“My parents were always very supportive of me trying anything,” says Camille Kostek. “At age three, my mom put me into dance. After the first day, I was ready to go back the next day. I was a born performer.”

Kostek, 27, turned that passion into a starring role as a member of the New England Patriots cheerleading team from 2013-15. Her competitive drive — she joined her high school’s lacrosse team without ever having played the sport and eventually became its captain — also marked Kostek’s rise to a new peak in May: becoming the first rookie model to land the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.

But Kostek isn’t satisfied. After years of being told her body wasn’t quite right for the runway, the opportunities that have opened up since the SI cover announcement are increasing her drive to excel, empower, and educate. With a desire to host her own TV show and/or podcast and a burgeoning career as a motivational speaker, Kostek is ready to tackle the next challenge.

At the same time, she remains loyal to the businesses that believed in her before her big break — none more so than Boston-based Dune Jewelry. The brainchild of owner and designer Holly Daniels Christensen, Dune launched in 2010, and Kostek has been the face of the brand since 2016. Recently, Dune launched the Camille Collection — the second set tied to Kostek, but the first that she had a direct hand in designing.

Dancing All the Way to Gillette

Kostek was involved in competitive dance by age seven. “I was the pee wee who got bumped up to the teenager classes,” she recalls. “I was training every weekend and all summer. When it came to competitions, I loved it.”

The versatile Kostek was always looking for other outlets. In junior high and high school in her hometown of Killington, Conn., she worked as an on-camera host for her high school’s TV newscast, which aired on a local access station.

At the same time, Kostek turned to lacrosse. “My mom joked, ‘I’ll buy you a blanket so you can be a benchwarmer,” she says. But Kostek excelled, becoming captain as a senior for a team that went deep into the state playoffs.

She continued all of these passions into her time at Eastern Connecticut State University: majoring in communications, anchoring for another local access TV station, and playing lacrosse until dropping it after her freshman year to focus on dance. Why?

“As a freshman and a sophomore, I tried out for the Patriots, but got cut both times,” Kostek says. “How bad did I want it? It was a two-hour drive each way with no traffic from school to Gillette Stadium, but that didn’t matter.”

Finally, in her junior year, the dream came true. Kostek joined the squad in 2013 and rounded out her time with the team a season later at Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Ariz., where the Patriots beat the Seattle Seahawks.

“They announce the team online and my whole family was on different computers and phones refreshing the page over and over,” she remembers about the day she made the squad. “My dad beat me to it, scrolling down to see my name!”

She adds, “The Super Bowl was the most memorable part of my time with the Pats. It’s the only road game where we perform. Every appearance we made that week was amazing: Good Morning America, The Today Show, E News, Patriots rallies, and more.” 

Then, of course, there was the game, which was decided by Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception of a Russell Wilson pass. “We were at the other end of the field in the corner and couldn’t tell what happened,” Kostek says. “But I saw the guys in charge of the confetti cannons — they’d loaded blue and green confetti — rushing to change it to red, white, and blue. What a moment!”

The School of Hard Knocks

Kostek added modeling to her repertoire after finishing school. But she had a realistic outlook from the beginning. “I’m pretty observant, and I was having trouble finding women who had freckles, hips, and thighs,” she says with a laugh. “But when I was 15, I saw a woman in SI who had these things. It was inspirational.”

She credits her dancing background for helping her be comfortable with her body no matter the modeling assignment. “I’m familiar with my body angles and how I move,” Kostek says. “I take dance into the frame. When you dance, you’re feeling the music and telling a story. When you’re doing a shoot, you’re also telling a story.”

Though Kostek had some local success — she was represented in Boston by the Maggie Agency, which placed her with Dune in 2016 — she struggled to gain a foothold in either the New York or Los Angeles modeling worlds.

“In New York, I tried to connect with a number of agencies — some were open calls, some I submitted online and got called in. But, after measurements, I kept hearing no,” Kostek says.

With the doors in New York closed, Kostek lit out for Los Angeles. “I thought that my freckles, blond hair, and tan skin might work better in L.A., but I got the same reception,” she says. “It was pretty frustrating.”

Kostek jumped at a second chance on the West Coast when a friend asked her to move into her L.A. apartment in early 2017. “Not only did I want to do whatever it took to be in SI — that inspiration from age 15 never left — but I also was carrying that journalism bug. It was the place to make both of those dreams happen,” she says.

Two months after Kostek moved, in March 2017, SI put out an open call: “Do you want to be the next Sports Illustrated supermodel?”

Realizing the Dream

Kostek jumped at the chance. “I called a high school friend from my TV studio class, flew him to California, used Airbnb for the first time to rent a Malibu beach house, and spent three days creating a video that would change my life,” she says.

The competition was held via Instagram with the hashtag #siswimsearch. Just four days after Kostek uploaded her 60-second video, “I got a DM from @SI_Swimsuit, asking me for the best email to connect to talk about next steps,” she says. “Out of tens of thousands of submissions, I was one of the 35 who got to meet the SI team.”

Kostek made the final 15 and then the final six. That group was featured in a single photo in the 2018 issue. Then, in March 2018, Kostek got word that she and fellow finalist Haley Kalil were named co-winners and would be rookies in the 2019 issue.

Kostek’s shoot for the publication took place in Australia. She says she felt empowered and comfortable at the shoot, and clearly SI’s editors agreed. “One-and-a-half years after shooting for my dream, here I am on the cover,” Kostek says.

She feels honored to be a part of such a legacy, and to have the opportunity to have a bigger platform. “With SI, you know these women — it’s not just a face,” Kostek says. “Tyra Banks, Kathy Ireland, Ashley Graham, Kate Upton — they all have big personalities and passions. People ask me, ‘What about your other passions: TV and dance?’ The coolest part is that I can do it all — SI wants us to capitalize on platform.” 

