They’re in a League by Themselves
“I am a charter subscriber to your publication, but I wish you to cancel my subscription at once. You are a corrupting influence on the morals of young America. You are a disgrace to your profession. My mother-in-law agrees with me that we should not let trash of this sort into our house where we have two young sons who used to read your magazine all the time. No more. Yrs., Irate in Illinois.”
What did Sports Illustrated do to elicit this kind of periodic condemnation from the readership in the past? Come out in favor of steroids? Put a Soviet on the cover? Attack Babe Ruth? Campaign to abolish boxing? Laud George Steinbrenner?
No. SI did nothing more detrimental to the republic than publish a photograph of Cheryl Tiegs in a white mesh bathing suit.
Now, Cheryl Tiegs in a white mesh bathing suit is one of the great scenic wonders of the world, like moonlight on the Ganges, sunset over the Rockies, the headwaters of the Nile in a mist. Da Vinci would have stepped right over the Mona Lisa to do Cheryl, once he got a look at her in that fishnet.
The magazine didn’t skip the World Series to put this calendar art in. You still got the North American Soccer League results. But the subscribers couldn’t have been more outraged if the magazine had come out in favor of, say, the designated-hitter rule.
It’s entirely possible that if public indignation hadn’t reached such heights, what came to be known as the swimsuit issue would have died an early death. Usually two letters are enough to throw media management into a panic. But SI’s then-editor, Andre Laguerre, was a man not easily intimidated by a mere reader and he was positively apoplectic over the notion of his editorial policy being dictated by a handful of Bible Belters.
Cheryl Tiegs stayed. So, as a matter of fact, did the Irates in Illinois.
Sports Illustrated has created many a star in its history. Appearance on its cover has been known to help to fame many a world-class athlete. It can get football players the Heisman, baseball players into Cooperstown, fighters into multimillion-dollar matches.
But nowhere is the power of its press more noteworthy than in what it can do for a woman in a bathing suit.
Cheryl Tiegs is its Babe Ruth. She holds all the records. At 41, she’s still knocking the ball out of the park. But the magazine has made Christie Brinkley, Carol Alt and Kathy Ireland into Hall of Famers and the latest to parlay sports coverage into millions of dollars.
At first, the magazine tried to tie in its cheesecake (as an MGM still gallery photog once dubbed it) with some spurious sporting activity. The girls were snorkeling in the Seychelles, water-skiing off the West Indies, fishing in Baja.
The public was not fooled. “What do the Seychelles have to do with sports?” roared the defenders of the public morals.
So, the editors scrapped the pretense. But not the issue.
You have to understand that editors periodically have to worry about newsstand sales. On Time magazine, it used to be your servant’s duty from time to time to furnish the magazine with a pretty movie star to adorn its cover and take the curse off the succession of grim-visaged dictators, generals and Andrei Gromyko who could usually be found there. Andrei Gromyko never sold a magazine in his life. Ava Gardner sold out.
Sports Illustrated had to get away from its Andrei Gromykos--tobacco chawing home run hitters or psychotic middle linebackers. Enter Cheryl Tiegs.
The swimsuit issue got so popular, it has an issue all its own this year, the 25th anniversary of the very first to elicit the howl “What has this to do with sports?”
It makes the women’s libbers froth at the mouth. It drives Billie Jean King up a wall. She wants female shotputters on the cover, not bathing beauties. But it has become an institution, like Fourth of July fireworks and Geraldo Rivera.
No longer do they just send photographer Johnny Zimmerman to the pool at the Americana Hotel to shoot Christie Brinkley surfacing with sequins in her hair. No longer does she have to pretend to be hunting boar.
Now they have to haul Christie to darkest Africa to be photographed fetchingly and dangerously--did you know a giraffe weighs two tons and can kick you to death if you get him annoyed enough?--against a backdrop of wild animals. Tiegs still gets photographed in the Seychelles rising like Aphrodite out of the sea.
But, SI--bless them!--does not feed us that ghostly parade of bony, cadaverous creatures that pass for models on Madison Avenue. SI’s girls are healthy. Anorexia is not big with its 80% male readers. They want women to look like women, not one-irons.
Hollywood long ago discovered the analgesic effect a beautiful woman in a flimsy costume had on the paying public. The studio put Esther Williams in a one-piece suit and a plotless picture and they both got rich. Esther Williams with an orchid in her hair beat Bogart with a gun in his hand for years at the Bijou. Flo Ziegfeld could have told them that in a New York minute.
I don’t think the swimsuit issue is going to hang in the Louvre. It’s American pop art at best.
If you want to find out how the Knicks are doing, don’t buy it. But if you want to be reassured that American women are still the world’s best--well, open to any page.