The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, which turns 50 this year, was a landmark development for both the magazine industry and the adolescent heterosexual male.
In the special issue’s half-century of existence, 40 women have posed – often in bikinis, sometimes in less – on the cover of the magazine.
Obviously, every single woman to appear on and inside the Swimsuit Issue is incredibly good looking, but who are the 17 most memorable? Choosing them was fraught with hard decisions, but nobody goes into journalism for the easy gigs. (And click here to see where the models are now.)
17. Carolyn Murphy, 2005 (also 2006)
She’s the only Swimsuit Issue cover girl to have a sex tape. She is famed for her resemblance to the 1940s star Gene Tierney. She dated the lead singer of Incubus for a while. She is the most interesting Swimsuit Issue cover girl in the world.
16. Petra Nemcova, 2003
Nemcova’s personal tragedy makes this beach cover bittersweet in retrospect, but it’s a good example of the early-’00s style: Tanned skin, a smoldering glare, and more sideboob than swimsuit. Petra’s pose is part of an inexplicable trend, too: After standing for nearly their entire history, in 2001, Swimsuit Issue cover girls commenced a new habit of sitting down.
15. Carol Alt, 1982
’80s Swimsuit Issues still had time for the one-piece, a look Carol Alt pulled off with aplomb. While her successor Elle MacPherson may have been “The Body,” Carol was “The Face” – a pretty good nickname to have if you’re a professional model.
14. Rachel Hunter, 1994 (also 2006)
The Marcus Lepidus of the famous ’90s Swimsuit Issue triumvirate, Hunter didn’t have the ubiquity of Kathy Ireland nor the long legacy of Elle MacPherson, but she was married to Rod Stewart and had a late-career revival thanks to her lead role in the “Stacy’s Mom” video, giving special feelings to a whole new generation of boys.
13. Bar Refaeli, 2009
She’s the one who dated Leo. No, the other one. Apparently she met the Titanic star while at a party thrown in honor of the members of U2, which is the sort of sentence that you can just casually throw into your bio if you’re a supermodel.
12. Marisa Miller, 2008
When they named her to the top spot of their 2008 Hot 100 list, Maxim called Miller “the return of the American supermodel.” We wouldn’t go that far – did they ever leave? – but we agree, the former Victoria Secret Angel’s talent is so great that she could even make an iPod seem like reasonable swimwear.
Beyoncé Knowles, 2007
Does she count? Well, she was on the cover, even if every other thing she’s done since 2007 has been more memorable than her stint in the Swimsuit Issue. That’s not a slam on her cover, just a recognition that it’s really hard to compete with “Partition.”
10. Brooklyn Decker, 2010
In recent years, the Swimsuit Issue has prioritized sideboob (and its lesser-known cousin, innerboob) over all else, with Decker’s appearances seeming to take the trend as far as it was humanly possible. Then Kate Upton came along, and we realized the scale went to 11.
9. Rebecca Romijn, 1999 (also 2006)
Romijn’s famous chain-mail bikini isn’t what we would personally choose to wear in a medieval battle, but in this case, aesthetics trump practicality.
8. Kathy Ireland, 1989 (also 1992 & 1994)
The epitome of the athletic look that was so prized in the ’80s, Ireland always appeared to have just gotten through some solid laps in the pool. She is the rare Swimsuit Issue cover girl combination of girl next door, tomboy and future business genius, all in one sultry package.
7. Elle MacPherson, 1986 (also 1987, 1988, 1994 & 2006)
More than her peers, MacPherson solidified the Swimsuit Issue’s preferred look for the coming decades: Lean, tan and ever-so-coltish. Even with their not-always-flattering ’80s getups, Elle’s shoots still look contemporary 30 years later.
6. Cheryl Tiegs, 1983 (also 1970 & 1975)
Before Cheryl, the Swimsuit Issue cover girls looked like relatively normal people, as if SI just snapped up the best looking women on any reasonably popular beach. After Cheryl, they were superhuman supermodels. She was a trailblazer in other ways, too: Her 1978 fishnet suit was the most controversial in Swimsuit Issue history, and the start of SI’s long experiment testing just how much of a female nipple they were allowed to show.
5. Paulina Porizkova, 1985 (also 1984)
The only Swimsuit Issue cover girl to be immortalized in a No Doubt song (not to mention her husband, rocker Ric Ocasek’s muse in “Drive” by The Cars). Paulina is also the subject of ’90s one-hit wonder the Rentals’ hit, “Friends of P”. Did being a Sports Illustrated cover girl cast some sort of magical, musical spell on her? We’re not sure, but we’re going to say: definitely.
4. Tyra Banks, 1997 (also 1996)
It’s tempting to call everything Tyra does “fierce,” but there’s really no better word to describe her trailblazing persona. The first woman of color to headline the Swimsuit Issue, Tyra went from SI covergirl to America’s actual “Top Model” in a matter of years. Now that’s something to smize about.
3. Kate Upton, 2012 (also 2013)
People sometimes pat themselves on the back a little too much for finding Upton attractive – she’s a blonde white woman with big boobs – but it was impossible not to root for her in her battle for acceptance from the high-fashion industry. Kate was the first repeat cover girl since the glory days of Tyra, an honor that was well-deserved.
2. Heidi Klum, 1998
There’s a reason body painting has become a staple of the Swimsuit Issue recently, and this is it.
1. Christie Brinkley, 1980 (also 1979 & 1981)
We might be biased, but we swear that Brinkley was at the top of this list even before she appeared on our cover. As sunny as her adopted state of California, the Uptown Girl‘s shoots are as timeless as their subject is ageless.
NBC and Time Inc. have partnered to present a two-hour TV special celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit franchise – one of the most hotly-anticipated annual fixtures in American pop culture. Sports Illustrated Swimsuit: 50 Years of Beautiful is set to air on Monday (9 p.m. ET) on NBC.
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