Norina and Robert Nuchereno of Buffalo are minding their own
business, lounging poolside at their hotel in Cabo San Lucas,
Mexico, one afternoon in December when the invasion occurs. The
Nucherenos are thinking about what to do for dinner, wondering
how many degrees Fahrenheit it is back in upstate New York, when
SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr. arrives, bearing cameras and
attitude, casing the pool as if he owned the place. He is
followed by cell-phone-wielding swimsuit editor Elaine Farley,
who is to this operation what Norman Schwarzkopf was to Desert
Storm. In their wake come a retinue of assistants and a
honey-haired, hard-bodied woman who seems, to the Nucherenos,
vaguely familiar. The brevity of her costume--she sports a white
bikini that, wadded up, would fit easily into an airplane
ashtray--calls attention to her terrific...assets. She is
extraordinarily attractive, muscular but not in an overdone,
Hans and Franz way.
"She's beautiful," says Norina, who sells pharmaceutical
products and is not tough on the eyes herself. "I know I've seen
her. I think she's the tennis player." Robert, a commercial real
estate broker, shoots his wife a patronizing look, a look that
says, I don't think so. Though I have been sworn to secrecy, I
have to vindicate the grievously wronged Norina. Gazing straight
ahead, moving my lips as little as possible, I say, "It's Steffi."
The Nucherenos look at me, then at Steffi Graf. "I thought so,"
By now Graf has climbed atop a stucco wall 10 feet from us. She
is looking out on the Sea of Cortes, her back to the camera, her
clenched fists on her hips, a la Wonder Woman. "Legs a bit
farther apart," says Iooss. "Now stand on your tippy toes." As
Graf rises, her calves and quads quiver. "God, that's powerful,"
says Iooss, clicking away.
February 21, 1997
"I don't mean this in a bad way," says Robert, "but Steffi's
better looking in person."
I know what he means: On the court Graf, 27, is all scowls and
grimaces. Watching her dismember some hapless foe in 44 minutes,
you don't reflect on how attractive she is. You reflect on what
an efficient predator she is.
This afternoon there's no escaping the fact that Graf is also a
knockout. That turns out to be less surprising, to me, than the
revelation that she is, in addition, a kind, authentic, grounded
person. During a break Graf hops down from the wall and suggests
to Robert that he apply some sunscreen.
"Am I red?" he asks.
"Very red," she says in an English that has the barest hint of a
"Do you want us to get out of your way?" Norina asks.
"Oh, no," replies the best women's tennis player in the world.
"We hope we're not bothering you."
We hoped we wouldn't be bothering Graf when we asked her to pose
for this issue. She said she'd be happy to. Earlier that
morning, while her hair was being blown dry, brushed, sprayed
and teased by hairstylist Francois Ilnseher, Graf discussed her
reasons for deciding to appear in SI in swimwear rather than her
usual tennis whites. "I like photography," she says, "and the
pictures in your swimsuit issue are always incredible. I mean,
you can always find a nice girl in a nice suit, but what makes
SI so special is the aesthetics. The background, the light, the
color, the composition is always so good. That's why I am
looking forward to this."
I nod knowingly, as if Graf and I are in complete agreement on
this one. The truth is, if I have ever given any thought to the
composition of one of our swimsuit photos, that thought was
something like: Nice clam-shell bikini on Jasmeen there--too bad
they couldn't have found some smaller clams. If some topless
supermodel is photographed behind a strategically placed palm
frond, I do not, to my discredit, admire the way the flora
brings out the green in her eyes. I'm thinking, I'd like to be a
beetle on that leaf.
Graf is here to make art, not strudel. It is for the sake of art
that she has flown into this resort town at the tip of the Baja
peninsula, arriving at 9:30 the previous night and then arising
at five this morning to submit to the twin ordeals of having her
hair done and her face made up. We are on the beach by 6:15.
Trudging through the sand on our way to the first location, I
fall into step alongside SI design director Steve Hoffman. Just
because Hoffman has brought his golf clubs to Mexico doesn't
mean his presence isn't vital to the operation. He explains to
me why in hell we're up at this hour--something about the
oblique angle of the sun, the special qualities of morning light.
Nice to see Iooss again. Here is a man who clearly has cut some
sort of Faustian bargain: handsome guy, hugely talented, spends
half his life taking pictures of the world's most beautiful
women. But every shoot isn't a day at the beach. I last watched
him work a decade ago, when I sat in on a Hulk Hogan cover
shoot. The Hulkster was as petulant as the most difficult
swimsuit model: He refused to be photographed from the right
(his left arm was the more buff, he insisted) and frequently
interrupted the proceedings to do push-ups (the better to
maintain a pumped-up state).
