By Corrie Martin
This veteran influencer and icon from the world of modeling turns 58 years old in 2024, and there is no sign of her reposing on proverbial laurels, nor of being satisfied with fading gently into that good night.
Indeed, when Sports Illustrated (SI) Swimsuit marks its diamond jubilee 60th birthday in a few months, it will hit the stands with unabashed affirmation of the vitality and sheer fun of embracing one’s “golden years.”
No swimsuit model embodies the magazine’s inspiring message more than 57-year-old SI Swimsuit “rookie of the year” Nina Cash. Her encore career story will have you shaking off the mental cobwebs and reigniting your dreams.
AsAmNews snagged an interview with Nina Cash not long after she along with six other finalists were announced co-winners of SI Swimsuit’s 2023 open casting call. For the first time in SI Swimsuit history all seven finalists ranging in age from 26 to 57 have won the coveted status of supermodel “rookies” and will be featured on the magazine’s cover.
On the day of our interview, the 57-year-old retired education administrator was at home catching her breath from the whirlwind of the previous year’s competitive search process and awaiting the imminent call that would reveal the upcoming photo shoots closely guarded (and likely wildly exotic) location. Passport and suitcase on standby for when the SI call comes in, Cash exudes excitement and still can’t shake her astonishment at the improbable possibles that punctuate the seemingly programmed course of our lives.
[The interview took place on November 2, 2023 and has been edited for clarity.]
CM: Dr. Cash! How are you feeling right now?
NC: Corrie, I’m like a kid the night before Christmas. You know, with all that anticipation and excitement. And magic, and unicorns, and rainbows—that’s what I’m feeling! And I haven’t felt like this in such a long time. When you have to “adult” for so long, and especially when you’re in academia and you are constantly pivoting, and then you have to work through a pandemic…After so much emotional exhaustion, it’s incredible to feel so alive again.
CM: I understand that the whole SI Swimsuit “rookie” phenomenon has really exploded since 2017 when SI put out the first online casting call. Suddenly, anyone from any walk of life could submit a 60-second Instagram video and hope to make it to subsequent levels of the casting process. Until now, that process narrowed the field down to a single “rookie of the year.” How big a deal is it that this time all seven finalists were named “rookies of the year” together?
NC: SI Swimsuit editor-in-chief MJ Day is a true visionary. Historically, choosing the SI swimsuit model was a matter of working exclusively with modeling agencies and established models. MJ said, you know, I bet that there are all these amazing women out in the world who aren’t represented by agencies who would love an opportunity like this, so she created the SI Swimsuit search, an open casting call for anyone in the world to be the “rookie of the year” and be featured in the magazine.
Now they have taken this vision a step further by deciding to name all of us finalists as “rookies of the year,” each of us with our diverse causes and life stories, including two of us Filipino Americans.
This is going to be a historic, impactful issue. Especially because editor-in-chief MJ Day told us, we want you to be you, and we’re going to help you to be you. We aren’t setting out to create a version of you that we want. It’s incredible to hear an editor-in-chief say that and be so supportive of my vision for myself, including having input on the photo shoot itself.
CM: How did you end up applying for the swim search in the first place?
NC: My story is interesting because it almost didn’t happen! I had just retired the previous year, and we decided to make a trip to Australia where my husband is from as we hadn’t been back since before the pandemic. We finally went back last December which is their summer season. We went to the local mall to get a bathing suit and the only one they had in my size was a leopard bikini, which was a nightmare for me, actually. I grew up in a strict Catholic, military, Filipino family, and it also isn’t in my nature to wear a bikini. Even a one-piece is pushing it for me! But, I said, okay, what the hell.
It was New Year’s Day 2023 in Australia. We strolled along the beach, we took photos of each other, and spent the day celebrating New Year’s Day. But that night as we looked through our camera roll, it struck me that the photos weren’t too shabby! I am an Asian, female, retired senior citizen with diabetes. At first, we were cracking up, but then I remembered model Kathy Jacobs who recently won at 56, and on a lark, we started googling the swim search application process, but thinking it was probably already too late. It turned out that the call had been extended to January 1st in the United States, so in Australia, which was a day ahead, we were still within the deadline! We put some photos together real quick, recorded a video real quick, and sent it in not really thinking anything of it beyond the fun of doing it.
Three months later I got the email that I had made the top 24, and we were so shocked and excited, but we really thought that would be the end of it. So we went out to celebrate at Tommy’s Burgers and I got my side of chili cheese fries and Dr. Pepper as I do when I celebrate. I’m retired but still consulting part-time at Cal State Fullerton and thinking, wow pretty cool that I made the top 24 of SI Swim Search!
CM: What happened next?
