For the last decade or so, I’ve had a recurring nightmare. I’m on a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit at my current age. The sun is setting on a beach, I’m in a bikini, pumped and ready to shoot, but am ignored in favor of much younger models. As the sun plunges below the horizon, so does my heart as I realize my age has rendered me essentially invisible.
Then a few months ago SI called to ask if I’d like to be one of the core “girls” in the upcoming issue. I’d be the oldest core girl. Ever.
I landed my first SI cover 35 years ago, and the trajectory of my career changed overnight. But these days, you’ll most likely find me behind a desk, or more truthfully, behind the kitchen table, with crap reality TV on in the background as I write. I write fiction and nonfiction, and have been militant about ageism: I’m deeply offended on behalf of all of us women who are rendered socially invisible once we look a certain age. Certainly, today’s 50 is not yesterday’s 50. While I am, at times, proud to look my age, when someone on social media calls me a wrinkled hag, I have to do a lot of slow breathing. So I had to wrestle with the question: How do I feel about being the old lady in SI? Do they really want me—or am I here because of what I represent?
I’m 54, I haven’t “had work done” (yet), and now I’m being asked to climb back into a bikini when I’m basically the age my mother was the last time I did this, in 1992. But editor MJ Day—the power behind the Swimsuit Issue and the woman who has been responsible for broadening the idea of female beauty with gorgeous girls of all colors and sizes—decided she wanted me.
With only three weeks to prepare, I considered for a moment all the things I could do to make myself look younger. Then I settled for a facial, and the only work I did was working on accepting that I didn’t look 25. Or 35. Or 45.
My acceptance took a rude hit in the Nairobi airport. After a 16-hour ight, we all looked the way people do after long flights, except for Haley (Kalil), the other model traveling with me. At 25, she was exactly as beautiful as when we boarded. No bags under her eyes, no weird folds from sleeping on a sweater and no bed-head hair. That’s when our airport guide, a man in his 60s, took a head count and announced, “One of you is missing.” He shook a sheet of paper as if to somehow dislodge the missing person and stared right through me as he continued: “It says here there are two models. So, where is the other one?”
Aside from the obvious awkwardness everyone felt, and the sweet way they pretended that didn’t just happen, once we did the fittings and I got to the beach with the crew, muscle memory kicked in, and it felt just like 30 years ago.
Then came the sunset.
Back in the old days, the best bikinis were saved for that last 10 minutes of light. In a week’s shoot, you could tell the favorites for a cover by how many sunsets they got. This time, I wasn’t kidding myself; I knew I wasn’t in the running for a cover. Still, as we got ready for my one sunset, MJ handed me my favorite bikini and photographer Yu Tsai helped me to stand on a tree branch that overlooked the mangrove bay. We had very little time in which to capture the magic. As I balanced myself on the tree, sucking in my stomach for all I was worth, the sun snowballed into a grey cloud. It wasn't exactly a sunset, but we got a shot.
In my nightmare I was upset because I was bypassed because of my age. Now, I realized it was all about just being invited. By hiring me, MJ had cracked open the door to another possibility: the visible mature woman. Or, let’s just say: the hot old lady.
See all of Paulina's incredible photos from SI Swimsuit 2019: