The Pacific Islands have found an advocate in a surprising place: the glossy pages of Sports Illustrated magazine.
In May of this year, Veronica Pome’e became the first Polynesian woman to grace Sports Illustrated magazine’s annual swimsuit edition. “You guys travel to all these beautiful, exotic, tropical locations…” she said in her original interview with a Sports Illustrated editor. “What better way [to highlight that] than to feature someone who’s actually from there?” Her angle clearly had an effect: from the over ten thousand models who auditioned, they ultimately selected six finalists to appear in the magazine. Pome’e was not only the first Polynesian ever selected, but was also the only plus-sized model this year.
Tonga as a nation has a close relationship with the United States. In 2017, 71,000 people claiming Tongan ancestry reportedly lived in the United States, compared to 109,000 living in Tonga itself. With such a high proportion of its population living outside of the nation’s borders, it is no surprise that the little island nation also received nearly 36% of its GDP in remittances in 2018 — money sent to the nation from expatriates living abroad. Of those remittances, approximately one third came from the United States.
Pome’e’s Pacific-Islander heritage is something she is very proud of, and the Tongan-American model is putting her new opportunities to good use. She has taken part in numerous activist activities, from advocating diversity to founding an environmental charity in the Pacific Islands. She’s repeatedly visited Utah, spreading awareness about Tonga and the rest of Polynesia, and that is also no coincidence. Besides having family there, nearly 40,000 residents of the western state identify as Pacific Islander, and in 2011 a staggering one in every four Tongans in the United States called Utah home.
Pome’e carries her family history, her body, and her beliefs with pride.
Madeline Wiltse was a research intern at the East-West Center in Washington. She is a first-year graduate student studying American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins University, and has a Bachelor's in International Studies with a region focus on Japan from the University of Washington.