First SI swimsuit edition cover model, Babette, coaxed into public
In 1964, a 22-year-old, fresh-faced model singularly named Babette appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, splashing in the waters off Cozumel, Mexico, clad in a midriff-baring two-piece swimsuit.
Little did she suspect the juggernaut that would follow.
This week, SI publishes its 50th anniversary swimsuit edition — an annual issue that has become the most profitable single magazine in the world, according to Forbes. It’s helped propel models including Cheryl Tiegs, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Christie Brinkley and Kathy Ireland into enduring fame and fortune.
Not quite so Babette, who began her international modeling career in 1961 and called it quits in 1978. These days, the former glamour girl, who traveled the world and mingled with the likes of Mick Jagger and the Beatles during her heyday, lives a life of bucolic creativity as an artist and innkeeper in Halfway, Ore., a tiny town of fewer than 300 people near the Idaho border, far, far, far, from the madding crowd.
Which is not to say the crowd doesn’t find her. Men who remember the cover have tracked her down, appearing suddenly in her gallery/home. About once a week someone asks her to autograph a copy of her magazine photo. And Sports Illustrated talked a reluctant Babette into forsaking rural Oregon to participate in the 50th anniversary festivities in New York and L.A.
And that is why she found herself on a January afternoon in Corona del Mar at Style 2020, which offers wardrobe styling services to individuals and businesses. Babette — sometimes referred to in the media as Babette March, a name she rejects as “made up by someone” — was slated to attend a hush-hush Sports Illustrated event in L.A. the next evening. (It turned out to be an NBC/Time Inc.-sponsored event at the Dolby Theatre that was being filmed for a TV special that aired earlier this month.)
After decades living far from the spotlight, she had enlisted friend Kathryn Moore, founder of Style 2020, to assist in getting her ready for the red carpet.
Not that Babette — now “going on 73,” she said — seemed to need much help. She arrived the picture of casual, sporty elegance, dressed in black leggings, a belted tunic cinched with a large artisanal buckle, a white jacket and animal print mules. Her honey-colored tousled short hair was artfully styled; her blue eyes enhanced with just the right touch of shadow; her high cheekbones subtly accentuated, lips pale pink.
It wasn’t the kind of icy elegance one might have anticipated from a Tyra, Heidi or Christie. Instead she was warm and natural with the kind of laugh lines that are hard won — a charming combination of self-confidence and self-effacement.
“It’s something I did lifetimes ago,” she said of her iconic cover, as stylists Lisa Marmorino and Shiloh McKasson pulled a Roberto Cavalli suit, Givenchy booties and other garments for her to try. “I think I’ve lived six or seven lifetimes. Each one leads to another.” (Other past lives include ranching, cooking in her own restaurant and living in Canada and Florida before settling in the Pacific Northwest.)
Looking back, there was nothing remarkable about this particular modeling job. “I didn’t even know it was going to be a cover. There was nothing special about it; it was just another trip,” she said. That trip took her to Cozumel with photographer J. Frederick Smith, one other model and a couple of assistants, she recalled. No makeup artists, hair stylists or huge entourage. “We did our own hair and makeup,” she explained.
The photo that made the cover was shot near the Mayan ruins at Tulum, a breathtaking site. But Babette was preoccupied. “I was just trying to keep my bathing suit on,” she said, nose wrinkling. “It was leather and it was full of water. The bottom was full of sand.”
“I didn’t realize guys all over the world were going to go crazy over this,” she continued. Her first clue? Maybe it was the Mexican officer she’d met on the shoot who showed up in New York, planning to propose. “I wouldn’t see him,” she added. It was the first of many, many “weird proposals” that continue to this day. (Perhaps it’s appropriate to note here that the former cover girl is married, to artist Dale Beatty.)
Because of the Sports Illustrated anniversary, she’s been able to meet some of the other swimsuit cover models, among them bombshell Kate Upton, who fronted the magazine in 2012 and 2013. “She’s just a doll, just adorable,” Babette gushed.
And she visited Manhattan, a place she loves but doesn’t miss.
“I loved what I did,” she said. “But I really am happy where I am now.”