How It All Began

SI's swimsuit issue was created 25 years ago to fill a midwinter sports gap
February 07, 1989

FEBRUARY."
—Paul Gallico's reply, when someone asked him why he had left sportswriting.

Ringgg!

It wasn't easy being a career girl at a pressure-packed national weekly magazine in New York back in 1964. Harder still if you were trying to manage a marriage and motherhood too.

Ringgg!

Now, on top of everything else, hems were rising precipitously, and more daring women were actually wearing skirts an inch above their knees. For Jule Campbell, who was a wife and the mother of a five-year-old son as well as a reporter in the fashion department at SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, it....

Ringgg!

Campbell reached for the phone. "Hello, Jule," trilled a voice. "Could you come down and see Andre?"

Campbell took a deep breath and clutched at her throat. Andre! Andre wanted to see...her?

Managing editor Andre Laguerre ran SI. Ran it? Why, just that year the mysterious Frenchman had rescued it from financial ruin. Laguerre was born in London of an English mother and spent much of his youth in San Francisco, where his father was the French consul. After returning to France in the late 1930s, he escaped the German army at Dunkirk and eventually became the press secretary and back-channel courier to General Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces. In Paris, after the war, Laguerre wrote a horse racing column for the Herald-Tribune under the nom de plume Eddie Snow and showed a partiality for tall, dark-haired, patrician beauties. Eventually he would marry one and return to the U.S. to become the managing editor of SI, but even his closest friends, trying to match Scotches with him (but rarely succeeding) at Jack's in London or the Three G's in Manhattan, knew little about the man or his past.

Laguerre was at his desk when Campbell walked into his office. Cigar smoke wreathed his head; his heavy-rimmed glasses were pitched precariously forward on his nose. He wore, as always, a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a striped tie, Windsor-knotted, loose at the throat. The white stick (it had once been the shaft of a golf club) that constantly accompanied him when he was in the office lay on the desk close to his right hand, at the ready, like a gunfighter's trusty six-shooter.

Now he touched it and bade Campbell take a chair. Nervously, she responded to the pleasantries Laguerre offered. For all his civility and oldworld courtliness, Laguerre made most men fearful and most women unsure. He liked it that way.

Laguerre put down the cigar, took the white stick in his hand and looked across the desk. "Jule, my dear," he began.

"Yes, sir?" she said.

Then he leaned forward and spoke these fateful words: "How would you like to go to some beautiful place and put a pretty girl on the cover?"

If you are actually reading this, and not looking at the pictures of the swim-suit models, you should feel good about yourself. Dick Bradley, a cartoonist for The Buffalo News, once drew a cartoon showing Hugh Hefner reading the swimsuit issue and saying: "Actually, I read it because of the interesting, uh...articles." SI always runs at least one companion article to the swimsuit photos—compositions about travel, the environment, shortstops from the Dominican Republic, whatever—but the question is, Does anybody out there read them? Or do these stories fall unnoticed, like that proverbial tree in the forest?

In the 25 years of its existence, the SI swimsuit issue—the SI s.i., if you will—has become part and parcel of our culture, like Groundhog Day or spring training. Why, the SI s.i. is so absolutely a bit of Americana that Campbell (who's now a senior editor) has had her photo on the front page of U.S.A. Today. And early each February the SI s.i. is mentioned on almost every local happy-television newscast in the U.S.:

Rendition A: And now, here's Don with the weather.

Thanks, Cindi Ann, and spring must be on the way because SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 's swimsuit issue came out today....

Looks like a real heat wave, Don, heh, heh, heh.

Rendition B: One final bit of news is for local school librarians in the tri-state area, Melinda. The annual swim-suit issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED arrived today, so....

Randy, I still don 't understand what that has to do with sports, heh, heh, heh.

Moreover, as I was about to say before I was interrupted by the news, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Entire magazines, with names like Swimsuit USA and American Swim-wear, are now published (without accompanying articles), and other sports magazines have joined the parade—often after their editors disdainfully declared that they were above such tawdry journalistic sexploitation. Michael Herbert, editor-in-chief of Inside Sports, in defending his magazine's descent into swimsuitery after the original concept that it would run, almost exclusively, coverage of baseball, football, basketball and hockey, declared, "I think that people understand now that it's a tradition for sports magazines to have a swimsuit issue."

A tradition!

The American Dream, magazine division: from moral outrage to hallowed tradition in only one generation.

If both SI and the Western World hadn't been in the exact states they were in in the mid-1960s, Campbell never would have been able to seize the beachhead for the SI s.i. As it happened, the '60s, as we now think of them, were just getting under way when Campbell was called to La-guerre's office. At that time, the war babies were just beginning to make a serious dent in adult culture and mores. Surfin' U.S.A. was the top song of '63, and then came the Beatles. The stock market was go-go, art was pop and everything else was mod. In the next few years, marijuana would become widely accepted. Pro football would become the hip new American game. Blitz. Discotheque. Relevance. Eng-a-land swings like a pendulum do.

