It was the day of Gigi Robinson’s first Sports Illustrated photo shoot, and rain clouds were rolling in.
For days, she’d been in the Dominican Republic with roughly a dozen other Swim Search finalists and a full camera crew. The hopeful rookies had gotten sunrise after beautiful sunrise, sunset after beautiful sunset, all week long — but when it was finally her time to shine, Robinson woke up to gray skies and distant thunder.
She sat through hours of hair and makeup, waited out the storm that temporarily halted production, then shot anyway — despite her blowout’s long-gone expiration date and the less-than-ideal weather conditions.
That rain never stood a chance against Robinson’s ability to see the glass half-full.
“I could have gotten insecure, but instead, I had to check my ego at the door and say, ‘You know what? Now you’re the only one who has these unique photos with a purple sky behind them,'” the 24-year-old social-media influencer told The Post. “And I love that. I think I’m so unique and so rare, and it’s really important to me that that comes through in the photos.”
Robinson, who is single, is one of 13 women selected as a finalist in the 2022 Sports Illustrated Swim Search, a worldwide casting call. She and the others are featured in the publication’s annual Swimsuit Issue — which drops on Monday, May 16. The ultimate winner of the contest will be announced in August.
Silver linings are kind of Robinson’s thing. At age 10 in New York, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a connective tissue disorder that causes chronic pain and makes her highly susceptible to injury and unnaturally slow to heal. Robinson’s family only discovered the condition when, one day, she casually performed a cartwheel which not-so-casually fractured her elbow.
Less than a year later, she fractured her ankle and, the following year, tore some ligaments in her wrist. The latter took 13 months to heal. Robinson, a swimmer who wasn’t playing contact sports or risking serious bodily impact on a daily basis, knew something was wrong.
Luckily, her mom worked in health care, making world-class doctors accessible. (Her dad is a craftsman, specializing in home renovations.) Thanks to her mom’s network, before long, Robinson was sitting in a Cornell pediatric geneticist’s office receiving her diagnosis: Her body was betraying her at every turn.
Shortly after, Robinson was forced to give up swimming. “I really thought I was gonna be going to the Olympics. That’s how much I loved swimming,” she recalled.
Throughout high school and college, Robinson got injured regularly, often finding herself on crutches or wearing a brace. She faced relentless interrogation by her peers: Why was she using a laptop to take notes in class? Why was she using the elevator instead of the stairs? Some instructors let her know that her registered ADA accommodation “wouldn’t be okay to use” in their classes, or suggested that she “work harder.” One even called her “gimpy.”
Her doctor had told her to “find a new passion” to fill the void, so Robinson bought a camera.
“I couldn’t figure out how to articulate myself. I couldn’t stand up to teachers and say, ‘What you just said to me is unacceptable, and I’m going to the dean.’ So instead, I made art about it,” she said.
For her senior capstone project, she put together a book of photos showing the highly intimate moments that chronically ill people know all too well.
“Like looking up at the tile ceiling from a hospital bed, or listening to that crinkle of the paper when you sit down on the examination table in an outpatient office, or that fluorescent light,” she explained.
While pursuing a BFA at the University of Southern California, she joined a social media-focused club called USC Reach. That’s when she started finding herself in front of the camera instead of behind it, acting as the subject for many of her own photos and videos, all created with social sharing top-of-mind.
She soon began working as an ambassador for brands like Tinder and Abercrombie.
Before 2020, Robinson mostly used her own social media channels to share content about body image and marketing (and how the two intersect) — but she didn’t post about her chronic illnesses. Robinson noted that many creators with serious or chronic illnesses avoid discussing the topic publicly, for fear of being doxxed and harassed. But the pandemic changed Robinson’s outlook.
“I was just like, ‘Gigi, you cannot be posting empty content about fashion and sparkling water online right now,’” she recalled. In the hopes of creating content that would be more meaningful, she slowly began sharing about her struggle with chronic illness. “I would say that’s when I really stepped into this role of being an advocate.”
Over the past few years, Robinson’s social media channels (she’s active on Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Pinterest) have amassed a collective following of roughly 150,000 users. She’s also been nominated for several WEGO Health Awards, including Best in Show for multiple social media channels, Patient Leader Hero, Advocating for Another, and Rookie of the Year.
Her mission is to help young people — all young people, but particularly those who struggle with body image and/or chronic illness — find confidence and advocate for themselves. “The next generation is going to be even more digitally native than Gen Z, and they need the role models that I didn’t have,” she explained.
The idea to apply for the Swim Search came to her in September, after learning that last year’s winner, Katie Austin, was a USC alumnus. “If she can do it, I can do it,” Robinson said. “I think that’s the attitude that more people need to have. Instead of, ‘Oh my God, I wish I could,’ asking themselves, ‘How can I do that? What’s my roadmap?’”
Shortly after applying, Robinson shared the story behind her submission on LinkedIn, tagging SI editor MJ Day. Within minutes, Day shared the post, and later admitted that it’s what caught her eye about Robinson. Now, dozens more rookie hopefuls are following suit, taking to social media in an attempt to stand out from other applicants.
In that way, Robinson recognizes she’s a trendsetter. But her ultimate goal remains at the front of her mind: to bring awareness to those who suffer from chronic illnesses —especially “invisible” ones.
“The main message is that you can feel like s–t and be super sick, not look it, and still be super sexy,” she said. “Both can, and do, exist.”
Photos: Tamara Beckwith/NY Post; Stylist: Elise Sandvik w/SeeMGMT; Makeup: Marc Cornwall; Hair: Payton Holbrook; Stylist Assistant: Karoline Spenning; Location: Grand Banks, Pier 25 Hudson River