Sports Illustrated has been photographing women in bikinis for nearly half a century, and it’s cultivated a reliable formula for keeping its annual swimsuit edition selling—the clothes keep getting skimpier, and the surroundings more remote. This year, SI editors pledged to shoot its swimsuit models on all seven continents, and cover girl Kate Upton was unlucky enough to land Antarctica.
“I’m naked and trying to change,” she told David Letterman of her weeklong experience in subzero temperatures. “I literally couldn’t move my legs, so the editors would have to pick up my legs and put them into my next outfit.” The effects continued when Upton returned to American soil. “When I came back, I was losing my hearing and eyesight,” she said with a smile on the Today show. “My body was shutting down because it was working so hard to keep me warm.” She described the issue’s cover shot, which shows her wearing only an open parka over a pair of swim bottoms, as “a sort of I-love-you from the editor: ‘I’ll let you wear a coat for this one.’ “
Upton’s talk-show anecdote made a big splash. Matt Lauer responded with a shrinkage joke. Letterman ribbed her for wearing a scarf. Upton blamed herself: She told the Associated Press she got “very, very sick,” because “I don’t think you can go to Antarctica and stand in a bikini without that happening.” And SI praised her for going with the flow. “We should name a passageway after her down there,” senior editor M.J. Day told Reuters. “She braved six days in a bikini while we were head-to-toe in jackets … No one will ever accuse her of being a whiny model, ever.”
How charitable of Day to deflect any possible accusation against Upton after she* and her colleagues spent the week rearranging her immobilized naked body in pursuit of the perfect shot. Apparently, when a model is harmed on set, she’s held accountable for taking the job. And if she were to stand up for her own health, she’d be labeled a diva.
I called Sports Illustrated to ask what the magazine was thinking putting Upton in that situation, and what it thinks of the decision now. Knowing Upton’s symptoms, which are consistent with hypothermia, does SI feel that Antarctica is an appropriate place to stage swimsuit shoot? “It’s on the cover,” was the magazine spokesman’s response. Later, in an emailed statement, he volleyed the responsibility back to Upton. “From the very beginning, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit franchise has put the models first,” he wrote. “We foster a very collaborative environment working closely with the models throughout the planning and execution of our shoots. This was again the case for the Antarctica production which we worked on with Kate for several months before embarking on the trip and during the six-day shoot.” (Upton, for the record: “I was very surprised by the news that that’s where my shoot was going to be located.”)
The Upton incident recalls one of the craziest episodes of America’s Next Top Model, in which Season 7 contestant CariDee English suffered hypothermia after being asked to submerge herself at length in a near-freezing swimming pool. As her teeth chattered and body convulsed, host Tyra Banks pushed her to stay in the pool. “CariDee, you’re from Fargo! Come on! This is real, real modeling, guys, being cold as heck!” And when English’s body shut down in the water, Banks blamed her for following orders. “You have to listen to your body,” she told her. “Because all we know is go-go-go-go-go, go-go-go-go-go, but you have to tell us no.”
English went on to win the competition, and Upton’s Antarctic experience will help solidify her reputation as a pro. It should have the opposite effect for SI. If Upton had refused to participate in the shoot, the magazine could have just replaced her with any number of young models hoping to take their careers to the next level (which now apparently means posing nude on the seventh continent). But all it takes is one Sports Illustrated editor to say: It’s unethical and unnecessary to endanger a model in order to make $1 billion off of her suffering, and we’re not going to do that. For now, Upton is still made to feel like she owes SI. “Sports Illustrated really launched my career,” she says. “I have a lot to thank them for.”
Correction, February 15, 2013: This post originally referred to Sports Illustrated editor M.J. Day as a man. Day is a woman.