When Veronica Pome’e was 13, she’d sit in front of her bathroom mirror and rub bleach into the brown skin on her arms.
She wanted to look lighter, less Polynesian and more like the women she saw in magazines. She thought she was too dark and too tall and too exotic and too heavy to ever join them.
The kids at school in her Southern California suburb would put their white arms next to hers at recess and giggle about how different she was. Her friends would joke about her curly brown hair with ringlets that bounced back like springs. During summer visits to Tonga, where her parents were born, her aunts would whisper, “She’s pretty, but she’s so big.”
So she tried to look how people thought she should. She started wearing girdles, bound so tight it was hard to breathe, and when the bleach didn’t work, she coated her skin in makeup. She straightened her hair. She tried to stay in the background. She stooped down.
“I hated taking up space,” Pome’e said. “I didn’t feel beautiful. I didn’t feel worthy.”
Sitting in the lobby of a West Valley City hotel Thursday, a day before she was set to speak at a conference for Pacific Islanders in Utah, she looked up and added: “Then I used it as ammo.”
Pome’e, now 29, is a model with a lucrative contract in New York. Next month, she’ll be the first Polynesian woman to be featured in Sports Illustrated’s popular swimsuit edition. And she’ll be the only plus-size figure out of six finalists who competed for a spot in the pages, down from 10,000 who sent in audition tapes.
“It’s not just about women being beautiful in bikinis on the beach. It’s so much more than that,” she said. “With Sports Illustrated, this platform has allowed me to change the dynamics of the conversation about representation. This is going to open the doors for other Polynesian women. It’s going to make them dream bigger.”
She wants little girls growing up to see her in the magazine where she never saw women like her. “I’m going to be the girl I needed when I was younger.”
For Pome’e, the discussion of identity and diversity she wants to spur — and the perception of herself that she’s grown to embrace — intersects with weight, color, culture and femininity. But she also wants people to know about her upbringing and how it was shaped by domestic violence that touched all of those dimensions.
Growing up in California, Pome’e said, she saw her mother and other women in her family appear at dinner with red handprints on their faces and bruises on their arms. If she broke curfew, Pome’e added, she would be slapped around, too. She saw signs of domestic violence, too, when she visited cousins in Utah for reunions and weddings.
“I thought it was normal,” Pome’e said. “It doesn’t fully process until you get older. I overcame a lot of abuse.”
In college, she took a class that explained relationship violence and how it can continue in a cycle. She realized she treated her five siblings the same way her parents treated each other. She decided to address it.
She talked to her family about communicating rather than getting physical. They’ve started to be more supportive, Pome’e said, but she acknowledged change is going to take time. She’s worked with nonprofit organizations since then — and created one of her own, Teach and Be Taught — to address it. It’s why she agreed to speak at the sixth annual National Pacific Island Violence Prevention Conference in West Valley City this weekend. (In Utah, nearly 40,000 residents identify as Pacific Islander.)
“Those things stay with you forever. There’s a real psychological impact,” she said. “But we don’t have to do the same things that our parents did.”
Her motivation for talking openly about her experience is the same reason she wants to appear in magazines, with what she calls “my belly and my stretch marks.” She wants to be real and transparent and embrace all that she is and where she came from. She’s not embarrassed. She doesn’t consider those things to be flaws.
She draws on her Tongan culture, which is strongly matriarchal, to feel empowered as a woman and talk about healthy relationships. She’s celebrating being the first Polynesian model to appear in the swimsuit edition because it makes her feel “like a badass.”
She looks up to her mom, who had a long career as a police officer. She’s started an environmental charity in the Pacific Islands to give back. In fact, she was recruited to be a model while volunteering at a fashion show to raise money for a homeless shelter.
Pome’e encourages other models who look like her to understand they should be on stage or featured on glossy pages — just the way they are.
“If you don’t see yourself in the media and you don’t see yourself represented, you feel invisible,” she said. “But I am here. And I am very multidimensional.”
Now when she looks in the mirror at her brown skin, she smiles and is glad the bleach didn’t make it lighter. She thinks: “Why did it take so long to get here?”
The sixth annual National Pacific Island Violence Prevention Conference runs through Saturday.
When • Thursday, April 11 through Saturday, April 13
Where • Embassy Suites in West Valley City at 3524 S. Market Street
• Model Veronica Pome’e will speak Friday at 10:30 a.m.
• A community law enforcement panel — featuring Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown, West Valley City Police Chief Colleen Jacobs and Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera — will speak Friday at 12:15 p.m. about diversity on police forces.
• A panel of Pacific Island religious leaders will present Saturday at 1 p.m.
Tickets cost between $10-$150 and can be purchased at https://bit.ly/2DaTIIj.