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S.I. swimsuit issue cover model revealed

Israeli supermodel (and Leonardo DiCaprio squeeze) Bar Refaeli, 23,  graces the magazine's annual issue.  The cover shot of her in a bikini (of course) was taken on a beach on Canouan Island in the Grenadines.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Sports Illustrated is as secretive as it is successful with its blockbuster swimsuit issue, so Bar Refaeli found out she's cover girl of the magazine's 46th annual ode to the barely-there bikini just hours before the magazine hit the newsstands today.

Speaking with Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Al Roker on the TODAY plaza Tuesday, the stunning 23-year-old Israeli said her handlers treated their client's highest modeling milestone like a surprise party.

"My agency said I had an audition at the office," Refaeli told the TODAY trio, who actually knew about her being the new S.I. cover girl before she did. "And then they opened the door slowly, slowly, and they had the image of the cover like really big and there were cameras all over.

"It was like five minutes where I couldn't speak."

Refaeli is no stranger to Americans — she's been one of the most in-demand models since age 15, and she frequently graces the pages of celebrity magazines by virtue of her three-year relationship with actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But for a model, gracing the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue is truly hitting the career jackpot.

The swimsuit issue is typically seen by 66 million readers — including four in 10 adult men in the U.S., according to Sports Illustrated research — making it the biggest annual event in magazine publishing. Moreover, becoming the S.I. cover girl launched the careers of Tyra Banks, Rebecca Romijn, Cheryl Tiegs, Cindy Crawford and Heidi Klum into the stratosphere.

Refaeli was well aware of the famous footsteps she hoped to follow in when posing for photographer Raphael Mazzucco on Canouan Island in the Grenadines. The magazine shot 19 models for the swimsuit issue, but none knew at the time who might make the cover.

"It's the cover that matters most," S.I. group editor Terry McDonell told The Associated Press, but each model gets an equal shot. "The cover has to reflect the athleticism and sexiness of the culture. This photo is modern, her hair and swimsuit look natural. You see her freckles. Her body is amazing and she looks intelligent," McDonell told the AP.It's also purposeful, he noted, that the models have healthy, sometimes curvy, figures. "A skinny waif won't work here." McDonell, along with swimsuit editor Diane Smith and S.I. creative director Steve Hoffman, sifted through 90,000 photos this year. In consumer testing, it's inevitable that the raciest one is the favorite, but that's not the one that lands on the front. "There are marketplace considerations," McDonell explained. "I want to be at the front of the store, not the back." Refaeli, who was featured inside the 2007 and 2008 swimsuit editions, had a feeling she might make cover grade this year after she eyed the Missoni swimsuit that eventually put her on the front. "There's all kinds of cover tries, you try all kinds of outfits," she said. "That specific one, I don't know why, we all felt like, that's the one."

Revealing historyYou can be sexy without revealing too much skin, said veteran supermodel Cheryl Tiegs, who first appeared on the swimsuit issue cover in 1970 — and then again in 1975 and 1983. That shot happened at the end of a full day shooting in Hawaii, and she was cold. Someone gave her a long-sleeved top to warm her up, and when the photographer asked her to take it off, Tiegs refused — and she wouldn't take off her sunglasses either, she recalled. That photo, she said, really captured a moment. "I remember walking by the newsstand and seeing I was on the cover and picking up a copy or two. That was the celebration then ... But I'm still signing covers for fans," Tiegs said. S.I.'s swimsuit issue began in 1964, when February marked the low point of the sports seasons. The NFL ended in December, there were no national televised hockey games and the NBA had only a half-dozen teams. After putting safe-driving tips and dog shows on the cover, S.I. decided to put an attractive female on the cover and call it a "skin-diving story," recalls Smith.It was popular from the start, but Smith thinks it was Tiegs' cover that made it a phenomenon. However, it was Kathy Ireland in a white strapless bikini in 1989 that remains the best-selling cover.

"I've done many, many, many different covers in the fashion world ... but never had as big a splash as Sports Illustrated," said Heidi Klum, the cover model in 1998. "I went to ['The Tonight Show with Jay] Leno,' the morning shows in New York and L.A. — it was a huge thing — suddenly I became a household name," she said. But more than the fame, Klum said she appreciates from S.I. the professionalism shown to a relatively untested model wearing next to nothing.

"I had wanted it to be so good. I'd arch so hard ... but they'd say, 'Look sexy with your eyes. Don't overpose. Be yourself and have fun.' " There's a balance between wholesome and sexy that the editors are always straddling, without ever being sleazy, Hoffman said. The magazine spends an average of three days shooting each model, each with an average wake-up call of 4:30 a.m. because the light is best at dawn, and has about 10,000 bathing suits to choose from. And even with the outfits so small, S.I. spends an average of $2,000 in overweight baggage fees per location. "The logistics are horrifying ... but the swimsuit issue is probably the healthiest of all the Sports Illustrated franchises, and it's good to be with things that work, especially these days," McDonell told the AP.

Taking to the skiesAs if Refaeli wasn't already sky-high from learning just hours before that she was the new S.I. cover girl, she is set to be whisked away in a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 dubbed the ''S.I. One" this afternoon for a cross-country promotional trip leaving from New York City. In an ultimate honor, the plane will feature Refaeli's photo spread across its hull.

"Air traffic control is going to be a mess this afternoon," Lauer quipped.

"I just heard the plane is going to still be active for a month later," Refaeli said. "I'm like, 'Oh, my God, it's one of the best things that's ever happened to me.' "

Even better for Refaeli was making the call back home to Hod HaSharon, Israel, where she was met with the voices of her ecstatic parents Tsipi and Rafael.

"My mom cried when she heard,"  Refaeli said. "My dad said he is the proudest father in the world. They're all very happy. They know that I've been wanting this forever."

Refaeli says she is well aware that no matter where her career takes her, she will once and forever be known as an S.I. swimsuit cover girl.

"Look at the history, it's a big part of history I feel," she told TODAY. "And it's a great, great step."

—The Associated Press contributed to this story.