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Video: ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover model living out dream

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TODAY contributor
updated 2/14/2012 11:52:35 AM ET 2012-02-14T16:52:35

Supermodels don't necessarily grow on the same trees they used to, and proof positive is Kate Upton, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition's newest cover girl whose rise to fame came from the Internet instead of the catwalks of Paris or New York City.

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The leggy 5-foot-11 stunner was a virtual unknown in modeling circles until she posted a YouTube video last April doing the hip-hop "Dougie Dance" at an L.A. Lakers basketball game. Three million views later, the fashion world was knocking on her door, including modeling heavy hitters IMG, who signed her up.

World collide: The Duggars meet a swimsuit model

Now, it's led to what might be the highest-profile modeling gig in the world, gracing the 49th annual Sports Illustrated edition that's eyeballed by about 70 million people each year.

Walter Iooss Jr/Sports Illustrated  /  Kate Upton on the cover of Sports Illustrated's 2012 Swimsuit Issue, on sale now.

"In my opinion, everybody talks about how the age of the supermodel is dead, but I don't think it's dead," the 19-year-old Upton told Matt Lauer, Ann Curry, Natalie Morales and Al Roker live on TODAY Tuesday.

"I just think people want more; we have new technology, so people want to see personalities, not just someone walking down a runway or just a face. That's why campaigns go to actresses now."

Upton began her modeling career in 2008; at the time, the most famous member of her family was her uncle Fred Upton, the 12-term U.S. congressman from Michigan. But with a healthy exposure boost from YouTube, Upton's career exploded in the past year. She's been the face of Guess jeans and lingerie and worked with fashion merchandisers from Dooney & Burke and Beach Bunny Swimwear.

But following in the footsteps of former Sports Illustrated cover gals Christie Brinkley, Ellie McPherson and Heidi Klum is a dream come true for Upton regardless of whether she ascends the dizzying heights of those supermodels.

"Honestly, being on the cover was my dream, so I just want to live in this moment, and know it's a huge career boost, but I'm just going to ride it out, see where it take me," she told TODAY.

For now, it's landed her on the cover of the New York Times newspaper right along with her revealing Sports Illustrated cover shot. The Times examined Upton's unique rise to the top of the fashion world - in the article, modeling super agent Ivan Bart told of how he took a flyer in signing Upton to IMG despite her untraditional modeling background.

Walter Iooss/Sports Illustrated
Upton posing for Sports Illustrated's 2012 Swimsuit Issue, on sale now.

"When Kate first came in, everyone at the agency thought I was crazy," he told the Times. "She wasn't 'fashion' enough." And fashion editor Sophia Neophitou said she believes Upton's look is "too obvious" for high-profile runway work.

Such talk certainly hasn't slowed the Upton Express: she's delving into acting, landing a small role in 2011's film "The Tower Heist" and playing an, er, nun in the upcoming "Three Stooges" film reboot.

But she still basks in the limelight of being tabbed Sports Illustrated's new cover girl, leading a group of 18 models and six athletes who grace the issue's pages. The magazine sent the models to exotic locations in Australia, Panama, Seychelles and Zambia for the shoots, which covered some 51 days and 250,000 photos before the final glitzy shots were selected.

Upton noted it's not necessarily a day at the beach. "A lot of people don't know that; the hours are long and sometimes it's not summer," she told TODAY.

"You can even see on the cover, the wind is blowing, this high wind. But no complaints!"

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Photos: The 10 most iconic swimsuits

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  1. The most iconic swimsuits

    The best bathing suits aren’t always practical — Raquel Welch’s prehistoric two-piece wouldn’t have lasted long in open waters — but they’re impossible to forget. With a little help from InStyle fashion director Hal Rubenstein, we've compiled a slideshow of the most iconic swimsuits ever.

    Elizabeth Taylor, 'Suddenly, Last Summer,' 1959
    Yes, the plot was rather melodramatic. But the pure white tank that Elizabeth Taylor wore in 1959's "Suddenly, Last Summer" — in which she played a mental patient disturbed after witnessing her cousin's shocking death — was nothing short of perfection.