There was revolution in the air too; civil rights protests were growing, and the first misgivings about a place called Vietnam were being heard on campuses across the country. Mr. Conservative said extremism was a virtue. So, suddenly, was outrageousness: Pussy Galore, Andy Warhol, Twiggy, Baby Jane Holzer, Bo Belinsky.

Nowhere was this outrageousness more obvious than in fashion. Hair went long. Women went into pants, even—God forbid—for evening wear. Carnaby Street. For so long, proper young women had dressed like their mothers—pillbox hats, chicken-wire brassieres, girdles. But almost overnight, this changed.

The apostles of daring included Courrèges, a French designer of "the space-age generation" who moved skirts above the knee and put women in vinyl, and Rudi Gernreich, who introduced the topless bathing garment. Even little girls had full-breasted Barbie dolls to play with, and no less an authority than Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote, "We have an unconscious desire to display our bosom."

Meanwhile, a few blocks up from New York's garment district, La-guerre and his minions at SI were following the trends of fashion—the result of a vestigial bit of magazine history. When SI was born a decade before, in 1954, it had been a very muddled, insecure baby. Because the magazine's founders had little confidence that advertisers would buy space in a dèclassè jock journal, hard sports stories had been subordinated to carriage-trade divertissements: bridge columns, travel pieces, food and fashion features.

A young editor named Fred Smith was in charge of most of these areas, including what was known as the SPORTING LOOK department. SI catered to fashion in the 1950s and early '60s to the extent that the Sports Illustrated Design Awards for sportswear became the most prestigious in that segment of the industry. "The magazine was schizophrenic," Smith says now. "Sometimes it didn't know whether it was Holiday or The New Yorker." Still, the food and fashion advertisers didn't bite, SI lost millions, and surely it would have folded except for the fact that Henry Luce, founder of Time Inc., had never had a magazine shot out from under him. In April 1960, Luce gave the managing editor's scepter to the enigmatic Laguerre.

Two hours after he moved into his new office, Laguerre made his first big decision. Summoning Smith, he advised him to cut in half a planned 16-page story on what the well-to-do would be wearing to the Rome Olympics. Laguerre was going to force SI to sink or swim as a sports magazine.

Smith returned to his office fearing his days were numbered, but he was a good journalist—today he's editorial director of East-West Network, the world's largest publisher of airline magazines—and he was clever at figuring out how to continue to get fashion stories into the changing SI. He would remain with the magazine for five more years, overseeing the swim-suit act as Campbell's boss and assigning and editing the travel story that accompanied it.

Laguerre would head SI till 1974 (and live till '79), but in '63, when stuffy old London, the city of his birth, was starting to swing, and his mischievous countryman Courrèges was beginning to conjure up those space-age fashions in Paris, Laguerre was approaching the height of his powers. He turned SI around; in 1964, for the first time, the magazine broke even. The gravy years lay ahead. It was time to have some fun.

Sports in those ancient times were confined to much shorter seasons. Football ended with the New Year's bowl games, and pitchers and catchers didn't report till late February. Basketball—college or pro—was pretty much a lounge act. To help fill the void between Jan. 1 and spring training, Laguerre ordered up a tropical travel story from Smith and featured it on the Jan. 21, 1963 cover, when today Super Bowlians would cavort. The cover of that magazine showed a young female swimmer's head emerging from the waters near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. No models were used in the issue, and the name of that pioneer cover girl remains unknown. There were no swimsuit photos inside. In those guileless days, it was the travel story that mattered.

The next January, Laguerre ran what can be called the original swim-suit issue. Still, while there was a genuine bathing beauty, a model named Babette (page 59), on the cover, sex remained subsidiary to travel, and the reader had to wade through 13 pages of snorkeling, including a story entitled "A Fish Watcher's Guide to the Caribbean," to find five pages of women in modest suits.

Even that mild display created something of a stir, and the magazine dutifully printed some letters, two of which, in retrospect, are prototypes for all the fevered correspondence that would follow. In the first, two Yale boys took pen in hand to say they "could feel the clouds break up over New Haven" the instant their eyes fell upon Babette. She was, they wrote, "an unbelievably 'shoe' girl." Shoe was a preppy term of the time that meant "fashionably attractive." In the other letter, a horrified gentleman from Columbia, S.C., chastised SI for straying from "legitimate sports" to the moral detriment of "my young teenage son."

Liz Smith, the New York Daily News gossip columnist, who would soon become an SI writer and would write three of the early travel pieces for the SI s.i., couldn't believe the commotion. "It all seemed so innocent to me," she says. "Who could possibly care what excited some 14-year-old boy?"

