For this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, beauty isn’t measured by pounds or kilograms; it’s defined by Ashley Graham.
The model just made history, becoming the first-ever size-16 body activist model to grace the cover of the magazine. And she almost started her celebration with a wardrobe malfunction.
James Macari/Sports Illustrated
“I see my cover and I wanted to drop to my knees but this dress would’ve ripped and I have Spanx on underneath this,” Graham, 28, told PEOPLE about her strapless body con dress after the reveal on Saturday.
Before showing the three cover issue, also featuring UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and two-time SI swim model Hailey Clauson, the three women joined hosts Nick Cannon and Rebecca Romijn onstage during TNT’s special SI cover reveal special on Saturday night. Then, the hosts announced the historic change to the highly anticipated 2016 edition. For Graham, the rookie was initially shocked to be featured. Last year, she made headlines for appearing in an advertisement in the issue.
“I thought Sports Illustrated was taking a risk by putting a girl my size in the pages,” Graham said. “But putting me on the cover? They aren’t just breaking barriers; they are the standard now. This is beyond epic.”
Graham attributes the efforts of SI Swim’s editor, MJ Day, for her new cover girl title. Before Graham’s shoot for the issue had even finished, it was clear that something big was happening.
James Macari/Sports Illustrated
“MJ came over to me and she had tears in her eyes and she said, ‘This is going to make history’, ” Graham recalls. “And in that moment, I knew that I wasn’t just there as a favor, I wasn’t there just like ‘Oh let’s put the big girl in.’ I was there because I was supposed to be there.”
Graham says this cover isn’t just a celebration of her achievement, but a societal victory as well.
“Girls who are insecure about their bodies, girls who feel fat, girls who have cellulite, girls who have stretch marks on their body — those are all the things that I had as a kid and I never had a woman like me growing up to look at,” Graham said. “I had my mother and that’s one thing, but to have somebody who has cellulite, who has things that jiggle, who has back fat and talk about how you can be an overcomer and not let society take you down for all of that. That’s real.”
After leaving the stage, Graham, surrounded by her team, called her husband on the phone. His response to her cover?
“My husband said, ‘I told you!’ ” Graham said. “And then he goes ‘Yesss.’ “
More than anything, Graham loves the diversity and support shown in this issue.
“I want to dedicate it to all of the women out there who never felt that they were beautiful enough, who never felt like they were skinny enough, and who never felt like they were going to be able to be represented in society like this,” Graham said. “Because now we’re being represented.”
Graham and Sports Illustrated are making waves in more ways than one, but Graham has one thing she wants to do before anything else.
“I’m gonna go eat a burger,” Graham said. “I am so hungry. You have no idea. I want a burger and fries.”
You can catch Graham on this historic cover of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands Feb. 15.
— Blake Bakkila