This story appears in the June 2016 issue of Playboy. Subscribe

When we first encountered Eugena Washington last year, she was determined to flaunt a different side of herself—a side unseen in her appearances on runways and in TV commercials. Stripped down, Miss December 2015 proudly said of her pictorial, “For once, I didn’t have to be anyone except myself.” Readers responded to the sex, charm and truth in her photos and voted Eugena our 2016 Playmate of the Year. To celebrate her new title, PMOY 2015 Dani Mathers met Eugena for an intimate chat about her path to Playboy, what she’ll do next and then some. As Dani learns, Eugena’s vivacious spirit is nothing short of stimulating.

DANI: The first time you and I met was in December when Nightline interviewed us for a segment about Playboy. But I’ve actually known about you for some time. We have a few mutual friends, and they told me how much fun you are and how you’re a total bad-ass. You’ve already built a successful career as a fashion model. What attracted you to Playboy?
EUGENA: As a model, I’ve done a lot of nude shoots in the name of artistic nudity. European clients specifically go for that, but those projects always end up feeling the same. With Playboy there’s a brand behind the visual, and that brand is iconic. I was like, “Yes, absolutely yes.”

How did you become a Playmate?
A Playboy photographer texted me to say he thought I would be a great fit for the magazine. I was a little hesitant at first, but only because I didn’t know whether being a Playmate would overshadow what I’d done previously. Ultimately I knew the photographer would capture my best angles and my personality—and he did.

In February you traveled to San Francisco with 23 other Playmates to attend Playboy’s Super Bowl 50 party. How was the transition from working the catwalk to wearing the Bunny suit?
I literally had this epiphany yesterday. I said, “Oh my God, I’m one of those girls in a Bunny suit!” It just hit me. I don’t want to sound cliché and talk about how girls aspire to this, but not everyone gets this opportunity. I have a Bunny suit. That’s kind of cool. Being a Playmate is definitely different from anything I’ve done in the past, but I’m making it my own experience.

It bears remembering that you became a Playmate only in December. This all happened to you in the span of six months—and now you’re the first African American PMOY since 2009.
It’s a great time for this. The world is changing. I hope this brings different eyes to the magazine and new audiences. I always like going into situations with the idea that I can change them. I’m not the type of person to conform to what’s happening. It feels like it’s the perfect time for some change.

Let’s talk about your upbringing. I know you’re from South Carolina, but tell me more. What did you like to do growing up?
Listen, I was born in South Carolina, but that’s it! [laughs] My mom drove us out of there a month later. My entire family is from the South, but I grew up in California. Growing up I was—and I still am—a girlie girl. I wanted to be a makeup artist since I was 10 years old. I’d watch newscasts to see how the anchors did their makeup. In high school I was the girl braiding everyone’s hair and plucking everybody’s eyebrows. I always wanted to be a makeup artist, but modeling happened first. Strange as this is, in the back of my mind I always knew I was going to be in the fashion world—I just didn’t know in what capacity.

Something I’ve noticed is that you always have a big smile on your face. I don’t doubt that you’re happy. Many people don’t realize that happiness is a choice, but you do. That’s a huge strength to play on.
When I started in this career, I told myself I wouldn’t pay attention to anything that could make me feel insecure. Someone else’s negativity has nothing to do with me. Thankfully, I don’t get much of that, but I know who I am. I like to present myself in such a way that people don’t have room to say anything bad. A lot of people aren’t in touch with themselves anymore because they don’t have to be. Social media has given us an excuse to be half a person.

Speaking of that, one reason I love following you on Instagram is that you don’t pigeonhole yourself. You’ll post a photo of yourself wearing no makeup and being a total goofball with your friends, then a stunning photo from an editorial and then a photo of you with your family.
This is my life. People will always try to tell you who you are or what you stand for. I am a person who knows who I am, where I come from and where I’m going. I like to get along with everyone, but to do that, you have to find compassion. You have to find that space where you can connect with someone. I’m a big advocate of humanity. I know I can suck in different ways; I don’t always take into account other people’s feelings, for example. But if I see that someone’s not having a great day, I try to connect with them. You never know where someone else is coming from.

I like meeting Playmates, because I love hearing their stories. We’re entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers and more, and it’s up to us to show outsiders what we’re about. What are your goals? What do you want to accomplish as PMOY?
Someone in my life I’m close with has bipolar disorder. It’s a terrible way to live. God puts challenges in your life, and you can either work through them or run away from them. I really want to get involved with this disease and become a mental health advocate.

As the outgoing Playmate of the Year, the only advice I have for you is to keep pushing for what you believe in. We have this platform only once. Get out there and show people what you want them to see.
This is a story and a chapter in my life to build around. I’m enjoying the ride, and right now I’m doing whatever I want to do, day by day. That’s how I live. That’s what my life is about. As long as I’m doing what I want to do, I’m happy. Right now, being a part of Playboy is what I want to do. I’m still processing what it all means, but this is going to be fun. It’s going to be interesting. I’m thankful I’m able to be in this position. I mean, how many people can say that?