Three days before a trip to Chile, Sports Illustrated senior associate editor M.J. Day was packing — choosing from a closet full of nearly 25,000 swimsuits.
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The 730 finalists, along with hundreds of pieces of jewelry, would be headed on a 6,100-mile voyage from New York City to the Atacama Desert.
“We go to check in and I'm usually greeted by the ticket attendant with wide eyes and a look of: ‘Are you kidding?’” she said. “They usually ask me if I'm moving to the place.”
Nearly 24 hours later, Day, her crew and the bags arrived safely. But she still didn’t know which outfits would make it into the pages of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit edition.
Those decisions, she said, are made “on the fly.”
For swimsuit designers, not making the magazine means missing out on the more than 22 million female readers who use the issue as a shopping guide. Jule Campbell, editor of the first edition in 1964, not only gave fans the name of the designer, but also told them "where to buy" what they admired.
“I learned that from Glamour magazine,” she said. “I felt it wasn't serving our audience if they didn't know where to buy a suit.”
Because of this, designers worldwide send their wares to Sports Illustrated. They aren’t paid for their work — instead, it's all about getting their name on the page. Because, according to swimwear designer Lisa Curran, that's a credit money can't buy.
“We’re making up suits specifically for the issue that are not in my collection,” she said. “It's not cheap, but it's Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue. If I had to probably pay for an ad in there it would be much more expensive.”
Curran, a former fashion buyer, launched her line in 1997 after she had trouble finding a bikini for her honeymoon. The next year, the still-unknown designer set her sights on Sports Illustrated.
Curran’s determination to showcase her designs left a lasting impression with the magazine’s editors — and spurred her to launch a business.
Day recalled getting a phone call from “a very eager designer” who insisted on showing off her new line of swimsuits. Before long, she said, Curran was in her office “disrobing and trying on swimsuits for me.”
It turned out to be Curran’s lucky break when one of her suits was picked for the February 1999 edition.
“I was just in shock,” she said. “Here I am. I just started a business. And, less than a year later I’m in Sports Illustrated. One of my bikinis is in the magazine.”
With suits priced under $200, Curran’s sales soared from $150,000 before her debut in Sports Illustrated to nearly $5 million today. She still makes suits for the magazine. This year, a dozen of her creations made the trek to India while others traveled to Chile.
While bikinis seem like a no-brainer for a swimsuit issue, other "strings" are also garnering great attention, including silk wrap bracelets called Bhati Beads made by Margaret Maggard.
“I think the reason why they do well is because you can wear it when you're 55 years old and you don't have to get into a bikini,” Maggard said. “You may not look like one of these girls in a magazine. But you can have a little piece of that.”
A yoga instructor, Maggard was crafting jewelry for friends in the basement of her Milwaukee home. When she started to look towards selling outside her circle, she ran across the 2006 swimsuit issue — and it proved inspirational.
So Maggard made 12 bracelets and sent them to M.J. Day. The simple-styling was a hit. Months after sending her designs, Maggard got the call — her Bhati Beads made the 2007 issue.
“I sat there in Borders, looking through it, and I said, ‘That’s my jewelry!’" she said. “My older son was in seventh grade, at the time. So, he went to school and he told all his friends. ‘My mom's in Sports Illustrated swimsuit.’ And they said, ‘No, your mom's old.’”
Maggard’s business has been soaring ever since. Her designs have been inside the issue for four consecutive years, making it on the cover in 2009.
“We saw a 66 percent increase in sales,” she said. “It continues on fairly steadily for the life of the issue and then beyond.”
Swimsuit designer Lisa Curran’s advice to Maggard — never stop sending to the magazine.
“I’ve been in business 11 years and I didn't get in one year, and I remember people coming up to me asking, ‘Are you still in business?’” Curran said.
Making the cut from hundreds of suits is only the beginning of the process.
After the photo shoots, editor Diane Smith and her team personally sort through 155,000 to pick the lucky few photographs that will make the swimsuit issue.
They also choose the most-talked about photo of the year: the cover image.
Just as the right photo can launch a designer’s business, appearing in the swimsuit issue can send a model’s career to the next level. The main reason these models are known is because Sports Illustrated prints their names alongside their photos. That may be a common practice today, but in 1965 it was revolutionary. And original editor Jule Campbell used it to her advantage.
“I offered less money because the girls that I used were not names yet,” Campbell said. “This is a secret no one ever knew except the agency and the model. It was $250 a day."
For some, the exposure is priceless.
At the height of her modeling career, Cheryl Tiegs had a signature clothing line at Sears that did a billion dollars in sales. Today, Tiegs is the spokesperson for Cambria Inc., a company that makes natural quartz countertops.
“There are certain things that you do that you are paid very little for,” she said. “But those are the jobs that you really want. And those are the jobs that ultimately make you the most money from other companies.”
No other swimsuit veteran has done better in business than Kathy Ireland, who appeared in the swimsuit edition for 13 straight years — longer than any model to date.
“Modeling wasn't a part of my plan,” she said. “But I looked at the opportunity and said, ‘You know? Maybe I could earn some money for college or to start a business.’”
Ireland would go on to make her millions in footwear, with what Forbes magazine called "a design empire." Ireland is CEO and chief designer of Kathy Ireland Worldwide, which now sells more than 15,000 products in 28 countries and generates $1.4 billion in annual sales.
“Our customer doesn't care that I modeled in Sports Illustrated,” she said. “It’s more about what I was able to learn and gain from that experience than just seeing a picture of me.”
In its storied history, the cover has catapulted women into stardom, so a lot rides on the decision. For 2010, Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell makes the final ruling.
“People call me up when this issue comes out: everybody's got an opinion,” he said. “If it's too risqué I might hear from this wholesaler. If it's a little bit too racy I might hear from the library association. A lot of things can happen there.”
McDonell said this cover choice is the most fun he has all year. But it’s nerve-wracking for the models.
Brooklyn Decker, wife of tennis star Andy Roddick, said she had about a 5 percent chance of making the cover.
That was enough. Decker was revealed to be the magazine's choice on Monday, less than 24 hours before the issue hit the newsstands.
She was just out of high school when she first appeared in the swimsuit issue in 2006, and she's been in the magazine every year since.
“Let’s face it, there are a million beautiful girls,” she said. “But when Sports Illustrated picks you, it says this girl's here and she's here to say.”
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