Paulina Porizkova is an icon in the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. She booked her first SI spread 36 years ago, modeled on numerous covers following and last year she posed completely nude inside the magazine. It’s been nearly three decades since she first graced the magazine in those famous itty-bitty bikinis, and now the modeling legend is back and posing in the same skimpy G-strings she rocked in her 20s.
The 53-year-old opens up exclusively to PEOPLE about what it was like getting back in front of the camera for SI Swimsuit 2019. She talks about the realities of being the “oldest girl” in the magazine, what it’s like modeling bikinis in her 50s and why she ultimately decided to return. Read on for her candid and honest thoughts, below.
PEOPLE: What was your reaction when you learned you would be returning to the pages of SI Swimsuit?
Paulina Porizkova: My first thought was what an amazing idea it was to put a woman my age in SI as just one of the many “girls.” Me, as the oldest “girl” in the SI stable. My second thought was, oh, yeah, s—t, that means I will have to pose in a bikini with a bunch of 20 year olds. It was at once thrilling and disconcerting. Although I am militant about ageing women still being sexy and beautiful, I don’t always feel that way. (It didn’t help that the shoot fell to right after Christmas, when I had been gorging on cookies for a month and not had time to work out). But refusing was out of the question. I was honored to be invited to break a barrier. I would just have to suck it up, or IN, rather, and hope for a photographer who knew his light.
PEOPLE: Tell me about the photo shoot: What types of swimwear did you model?
PP: I wore exactly the same type of bikinis and bathing suits I would have worn 30 years ago. In fact, in one instance, almost less with nothing but a G-string and a hat.
PEOPLE: After posing nude last year for the “In Her Own Words” section of the 2018 SI Swimsuit Issue, did anything intimidate you about being on set in a swimsuit?
PP: Here is the odd fact. It was far, far easier to be full-on nude in a shoot than being photographed in a bikini. A nude, to me, is a stop sign. It demands your attention. It’s like shouting. And last year’s nudity was all about empowerment, women claiming their bodies with words written on their bare skin that told the stories of who they are. It was a political and social statement, not titillation. Posing in a bikini on a beach, that IS titillation. And something far harder and more complex for a woman of nearly 54, who is being told by society her sexuality and sensuality has expired. I think it takes enormous bravery to be an unaltered 50-something woman: cellulite, wrinkles and sags, and still pose as though she deserves to be looked at, to be desired. I was incredibly honored to have a go at it. And totally intimidated.
PEOPLE: Excluding last year, when was the last time you shot for SI Swimsuit?
PP: The last time I was in SI as just one of the SI “girls” was 1989. So, 30 years ago? I do know my first cover was 35 years ago!
PEOPLE: Tell me about the first time you ever posed for the SI Swimsuit issue. What was it like?
PP: My first SI shoot was in 1983, in Jamaica. I was 17 years old and lived in Paris at the time. When the agency in Paris told me I was booked for a magazine called Sports Illustrated, I snapped that I hated sports and didn’t want to do sports catalogues. Obviously, I was immediately shown the Carol Alt cover and told, not too kindly, that I was an idiot.
[Former SI Swimsuit editor] Jule Cambell took a big risk hiring me sight unseen, (first time ever for SI) and nearly had a heart attack when I exited the plane wearing a Dead Kennedy’s T-shirt that had “too drunk to f—k” scrawled on the front. Fortunately, after a day of working with the incomparable Walter looss on the beach, it was understood I only had a bad sense of humor and not an actual drinking problem.
RELATED VIDEO: Christie Brinkley Returns to SI Swimsuit – with Her Daughters!
Shooting for SI in my teens was the hardest easy job in modeling. We had to get up at 3:00 a.m. to catch sunrises. We had to do our own hair and makeup — usually in a pitch-black van on the way to a location. When we shot in Australia, it was still winter and some days in the low 30s! But “bikinis have no pockets”. Instead of worrying about clothing and folds and how to best showcase an outfit, all I had to worry about was whether or not my hair was blowing in the right direction.
PEOPLE: What’s one piece of modeling advice that’s stuck with you throughout your career?
PP: Jule Campbell shared Christie Brinkley’s technique of turning my hips to the side and shoulders to camera, while breathing in and holding my breath. I, to this day, tell all my girlfriends concerned with their hips (too much or too little) how to turn so they can look awesome in a bikini shot. Thanks Christie!