When Hurricane Maria hit back in 2017, it was devastating to my hometown of Toa Baja, which is on the outskirts of San Juan and right near the beach. I was living and working as a model in Los Angeles at the time. I wanted to go home immediately and help my family and my people put the pieces back together, and I had an idea how I could make the biggest impact. I told my mom, “I’m moving back, and I’m going to compete for Miss Puerto Rico in the Miss Universe pageant.” My mom said, “You’re crazy—you’re already established in Los Angeles. Why do you want to come back to the island?” I told her, “I want to use that platform to say something and for people to hear me.”
I didn’t get this opportunity because I look the way I look. I got it because I have something to say.
I didn’t get this opportunity because I look the way I look; there are 10,000 girls who are more beautiful than I am, who have all the things a magazine would be lucky to have. I got this opportunity because I have something to say. I fell down, I got up. Even though one door closed, it doesn’t matter, because down the road I’m going to have a good time. That’s what I want people to say at the end of my journey: “She did it.”
YOLI LARA'S DATA SHEET
- Bayamón, Puerto Rico
- CURRENT CITY
- Los Angeles, CA
- INSTAGRAM HANDLE
- PLAYBOY ISSUE
- Spring 2019
For me, the beach is everything. I’m an Aquarius, and my full first name has the ocean in it—the mar in Yolimar. I was born on an island, so I feel very tied to the ocean. Most people are like, “Oh, we’re going to the beach!” But for me it’s a spiritual, cleansing adventure.
ON CAUTIONARY EXAMPLES
I was very influenced by Disney movies. My favorite is Pocahontas because she stays with her family and her tribe; she doesn’t live her dream. When I saw that story I was like, “No. Even though it will kill me in my heart, I want to reach for my dreams.” I left Puerto Rico and all my family; I knew I had to step out of my comfort zone.
ON PAIN AND GAIN
Growing up, I couldn’t see my mom that much because she worked full-time, so I spent a lot of time with my grandma. She would braid my hair for school, fixing it in two little pigtails. It hurt so much! My hair is really curly, and she would make those braids so tight. But they were always intact, even at six p.m. when I returned from school. I always looked fabulous, thanks to her.
I did my first photo shoot when I was 14. They were looking for models for a hair show, and I remember my mom saying, “You’re not going to dye your hair.” But I knew I would take the opportunity. They wanted to dye my hair blonde with streaks of red and orange—very futuristic. I said, “Let’s do it. Whatever it is, let’s do it.” I went to school the next day and got sent right back home—literally, walk in, walk out.
I wasn’t a conventional model; like all the women in my family, I have a tiny waist and big hips. I’m used to it now, but at those early castings I would always hear, “You’re perfect, but your hips are too big.” I would be like, “I can’t do anything about it, because that’s literally how my body is. I can’t just grow or shrink.” I learned that the job entails rejection.
I’m grateful that industries now are more inclusive regarding race, shape, size, color and gender. I think people are more open to change and diversity and to accepting different things.
Rihanna is one of my idols. She’s from Barbados and was discovered on the island. She sings, she dances, she does it all—and she has a tiny waist and big hips. When I was growing up I would watch her singing “Umbrella” and say, “I want to be like her.”