Roy Exum: Babette, Who Started It All

Monday, February 17, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

You never heard of Babette Beatty and that’s just as well, but 50 years ago the kid caused quite a stir. She had gone to the beach one afternoon in Fort Lauderdale, where she was living with her folks at the time, and a life guard had sent her packing, telling her that the white bathing suit she was wearing was a little risqué, especially with the tassels.

So as the 15-year-old German girl walked dejectedly back across the street, a guy who was running an Eastman Kodak store-front offered her $25 to take a few snapshots. Babette was 5-foot-10, model-like thin yet pretty just the same, so she posed and he snapped away with his new Brownie. That was in 1959, mind you, and about a year later, she got a call wondering if she would like to do some fashion shoots.

Another year later – barely 16 -- she was on the runways in New York, a fashion model whose pictures soon were in Vogue, Elle and other slick magazines of the day. "There were about five or six photographers who seemed to like me, and that's how things started for me really,” she told CNN not long ago, and in November of 1963 she got a call from noted photographer J. Frederick Smith who asked her to go to Cozumel.

“We did a lot of pictures together so I said, ‘Why Not?’ The pay was $50 a day and all I had to do was keep my bathing suit from filling up with sand. It was a great trip -- so much fun," she remembered. "There weren't any people there, not like now. You have to remember Cancun (on the mainland) didn't really exist then, the only people there were the Mexican Air Force. And they seemed to enjoy the shoot!

"Each day, we'd have breakfast and then the photographer would tell us where to go. He was just constantly snapping pictures. I was put in my bathing suit, and that was it. We even did our own hair and make-up.”

Well, almost. On January 20, 1964, the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine had a picture of Babette Beatty on the cover with the headline, “A skin diver’s guide to the Caribbean.” And while nobody could have ever predicted what would result, she became the first-ever “most famous” bathing suit model 50 years ago.

The 50th anniversary edition of “the only sports magazine no mothers want their sons to see” hits the news stands tomorrow. So what’s the big deal? In 2012 the SI Swimsuit Edition included $40 million in advertising alone, which doesn’t include the cost of $5.95 per copy, or the 34.5 million video views online. The Swimsuit Edition is as American as baseball and hot dogs with extra mustard, and devoured just as quickly.

This week’s line-up of models is unprecedented, with a trio of Nina Agdal, Lily Aldridge and Chrissy Teigen on the cover who can also be seen giggling on the Jimmy Kimmel Show tonight. They’ve even got Barbie – the plastic Mattel doll – making an “unapologetic” cameo. But back when Babette Beatty started it all, life was tame.

"It's something I did lifetimes ago," she told the LA Times. "I think I've lived six or seven lifetimes. Each one leads to another. "I loved what I did," she said. "But I really am happy where I am now."

Babette said that after the shoot, the entourage flew back home through Dallas. "When we landed, we were grounded and it was announced that President John F. Kennedy Had been shot dead," Beatty told CNN. "The whole plane was just crushed. People were screaming and crying, it was awful. I'll never forget that. The dream trip had ended on such a terribly sad note."

But once she made her way to New York, things were quiet until the Sports Illustrated edition came out. "I didn't realize guys all over the world were going to go crazy over this," she still laughs, telling about the Mexican Air Force officer who followed her to New York, ready to propose. "I wouldn't see him," she shook her head, admitting she got many "weird proposals" over the years.

Today she and her husband of many years – a renowned sculptor artist named Dale Beatty – live in a small town in Oregon with their dogs on a glorious countryside. Yet, to this very day, people will track her down and continue to ask the very attractive woman to sign a magazine cover. "There are marriage proposals too," she laughed, "and I'm 72, I tell you!"

Babette Beatty In 1964
Babette Beatty In 1964

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