the way our culture assumes all people are straight and coaches women to be desirable to men. If I’d ever felt attraction toward a woman, I didn’t clock it as intimate, I just figured it was because I worked in an industry that trained me to appreciate female beauty. And didn’t give it more thought. I was doing what we were all “supposed” to, I married my best friend, and I didn’t ever consider that I wasn’t properly feeling desire.

Eventually, I got in touch with my feelings and if I caught myself, say, fixating on a queer TV character, I’d let my mind wander further into the thought. This, I learned, is called mindfulness: observing thoughts and letting them flow freely and fully without judgment. I did this for months, both in real-time and while reviewing a lifetime of memories. After getting comfortable with this practice, I began to process the life-changing notion that I may have mistakenly identified with the wrong sexuality—and I began to take small actions to further investigate. To name a few: I read the Lesbian Master Doc, listened to Glennon Doyle’s Untamed on Audible, watched hours of #WLW TikTok, and spent more time in queer spaces. When it became undeniable that I felt exclusively attracted to women, I knew I had to tell my husband.

I was terrified to destabilize my life so drastically, to hurt him in the process and to feel the shame of coming out late. I caught myself thinking things like, Maybe in another life, which felt too sad to stomach. I knew that staying closeted would only hurt me—and my husband—in the long run, so out I came. He was devastated but helpful and compassionate. I wanted to get divorced unlike anyone we knew: in a truly amicable and caring way that allowed us to remain friends. So, I started sharing my takeaways from therapy, leading conversations with a vulnerable attitude, talking openly and cooperatively about our future, and making sure we tackled to-do items together, positively. This, I learned, is called manifesting—and it’s what helped me land here, too.

Manifestation, spells, the law of attraction, quantum physics—whatever you want to call it—teaches that to have the life you want, you have to start living like it already exists. The trick: you have to genuinely believe what you’re manifesting in the depths of your soul. In order for me to do that, I needed to learn mindfulness, work with my most vulnerable feelings, and envision what my new, true self wanted. Once I did, I started behaving in a way that was already gay, healthily divorced, and when SI Swimsuit asked for my casting tape, a shoo-in for a 2023 Rookie spot. Because I believed that this was going to happen, I said something like, “Whether you’re on the casting team at Sports Illustrated Swimsuit or you are a viewer watching this a few months from now on a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit platform….” My belief in this moment was so strong that it made the SI team believe, et voilà!

So, why did I decide to come out with SI Swimsuit? I spent my career representing women who look like me—and I’m ready for a chapter in which I get to celebrate us for who we are on the inside, too. That’s the SI Swimsuit mission and they’ve been hugely successful in moving our culture forward with it. (Ahem: Ashley Graham! Leyna Bloom! Maye Muske!) Here feels like the right place to celebrate my hard fought pride, relate to other folks in my position, and perhaps change some people’s view of the queer community. In the current political climate, with a record 400-plus anti-LGBTQ+ bills introduced across the United States this year to date, SI Swimsuit felt like a platform whose reach could make a real difference at a pivotal time.

The moral of the story: Be gay! Just kidding. The moral of the story is that creating your most fulfilling life starts with getting to know your truest self.

For more resources regarding coming out and embracing the journey, visit It Gets Better: https://itgetsbetter.org/get-help/.

Meet Lauren Chan—read the 2023 SI Swimsuit rookie’s full feature profile here.