The Most Controversial Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Photos We’ve Ever Seen

Millions subscribe to Sports Illustrated, which publishes many popular issues, including their Sportsperson of the Year, and, of course, the most anticipated annual editions, the Swimsuit issue. Several photos from the notorious magazine issue have shocked SI fans over the years. Here we rank the most controversial Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos ever, including the ignorant images that angered critics and went too far (page 9).

1. The inaugural Swimsuit issue

The first Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue

The debut Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue hit stands in 1964. | Business Insider

When Babette March appeared on the cover of the premiere Swimsuit issue, the models only got five pages and still shared space with the athletes. Despite the lack of coverage compared to these days’ issues, readers cried, “What does this have to do with the sports?” SI acknowledged a loss in subscriptions, but carried on, printing angry letters to the editor and capitalizing on each year’s controversy.

Next: Topless photo shoots evolved over the years.

2. The first topless SI cover

Model Veronica Varekova autographs copies of the 2004 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue.

Model Veronica Varekova autographs copies of the 2004 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. | Scott Eells/Getty Images

The Czech model has participated in eight SI Swimsuit issues, but her most controversial was 2004’s topless cover image. The shoot, which took place in Montauk, New York, features Veronica Varekova holding her swimsuit top rather than wearing it — and people freaked out. Many wondered if the Swimsuit issue even needed swimsuits anymore.

Next: This entire Swimsuit issue enraged critics.

3. The issue deemed ‘racist’ and ‘ignorant’

Jessica Gomes poses on a raft in China.

Many called the 2013 Swimsuit issue “tasteless.” | Sports Illustrated Swimsuit via Youtube

Sports Illustrated took a serious misstep in 2013, when the models posed on all seven continents, being photographed next to people who represented the countries. Jezebel explains SI’s “editorial decision makes the ‘native people’ tantamount to exotic props.”

One example, one shoot was produced on a river in China, with a white, blonde model posing next to an elderly Chinese man in a raft, portraying China as impoverished and colonial, “not the world’s second-largest economy where the majority of people live in cities,” according to Jezebel.

Next: Sports Illustrated gets artsy — at a cost.

4. Body paint replaces swimsuits

Supermodel with a white painted swimsuit models

Sports Illustrated began its body paint practice in the early 2000s. | Sports Illustrated Swimsuit via Youtube

Topless photos seem like nothing compared to the body paint ‘swimsuits’ Sports Illustrated introduced in 2005. People were outraged to see models wearing literally nothing as the magazine employed artists to paint on water-resistant bikinis onto the women. With truly little left to the imagination, athletes like Lindsey Vonn and Ronda Rousey have also participated. The shoots garner so much publicity, we doubt SI will ever stop including this aspect of their popular annual issue.

Next: Can you be curvy and healthy at the same time?

5. Ashley Graham’s plus-sized cover

Ashley Graham posing on a beach.

Model Ashley Graham made history with this cover. | Theashleygrahamtr via Instagram

In 2016, Sports Illustrated introduced Ashley Graham, a plus-sized model, to the cover. Though many praised the publication for featuring a woman with a more common body type, not everyone was happy. CNN reports Cheryl Tiegs, a former model featured in the magazine multiple times, said Graham’s inclusion glamorized being overweight. “Her face is beautiful … But I don’t think it’s healthy in the long run,” Tiegs commented. She tweeted an apology later, and Graham brushed it off.

Next: Readers will never forget the holes in this swimsuit.

6. Cheryl Tiegs’ infamous fishnet outfit

Cheryl Tiegs posing in her shoot.

This shoot was shocking at the time. | Rosalulita via Instagram

During her Swimsuit issue photo shoot, Cheryl Tiegs’ fishnet top showed more skin than ever published before. The white one-piece suit’s fishnet material made her torso, breasts, and nipples completely visible. Originally a throwaway photo not intended for publication, it caused so much controversy that Sports Illustrated editor Terry McDonell tells CNBC he wouldn’t even consider putting it out there today.

Next: This famous model’s airbrushing confused us all.

7. Kate Upton’s oddly altered body

Model Kate Upton poses for photos during an event to promote the 2012 Swimsuit Issue of Sports Illustrated.

