Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue: First cover star, 50 years on

Story highlights

Babette Beatty was the first model on the cover of Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue

The German had no idea how big the editions, which has turned 50, would become

Beatty landed back from Mexico trip on the day John F. Kennedy was shot dead

She now lives in the mountains in Oregon and spends her time painting

CNN  — 

Her paintings may sell for thousands of dollars, but she is best known for a modeling shot 50 years ago that helped launch a money-spinning business empire.

Now 72, but looking a decade younger, Babette Beatty was the first Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue cover star.

Discovered on a beach in Florida, these days she resides in a mountain town far from the glamor and glitz of the entertainment industry that has made household names of her successors.

It all started on a whim – for her a chance of some Mexican sunshine; for Sports Illustrated a chance, for one week, to fill the void left by a lack of content in the winter months.

Today, the swimsuit issue, launched half a century ago on January 20, has outgrown the magazine that first spawned it.

The 2012 edition generated more than $40 million in advertising revenue, 7% of the weekly publication’s total for the entire year, not to mention the millions it makes in sales to the public.

That issue had 34.5 million video views online, while a free mobile app had 500,000 downloads in the opening week alone.

So it’s a very happy 50th birthday indeed for owner Time Inc.

The swimsuit issue is more than just scantily-clad women in bikinis gallivanting around the world’s most picturesque beaches – it’s a business behemoth.

Supermodels such as Christine Brinkley, Elle Macpherson, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum have featured on the cover, while sports stars including Maria Sharapova and Danica Patrick have featured along with pop star Beyonce Knowles.

But leading the way was an aspiring young German, then living in New York after spending several years in Brazil.

Known at the time as Babette March, she had featured on the Paris catwalks and been a regular on the pages of Vogue and Elle.

In November 1963 she received a call from J. Frederick Smith, a renowned glamor photographer with whom she had worked regularly.

“There were about five or six photographers who seemed to like me, and that’s how things started for me really – he was one of them,” she told CNN.

“We did a lot of pictures together and he worked for Sports Illustrated on and off. He asked if I wanted to come on a trip to Mexico and I thought, ‘Why not?’ “

It wasn’t the money – as little as $50 a day for the 10-day shoot – that persuaded her, rather the lure of a trip to the sun-drenched island resort of Cozumel.

“It was a great trip – so much fun,” she recalls. “There weren’t any people there, not like now. You have to remember Cancun (on the mainland) didn’t really exist then, the only people there were the Mexican Air Force. And they seemed to enjoy the shoot!

“There was nothing about it being a cover shoot, it was just a shoot, something fun and something different.

“Each day, we’d have breakfast and then the photographer would tell as where to go. He was just constantly snapping pictures. I was put in my bathing suit, and that was it.”

When she and the rest of the team boarded the plane back to the United States, their high spirits were shattered soon after touching down in Dallas, Texas.

“When we landed, we were grounded and it was announced that President John F. Kennedy had been shot dead,” Beatty says.

“The whole plan was just crushed. People were screaming and crying, it was awful. I’ll never forget that. The dream trip had ended on such a terribly sad note.”

Beatty quickly moved on to her next job – she continued modeling until 1979 – and gave very little thought to Sports Illustrated, as did they to her.

“That was the only time I ever worked for them,” she says. “I never heard from them again.

“Of course I had no idea I’d be on the cover of the first issue (which was merely a short supplement to the magazine) and of course I had no idea it would become as big as it did.”

But she made the cover: her head turned to the side, smiling cheekily in a white bikini as the Mexican waters lapped against her ankles.

Even now, people still send her copies of the magazine asking for an autograph.

“There are marriage proposals too,” says the married Beatty, “and I’m 72, I tell you!”

It’s perhaps apt that her modeling career should have begun with her wearing a white bikini.

As a 15-year-old, she went to the beach in Fort Lauderdale, where she lived with her family at the time, wearing a white, tassled outfit – which proved to be too risque for the time.

“It was 1959 and I got asked to leave the beach because of what I was wearing,” she says.

“But also on the beach was a photographer for Eastman Kodak, and he basically discovered me. My first job was outside a camera shop for $25. I still think I’ve got the check for it somewhere. I then started modeling properly in New York in 1961.”

Beatty, and her husband Dale, live nowhere near the beach these days. They relocated from California to Halfway, a small town of 350 people in Oregon, where he works as a sculptor and she paints.

Art has been a big part of her life, from self-portraits to the nature landscapes and home interiors that hang from the walls of her home gallery – which sell for $7,000 each.

And when not painting, she loves nothing more than hiking with her dogs in the surrounding, undulating terrain, where it’s not uncommon to see coyote, deer, antelope and elk.

“Painting’s always been a big part of my life and where I live is the perfect setting for inspiration,” she says. “For me, personally I love the bright colors.”

While in Oregon, she is known as Babette Beatty. To the rest of the world, she is the first cover star of one of the world’s most celebrated magazines.

Read: Sports Illustrated - swimsuits on seven continents