NC: SI followed up with another email scheduling an interview. Then I made it into the top 12. Remember, I am 23 years older than the next oldest candidate. All of them are lovely, lovely people from all over the world. I realize that I could be a mother to any one of them! Then things start to blow up. My Boston cousins called one night to tell me that the show Inside Edition was on the air doing a story about the “Bikini Dean” from Cal State Fullerton.
From 12 candidates we went down to the 7 finalists who would participate in the famous Miami SI Swim Week that happened this past July. I got to walk down the red carpet and the runway with confidence representing my Asian community and fellow GenXers. Again, I thought that would be where the journey might end.
CM: The glamour and glitz of modeling might seem the antithesis of the world of academia and adult education where you have spent the last 35 years. But you are obviously in your element!
NC: Even though I was scouted as a teenager by a modeling agency, my parents wanted me to concentrate on my education, so I wasn’t really allowed to do anything until after I graduated from high school. And then the realization that I didn’t have the typical features according to White beauty standards, and just life events, kept me from pursuing modeling. This was the 1980s when ethnically ambiguous Asian looks and names like mine, Regina Quiambao, just weren’t really “in.”
I dabbled in modeling a little bit after high school and in junior college, and then found myself caught up in getting a job and then falling in love and having a baby. My priorities changed again when I became a single parent. I moved in with my parents and then moved into the house next door where I have lived ever since. That was such a blessing then, as they were so supportive of me and my daughter, and later when my parents needed hospice care I was right next door to help them. (My mother passed away in 2010 and my father in 2013. They were 87 and 91 years respectively.)
I eventually did earn my bachelor’s degree 10 years after high school, my master’s 20 years later, and my doctorate in education in 2020. Everyone has their own path to success, and their own definition of it too. I didn’t plan for an “encore career” in modeling, but my experience in continuing and extension education tells me that it’s never too late for anything!
Sure, for some people grey hair equals over the hill, tired, washed up, frail, not appealing, not sexy. But, in reality, you can always add a new chapter to your book of life, and I honestly can’t wait to write mine!
I’m already thinking about my next big dream which is to be on Dancing with the Stars! Both my parents, Francisco Quiambao and Gloria Masaoy, were GREAT dancers. In fact, when they first met at a relative’s house in Boston in 1946, my father asked my mother to dance. Two years later, they married. Before they passed, my parents and I would watch the show together regularly, so it would really special to be on it someday.
CM: Why did you decide to officially retire at 56, ten or so years before most people would consider doing so?
NC: I first thought about this when the pandemic hit home and it gave me the chance to reflect on how precious time is. In the past I’ve had older friends who passed away soon after retirement, who didn’t have the luxury of time to actually enjoy it. I realized, what am I waiting for? Don’t we actually have everything we need? Three beautiful daughters, two beautiful son-in-laws, a home, our health, our families. The pandemic also helped me to embrace my naturally silver hair, which I stopped dyeing during the pandemic.
So, I flipped a page and started a new chapter.
And I’m grateful that I started my encore modeling career now, later in life, especially with this social media thing happening. I am more emotionally prepared now than I would have been when I was younger to face the toxic and unhealthy aspects of this industry.
CM: Even as you are writing this new chapter in your book of life, you also have long-standing passions that you have pursued for a long time.
NC: Yes, for example, since 1999 I have been volunteering with a local community-based organization that does incredible, life-saving work called Get Safe. Our mission in a nutshell is to provide safer lives for everyone through children’s anti-bullying trainings, workplace safety trainings, safety programs for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, trauma-informed survivor programs, and law enforcement trainings.
And I continue to work on adult learning at the university-level as a special professional and continuing education advisor in the capacity of assistant dean.
But the long-standing dream I have is to make a trip to the Philippines with my siblings. My father was the oldest of eight so as you can imagine, we have literally hundreds of cousins there to visit. I’d like to learn more about my dad’s young life. He was a career military person who served in WWII, the wars in Korea and Vietnam, finally retiring from the U.S. Navy after 30 years. Before all that, he fought against Japanese soldiers in the jungles of the Philippines. And it would be interesting to learn more about my mother’s Ilokano-speaking, half-Japanese, half-Filipino father, and this side of the family.
[Nina shows me two small, framed portraits of her parents, her father dressed in a sailor’s uniform, grinning broadly, stylish with his lush head of hair growing out long on top, her mother in a ruffled blouse and wavy shoulder-length hair looking boldly and happily into the camera. Nina keeps close at hand these young faces, having lived through so much already, with their whole futures still before them.]
NC: I just hope I help people to see that everyone has their own path to a full and meaningful life, that the best classroom is the world, and the best teacher is life experience, hands down.
*The 60th annual issue of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit featuring Nina Cash and fellow Rookies of the Year, including Filipino American Sharina Gutierrez, drops in May 2024.
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