Jule Campbell, fashion editor behind the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, dies at 96

Written by Sophie Tanno, CNN

The pioneering editor widely credited with growing the iconic — and often infamous — Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue into a cultural institution has died at 96.

Jule Campbell died on November 19 in New Jersey. She will be remembered as a “feminist trailblazer” who made significant contributions to the fashion industry, according to Sports Illustrated.

Campbell joined Sports Illustrated as an assistant and reporter in the magazine’s fashion department in the early 1960s, after a stint at Glamour.

Her career took off after the launch of SI’s Swimsuit Issue, which was first suggested by managing editor Andre Laguerre to fill the magazine’s typically slow winter months.

Its first iteration — a six-page cover feature with model Babette March wearing a white two-piece swimsuit — appeared in January 1964. Campbell’s work on the Swimsuit Issue began the following year, soon establishing her as a powerful figure in the industry.

Campbell (right, with binoculars) on set during a Swimsuit Issue shoot.

Campbell (right, with binoculars) on set during a Swimsuit Issue shoot. Credit: Joan Truscio

Eschewing much of the “skinny chic” aesthetic lauded by the fashion industry at the time, Campbell’s vision was clear. On her casting process, she told journalist Michael MacCambridge in an interview for his book “The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine” that, “I went to California because I thought we should use more natural kinds of women.”

“I wanted them to look like real people that were beautiful, and I think our audience related to that,” Sports Illustrated quoted Campbell as saying in their obituary.

The first model she chose was a fresh-faced teen named Sue Peterson, who featured on Campbell’s first cover in a black one piece with side cutouts and a red belt. It set the precedent for decades of issues’ worth of scantily-clad white models — and, while far from what would be considered overtly revealing swimwear today, decades worth of reader outrage.

(As Sports Illustrated noted in a roundup of readers’ letters to mark the Swimsuit Issue’s 50th anniversary in 2014, the first critical letter to make it in print came from a Columbia, South Carolina resident, and read: “I most certainly do not want such pictures coming into my home for my young teen-age son to ogle, much less myself. Think of the thousands of other youngsters around the country that you people are influencing, and don’t do this just for what may be financial gain.”)
The Swimsuit Issue’s 1978 edition reportedly broke records for the number of reader letters after it featured a photograph of model Cheryl Tiegs (who, by that point, had already featured on two of the Swimsuit Issue’s covers) in a nipple-baring white mesh swimsuit. “We thought it was a throwaway photo,” Tiegs said of the controversial image in a 2014 interview with Florida newspaper the Naples Daily News.

Beyond canceled subscriptions, the Swimsuit Issue also sparked protests from groups, including the National Organization of Women, who accused the magazine of objectifying women.

Models in the 2008 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue wear swimsuits designed by Pompei Beach, in New York, on April 24, 2008.

Models in the 2008 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue wear swimsuits designed by Pompei Beach, in New York, on April 24, 2008. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Campbell retired in 1996. Her last issue featured Tyra Banks, the first Black model to appear on the magazine’s cover (though Banks shared the cover with Argentinian model Valerie Mazza). Other famous models who fronted the Swimsuit Issue under Campbell’s tenure included Elle Macpherson, Christie Brinkley, Kathy Ireland, Paulina Porizkova and Carol Alt, among others.

Since 1997, the Swimsuit Issue has been printed as a standalone edition, separate from the regular magazine. It has expanded into televised specials and documentaries; a reality TV series and an open casting call.

In recent years, a greater commitment to diversity in the issue’s pages has seen the inclusion of plus-size, transgender and disabled models. Many an athlete — including tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, Caroline Wozniacki and Naomi Osaka, skier Lindsey Von, wrestler Ronda Rousey and racecar driver Danica Patrick — has featured in the magazine and on its cover; celebrities like Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian and Megan Thee Stallion have also landed cover spots.

“Shooting the cover made me feel really empowered and happy,” Megan Thee Stallion told CNN in 2021 of her cover shoot that year. “It made me feel good to know that women who have bodies like me can be celebrated. Not just the standard types that we have seen before.”

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