The minds of swimsuit models.

Dissecting the mainstream.
Feb. 16 2005 7:05 PM

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

An intellectual history.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

When you spot the supermodel Carolyn Murphy in repose on the cover of the new Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the first unseemly thought that crosses your mind is: "What is Carolyn thinking?" OK, maybe not. But—no groans, please—that's the question we're here to answer today. In its 41 years on newsstands, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has been hailed as the arbiter of supermodel succession (Tiegs to Porizkova, Macpherson to Ireland) and as a commercial juggernaut ($35 million in ad sales this year). But it has yet to be celebrated as a magazine with the kind of sophisticated intellectual framework of, say, the Partisan Review. We plan on advancing that argument, just as soon as we finish ogling Carolyn Murphy.

The editors of the swimsuit issue have perfected a genteel notion of female sexuality. You might call it Minivan Cheesecake. That is, the magazine is just tasteful enough to be enjoyed comfortably by a middle-aged man who operates a minivan. This year's crop of 18 supermodels would look right at home in a Subaru commercial. They never reveal anything more than a stray nipple—and then it's tucked beneath a translucent swimsuit (Page 75) or body paint (Page 78). In return, the SI cameras maintain a discreet distance from the babes—none of the too-close-up shots you find in Playboy or Penthouse. The models seem to smile a lot morethan they do in the skin magazines, and they stop to pay tribute to inspirational heroes like Jane Goodall and Brett Favre. Why, there's even a special treat for the kids: supermodel trading cards!

The family-room aesthetic was handed down by Andre Laguerre, a raffish Frenchman and ex-DeGaulle associate who edited Sports Illustrated from 1960to 1974. Laguerre, who believed that a good deal of all magazine business should be conducted from inside a bar, found himself with a minor editorial problem: He had no compelling sporting events to cover during the winter months. In 1964, he had a brainstorm: He would supplement sport with skin. Laguerre summoned a young fashion reporter named Jule Campbell to his office and laid down the intellectual roots of the issue. He asked Campbell, "How would you like to go to some beautiful place and put a pretty girl on the cover?"

The first swimsuit issue, published earlier that year, hadn't been much to look at. Because the models were still sharing space with the athletes—they would achieve special-issue status in 1997—they were only granted five pages. The inaugural cover model, Babette March, was photographed standing in the surf with a finger curled under her nose, as if she'd just inhaled two pints of saltwater. But Jule Campbell, who would soon become one of the most powerful women in modeling, remade the swimsuit issue into a juggernaut. She ditched the reigning archetype of female beauty—epitomized by the model Twiggy—for California women who were "bigger and healthier." She began printing her model's nameswith their photos—a rare practice at the time—which made them into house brands and ushered in a new era of supermodeldom.

Campbell's 1978 issue proved a watershed moment for cheesecake. In Brazil, Campbell had convinced the model Cheryl Tiegs to pose for a throwaway shot in a white fishnet top, her nipples fully exposed. Somehow the shot made its way into the magazine. According to The Franchise,Michael MacCambridge's excellent history of the magazine, nasty letters poured into Time-Life headquarters—more than 340 subscriptions were cancelled—and the swimsuit issue reached new heights of ignominy. But in some ways, the Tiegs fiasco was also a logical endpoint. Barring nudity, the Sports Illustrated model had nothing left to reveal. Thus for the next few decades the editors had to maintain a careful balance: They had to make the issue seem much racier than it actually was, while still maintaining its wholesome aesthetic.

SI's editors have never been above dabbing the swimsuit issue with an intellectual gloss. The 2001 edition, dubbed "Goddesses of the Mediterranean," took a Homeric "swimsuit odyssey" as its theme and produced a mishmash of mythic and historical scenes. The writer Franz Lidz contributed an article about Roman gladiators. The model Shakara Ledardposed as Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, and Veronica Varekova posed as Aphrodite.

But the magazine couldn't give itself over to eggheads; it had to feel mildly dangerous. To that end, Sports Illustrated editors have always felt obliged to pretend that the swimsuit issue is a source of massive national controversy. This is best observed in their insistence, two weeks after the annual issue, on printing correspondence from outraged parents and besmirched librarians. The first recorded caterwauler was W. Frank Caston, of Columbia, S.C., who on Feb. 10, 1964, wrote, "I most certainly do not want such pictures coming into my home for my young teen-age son to ogle, much less myself." Twenty years later, SI was gleefully running letters from outraged subscribers who denounced the issue as"smut" and mailed back the offending pages. Just as Hugh Hefner relied on censorious foes to elevate his stature, Sports Illustrated has cultivated its own opposition to enhance its probity; the magazine is sporting about its own critics.

Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of wholesome-but-smutty aesthetic is the Sports Illustrated writer. The presence of the swimsuit issuehas bestowed upon him a kind of macho glory. Outsiders imagine that the Sports Illustrated office crawls with semi-nude models, who tend to the writer's every need. There's a practical effect, too. The writer Franz Lidz tells stories of recalcitrant athletes who lit up at the mention of the swimsuit issue—why, they'd say, my girlfriend is just as hot as Ashley Montana! (Then they answered Lidz's questions.) A writing assignment for the swimsuit issue is a dream come true for the Sports Illustrated staffer. He grabs an exotic dateline and the guarantee that no one will read anything he comes up with.

The swimsuit issue has benefited enormously from the growing nexus between sex and sports. Whereas a reader in 1966 could wail, "What do swimsuits have to do with football?" today's subscriber recognizes that sports is irretrievably linked with sex—from cheerleaders to beer commercials to Nicollette Sheridan dropping towel and jumping into Terrell Owens' arms. (It's one reason, the magazinereports, that the number of cancelled subscriptions has diminished over the years.) Of course, Sports Illustrated helped create the sex-sports nexus, by bringing the supermodels directly to the fans. For four decades, the swimsuit issue has somehow managed to wedge itself between football and Barely Legal and make a fortune in the process. What Carolyn Murphy is thinking is, "I hope I look this good when I'm 41."

Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.