Skip to main content

Book excerpt: Ashley Graham on the moment she became a SI Swimsuit cover girl

In an excerpt from her new book, A New Model, Ashley Graham tells the story of how she became a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit cover girl. 

The following is excerpted from A NEW MODEL: What Confidence, Beauty, and Power Really Look Like by Ashley Graham. Copyright C 2017 by Ashley Graham. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

There’s only so much you can do in a week to prep your body for a swimsuit photo shoot. I started by cutting out sugar so I wouldn’t be bloated or have any acne. I also had another colonic two days before the shoot, because I always truly believe they make my stomach flatter. They do sort of make your stomach flatter . . . but only if you’re really bloated. And they don’t make fat disappear. I worked out a little bit harder, but not much.

I didn’t go crazy at the gym or dieting, because I figured the folks at Sports Illustrated liked the way I looked at the casting, so why try to alter anything? It wasn’t like they didn’t know what they were getting. You can’t change your body for a moment or an event, like getting married. I’m all for making lifestyle changes based on long-term goals or health decisions. But if you diet or exercise just for a date or a high school reunion, you will never be happy with the results.

Scroll to Continue

More from SwimLife

Before my SI shoot, naturally, I got the darkest spray tan of my life. I mean, I looked like a burnt sweet potato. When you are on the beach, the water reflects light off your body so that in photos you look lighter. If you are modeling swimsuits on the beach, you want to looked bronzed, because it’s sexy. The woman who gives me my spray tans comes to my apartment and hoses me down right in my kitchen. Then she baby-powders me all over, and I go to bed covered in grease and powder, because you have to sleep in the tan before you can shower. (Justin always knows that it’s hands off on spraytan nights. . . . Can’t have any palm prints on set the next day. “Spray-tan sheets,” he says. “Got it.”)

My best shot at looking good for my Sports Illustrated photos was to do what Crystal Renn had taught me early in my modeling days in New York. I bought an old SI Swimsuit issue and flipped through it, looking at different positions and poses. Then I got in front of my old friend the full-length mirror and mimicked the poses to see if I could make them work for my body shape. Being a curvier, bigger girl, I have to think about a lot more than other models do; certain poses just aren’t flattering.

The prep I did in front of the mirror was better than any starvation diet, because at the shoot, MJ instructed me “not to think about swimsuits. I want you to think fashion.” I was on a beach in a tiny string bikini, sweating my butt off, trying to make sure my boobs look good, my stomach was flat, and a million other things, but I had my marching orders: fashion!

• Ashley Graham reveals more than ever before in new, nude photos

So I put my body into a position I had practiced, which I called the Emily DiDonato, after the famous model—on all fours, with my butt up a little bit and boobs pushed forward. Emily and I had shoots that overlapped on one day, and I told her how I’d named my sexiest pose after her. She loved it and thanked me. Anytime I have the opportunity to empower another model, I take it.

That pose turned out to have a lot more impact than even I imagined. It wasn’t until the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2016 Revealed special, which aired the day before Valentine’s Day, that I fully understood.

Hosted by Nick Cannon and Rebecca Romijn on TNT, the live special was a pageant-style show specifically to announce the newest Sports Illustrated cover girl. While they were showing montages of each model (and the countries where we’d been photographed), all the models were waiting backstage. There were girls everywhere. Because this was my first time doing SI, I was pretty overwhelmed. Were my strappy sandals cutting into my ankles? Did my boobs still look high and lifted? (Because my motto is, If your tits aren’t high and lifted, what’s the point of life?) All these deep thoughts were running through my mind when suddenly I had to pee, so I started for the bathroom, only to be stopped by a guy in a black suit and headset. “Where are you going?” he asked.

I have to pee really quick.”

“Can you just wait one second?”

“Do I have to?”

“Yeah. You have to.”

You don’t argue with a man in a headset, so I went back to my spot among the throngs of models backstage.


Only a few minutes later, another man in a headset appeared. He escorted Hailey Clauson, a blond model with full lips and long legs—the classic bombshell SI girl—out of line; then he took Ronda Rousey, a mixed martial artist, the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo, and a model in the Swimsuit issue; next he came for me. Confused, I saw that the president of IMG, Ivan Bart, was standing nearby with my agent, Mina. Between the lights, music, and wall-to-wall models, there was so much going on that I didn’t have time to process why Ivan and Mina had tears in their eyes as they stared at me.

The man in the headset then took Hailey, Ronda, and me toward the front of the stage, where the hosts were preparing to announce the cover girl. My brain immediately put the pieces together. There was no way they were giving the cover to Ronda, because she’s an athlete. The cover girl is always a model. And they definitely weren’t going to give it to me because I’m the fat girl. I was lucky to be in this magazine at all. Logic dictated that Hailey was the cover girl, but they were bringing Ronda and me out for the reveal because we were groundbreakers. I told myself the usual, that just standing next to this year’s SI cover girl while she got the news was going to be great exposure for me and take my career to a new level.

Soon the three of us went out onstage. Standing between Ronda and Hailey, I excitedly whispered to Hailey, “You got the cover! You got the cover!”

As Nick Cannon started to amp up the energy, getting ready to announce the big news, I was awed by the moment. I could feel the combination of luck, hard work, and God’s grace all at once. Who knows how I got here? I thought. However it happened, I’m taking it.

Nick Cannon took a quick look at all three of us, and then he shouted to the live audience, “Never before! Three different covers for Sports Illustrated!”

Boom! Enormous red curtains fell from three towering magazine covers of Hailey, Ronda—and me.

How could this be? I’m the fat girl.

But it did happen. The proof was right behind me in a larger-than-life image of me doing the DiDonato. There I was, in a small, purple string bikini, my hair wet and brushed over my face a bit, and a wave smacking my hip—a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue cover girl.