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Tyra Banks’ winter 1997 ‘Sports Illustrated’ cover

The cover that turned Tyra Banks, literally, into America’s top model

SI Swimsuit Issue of 2/21/97 featuring Tyra Banks in the Bahamas.

Sports Illustrated’s Feb. 21, 1997, Swimsuit Issue, featuring Tyra Banks in the Bahamas.

Russell James

From the pink sand shore of tiny Harbour Island, thick clouds sit drearily in the sky, preventing a perfect scene. It’s December 1996, and a photographer is tirelessly snapping images on the Bahamian beach, hoping the sun will peek through. Through the lens of Russell James’ Pentax 67, he sees soon-to-be supermodel Tyra Banks. “I remember looking at Tyra and thinking, ‘Oh my God’, this is possibly the most gorgeous human being,” James recalls. But he remained focused, and patient.

In 1996, Elaine D’Farley was tasked with creating the first stand-alone edition of Sports Illustrated‘s Swimsuit Issue — it was to feature models exclusively throughout. For over 50 years, SI editors had confined the provocative photos to a section of often under a dozen pages. It was time to see how the sports-oriented magazine, now filled with models, would do on newsstands by itself. As the senior editor of the Swimsuit Issue, D’Farley’s job was to book the models and photographers, decide on the locations, style the shoots, attend the shoots, edit the images and make sure the magazine was ready to hit newsstands in the winter. It was a new project and she had a tiny staff, but she knew who she wanted in order to make an impact.

“I really wanted Tyra,” said D’Farley, now a beauty consultant in New York City. “She’d been on the cover with Valeria [Mazza] a year before.” It was the cover of a special edition of Sports Illustrated they called the “Swimsuit Issue,” but which still featured SI’s usual mix of sports news and features. Each year since 1964, white models were featured in the Swimsuit Issue, and so Banks’ 1996 South African safari-themed cover was notable.

But her 1997 Swimsuit Issue cover was monumental. She launched the stand-alone brand by herself. In 1996, she became the first African-American woman to cover GQ, and her roles on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1993, and in Higher Learning in 1995, had already boosted her pop cultural status. But this was Sports Illustrated — the cover would turn Banks, literally, into America’s top model.

“The hair was perfect, Tyra looked straight at the camera. I had like 10 frames in that burst of light.”

D’Farley, who’d worked previously at Glamour as a fashion editor, knew there was something special about Banks. Yet, when black-and-white photos of the model, then 23, were delivered to D’Farley’s desk from a shoot she’d done in Istanbul with Fabrizio Ferri, D’Farley scrapped them. “The images,” she said, “weren’t appropriate for the issue.”

“I wanted more fresh types of pictures than the ones I did with Fabrizio,” D’Farley said. “I called [Tyra’s] agent and had her come to Harbour Island. I hired Russell James to do the shoot. At the time, he was kind of a brand-new photographer. He worked a bit for Victoria’s Secret. We all went to Harbour Island, which is a spectacular place to shoot, because the light is really, really great. But when we got there, it was cloudy — and that was kind of a problem.” James, a native of Australia, remembers it all: “Elaine took a huge bet on me. It was basically my break into the U.S. as a photographer. I understood the importance of Sports Illustrated, and its impact. I knew if we got this right, there was a chance it could be a cover.”

Banks, of course, looked nothing like Kathy Ireland, the supermodel who appeared three times on SI’s cover, or Elle MacPherson, who appeared on five covers. But there Banks was — a tall, black girl from Inglewood, California, who had been called “giraffe” and “lightbulb head” — making history.

On the day of the shoot, the crew woke to complete overcast: some rain, and a slight chance of sun. James had opted to use a hair and makeup team that he was familiar with, instead of using Banks’ personal stylists, or a staff D’Farley could’ve hired. When he asked Banks to wear her hair straightened, she didn’t snuff the idea, a relief for the photographer.

“I shot a Polaroid [of Tyra] and I pulled it out,” James said. “The most nervous moment of a young photographer’s career is when you show it to them. I remember Tyra looked at it, and didn’t say anything, and walked back into hair and makeup.” When she returned in a red-and-pink-polka-dot Rosa Chá bikini, James started snapping. Then, as the waves washed ashore, Banks smized, and slightly tugged on her bikini bottom.

“Tyra looked at it, and didn’t say anything, and walked back into hair and makeup.”

And there it was. The sun had even shimmered, briefly, through the clouds. The cover was shot. “Talk about magic moments, it was literally a moment,” James said. “The hair was perfect, Tyra looked straight at the camera. I had like 10 frames in that burst of light. Tyra almost fired me! She called me later on when we were friends and told me, ‘When I first saw that Polaroid, I almost had you fired.’ ”

“Russell caught that moment,” D’Farley said. “And she looked spectacular. Her skin looked amazing. That polka-dot bikini just fit Tyra perfectly. We just captured this amazing picture. I loved her hair. The whole shoot was just really spectacular.”

On The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in 1996, Banks talked about her reaction to being selected as the solo cover star, and about letting her emotions get the best of her at the magazine’s release party. In response to a question regarding her becoming the first black woman to grace the cover solo, Banks had told a reporter, “It feels great,” and began to sob, just as she had done with her mother over the phone days before.

“When that issue hits the stands, the PR crew just sends that model out to every single network it can,” D’Farley said. “We did a lot of radio shows, we did TV. The issue was sold in 32 countries — for the first time. So, the impact, in terms of her becoming a household name, was just pretty quick because of the machinery of SI itself. The Swimsuit Issue is sort of like the Super Bowl of Sports Illustrated … In ’97, when there were [fewer] channels than there are now, she was just kind of everywhere.”

Nearly two decades later, in front of a handful of other cover models, Banks expressed her gratitude at SI’s 50 Years of Beautiful special in 2014. “A lot of the women here say it was their dream. But it wasn’t my dream, because I didn’t think it was possible because of the color of my skin,” she said. “I want to thank Sports Illustrated for thinking different, and I say different without an -ly, for being daring and for making every little black girl that year that saw that issue go, ‘Oh my God, mama, I think I’m pretty because a black girl’s on the cover just like me.’ ”

D’Farley remembers hearing that placing Banks on the cover would be “historic,” but she said it wasn’t a factor during decision time. “We live in a multicultural society,” she said. “Her look is individual to her. Her ethnicity is sort of secondary … It was just so quintessentially sexy, and wholesome at the same time. She just looked so healthy and vibrant. It wasn’t some kind of PR stunt. It’s a spectacular picture, she’s a spectacular woman and it’s a spectacular moment in time.”

Chris Harris is a versatile writer who has contributed to MTV News, The Village Voice, Ebony, and more. He is an impact player and a game-changer!