“If it ain’t broke … break it!”
That appears to be M.J. Day’s guiding philosophy with respect to the once-iconic Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which until the past few years was an eagerly anticipated annual event in the magazine-publishing industry—and by men everywhere.
I say “was”—past tense—because, since Ms. Day took the editorial helm of SI’s yearly deep dive into the latest in swimwear fashion in 2014, she has been “fixing” something that wasn’t broken.
And I’m not referring to the 2019 moving of the release of the swimsuit issue—which traditionally was issued two weeks after the Super Bowl in January or February to take the chill out of winter—to beachgoing season.
In a nutshell, the 2021 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, released last week, is what you might expect if Mother Jones magazine produced one.
As if adding, beginning in 2016, swimsuit models euphemistically referred to as “plus-sized” (in some cases, obese or even morbidly obese), and in 2019 a Muslim model covered head to toe in a “burkini” weren’t contrary enough to the swimsuit issue’s raison d’etre of showcasing female pulchritude, Ms. Day continues to out-PC herself.
In 2019, she also added tattooed models and #MeToo leftist political messaging, and in 2020, the first transgender “woman,” Valentina Sampaio. The latter—and the 2020 edition as a whole—went largely unnoticed because of the coronavirus epidemic.
That may explain why, this year, as if to flash a big middle finger at the swimsuit issue’s primarily (straight) male readership, the 2021 edition not only brought Ms. Sampaio back but also another transgender “woman,” Leyna Bloom. Day put “her” on one of the three different available covers. (One of the others features rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who is more mare than filly. I opted for the third option, pro tennis star Naomi Osaka.)
Ms. Bloom is by far the least attractive—let’s just say it: The homeliest—cover “girl” in the 57-year history of the annual SI swimsuit issue.
In her “Editor’s Letter,” however, Ms. Day exults that Ms. Bloom—an intersectional “twofer”—is the “first trans person of color to appear on our pages.” That’s supposedly “further proof that the more diverse and inclusive a community is, the stronger it becomes.” In what way it improves the swimsuit issue, however, Ms. Day doesn’t say—because she can’t, because it doesn’t.
The diversity and inclusion that Ms. Day obsesses over in the 2021 issue also include four models ranging from merely overweight to morbidly obese and who have no business wearing two-piece swimwear, and several others who, to be charitable about it, are at best “plain Janes.”
“Each is a reminder,” Ms. Day nonetheless insists, “that beauty comes in many forms.” So apparently does unattractive.
It all calls to mind the 2009 observation of talk-radio titan Rush Limbaugh that the media is an industry “where the customer is always wrong.” Ms. Day has enthusiastically embraced that philosophy in giving the swimsuit issue a woke-on-steroids makeover, its intended audience—men who appreciate attractive (real) women—be damned.
Almost as an afterthought (and saving grace), there are a few attractive models—all biological women—in the 2021 edition, including three of my favorite swimsuit issue veterans—Kate Bock, Olivia Culpo, and Camille Kostek. (Alas, another of my favorites, 2015 cover girl Hannah Davis, is AWOL.)
Still, suffice it to say this is no longer your father’s SI swimsuit edition, as helmed for its first 32 years by the legendary Jule Campbell, that showcased renowned supermodels such as Cheryl Tiegs, Christie Brinkley, Heidi Klum, Elle MacPherson, Kathy Ireland, and Paulina Porizkova. (And what red-blooded American male didn’t envy longtime SI swimsuit-issue photographer Walter Iooss Jr.?)
With a cover price of $12.99 (up from $7.99 five years ago, when the quality first starting going south), the current edition is unlikely to sell many copies on the newsstand, at least not if would-be buyers thumb through it first to see what they’d be getting. (They’d be better off saving the $12.99 and instead perusing SI swimsuit archives online.)
Enough unsold copies might just send a sufficiently loud and clear message to Ms. Day’s bosses at publisher Authentic Brands Group/Maven to restore the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition to its former glamor in 2022. It’s badly broken and does need fixing.
• Peter Parisi is a former editor at The Washington Times.