Natalie Noel shocked friends, family and her over 4 million Instagram followers when she made her debut as the first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit rookie for 2021. But even after being praised for making it “big time” with her inclusion in the iconic magazine, the influencer and entrepreneur — whose real name is Natalie Mariduena — tells Yahoo Life that she'll always just be the girl next door.
“I think it's so important, especially in this world of entertainment and social media, to just be yourself. I don't know who else to be, so I feel like I've just unintentionally been myself and not tried to be anything more or less than that. And I think that's what works,” the 24-year-old explains of her platform. “I'm just kind of like that everyday girl that people can relate to. And I love that. That's just who I am and I feel like I'm really good at being the everyday average girl.”
Much of Noel's perspective on how she comes across on social media has to do with her start, which she explains was "completely unintentional." In fact, she didn't imagine having a career on the internet until her childhood friend David Dobrik called her while she was a student at Lake Forest College in Illinois and asked for her to come out to Los Angeles to work for him. "I was like, I don't know if I'm gonna drop out of school to be a YouTuber's assistant. Like, that just sounds absolutely crazy. And I also didn't understand how he was making enough money to afford my salary," she admits. But after doing a six-month stint as his "right-hand woman" during a vital time in Dobrik's rise to social media stardom, Noel says her life was "forever changed."
Still, she didn't expect to go from being known as "David Dobrik's assistant" to taking on her very own projects in response to her growing experience in the industry and social media following. "I quickly saw the much larger opportunity that was here, whether that's negotiating brand deals and getting involved in creating consumer products, businesses and things like that," she says. "The root of it is just having a lot of fun and there being an opportunity and just capitalizing on the opportunity."
When it came to Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, capitalizing on a fun opportunity is exactly what Noel did to secure her spot.
"They were running some sort of poll on their Instagram like what 'Insta baddie' or something like that do you want to see in our next issue? And I remember David was like, 'Natalie, did you see that you were on Sports Illustrated today?'" she recalls. "We went and looked at it and I was on the poll, like we want to see Natalie Mariduena. And so I replied, I was like, 'OMG, sign me up. This would be so epic.'"
Noel admittedly "didn't think anything was ever going to come of it" but continued to pursue the team at Sports Illustrated Swimsuit, until she was put on a call with editor MJ Day who confirmed Noel's inclusion. "I was super, super hesitant and nervous because I've never shown my body like this ever before in this sexy, provocative way," the influencer shares.
When Noel was announced as a 2021 rookie and posted the photo to Instagram, however, she became overwhelmed by the love and support. She even realized just how important it would become for people to see an "average girl" in the magazine.
"I think body normalcy is such an important thing because there are so many different expectations of what the female body should be. And there isn't actually a standard, right? There are so many different women, all shapes and sizes, but media only maybe portrays one type of woman," she explains. "I have stretch marks and I have curves and I have lines and rolls and all the things, and it's really, really cool to have this community of people supporting me. It's been the most empowering and amazing experience I've literally ever had."
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