There's one person having the best Hot Girl Summer ever — and it's the originator of the term herself, Megan Thee Stallion.
"When I got the call that they wanted me on the cover, I was like, 'Wha—? Me?' And to be the first female rapper on the swim cover makes it extra special," Megan, 26, tells PEOPLE exclusively. "It feels amazing!"
For the winning shot, the rapper models a light brown bikini with a strappy cutout top and high-cut string bottoms from her own collection for FashionNova; inside, she poses in the sand as the tide washes in, wearing a hot pink petal-inspired top with bright green bottoms. She tells PEOPLE the whole experience shooting was "magical," thanks in part to her serious prep.
James Macari/ Sports Illustrated
"I had been training for months and I was super prepared. I got into the shoot right away. [Photographer] James [Macari] said he usually doesn't get into the water until the fourth or fifth set-up, but we were both in the ocean from the start," Megan says. "The day was perfect and I had a blast."
James Macari/ Sports Illustrated
In fact, she says working with the whole team at SI Swim was "one of the best experiences in my life" and praises the magazine's focus on transcending traditional beauty standards.
"I think they are on the forefront when it comes to diversity and inclusion because they do not fear change, they lean into it," Megan says. "They see the world and have it reflect on the cover and pages inside. That is why they have been so successful."
Listen below to our daily podcast PEOPLE Every Day for more on Megan Thee Stallion's Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover and the 2021 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.
"My earliest memory of a SI Swimsuit cover was Tyra," Megan recalls. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, this girl looks like me!' Here is this stunning Black woman owning her curves and it made a big impact. It made me think, maybe I can be on the cover of SI Swim one day. And guess what — I am!"
Another SI Swim alum the rapper looks up to? Her collaborator and mentor, Beyoncé (who posed for the 2007 issue). "I was so surprised when she did the cover, because I had only ever seen models before," Megan says. "I think she was the first musician to ever be on the cover."
The 2021 issue has three cover stars; in addition to Megan, there's tennis champ Naomi Osaka and model and actress Leyna Bloom, who makes history as the first transgender cover star.
"If there's one thing that our cover models have in common, it's that they don't have one thing in common," says MJ Day, Editor in Chief of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit in a press release. "They look different, have different upbringings, have different passions and inspirations. But each is a reminder that beauty comes in many forms."
Yu Tsai/Sports Illustrated
Day calls Megan a "magnetic powerhouse taking the world by storm" who, together with Osaka and Bloom, "represent three of the most powerful voices of today."
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The issue (out July 22) features two other musical stars, Tinashe and Anitta, as well as past SI Swim cover models including 2020's Olivia Culpo, Jasmine Sanders and Kate Bock, 2019's Camille Kostek and 2018's Danielle Herrington.
Models Emily DiDonato, Lais Ribeiro, Josephine Skriver, Valentina Sampaio, Marquita Pring and Maggie Rawlins also snagged features, as did 13 Swim Search finalists: Alex Aust, Allie Ayers, Ally Courtnall, Amanda Kay, Chelsea Heath, Christen Harper, Gabriella Halikas, Katie Austin, Kristen Louelle, Natalie Gage, Saje Nicole, Summer Wilson and Taylor Sharpe.
SI Swimsuit hits newsstands July 22 and to see more, visit swimsuit.si.com.