But Laguerre, the Continental, was amused by the provincial reaction. "I honestly-don't think Andre had intended to do the issue more than once," says Jack Olsen, Laguerre's favorite writer in the 1960s. The decision to go for a second SI s.i. probably wasn't made until Dick Gangel, the magazine's art director, said to Laguerre that, while he was satisfied enough with the "fun-in-the-sun issue." it could have been a lot sexier. "Oh?" said Laguerre. pushing his glasses back up his nose.

And so it was that Campbell was summoned to Laguerre's office, and the tradition began. "I'm sure all Andre wanted to do was stir the pot a little," Campbell says. "That's all. Just stir the pot a little."

The first decision that Campbell made, with Fred Smith's blessing, was to forgo the use of high-fashion models, whom she calls "cadaverous" and "too forbidding." Instead, she went for young women, preferably from California, whom she euphemistically refers to as "healthy girls."

Laguerre granted Campbell autonomy over the project, and to this day she selects the models and suits and, in consultation with the managing editor, the sites and photographers as well.

"You must give Jule credit for perfecting this all," Fred Smith says. "No matter how carefully some other magazines try to imitate what Jule does, the girls look like Donna Rice."

By now, of course, for a model to be chosen by Campbell is like receiving a tap from a fairy godmother's wand. "Everybody's praying Jule will take her," says Eileen Ford, president of the country's most prestigious modeling agency. "Praying." Swimsuit models in general are, as Ford says, "rounder" today because of the SI s.i., and, led by publications such as Elle, there's a trend toward using the fresher, more energetic, Campbell-type girl in traditional fashion magazines.

The respect accorded Campbell by the models is critical to the venture. Says Fred Smith, "The girls know Jule will never have them look salacious." Moreover, Campbell has been careful to avoid suggestive captions and double entendres. In 1965, a Liz Smith swimsuit story, entitled "The Nudity Cult," discussed how the practices of skinny-dipping and "dropping tops" were sweeping the nation. Since then, except for a mention in 1974 that SI models sunbathed in the nude, the words have been assiduously asexual.

Campbell, who had a Catholic upbringing and a parochial school education before she majored in journalism (with a minor in art) at the University of Missouri, is often teased that she believes readers of the SI s.i. are primarily interested in the suits rather than in what holds up the suits. But just as only a Red-baiting anti-Communist, like Richard Nixon, could have renewed relations with China, so, too, only an upright, sophisticated woman could have guided the swimsuit issue through a quarter of a century.

In 1980, while Gilbert Rogin was managing editor of SI, he wondered aloud whether the swimsuit issue was on its last gams. That year, he ran 12 pages of swimsuit photos, and the magazine, which then had 2.25 million subscribers, sold a record 180,000 copies at newsstands around the country. Rogin needn't have worried. Last year his successor as managing editor, Mark Mulvoy, ran 34 pages of swimsuit photos. The magazine, which had 3.29 million subscribers, sold another 1.88 million newsstand copies, about 12 times the normal sale.

The sustaining—yea, burgeoning—popularity of the SI s.i. seems inexplicable. At some point won't readers become jaded and bored by it all? What keeps it going?

The late James Laver, a British authority on fashion history, wrote in '61 in This Week Magazine: "Woman as a whole is a desirable object, but the mind of man is too weak to take it all in at once." Accordingly, mainstream fashion has emphasized only one part of the female body at any time. In the beginning of this century, for example, the ankles were objects of male passion. Then men swooned over legs, then backs were in fashion, then breasts...and then it was time for the miniskirt and the swimsuit issue.

But the trouble with a swimsuit is that it doesn't concentrate attention; there's just too much flesh for the weak mind of man to swim in. Luckily for SI, though, at just about the time Campbell's healthy water sprites started edging their way into respectable American homes, a wave of bare female flesh was descending upon the Republic. By comparison, the SI s.i. was straitlaced and modest—and, at the same time, sexier.

"Men always find the suggestive more appealing than the revealed," Laver wrote, and that sentiment has echoed down through the ages. Al Goldstein, publisher of Screw magazine, that champion purveyor of nudes, says: "Nudity is boring. The swimsuit issue is far more sensual. I'd rather have one copy of that issue than a thousand issues of the magazine I publish."

Blaze Starr, the famous stripper who almost became first lady of Louisiana, points out that stripping began to decline in the U.S. precisely when X-rated movies and nude bars began to be welcomed by a more permissive society. And when was that, Blaze? "In the mid-'60s." She says, in effect, that the SI s.i. is popular because it's the natural heir to burlesque. "When it comes right down to the bare facts," says Starr, "and I've heard this from men, honey, they don't like to see a totally nude woman unless it's in a bedroom setting. They like to see some parts covered."

