Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Editor MJ Day on how a bikini magazine became so much more.
Let’s start with the obvious: The Swimsuit Issue always has been, and always will be, all about sexiness. Hotness. Beauty. And while that theme ties this, the 55th installment of the franchise, to all the others before it, it’s important to remember that SI Swimsuit is always evolving, too. Always growing. Always searching for new ways to explore the power and the potential behind the beauty.
In recent years we’ve worked hard to make the Swimsuit Issue a celebration of another idea long obvious to those of us in the real world, even if Hollywood, the fashion industry and mainstream and social media are sometimes slow to embrace it: the inarguable truth that beauty comes in all forms. Dark, light, curvy, slim, tall, short — all types of beauty are worthy of celebration. And they're all on display, beginning on the cover, with Danielle Herrington. I’m proud that the Swimsuit Issue, born decades ago as the ultimate vehicle of escapism, now also reflects the rich beauty of diversity.
Now that the definition of what’s beautiful has been expanded, the next step: making SI Swimsuit an essential vehicle of empowerment as well. A key theme this year is Swimsuit’s power as a platform for the voices and messages of the bold, diverse, inspiring — and, yes, stunning — women we feature. When we started planning this issue nearly a year ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about the message on a T-shirt Nina Agdal wore in one of our most popular images from Swimsuit 2017: a woman does not have to be modest in order to be respected. There is beauty in not holding back. In confidence. In perseverance. In strength of will as well as strength of body.
That ideal drove every decision we made and every photo we shot over the last six months — and it comes to life most vibrantly with the In Her Own Words project. We asked a diverse group of 10 women to make themselves the canvas and pose covered only by bodypainted words of their choosing. The black-and-white images are raw, soul-baring and, since each shoot was directed by the model herself, starkly authentic. The project is a first for SI: It was conceived and produced entirely by women, with several working both in front of and behind the camera. Photographer Taylor Ballantyne captured the images. Sailor Brinkley Cook — daughter of Christie Brinkley, a member of this year’s Swim Rookie class and a Parsons School of Design photography student — posed and took behind-the-scenes pictures. Another model, Robyn Lawley, who made her Swimsuit debut in 2015, served as videographer for a documentary that can be seen on SI TV on Amazon channels.
One of the most powerful and poignant In Her Own Words participants is Aly Raisman. She is a three-time Olympic gymnastics gold medalist — but she chose survivor as her defining term, reflecting her role as a victim in her sport’s horrific abuse scandal and a strong voice for change and against those who enable some of society’s most abhorrent criminals. Aly also appears in our Athletes section, which features women who impress and inspire in myriad ways. Women like Brenna Huckaby, a snowboarding world champion and a gold medal favorite at the PyeongChang Paralympics — and also a cancer survivor and mother. Or like Paige Spiranac, a world-class golfer who is also a passionate crusader for female expression and against cyberbullying.
I love that female athletes have become hugely popular staples of the Swimsuit Issue. I love that more and more, female photographers are shaping our creative vision; for the second year in a row we’re thrilled to feature the work of Josie Clough, who was behind the camera for our shoot in Nevis (page 148 in the magazine). I also love that almost every photograph in the rich history of Swimsuit has had two stars: a model and a locale that in its natural glory is just as striking as the subject.
Over the decades the Caribbean has been the Swimsuit Issue’s most frequent destination, the backdrop for more than 40 photo shoots and 20 cover images, including this one. In fact every on-location shoot for Swimsuit 2018 took place in the Caribbean, our way of honoring a region that last fall saw its pristine beaches and proud people devastated by storms. The Caribbean is still in dire need, its recovery still in the early stages, and SI will continue to support hurricane relief efforts in the region. We have already committed to visit Puerto Rico for our 2019 issue, after storm damage canceled a planned photo shoot there in November.
There’s another message that I can’t get out of my head: own it, a phrase that became kind of our internal motto for the In Her Own Words project. That’s what SI Swimsuit is all about: empowerment and respect for self — but also respect for others, respect for beauty in all its forms. Respect for the intellect, courage and aspirations of our models and of women everywhere. For many reasons, it’s a message that has never been more essential than it is now. So let’s own it.
BONUS: See all of cover model Danielle Herrington's SI Swimsuit 2018 photos!