Fun facts about Sports Illustrated's iconic swim shoots, including how they get the "sugar cookie" dusting on the models' butts just right

By Catherine Kast
Updated December 18, 2019 10:15 PM
MJ Day - Style
Credit: Jamie McCarthy/Getty

The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit brand has come a long way since its first issue in 1964. “It’s a different animal,” longtime Swimsuit editor MJ Day (pictured above, with 2016 cover girls Hailey Clauson and Ashley Graham), tells PeopleStyle. It started off as “an insert of probably four to ten pages” produced by editor Jule Campbell. “The model would do her own hair and make-up and Julie would bring a tote bag full of bathing suits,” reveals Day. “Jule, the photographer and the model would walk down to the beach and they would shoot some pictures.” These days, it’s a standalone special issue, an ever-growing digital presence and a brand new summer music and fan festival.

The 2017 issue is out this week, and just to get you in the mood, we’ve got the scoop from Day on the misconceptions about putting together the sexy shoots. “[Many people] think that models are sort of these pampered princesses and it couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Day. “They work hard.” Check out these 10 fun facts:

Credit: Ben Watts

Ben Watts

1) It’s not just a day at the beach. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, “when everyone [else on the shoot] is taking cover, you’re sweating or getting drenched,” says Day. SI model Emily Ratajkowski agrees: “With SI, you travel far and wide to get to a beach and you never know what kind of elements will come into play — bugs, rain, you name it,” she told PeopleStyle in July.

Plus, you can’t sleep in. “Sometimes you’re talking about 2:30 a.m., 3:30 a.m. wake-up calls,” says Day, because you’re chasing the best light. “Every location is different in terms of where on the longitude and what their day looks like but most places, it’s the early morning or the last light of the day. That’s not always the case but it definitely is the majority of the time.”

2) Light can make or break a photo. “Even someone without a dimple or a bump or a vein or a pore can look like garbage if the light isn’t great,” says Day. “Shadows do wonders and they also wreak havoc; it’s sort of understanding that photography is an art just as much as painting is an art or sculpting is an art. Only the best can really work magic. We all know we can take a good iPhone selfie but that’s with a filter and pixelated imagery. These people are as much artists as any other medium; it’s an unfortunate thing that people don’t think about and they start undervaluing the craft.”

3) But re-touching is minimal. Really. “Video is such a huge part of it now, so it’s not like you’re going to re-touch things a lot,” reveals Day. “You don’t want it’s like make a girl look ‘runway’ in a photo and then different in the video, it’d be like, ‘What’s going on?’ That’s just silly and to be totally honest that’s not what we want to promote in the issue.”

Credit: Taylor Ballantyne

4) Sandy butts are totally desirable— and sometimes take a little finagling. “We call it the ‘sugar cookie’ or the ‘Shake and Bake,'” she says. “It can happen naturally… like the model will just be sitting and gets up and we’re like, ‘That’s great!’ and we’ll just start shooting. But the sand also has to be the right consistency: It can’t be too wet and it can’t be too chunky. You can accomplish it a bunch of different ways: we do a little water and then somebody is usually holding onto the girl’s hands and she does a little squat to just dip her butt into the sand. We’ll use a little brush sometimes if it’s not right where we want it.”

“I know when we did Chanel Iman in Zanzibar and we knew we wanted to get that shot, so we actually mixed some glitter in with the sand, and we put it on the ground on the beach and we got off the beach but she sat down in it just to make the sand on her butt to make it a little bit shimmery. Nothing crazy.”

5) They steer clear of body makeup. “We ask the models to come spray-tanned and have their mani-pedis done before the shoot,” reveals Day. “We want them to have the self-tanner done because body makeup is a disaster. We use minimal body makeup because it can get on the suit and then you have big brown streaks all over the suit that you can’t get off.” The makeup artist on-site will do finishing touches with hand-applied tanner if it’s needed. “[Longtime SI makeup artist] Tracy Cunningham has her favorites, but we all love St. Tropez,” says Day. “We always carry that in our kit.”

6) …But hair extensions are almost always used. “Hair takes such a beating on a shoot,” says Day. “There’s humidity, or the hair can fall flat, it’s windy. Pieces really help bulk it up to last the duration of the shoot. They help with the volume and keeping the hair looking alive.”

Credit: Taylor Ballantyne

7) Toupée tape can be a lifesaver. “The beauty of photography is that you can stop and start if there’s slippage,” says Day of keeping the models in their skimpy suits. “We have stuff like toupée tape and little nipple covers that we put on so you don’t want to expose anything. We definitely secure things at times, but I would say it’s only like 10 percent of the time when a suit is just really tricky and very custom for us to have to anchor it down in some way. Not many of them require that to be honest.”

8) The no-makeup makeup look takes longer than you think. “It’s definitely is way, way less makeup than we use on a normal shoot, but mastering that fresh, unmade-up look is not an easy thing to pull off,” says Day. “It’s not just that you wake up and throw on some moisturizer and go. It does get hard to hone that perfection and make that so it lasts five hours while we’re shooting.” Because of the times of day they have to shoot, they often are doing hair and makeup two separate times per day, once in the early morning and once at the end of the day.

9) They do the swimsuit fittings the day of the shoot—and there are hundreds of options. “Typically we bring anywhere from 500 to 800 swimsuits,” says Day. “It depends on the length of the shoot and the number of models that there are but we bring a lot because you never know what’s going to play right in that environment and what’s going to fit that model, because we do the fitting on location. At this point, I know all the returning girls’ bodies and what looks best on them and what is going to be comfortable, but it changes location to location. One place might have brightly colored buildings and the other place might be like baroque architecture. You want to be prepared for any and all situations while staying on-theme.”

10) The models often get to keep the suits. Because the only perk isn’t just getting to travel the world — the girls actually get to enjoy the bikinis! “We have plenty of designers that are like, ‘If the girls want to keep anything, let them’,” says Day. “It’s great for the designers to have the girls be seen in their suits, so a lot of them are more than happy if somebody falls in love with the suit they’ll let them have it.” Case in point: Emily Ratajkowski scored her first swimwear campaign with Amore + Sorvete after rocking their suit in an SI issue.