Things with Graf begin more smoothly. Soon Iooss has her
striking a variety of poses. "Bring the body this way....
Shoulder up a little more....O.K., do that again with just a
glint of a smile." During breaks she dons a white terry-cloth
robe. At the end of one such break, Iooss commands, "Take off
"That should be the title of his autobiography," says Hoffman.
By now Graf is in her third bikini of the morning; it is black
with white piping that makes me think (forgive me, Lord) of
icing. From a construction site adjacent to the hotel, a
half-dozen laborers are leering down at her. Hey, Stef, I say,
you want I should go teach those guys some manners? Realizing
the insincerity of my offer--these hombres have tattoos and claw
hammers--Graf properly ignores me.
I'm getting a lot of that this morning. Everyone else is
scurrying around with something important to do. I'm taking the
odd note, trying to make it look as if I'm working, but no one's
buying it. When makeup artist Heidi Lee, who is wearing
excruciatingly hip purple stretch pants--and who, frankly,
intimidates me--applies something to Graf's lips, I ask, lamely,
"A little lip liner?"
"Lip gloss," says Lee.
So I was close, I say. "You were," she replies, as if to a
third-grader. "You knew it had something to do with lips." Like
the Carolina Panthers, whose dressing room I was working 36
hours earlier, I feel as if I'm not getting enough respect.
Time to rattle a few cages. Time to ask the tough questions. For
four years Graf has been dating Michael Bartels, a German
race-car driver. Stef, I say, your decision to appear in the
swimsuit issue--did you discuss it with Michael?
"What is there to discuss?" she snaps.
"Nothing, of course," I say, backpedaling furiously. "I just
wondered, you know, since so many people will see it and since
you will appear somewhat scantily clad, if...."
Mercifully, she cuts me off. "I mean, if it were Playboy, that
would be another thing."
That would be cheesecake. What we're doing here is obeying the
swimsuit muses. We're making art. It was her concern with
aesthetics, in fact, that led Graf to ixnay several of the
bikinis Farley had picked out for her. The black Lycra one and
the leopard one spring to mind. Like any intelligent person,
Graf has a good idea of what will look good on her and what will
Iooss has his own ideas. Graf is not happy when he insists on
taking a series of shots of her profile. During our break, from
10:30 to 1:30, Farley receives a call from Graf's agent, who's
phoning from Arlington, Va. Would SI please stop asking Steffi
to assume poses that make her uncomfortable?
Of course, SI would. Before we head out into the hot afternoon
sun, Graf talks about how far she has come since earlier in her
career, when she was plagued by an epic shyness. "It took me
seven years to go on Letterman," she confides.
So you did eventually go on the show with him?
"Two times," she says. "They tell you not to touch him."
Some traces of tension remain when shooting resumes. After the
Wonder Woman poses, a half hour is devoted to getting some of
those gamboling-in-the-sand shots without which the SI swimsuit
issue would be a pathetic husk of itself: pictures that suggest
the models had been strolling on the beach when they were
overcome by the desire to practice the triple jump.
After 15 minutes of performing, over and over, the same leap,
Graf seems to be getting a little cranky. She is not alone.
Ilnseher, the hair guy, keeps spritzing her with water. The
water, atop her sunscreen, produces a slight sheen that is
disturbing to Lee, the makeup artist. Chill out, I say. I kind
of like that look.
"I'm sure you do," says Lee. "But I'm the makeup artist. I'm the
one responsible if she looks like a stripper."
Harmony soon is restored. Everyone goes down to the water, where
Graf has a blast frolicking in the surf. Iooss seems
particularly jazzed about the last few rolls he has shot. Graf,
clad in a Valentine-red bikini, sits in the sand, bathed in the
day's final rays of sun. She and Iooss are in a zone.
And then they aren't. Two middle-aged couples stroll past. Upon
recognizing Graf, one of the women succumbs to the unfortunate
psychosis which overtakes many of us in the presence of
celebrities. "Henry! Henry! C'mere! Ya gotta see this!" she
screeches. "It's Steffi! Steffi, can we have your autograph? Can
we get a picture with you?"
Graf would eventually pose with Henry and his excitable spouse.
Just now, however, she is a bit brusque. "We're a little busy
here," she says. "Now is not a great time."
The swimsuit muse is upon her.