Beyonce is one of the surprise features in the 2007 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, which is set to hit the marketplace on February 13. The singer/actress was shot in Florida late last year, according the insiders at the magazine, and the images were good enough (duh) to be included in the issue. The surprise is because she is neither a model, an athlete or a jock’s spouse, typically the only categories of women who’ve been shot for the annual iconic edition.
Is she the cover? If so, Beyonce would be only the second African-American woman to appear on issue’s coveer in the 43 years since it was created, the first in a decade since Tyra Banks donned the second of her back-to-back swimsuit covers in 1997. The 1996 cover was shared with Argentine model Valerie Mazza.
Tyra, 1996 (with Valerie) and 1997
At bit of full disclosure is in order: As many of you know, I was an editor at SI for several years and was variously involved in the swimsuit issue during my last two tenures there. (I was laid off in December, 2005, in the first wave of Time Inc.’s substantial cuts.) The matter of women of color has long been dicey at the magazine. Any discussions about the inclusion of black models always prompted a discomforting tone, and it was often (no surprise) left to me to bring it up. Though not always.
I can’t recall the exact year but I recalled being summoned down to the office of a former managing editor so he could boastfully show me some of the shots of black models that were to appear in the issue. He was so proud of himself! I chuckled all the way back to my office.
I also recall a troubling conversation with another former ME. We were in his office watching the rough cut of the SI Swimsuit Model Show that was to air the following week when Roshumba, who appeared in seveal issues, lamented the dearth of black cover models. The editor said that should be taken out of the show and sniffed that a black model could not be used on the cover. I was stunned (though not really), and asked why. “Just wouldn’t happen,” he said.
And selling is what matters. It’s widely known that the SI Swimsuit issue may be the most profitable single issue of any magazine ever. It generates crazy portion of SI’s annual profits and, thus editors traditionally felt they couldn’t afford to be tinker with what was working. The unstated belief – stupid and unsubstantiated belief, I always felt – was that white men (the preponderance of SI readers and swimsuit issue buyers) would not buy an issue with a black woman on the cover.
Soon after my chat with the former editor, I asked one of the magazine’s publishing executives if he thought putting a black woman on the cover of the swimsuit issue would have an adverse impact on sales. After pondering it for a moment, he asked me: “Does she have t–s? Does she have an a–? If so, it’ll sell.”
Turns out the publishing exec was right. Several years another ME made the bold move of putting Tyra on the 1996 cover. But make no mistake: The pairing of her with Mazza was a hedge. The issue sold well enough that Tyra graced the cover alone the following year. Again, it flew off newsstands. Still, no non-white (or light-skinned Latina) model has been the SI Swimsuit cover model since.
Black models have appeared in the issue through the years, though never without some hand-wringing and prodding. Among them: runway diva Naomi Campbell. and model turned actress Noemie Lenoir. African-American women have also appeared, of course, in the popular feature, Athletes and their Wives. Many black female athletes have been featured as well, including Serena Williams. (I think either this shot of Serena, the one below, or another image from the shoot, should have graced the 2003 cover. Instead, Petra Nemcova got the coveted spot.)
Serena Williams, 2003
Other non-white models to appear in the SI swimsuit issue: Oluchi Onweagba, Lorraine Pascale (below, bottom), Audrey Quock, Georgiana Robertson, Tamara Spolder, Hina Tama (way back in ’68) and recent sensation (and deserving cover model) Jessica White (below).
Jessica White, 2005
The matter of how many non-white models to include in the issue and whether or not to use use a black model on the cover,in my view, came down to an arcane sense among the magazine’s editors of just what “beauty” and “hot” look like. During the years I was on the “swimsuit team,” formally or informally, I was the only African-American in the room. When all of the decision-makers are of one ilk, well, the issues speak for themselves. Among the 94 models featured on SI’s Ultimate Swimsuit website, just 11 are non-white.
It didn’t help the cause of non-white models that their images did not “test” as highly as those of white models when research on potential covers was conducted. That was never surprising when only one non-white model was among a collection of as many as ten model photos. Against those odds, what’s a girl to do?
The reality is that interest in the issue has waned in recent years. The 40th anniversary issue (2004) sizzled, but subsequent issues have not matched its success. The reasons are many – from the proliferation of sexy-photo-driven young men’s mags out there to the general desensitization to hotness. Images that were risque in my youth are now on billboards in Times Square.
Given the issue’s economic challenges, perhaps SI is willing to think differently. At some point, the managing editor will have to say, “Damn the research,” and recognize that women or color are “hot” enough to be popular every other cultural arena. And hot sells.
Which gets us back to Beyonce. I’m sure there was a discussion among the magazine’s hierarchy regarding women of color who might be popular enough – HOT enough – to transcend race, age and any other demographic you want to throw on the table. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) Beyonce is no-doubt the “it” girl of the moment – even as a crew of younger “it-wannabes” emerge on the music scene, and she is upstaged by Oscar-nominated co-star Jennifer Hudson in the recent hit “Dreamgirls.”
But is she SI’s swimsuit “it” girl? We’ll see.
Lorraine Pascale, 1998