There was a time, not long ago, when the surest path to modeling stardom was down the runway of a top designer’s show, when it would have been unthinkable to find among the industry’s top ranks a swimsuit girl whose main claim to fame was ad campaigns for Guess jeans and Beach Bunny Swimwear.
But that was before social media altered the paths to fame.
Unlike the many anonymous beauties now on view at New York Fashion Week — women seldom identified by more than one name (Agata, Hanaa, Frida, Joan) — Kate Upton, just 19 and an unlikely blending of the come-hither 1950s pinup looks and legs that would do a point guard proud, has arrived on the scene as a largely self-created Internet phenomenon.
It is not just that she has a respectable Twitter following (170,000 people at last count), or a YouTube video with more than 3 million viewers, or marketing potential perhaps best measured by her rocketing from obscurity to No. 2 on a list of the world’s 99 “top” women compiled by AskMen.com, an online magazine with 15 million readers worldwide. (Sofia Vergara, from the ABC sitcom Modern Family, is No. 1.)
Less than a year after Upton — then a curvaceous, rambunctious unknown — posted a video of herself at a Los Angeles Clippers game doing the Dougie, a dance popularized in a hip-hop tune by Cali Swag District, she now finds herself in the one of the most coveted positions in the modeling business.
Joining an elite club of modeling powerhouses — brand names like Cheryl Tiegs, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum — Upton was announced Monday night on David Letterman’s show as the latest cover girl for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, the circulation and advertising behemoth that has long been equally the dream book of adolescent males and the bane of feminists.
In modeling, as in movies (see: Chronicle, the film that hit No. 1 at the US box office this month after relying on social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube for its marketing), music (the band Fun. and its inescapable viral hit We Are Young) and most other cultural endeavors, it is increasingly clear that there is no longer a single path to success.
“We all know that social media now creates its own reality,” said Wayne Sterling, the publisher of Models.com, an industry Web site. “If you become a YouTube star among teenagers, you have even more recognizability than a TV star,” he said. “Kate Upton is the perfect example of that.”
It was soon after the Dougie video went viral that a seasoned scout, David Cunningham, brought Upton to the attention of Ivan Bart of IMG Models, the company behind the multimillion-US dollar careers of women like Gisele Bundchen, Klum and Kate Moss.
“When Kate first came in, everyone at the agency thought I was crazy,” Bart, the so-called superagent who heads IMG Models, said of Upton. “She wasn’t ‘fashion’ enough.”
Bart signed her anyway. And soon, to the surprise of some in the industry, Upton was being sought out for editorial sittings with people like Carine Roitfeld, the French fashion eminence known for her prophetic eye, and by Katie Grand, the influential stylist and editor of the fashion-forward British magazine Love.
Wholesomely proportioned at 180cm and with a 36-25-34 figure, Upton was a long way from the coolly robotic Eastern European beauty ideal that has dominated the catwalks for many seasons. “Kate is bigger than fashion,” Bart said. “She’s the Jayne Mansfield of the Internet.”