And when Kostek talks about capitalizing, she’s not just thinking of herself. “I want to be a voice for the dreamers. Yes, it’s a risk to keep trying for something — but when you want something bad enough, you find a way. My mom always told me you’re beautiful the way you are — and when you own that, people will love it.” 

One Pebble at a Time

One of Kostek’s first times learning that truth as a model was in 2016, when she got a call for a job with Dune Jewelry.

Dune is known for its experiential collections where sand and natural elements are incorporated intojewelry. Daniels Christensen launched in 2010 as “The Original Beach Sand Jewelry Company®,” and Dune’s products use sand and other natural elements from beaches, ballparks, mountaintops, and more to create unique collectible jewelry.

Dune’s artisans incorporate the tangible pieces of a moment, memory, or destination into keepsakes that will last a lifetime. Inspired by her childhood bestfriend whose company makesornaments using beach sand, Daniels Christensen took metalworking classes and began sourcingsand from all over the world to begin working on the concept.

 “The idea was to createthe one and only experiential jewelry company — different sands and textures from around the globe,from Bermuda to coast of Maine to Iceland,” she says.

She began by selling at craft shows all over Massachusetts — each piece tied to the location of the event. Dune then moved into e-commerce and is now available in more than 800 stores worldwide. In 2016, Dune won small business of the year and in2018, earned a coveted spot on the Inc.5000 list of fastest growing companies. 

It also touts the world’s largest Sandbank™, with more than 4,000 samples from beaches, sports venues, trails, mountaintops, historical locations, and iconic events around the globe. “One cup of sand makes more than 1,200 pieces of jewelry,” Daniels Christensen says.

But when Kostek got that call in 2016, she had no idea what to expect.

“Holly wanted to bring models into her brand that represent what Dune is. I want to align with leaders that have worked their asses off for their brands,” Kostek says. “Without knowing me, Holly was drawn to the personality in my images. I got an email from my agent that said, ‘They want you, no casting. Here’s the shoot date and location.’”

Daniels Christensen adds, “Maggie Agency sent over a few looks. I was looking for a big personality, someone who could laugh and have fun while having her picture taken. As soon as I saw Camille, I said, ‘That’s her.’ I wanted the freckles, the healthy body. Thinking of my two daughters, I saw Camille and thought she represented a confident, healthy woman.”

It was Dune’s first time contracting a professional model, but when Kostek arrived on Cape Cod for the 6 a.m. call time, both women knew something special was afoot.

“She had such a powerful energy, and at the time I’m not sure she knew it,” Daniels Christensen says. “She’s so generous with it. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to work with this girl forever.’ We’re kindred spirits, both passionate for success and I knew that her energy and love of travel would help elevate my brand.”

Kostek adds, “I met Holly in hair and makeup, and we just hit it off from the very first moment. We just never stopped chatting and talking. Her designs are wonderful, I’m on the beach shooting. What’s not to love?”

Since that first campaign, Kostek and Daniels Christensen have teamed on a pair of collections: Voyager in 2017 and this year’s Camille Collection, which Kostek helped design.

“On third or fourth shoot with Dune, I brought a manila envelope and told Holly I’d love to sit with you after the shoot about some ideas,” Kostek says. “I want something I can wear every day, and she noticed my love for dainty jewelry with some sparkle. So, we added some Swarovski crystal into this line, the Camille Collection. I brought in sand from Australia, where I did the SI cover shoot, and from St. Thomas, one of my favorite places.”

Daniels Christensen agrees. “She came into the studio and started talking. She knew exactly what she wanted it to look like,” she says. “It’s delicate, elegant, and the contrast between the crystal and the sand is beautiful.”

Kostek is now a bit of a regular at Dune’s design studio. “When I’m in town, hanging out with Rob (Gronkowski, the recently retired Patriots tight end and Kostek’s boyfriend of four years), Dune is just 25 minutes away,” she says. “So, I’ll head into the studio, hang out, talk about new designs. I’m inspired by Holly’s commitment to her brand.”

Daniels Christensen says the inspiration is a two-way street. “I believe Dune will be a household name by 2025,” she says. “capturing experiences and creating something tangible is important in this day and age, and with Camille, the sky is the limit. I want Dune to be the vessel to bring her creativity to life.We have 3 more designs joining her collection this Fall.”

What’s Next for Camille?

As you might imagine, all of those agencies that weren’t interested in her before began lining up for a chance to sign her after the SI cover. Kostek opted to sign with a boutique modeling agency in New York — “I want the dynamic with my representation to be real and authentic,” she says — while signing with William Morris Endeavor as her talent representative.

She’s also stepped into public speaking. “I want to inspire women like those who inspired me. I did a panel on body image at Reebok on International Women’s Day, and the president of a sorority at Northeastern University was there. She got my agency’s information, and in February I did my first hour-long lecture at NU,” Kostek says. “I posted on social media about the day and my inbox just flooded. By the end of the spring, I did the same thing on four other campuses in New England.”

She’s already slated for speaking engagements this fall on campuses in California, Texas, and North Carolina. “It’s amazing: the feedback in the meet-and-greet, the emails and messages I get that I’m inspiring someone in a tough time,” Kostek says. “I want to take it to the next level.”

The goal is, of course, the current big stage in the public speaking world: a TED talk.

If there’s anyone who thinks Kostek can accomplish any of her big goals, it’s Daniels Christensen. “Her immediate success in public speaking comes back to her power — what I felt that day I met her four years ago,” she says. “She knows she has it now, and the sky is the limit.”