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Birds of a Feather

Yvette and Yvonne Sylvander have a rapport that is unique to identical twins

Yvette Sylvander held the small shell in the flat of her hand so that it caught the afternoon sunlight, and she peered inside the empty chamber. "I have eight more exactly like this one," she said, running her finger along the hard spiral that framed the shell. It pleased her that the sea could duplicate its treasures in this way.

"Isn't it beautiful?" she said, and handed the speckled shell to her sister, Yvonne. Yvonne, who's Yvette's identical twin, looked at her sister, and it was obvious that not only were these two bodies from but a single zygote, but they also were two minds with but a single thought. Yvonne held the shell to her lips and whispered, "Are there any more at home like you?"

Yvette and Yvonne were on the cover of SI's 1976 swimsuit issue. Standing in the turquoise surf off Mexico's Baja California peninsula, they formed the perfect bookends for two generations—Yvette on the left in a one-piece bathing suit, Yvonne on the right in a bikini. The daughters of a Swedish ship captain and his mate, Sten and Eivor Sylvander, the twins were 20 and had almost no experience as models when they appeared in SI, yet they are among the most popular of the magazine's swimsuit cover models ever.

"Everybody remembers the twins," says SI senior editor Jule Campbell, who is in charge of SI's annual swimsuit shoot.

The Sylvanders never made a career of modeling after their one appearance in SI. They took a trip to New York after signing with Ford Models, but when the first photographer they encountered told them to take off all their clothes so that he could evaluate their prospects, they said no, thank you, and climbed on the first plane home to Miami. They did some occasional modeling for swimsuit catalogs and boating magazines in South Florida, but most of the time they supported themselves as waitresses in a Miami health food store.

"We got a few jobs from being in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, and we always wanted to do more," says Yvonne, "but I think we were too scared or too shy to go for it. We had one book [modeling portfolio] for the two of us, and if we got a call that was for just one person, we would flip a coin to see who would go. A lot of times it would end up being whichever one of us happened to be in the mood that day."

"I don't think at that age we knew what we wanted to do," says Yvette. "People always said we should model, the way they tell boys who are tall they should play basketball, so we just sort of fell into it."

Though the twins' shimmering blonde hair, tawny skin and gleaming smiles would seem to make them ideal for a life in front of the camera, indeed the Sylvanders' egos aren't suited to the job. Modeling requires a well-developed sense of who you are, and as filmmaker David Cronenberg—whose recent movie, Dead Ringers, explored the dark side of twins' psyches—told The New York Times, it's not always possible to know exactly who you are when there's more than one of you. "I think most of us first feel our identity through our physical uniqueness," said Cronenberg. "But, of course, if there's someone standing next to you who looks exactly like you and is mistaken by everybody for you, then suddenly you have to look elsewhere for your uniqueness."

Many twins grow less alike as they get older, and some even develop a pathological hatred for this duplication of themselves. But as time went by, the Sylvander twins kept getting more and more alike.

"If I don't see my sister for a few days, I feel as if a part of me is lost," says Yvonne. "It's like a battery that needs to be regenerated. Separately we're split personalities, and together we're a whole person. It's sort of funny when we go places together. People stop and stare at us. Sometimes they just start laughing. It can make you feel a little insecure. You start to think, Do we look that weird?"

The twins are rarely separated long enough for their personalities to become split, and even when they are apart, they feel a sense of being connected to each other. On March 27, 1985, Yvonne was on vacation with a friend on Treasure Cay, an island in the Bahamas, when she woke out of a deep sleep at 3 a.m. "I didn't know what was wrong," she says, "but I knew something bad had happened." Her father telephoned later that morning and told her that in Miami at 10 o'clock the previous evening Yvette had lost control of her car, slammed into a building and hit her head on the windshield.

Yvette was still unconscious when Yvonne reached North Miami General Hospital, and she remained in a coma for three weeks. "The doctors didn't know if she'd ever come out of it," says Yvonne. "While she was unconscious, I didn't know what to do. I felt lost most of the time. We had a really tough time being separated."

After Yvette finally regained consciousness, for a couple of weeks she spoke only Swedish, the first language that she and Yvonne had learned. "It was like being born all over again," Yvette says now.

Yvonne laid the groundwork for Yvette's rehabilitation. The first thing she did was try to clear the cobwebs from her twin's memory. "I put our pictures from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED on the wall in her hospital room to try to make her remember who she was," says Yvonne. Not until Yvette awoke from the coma did the doctors discover that she had cracked two vertebrae in her neck in the accident. To prevent any further damage to her spine, the doctors had to immobilize her head for three months by putting it in a halo brace, which looks like a medieval instrument of torture: Metal pins are drilled into the patient's skull to hold the metal ring in place, like a headband.

Philip Villanueva, Yvette's neurologist, noticed the SI pictures hanging on the walls around her hospital bed, and when the brace was placed on her, he insisted that the holes be drilled in the sides of her head. "I heard him arguing with another doctor about it, because they usually do the drilling in the front," Yvonne says. "Whenever we get modeling jobs now, Yvette sends the doctor copies of the pictures to thank him for not leaving marks on her forehead."

Yvonne spent hours with her sister every day, helping her learn to walk and talk all over again. Yvette did finger exercises to learn to write, such as forming the letter A over and over again, just as she had done in grammar school. To regain her balance and hand-eye coordination, every day she tried to hit tennis balls that Yvonne fed to her.

The one thing that Yvette was determined to do without any help from her family was learn to drive a car again. So on the sly she enrolled in a driving school. "I had gotten myself in this fix, and I wanted to get myself out of it," she says. Though Yvette has remarkably few traces of the accident, she must still struggle occasionally to maintain her balance, and she has a bit of a speech problem (she has also acquired a slight Swedish accent). "Everything's sort of a challenge now," she says.

The twins' biggest challenge may be yet to come, for Yvonne has found a young swain and the two have begun talking about settling down. The possibility always existed that one of them might one day leave the other, but until recently the idea of separation had never seemed quite real.

"I had always hoped Yvette would get married first, because I'm more independent than she is," says Yvonne, who works as a dental assistant. "Now that I'm spending a lot of time with my boyfriend, Yvette and I are having a tough time splitting up. It's really hard. I feel like I'm being pulled in two different directions."

Yvette, who occasionally also works as a dental assistant, plans to enroll in a vocational school to become a surgical technologist. ("I think I just like blood," she says. "The gorier, the better.") She considers the transformation that her life is about to undergo yet another form of rebirth.

"Yvonne has always been there for me," says Yvette. "But I want to learn how to be more independent, to have some friends of my own." On the other hand, explains Yvette, "If a guy marries one of us, he marries both of us."