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (Columbia Pictures via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Raquel Welch, 'One Million Years B.C.,' 1966

    "If women in prehistoric times really looked and dressed like this," Rubenstein said of the animal-skin two-piece Raquel Welch wore in "One Million Years B.C" in 1966, "a lot more people today would be studying cave paintings. As fabulous as it is ludicrous, it may be film's most famous bathing suit that never got wet."

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (MGM / Everett Collection via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Ursula Andress, 'Dr. No,' 1962

    The first-ever Bond girl, in 1962's "Dr. No," set the bar pretty high. (Indeed, this was Rubenstein's pick for most iconic suit.) "As Honey Rider," he said, "Ursula Andress stepped out of the Caribbean and into the fantasies of every guy longing to be James Bond. The matching knife belt was a cute touch."

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Farrah Fawcett, 1976

    To promote her instant celebrity in "Charlie's Angels," a Cleveland poster company arranged to shoot Fawcett in a bikini at her house in 1976. As Rubenstein explained, "She wasn't comfortable so exposed, so she pulled this red one-piece from her closet. The company hated the pic, but Farrah had final approval (and retained photo rights). Smart girl: The poster sold over 12 million copies and is still for sale today."

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (Globe Photos / ZUMAPRESS.com via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Bo Derek, '10,' 1979

    "Her perfect score has never been beaten," Rubenstein said of Bo Derek's appearance in a nude maillot in the 1979 movie "10."

    "She may have been the best thing to happen to sales of the one-piece," he added.

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (Everett Collection via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Phoebe Cates, 'Fast Times at Ridgemont High,' 1982

    In 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," Phoebe Cates plays a sophisticated teenager with, as Rubenstein said, "a skimpy bikini as red as her lipstick." The scene in which she emerges in slow motion from a friend's backyard pool is still a classic.

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (Everett Collection via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Carrie Fisher, 'Return of the Jedi,' 1983

    After being captured by Jabba the Hutt in 1983's "Return of the Jedi," Princess Leia was forced to wear this bikini Rubenstein described as "swirling gold and chain link bondage gear." The over-the-top getup made actress Carrie Fisher a sex symbol, and copies of the so-called "slave girl costume" are still sold online today.

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (LUCASFILM / Zuma via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Pamela Anderson, 'Baywatch,' 1995

    As Rubenstein pointed out, Pamela Anderson wasn't even in the original cast of the syndicated '90s series "Baywatch." But she certainly looked good in her "sky-high-cut" red suit. "Who can imagine 'Babewatch' without her?" Rubenstein asked.

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (Everett Collection via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Halle Berry, 'Die Another Day,' 2002

    For 2002's "Die Another Day," Oscar winner Halle Berry paid homage to the first Bond girl, Ursula Andress. She made her entrance in an unforgettable orange-red bikini, complete with a knife belt, "and killed," Rubenstein said, "both literally and figuratively."

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation (MGM / Everett Collection via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Jessica Alba, 'Into the Blue,' 2005

    "Nobody remembers the film," Rubenstein said of 2005's "Into the Blue," starring Jessica Alba. "It had something to do with sunken treasure, drugs, bad guys, and a water park called Atlantis." But when this promo picture of Jessica Alba wearing an un-matched two-piece was released, "plenty of people took notice. No doubt bikini separates gained in popularity."

    InStyle.com: Stars in Bikinis

    InStyle.com: 10 Ways to Look Great in a Bikini

    InStyle.com: Jessica Alba’s Transformation

    InStyle.com: The 21 Most Iconic Swimsuits Ever (MGM / Everett Collection via InStyle.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Columbia Pictures via InStyle.com
    Above: Slideshow (10) The 10 most iconic swimsuits
  2. Image:
    Lynne Sladky / AP
    Slideshow (22) Whimsical and swim-sical

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