Kate Upton’s body parts seem pretty off on the 2012 cover. | Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

Supermodel Kate Upton is known for her voluptuous curves, but one of her photos resulted in backlash. New York Daily News notes the 2012 Swimsuit cover shows Upton looking unusually petite, especially in the bust area. Her stomach looks uncharacteristically flat, and she has a “strangely absent nether region.” Even Upton’s face doesn’t look like her real features, clearly showing how the designers went overboard on the airbrushing.

Next: This older supermodel hesitantly posed nude.

8. Paulina Porizkova’s revealing pose at 52 years old

Paulina Porizkova poses for SI.

As a 50-something woman, Paulina Porizkova wanted to embrace her body. | Sports Illustrated Swimsuit via Youtube

This famous supermodel may be the oldest participant in a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue, which caused quite a stir. Paulina Porizkova took part in the 2018 issue’s “In Her Own Words” shoot. Daily Mail Online notes she was hesitant to join the shoot with models half her age, but Porizkova loved the message behind the movement and decided to participate.

Next: Did SI take advantage of these barely legal athletes?

9. Simone Biles and Aly Raisman’s Swimsuit issue debut

Gymnast Aly Raisman

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman poses for the 2017 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. | Sports Illustrated via Youtube

Sports Illustrated featured Olympic athletes in their 2017 Swimsuit issue, with Aly Raisman and Simone Biles showing off their muscular frames. Many were disappointed in the gymnasts because they had so many young fans who view them as role models. US Weekly says the athletes are proud of the shoot, however. “Aly and Simone represent all that is beautiful and strong and inspiring in women today,” responded SI Swimsuit editor MJ Day.

Next: Christie Brinkley’s daughter makes a splash.

10. Sailor Brinkley Cook’s nude photos

Sailor Brinkley Cook in a shoot.

Critics claim Cook was objectifying herself. | Sports Illustrated Swimsuit via Instagram

The 2018 “In Her Own Words” photo shoot, which involved models posing nude with empowering words of their choosing written on their bodies, struck nerves all over the internet. And famous supermodel Christie Brinkley’s daughter, Sailor Brinkley Cook, received plenty of backlash for the shoot. Critics said the 19-year-old objectified herself and sent a bad message, according to Fox News.

Cook wrote on her Instagram that the backlash hit her emotionally. “This project, for me and for the other girls who CHOSE to participate, was about TAKING OUR POWER BACK,” she wrote.

Next: Major curves combine with extreme cold.

11. Kate Upton’s hypothermic Antarctica shoot

Kate Upton posing in Antartica.

Did she put the shoot before her own health? | PeopleTV via YouTube

The 2013 swimsuit issue featured models in different continents. Kate Upton’s shoot took place in Antarctica, the driest, coldest place on earth. However, this didn’t stop the model from posing nearly nude in the freezing climate. The controversy was twofold. Upton had said her body started to shut down from exposure to the elements. Many critics believed she should not have been put in those hypothermic conditions.

Second, many readers criticized Upton’s curves. Some believed she was too big to be on the cover. She responded, “My curves are natural. They’re not going away no matter how hard I work out.” Keep in mind this issue took place before the push for curvier models and fewer airbrushed images.

Next: Capitalizing on sexual harassment doesn’t help.

12. The ‘tone-deaf’ #MeToo photo shoot

Robyn Lawley in her photoshoot.

Do the critics have a point, or are they missing the point? | Robyn Lawley via Instagram

Women broke their silence about sexual assault in 2017, inspiring SI’s shoot about the #MeToo movement. Women like Aly Raisman, Sailor Brinkley Cook, and Robyn Lawley posed with empowering words written across their naked bodies. However, many readers weren’t inspired.

Some claimed words on nude models don’t do anything to empower women. The New Yorker said the images look like “butcher-shop cartoons of an animal divided into cuts of meat.” The publication went on to call SI’s attempt at relevance “spectacularly silly, not to mention tone-deaf.”

Next: How much crotch is too much crotch?

13. The torso seen ’round the world

The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon reveals the 20115 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition cover.

Jimmy Fallon and Hannah Davis reveal the 2015 SI Swimsuit cover on The Tonight Show. | The Tonight Show via Youtube

Sports Illustrated rarely shies from risqué, but the 2015 cover in particular outraged many. It featured 24-year-old Hannah Davis yanking down her bikini bottoms dangerously low, Business Insider reports. Social media responses were similar all around, with many calling the photograph “pornographic” and “outrageous.”

The model doesn’t regret the shoot, however. When Davis talked with Matt Lauer about it, she said, “I think you’re making it look a lot naughtier than it really is.”