It was also crucial to note who brought these neo-strippers to America: a jock periodical. Writes Mary Ann Hogan in the Oakland Tribune, "It is bust and thigh. But it is bust and thigh with a Wheaties twist."

Still, the SI s.i. has probably encountered more emotional criticism than more blatant publications. To many readers, SI is like the wholesome, reliable friend who goes on a toot once a year. Especially when all this started, in the mid-1960s, when the earth was suddenly shifting, the magazine's annual conversion to immorality was a frightening sign to many Americans that the fringes of this mad new world had infected the center.

In the years since, the battlefield has changed, and criticism no longer comes so much from parents and other guardians of youth who think the issue corrupting, as from those who find it sexist. When Cheryl Tiegs wore a fishnet top in 1978, there were more than 340 canceled subscriptions; the generally more graphic 1988 issue netted only about 75 cancellations. This doesn't mean that moral vigilance is in retreat in the U.S. It's just that, unless you've been in a Martian convent lo these many years, you've been forewarned about SI's midwinter wickedness. Today, most of those who feel strongly that the SI s.i. is sexist or indecent have no subscriptions to cancel.

It may come as a shock to younger folks to learn that the word sexism (or sexist) wasn't even in the dictionary when Babette graced the cover of SI in 1964. Today, the pendulum has swung the other way, and some zealots paint anything sensual with the broad brush of sexism, though it should be noted that not all women agree. "We've run male nudes in Cosmopolitan, and we still run male pulchritude, but there's nothing like a picture of a pretty girl." says Helen Gurley Brown, the editor of Cosmo. "There's just no comparison. Everybody likes pretty girls."

Says Billie Jean King. "Women should stop screaming about that one issue and start screaming that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED doesn't carry enough women's sports. That's what's important. That's what's sexist."

You probably won't believe this, but some people do actually look at the photos for the bathing suits. These people are called women. An average issue of SI has about 19,000,000 adult readers, roughly 80% of them men. The 1987 swimsuit issue was "read" by 34,000,0000 adults, but only 60% were men. This means that of the additional 15,000,000 readers of the SI s.i., more than seven million, or almost half, were female.

Ironically, the real threat to the swimsuit issue may not be that women's protests will bring it down. No, the threat is that women will co-opt it. Instead of taking offense at the swimsuit models, women may have become more inclined to identify with them and to look like them. A case in point: Bosoms have again returned to fashion—BOUNCE IS BACK read a headline in the Dec. 2 Wall Street Journal (Page One, no less); and the December issue of the women's magazine Self ran a cover article entitled "Breast Obsessed." And it's women who have led this trend. Cultural anthropologist John Lowe writes in Self: "If one looks back at the Fifties, it seemed that men were definitely driving the breast fixation. Nowadays, it's more tied in to women's thinking." More than 400 women a day get breast enlargements, lifts or reductions, and according to Self they tell plastic surgeons that the desire to change—to look more like an SI model—is their own, not some man's, idea.

Joan Ryan of the San Francisco Chronicle writes: "All the SI bathing suit models are muscular and lean and authentic. They don't mind working up a good sweat. They're proud of the bodies they've worked into shape. There is nothing powdery or gushy about them. In other words, the women in the swimsuit issue are not the worst role models a young girl could have."

Well, there goes the neighborhood. Any day now, SI will get a letter from a father in Columbia, S.C., saying how he had to keep the swimsuit issue away from his teenage daughter.

FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS PHOTOART KANE PHOTOTED THAITHE ENIGMATIC LAGUERRE (LEFT) AND THE ENERGETIC CAMPBELL (RIGHT) CONJURED UP AN ANNUAL ISSUE A LOT OF PEOPLE LOOK AT AND SOME EVEN READ PHOTODICK BRADLEY/BUFFALO NEWS[See caption above.] PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOUPI/BETTMANN NEWSPHOTOSIN THE 1960S, WARHOL (BELOW, WITH TRANSVESTITE CANDY DARLING) AND TWIGGY WERE AMONG THOSE WHO SOUGHT TO MAKE EXTREMISM A VIRTUE PHOTOJEAN CLAUDE SAUER[See caption above.] PHOTOBRIAN LANKER/LIFENEITHER RICE (BELOW) NOR MAMIE VAN DOREN (RIGHT), SHOWN TWISTING WITH BELINSKY, COULD BE CONSIDERED SI'S TYPE PHOTOASSOCIATED PRESS[See caption above.] PHOTOJIM MAHANSTARR SAYS THAT THE POPULARITY OF STRIPTEASE EBBED WHEN NUDITY WON ACCEPTANCE PHOTOENRICO FERORELLITIEGS IN FISHNET HAD A COSMIC LOOK OF THE SORT THAT SUITS COSMO'S BROWN PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)