When three beautiful women took the stage Saturday night at TNT’s live unveiling of the 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover, few would have predicted that this year’s issue would make history.
First among the trio was 28-year-old rookie Swimsuit Edition model Ashley Graham, who’s turned the world of fashion on its head by blurring the line between straight-size and plus-size modeling while simultaneously promoting body positivity among women of all age, shape and size.
Next was 20-year-old California stunner Hailey Clauson, a former high-fashion teen sensation who has appeared in campaigns for Gucci and Jill Stuart, and walked the runway for Zac Posen, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg.
And, finally, 29-year-old mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, the Olympic bronze medalist and former UFC Women’s Bantamweight Championship, who parlayed her cage fighting dominance to become a true pop culture phenomenon.
Standing up on that stage, Ashley, Hailey and Ronda were three very different women with one thing in common: They had absolutely no idea who was going to be chosen for the cover.
“They told us there were three finalists,” Clauson told me during a Monday morning interview for XFINITY.com. “This is what I was told. And I was like, that’s horrible! They’re gonna put three girls up there and tell two [they didn’t get it].”
Graham, however, thought she had it figured out.
“I started whispering to her, ‘It’s you, Hailey. It’s you. It’s you,’” she recalled. “I thought, ‘They’re not putting me on the cover. That’s too revolutionary.’ And then Ronda, I was like, ‘They wouldn’t put a celebrity on the cover, because they like to put new models on the cover.’”
So, who would join the ranks of iconic cover models such as Tiegs, Klum, Banks, Brinkley and Macpherson? The answer shocked all three women:
It was Ashley Graham. And Hailey Clauson. And Ronda Rousey.
The TNT event’s host Nick Cannon announced that, for the first time in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition’s 52-year run, the magazine would produce three separate covers featuring each of the uniquely stunning women front and center. And Graham, overcome by the emotion of the moment, snatched the microphone from Cannon’s hand to celebrate the realization of a dream.
“I said, ‘I’m gonna take over!’” Graham explained with a laugh. “I saw my whole career flash before my eyes. I saw ‘The Ashley Graham Show,’ I saw the hair and makeup campaigns, I saw the lives of little girls being changed. It was, like, everything…”
“All I saw was the covers and I was shaking like a baby deer,” Clauson added. “My legs were going crazy and I just had tears. I couldn’t speak. I was like, ‘Thank god she was talking. I need a moment.’ We didn’t even really have a chance to look at it.”
“I just saw my face. And my boobs,” Graham quipped. “It was such an amazing moment to share with both of them.”
Check out my full interview with 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover models Ashley Graham and Hailey Clauson below:
David Onda: Sports Illustrated put out a video last week of the emotional moment when you first found out you’d be doing a photo shoot for this issue. Where did that emotion come from?
Ashley Graham: I’ve been fighting for this for two years and I got confirmed much later in the year. I knew that I was on Sports Illustrated’s radar and it was something that could happen, but I knew that they stopped shooting in November. The week after Thanksgiving is when that [moment happened], and I had had two plates of food at Thanksgiving.
Hailey Clauson: Oh, god, I had five.
Graham: I told my agent, “I hate you! Why didn’t you tell me?” Because she had known at that point. I was like, “I wouldn’t have eaten so much at Thanksgiving!” But the tears were for what it was gonna do. Because I knew that putting a girl my size in the pages was going to make history.
Onda: Hailey, you’ve spent nearly your entire career in high fashion. Is shooting for Sports Illustrated like a welcomed vacation? Is it as special to you as work in high-fashion?
Clauson: Yeah, oh my gosh. I did high fashion until I was 17, and then got a womanly body and nobody knew what to do with me and they kind of told me, “You’re done.” And I was like, “No, I’m not. I’m gonna keep doing this, because I’m proud of myself and I want to.”
Graham: Boom shakalaka.
Clauson: I was like, “I’m gonna take a break, I’m gonna become a woman, learn who I am, experience life a little.” I came back and then kind of went into this whole swimsuit world and then booked Sports Illustrated and never felt better about myself after the shoot. They make you feel so sexy and beautiful. And it’s not about how you look, it’s just about how you feel while you’re shooting and then after. It’s the most incredible team ever. I couldn’t say better things about [Assistant Managing Editor MJ Day] and everybody.
Onda: What I really appreciated is that, when MJ explained why you deserved the cover, she didn’t single out parts of your body that look great in a bikini, she praised your intelligence and personality. She said you are so cool, but you don’t even know it.
Clauson: That was the biggest compliment. To talk about my character and not how I look and my body – that means more. It really does. At the end of the day, it’s not about what you look like, it’s about who you are and the connections you made with everybody. It’s not about being a model. It can be so self-absorbed, and I don’t wanna be that person.
Onda: Ashley, I was looking through your Instagram and Twitter at the reactions to your cover, and you’ve gotten some really emotional, heartfelt responses from people. It must mean so much to you.
Graham: There’s not a comment or an email that goes unnoticed. The women who write to me and the stories that I hear are so heartfelt. Just recently, I girl had write me and she said that she had been anorexic for about six years and she decided, after she had seen my TED Talk that she wasn’t gonna throw up anymore and she was gonna start eating again because she saw the confidence that was bestowed in me. And I thought, “Oh my god, I actually am doing something. This is something that’s happening.” And now, to be on the cover of Sports illustrated, more lives are gonna be changed, more women are gonna feel beautiful. They’re not gonna feel bad because of their size.
