It’s one thing to look back on a career and identify the moment you “made it.” It’s another to realize it as you’re living it.
“It’s actually happening right now,” former Las Vegan McKenna Berkley says of the moment she realized she’d established a successful modeling career.
She’s talking about her spread in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. The 22-year-old appears over two pages as one of the magazine’s Model Search contestants. She was one of four women, all of whom appeared in body paint, vying for a spot in the 2018 magazine. When Sports Illustrated Swimsuit editor MJ Day met her at a casting call at their New York offices, she “was really impressed with her fresh, athletic look,” Day says.
Results of the online voting were announced Tuesday and Berkley was edged out by Brazilian Anne de Paula.
“With Sports Illustrated, that was always a very lofty goal for me,” says Berkley, who now lives in Villanova, Pennsylvania, and commutes to New York City for work.
As effortless and casual as the sun-soaked beach shots look, the spot this year is one she has worked toward throughout her seven-year career.
Berkley began her career at age 14 while a student at Bishop Gorman High School, balancing the demands of school and extracurricular activities with her foray into the modeling industry.
She already knew more about modeling than most because she had tagged along on her older sister Ashton Berkley’s trips to Los Angeles for modeling jobs. Almost two years older, Ashton had begun modeling at about the same age. McKenna Berkley’s first trip to LA to meet with agents, she signed with Ford Model Management. (She’s now represented by Wilhelmina in New York.)
Immediately, Berkley snagged spots in campaigns for Pottery Barn Teen, Nordstrom and Target with her girl-next-door look of blue eyes, freckles and strawberry blond hair.
Paint me like one of your French girls Being body painted for #siswim by @joannegair @therealmarissajade @trendytribals This was probably around hour 9 and I passed out right after I took this vid12 hours of work total these women are incredible. Be sure to keep voting! Tell ur friends & share the link! Vote to see me next year! Link in my bio @si_swimsuit
“There are days when it is discouraging, you drive hours away to meet people and they see you for 0.5 seconds and you just have to have the will to keep going after you hear a lot of nos,” Ashton Berkley says. She recently moved back to Las Vegas to pursue a career in real estate, though she still takes the occasional modeling job. “(McKenna’s) very determined and that’s why I think she’s gotten to the point that she has. And just overall being a lovely person who’s great to work with.”
In front of the camera, McKenna performs a routine or act, almost taking on a character for the given campaign, says her mother, Heather Berkley.
“The way that she presents herself, she’ll get into the role or whatever it is that they’re having her advertise and truly, it’s acting when she’s on set,” Heather Berkley says. “And it’s funny, we tease her, she kind of gets into this laughing — because she’s more on the commercial side, because she’s about five-seven-and-a-half or so or five-eight, almost — and she’ll go into this thing where she’s laughing and they love that. It’s fun to watch her.”
Berkley did act as well, performing with “Gaels on Broadway” at Bishop Gorman, an activity “that gave me a lot of confidence with stage presence and just confidence in front of the camera,” Berkley says.
I don't want it to end tomorrow. I loved having every single one of you in the issue this year and you all rightfully deserve a place here. While there can only be one winner of the model search, with the risk of sounding cliche, you are ALL winners. You rocked body paint right off the bat with the kind of confidence and enthusiasm that I wish I could bottle. You worked so hard through launch promoting SI Swimsuit and yourselves in the most admirable way. You supported each OTHER and lifted one another up like the confident women you are. You have traversed the whole complicated and stressful landscape with grace and professionalism and I am so impressed with each one of you. You ladies are all so full of promise and potential and I cannot wait to see where you take your careers. Thank you for what you have brought to this issue and this brand. NOW go VOTE people!!! Voting ends at NOON tomorrow!!!! link is in my bio*
Though her parents were hesitant to have their daughters immersed in the modeling industry — which isn’t thought of as being very forgiving to young women — they kept a tight grip on the reins, always having her grandmother or aunt accompany Berkley on her shoots if one of them couldn’t.
“We’ve always encouraged (McKenna and Ashton), if there’s a second you feel uncomfortable, or if someone’s not being right, you don’t have to be there,” her father, Jon Berkley, says.
Because both Berkley daughters began modeling at a relatively young age, their parents felt it important to emphasize healthy habits and a positive body image — one defined by strength, flexibility and fitness instead of more superficial standards. One of the things Berkley enjoys when she isn’t working is cooking new, healthy meals for herself.
With jobs taking McKenna Berkley to L.A., Miami and New York, she missed a lot of high school. But modeling was no get-out-of-jail-free card — the deal between Berkley and her parents was always that she could continue modeling so long as she maintained her GPA. “That was the deal. If things slipped, it was going to all stop,” her mother says.
Berkley worked with the counselors and teachers at Bishop Gorman to take assignments on the road with her. “We joke in the counseling business that there’s two types of kids: there’s the go-getters and the come-get-mes,” Rick Spiritosanto, Bishop Gorman counseler, says. Berkley fell squarely in the go-getter category, he adds.
Though she did apply to college and enrolled at Loyola Marymount College in Los Angeles, she decided to leave after one semester to pursue modeling full time when jobs — sometimes in far-flung locations — began coming more often. Her parents supported the decision, as long as she made a commitment to work as hard as she could to succeed.
Berkley enjoyed the happy-go-lucky campaigns that came naturally to her, and still does similar jobs today, but she doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. When she moved from L.A. to New York to expand her client base, she emphasized to prospective agents that she aspired to landing Sports Illustrated’s iconic swimsuit edition.
Doing so is a huge marker in her career.
“Opening Sports Illustrated and seeing myself is still surreal, I still check every morning if it’s still there,” Berkley says.