Next: This Sports Illustrated ad was seriously bizarre. 

14. The Sports Illustrated/DirecTV ad that confused us all

VS model Nina Agdal

Nina Agdal appeared in a DirectTV print campaign in a cross-partnership fashion. | DirectTV

There was a time when the swimsuit models didn’t only grace the covers of Sports Illustrated. Business Insider explains popular SI models Hannah Davis, Chrissy Teigen, and Nina Agdal also appeared in a DirecTV ad campaign. Unfortunately, it fell flat with viewers and received a ton of backlash.

The campaign has the models dressed as frumpy moms, crazy cat ladies, and women serving lunch. And many people thought the photos were sexist and demeaning to the working class. When we look at the images, we can’t help but agree.

Next: Female readers want sex appeal, too.

15. A call for male swimsuit models

NFL player Julian Edelman

Julian Edelman posed for ESPN magazine’s Body Issue, so why not Sports Illustrated? | ESPN via Youtube

After model Hannah Davis’s SI cover reveal, CNN published an opinion piece calling for equal objectification of their cover models. Journalist Peggy Drexler argues that male models appear on the cover of men’s magazines for a male readership, so why can’t SI give their female readers a similar offering with a model swimsuit model? Drexler wrote:

Why has no one created a counterpart magazine featuring a scantily dressed man? Why are men so rarely offered up as objects to behold? Men aren’t the only ones who like to “appreciate the beauty” of the opposite sex.

Next: Many didn’t see this coming from Sports Illustrated in 2018.

16. Brenna Huckaby, the first featured amputee

Brenna Huckaby's Sports Illustrated on a beach.

This had never been done before. | Brenna Huckaby via Instagram

In an attempt to empower and feature women from all walks of life, the 2018 swimsuit issue is the first to show an amputee in the spread. The Independent says Brenna Huckaby, a snowboarder and Paralympian, was excited to have the opportunity to promote body positivity with her shoot. Huckaby lost her leg to bone cancer in 2010.

The 22-year-old says the response has been overwhelmingly positive, and many women have reached out to show their support. Even so, with any big step for Sports Illustrated, there’s guaranteed to be some backlash from those who unsubscribe.

Next: A plus-size problem for some Sports Illustrated readers

17. Hunter McGrady’s unedited photos

Hunter McGrady

The “In Her Own Words” campaign received some plus-sized criticism. | Hunter McGrady via Instagram

Demand for unedited photos of real women caused SI to make new moves. While the 2018 “In Her Own Words” shoot in itself caused backlash, it features unedited takes of women from all walks of life. And SI chose to photograph Hunter McGrady, a size-16 model.

McGrady says the shoot was “personal, intimate,” and “empowering,” especially because she was told she’d never be a model, The Independent reports. But not everyone thinks she should be in the magazine. Some say the body positivity movement is normalizing dangerously overweight bodies.

Next: This famous tennis player was called a “hooker.”

18. Serena Williams’ Sportsperson of the Year shoot

Serena William's Sports Illustrated cover.

Her power pose struck some people’s nerves. | Livejoiful via Instagram

This photo wasn’t in the swimsuit edition, but the severe backlash Serena Williams received is notable. In 2015, the magazine dubbed Williams “Sportsperson of the Year,” showing off the tennis star’s legs in a sultry pose. Many quickly judged Williams, saying she looked like “a hooker” and she “wants one thing, and it’s not a chat with the line judge,” The Independent notes. Several feminists came to Williams’ defense afterward.

Next: The inclusion of this famous child’s toy shocked readers.

19. Barbie finally got her close-up

Barbie on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The cover was quite controversial. | CNN via YouTube

Not every issue of the swimsuit edition featured real women. In 2014, Barbie took center stage in the “unapologetic” issue, which featured the doll alongside supermodels Christie Brinkley and Brooklyn Decker. Mattel’s senior vice president says giving Barbie and other models who are under constant criticism a platform is an opportunity for them to own who they are.

Fox Sports notes many folks hated the Barbie edition, claiming it makes young girls feel even worse about their bodies. Others were concerned that a magazine meant for grown men featured a child’s doll.

David Leonard, a professor who studies race and culture, says the people in the images next to the models “are imagined as servants, as the loyal helpers, as existing for white western pleasure, amusement, and enjoyment,” making the photos particularly problematic.

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