Clauson: This industry puts so many people down and makes you feel that you should be a certain way. It’s more about characters and who you are and what you bring to the photos now and it’s not about…
Graham: It’s not about the look anymore. There’s no one perfect model or perfect woman anymore, and we’re representing so many different types. That’s why I created the hashtag #beautybeyondsize, because that’s truly what we wanna do in fashion, in Hollywood, in women in their daily lives. You need to be beyond your size, beyond your exterior and really truly about what you’re doing and how you’re shaping and changing the lives of other women.
Onda: I assume that, with any photoshoot, the issue of photoshopping and the altering of your body is an area of concern for you. When you sign on for something like Sports Illustrated, do you discuss this issue?
Graham: This is the thing about Sports Illustrated—you’re going to look beautiful, no matter what. The thing is, they don’t over-retouch. They take your body and they make it beautiful in the photo so they don’t have to do anything. We were booked because of our bodies, because of personalities and because of the charisma we brought within the casting.
Onda: Tell me a little bit about some of the more interesting locations or positions you had to endure to capture some of these beautiful photos.
Graham: My rookie photo that got released, the purple and pink one where I’m on my back like this [arches her back] – my neck hurt for three days. I thought I needed a neck brace. It was terrible. I got thrown onto rocks from a wave, I had bruises and cuts and they were like, “Welcome to the family.” It’s kind of expected.
Clauson: It’s not very glamourous. It’s painful. Just from my knees being in the sand, it had completely scraped them and my knees were bleeding the whole time. Like, would you think of that ever when you see the photo?
Graham: No, because it looks hot, because you’re grabbing your boobs. I wish I could hold my breasts with one hand, but that’s not happening.
Clauson: My friend was actually saying that to me yesterday. I was like, “I don’t know how I did that!”
Onda: You guys obviously get along great together, but is there camaraderie between you and the other Swimsuit Edition models?
Graham: One-hundred percent. Immediately, I got to the TNT stage and Gigi [Hadid] came up and gave me a huge, Chanel [Iman] came up and gave me a hug, Lily Aldridge and I sat next to each other and we made up dance moves. I was sitting next to Hailey right here and she was like, “Girl, can I have some of your water?” I was like, “Here.” It’s an automatic sisterhood because we all know that we’re all meant to be there. We were chosen.
Clauson: Which is nice, because you know you can handle this week by being friends with everybody and genuinely having a good time.
Onda: And, of course, Ronda is the third part of this cover equation. She’s a cultural phenomenon right now, but I feel like I don’t have her completely figured out as a real-life person.
Graham: She is the coolest person. I think a lot of people probably don’t know what she’s like, but she came up to me right away and she was like, “You are the s—t.” And I was like, “Thank you!” It was an automatic girlfriend vibe. It’s not a “tough girl” with her. She’s very girly. She had that sexy red dress on, her boobies were out, her butt was looking great and she was like, “First of all, I can’t wait to get this dress off, but I look really good, right?”
Clauson: I was staring at her from behind and I was, “Damn, Ronda!” I’ve been a big fan of her for a while. I love UFC and she’s obviously pretty much the face of it right now, so I was pretty excited just to see here there. And now to share this moment with her, I’m like, “Yay! I get a connection with Ronda Rousey.” And she was just sweet! Really sweet.
Onda: These covers are everywhere today. Everyone is talking about them. What do you hope people take from these three covers featuring these three very different women?
Graham: It’s clear that Sports Illustrated is saying, “Every woman is beautiful.” We are a diverse group of women, and you should feel represented. We’ve got three completely different types of woman. The most important thing is that Sports Illustrated has always been a trailblazer, but now they’re proving that they are the trailblazer. I think it’s very exciting to be able to share the cover with Hailey and with Ronda and I couldn’t be more ecstatic, because this is going to shape the rest of the industry where women who are considered plus-size models and women who are considered straight-size models are bridging the gap and there’s no labels anymore.
Clauson: F labels!
Graham: F labels! And you know what, Ronda also shows the power, that you can do anything. She does such a “manly sport,” but she’s showing that women can do anything.
Onda: Now that you’ve made history, what’s next for you both as you move ahead in your careers?
Graham: When I said “I’m taking over” when I took the mic, I really meant it. “The Ashley Graham Show” is coming. The hair and makeup campaigns that a curvy, plus-size model has never gotten before is coming. I have three clothing lines. I have a lingerie line that’s already out right now, AshleyGrahamCollections.com. It’s for the big, curvy ladies. I have not forgotten about them. But the number one thing that I’m really excited about is I want to go into the homes of young women who are 10, 11, 12, who are slicing their wrists, who are throwing up, who aren’t eating, who hate their bodies so much, and I wanna be able to say, “I’ve been in your shoes and you can get past this and you are worth more than this.” That’s where I see myself.
Clauson: Now I have a voice, finally. It makes such a difference. It’s gonna make such a difference in my career, because I’ve worked my booty off to get here.
Graham: She’s gonna be on the cover of Vogue.
Clauson: I mean, whatever comes comes.
Graham: Which one do you want?
Clauson: American Vogue. I’d like French, too. And Italian. And British. Maybe we’ll do an American Vogue together! Maybe we’ll be like…
Graham: Holding each other’s breasts! [laughs]
Clauson: Yessss! I have really long arms, too, so I could hold both our boobs. [laughs]
The 2016 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition is on sale now. For more information, visit SI.com/swimsuit.
Want to meet Ashley and Hailey? Join the Swimsuit Edition models for autographs, photo ops and more on February 16 at The Altman Building in New York City from 11 a.m.-5 p.m., and February 17 and 18 at Lummus Park in South Beach, Miami from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The events are free and open to the public.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.