Jule Campbell: Creator of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue

From a New York Times obit by Penelope Green headlined “Jule Campbell, 96, Dies; Architect of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue”:

Jule Campbell, the mastermind of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the annual paean to cheesecake — or healthy celebration of female beauty and athleticism, depending on your point of view — that broke publishing records and helped usher in the era of the supermodel, died in Flemington, N.J. .

The “sunshine issue,” as it would be nicknamed by Andre Laguerre, Sports Illustrated’s rumpled, cigar-chewing editor at the time, was invented to fill the editorial void of early winter. For an issue that ran the penultimate week of January 1964, Mr. Laguerre did so with a travel story about diving in the Caribbean, illustrated with a cover photo of a model named Babette March clad in a modest white two-piece suit. But he was unimpressed by the look of the package, which readers barely seemed to notice.

That fall, he summoned Ms. Campbell, then a hard-working fashion reporter who had arrived at the magazine from Glamour some years earlier and whom he held in high regard, to his office. “How would you like,” he asked her, “to go to some beautiful place and put a pretty girl on the cover?”

As Michael MacCambridge wrote in his 1997 book, “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine,” “After the entire process of what would come to be known as the SI swimsuit issue had been debated and deconstructed by feminists, sociologists, subscribers and sports fans, Laguerre’s rhetorical question still stands as the perfect demystification of the entire process.”

It was the dawn of the Twiggy era, but Ms. Campbell went searching for a different sort of model. “I went to California,” she told Mr. MacCambridge, “because I thought we should use more natural kinds of women.”

She chose an 18-year-old named Sue Peterson, blond and baby-faced, and took her to Baja California. Ms. Cambell’s first cover, in late January 1965, introduced a startlingly young-looking Ms. Peterson in a geometric black one-piece; inside the magazine, among other images, there was Ms. Peterson lounging in a nude body stocking and a white fishnet jumpsuit.

“Middle America,” Mr. MacCambridge wrote, “blew a gasket” and bombarded the magazine with letters — hearty huzzahs along with scathing opprobrium.

With that first salvo, Ms. Campbell had set the formula for what would become a publishing behemoth and a franchise in its own right: beach photographs of beautiful young women barely clad in bathing suits. (Ms. Campbell would go on to be a connoisseur of the world’s far-flung beaches.) Most important, Ms. Campbell would let readers know their names. Paulina Porizkova, Elle MacPherson, Cheryl Tiegs, Kathy Ireland and Christie Brinkley, among many others, say that simple act both humanized them and made them celebrities.

“Modeling is not the kind of job where you walk out on a stage and people cheer,” Ms. Brinkley said in an interview, recalling those early years. “I was not aware of my burgeoning notoriety. But all of a sudden it was like, ‘Yo Christie, I love you girl!’ Jule knew what she wanted and what the public wanted. Yet she walked a fine line. She always kept it classy.”

Not everyone took that view. The swimsuit issue reliably drew fire from its readers — the magazine’s staffers had an in-house pool to guess the number of people who would cancel their subscriptions each year — and from groups like the National Organization for Women, which staged protests outside the magazine’s offices and around the country.

Perhaps the most controversial — and infamous — image in the swimsuit issue’s history appeared in 1978, and broke records for the number of reader letters and cancellations it earned. Tucked into the magazine’s pages was a photograph of Ms. Tiegs in a nipple-baring white mesh one-piece, a throwaway shot taken by Walter Iooss, a veteran sports photographer who became a swimsuit issue veteran, at the end of a long day at a challenging location in Brazil.

Back home, it was the last slide in an edit made by Ms. Campbell and Mr. Iooss and presented to Sports Illustrated’s managing editor, Roy Terrell, who had final say on what photos would appear in the issue. It was too risqué for a cover, but he chose it for the spread inside. It made Ms. Tiegs, already a successful model, a megastar and Ms. Campbell one of the most sought-after editors in the fashion business. (The bathing suit, designed by Monika Tilley, is now in the permanent collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

As the years went on, the production of the swimsuit issue became ever more elaborate. The revelation of who would grace the cover became a tightly held secret, along with the issue’s location, to be choreographed on morning television. It reached full hysteria in 1989 with the 25th-anniversary issue — the magazine hired the filmmaker Albert Maysles, known for “Gimme Shelter” and “Grey Gardens,” to make a documentary about Ms. Campbell’s yearlong annual production. (Ben Yagoda, then the media critic at The New York Observer, deemed the movie “mush-core.”) With Ms. Ireland on its cover, the issue broke all sales records.

As for the protests, the models said they were generally unfazed. “At the time I paid pretty much zero notice to it,” Ms. Porizkova said. “In retrospect, I think the protesters had a point, because of course it’s the objectification of women — an annual titillation issue, in a sports magazine for men — but so is all modeling.”

And, as Ms. Ireland said, “The work had a different feel from fashion.”

“There was less drama,” she explained. “I felt more connected to it. Jule hired sports photographers. And it was like sports. You had a goal and you got it done. Jule respected our boundaries, and she brought intentionality and thoughtfulness to every experience.”

Ms. Ireland went on to oversee a lifestyle company now valued at more than a billion dollars; she credits Ms. Campbell, whom her children call Aunt Jule, for her business acumen.

By the 1990s, however, as Mr. MacCambridge pointed out in a phone interview, “the idea that you could sort of modulate the amount of sexuality you were showing in a swimsuit portfolio became open to really fierce debate.”

“As society progressed and began to look more deeply into what sexism was really about, what objectification was really about,” he added, “the notion of the context of Sports Illustrated became increasingly problematic — not just for readers but for the staff writers. I can’t tell you how many people I talked to who were proud of the magazine they worked for 51 weeks a year and ashamed of it the other week.”

But Ms. Campbell was not ashamed, and she wasn’t cynical about her mission. She did not feel her work was gratuitous or sexist, and she worked hard to make sure it wasn’t, said Jill Campbell, her daughter-in-law, who is making a documentary about her.

“I’ve been attacked a few times,” Jule Campbell told a reporter in 1990. “But I have a family. I’m a career person, and I care about women. I just wish women would talk to me and knew how much I censor shots. I’ll walk in front of a camera when there’s a shoot taking place that I don’t like.

“We don’t exploit women, and that’s why we’ve survived.”

Jule grew up in Chicago, in Grosse Pointe, Mich., and on her family’s farm in Flemington. She attended Stephens College in Columbia, Mo., where she studied psychology, and the Journalism School at the University of Missouri, where she studied advertising. In 1956 she married Ronald Neil Campbell, who would go to be a longtime art director at Fortune magazine. Her husband died in 2015.

In 1996, Ms. Campbell retired, after a 31-year reign as the producer of what by 2013, according to Forbes magazine, would total an estimated $1 billion in revenue. Tyra Banks graced her last cover; she was the first Black model to do so, though she shared it with a white Argentine model named Valeria Mazza.

As for the years of obloquy, Ms. Campbell said, half-joking: “I think it’s been accepted. There are no more letters, and sometimes I wonder what I’ve done wrong.”

Penelope Green is a reporter on the Obituaries desk and a feature writer for the Style and Real Estate sections. She has been a reporter for the Home section, editor of Styles of The Times, an early iteration of Style, and a story editor at The Times Magazine.

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