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Tannia and Me

How a Roman Gabriel fan lost his innocence

It seems to me (above, in an Oxford cloth shirt from Arrow, $28) that there is more to reminisce about in 25 years of SI swimsuits than just the historical importance of Lycra. The swimsuit issue is like the kitchen wall your parents used to mark your height against each year. It's there, year in and year out; what changes is not the wall, but you against it.

For those of us under 35, those of us who spent our Wonder years with SI, our voice-cracking, orthodontist-funding, Richie Cunningham years with it, the swimsuit issue was a kind of annual hormonal chart, a libidinal litmus test. For instance, when I was 10, the swimsuit issue meant about as much to me as a plate of liver and onions. It ruined one Thursday a year.

That's because every Thursday, I would run home from school, throw my books inside the house, stand on a milk box to reach the mailbox outside the front door, flop the magazine on the carpet, run and get the scissors, and start cutting out pictures to add to my room's wall decor—especially if the picture chanced to be of the coolest person on earth, L.A. Ram quarterback Roman Gabriel. The pages and pages of swimsuit photos took away space that might have featured him.

But when I was 13, something changed. In 1971, on the day the swimsuit issue arrived in my mailbox, my neck was long, my face splotchy and my pants were running out of hems to let out. As usual, I ran, threw, stood, flopped and had the scissors at the ready when my fingers froze. Something went clank inside me. I was suddenly intensely interested in the price and fabric of this year's tank suits and bikinis.

One piece of merchandise particularly held me. It was attached to a dark-haired, exotic temptress standing hip-deep in a shimmering green lagoon, her back to the viewer, doing something mysterious with her hair, maybe washing it. It was something I had never seen my sisters do. Whatever she was doing with her hair, she had decided, quite prudently I thought, to do it without wearing her suit top. I knew this would have to come up in confession on Friday. I also knew it was worth it.

The caption read: "In such seclusion, tops and cares may be discarded: Tannia does both."

Tannia! Not only had I never seen a topless girl giving herself the old Wella Balsam in a green lagoon, I had never known anybody named Tannia.

How old could she be? Eighteen? Maybe even 19. Still, who knew what fate had in store? In two years, if I drank more Nutrament and started lifting weights, I might be on a beach somewhere and run into her and just casually say something clever like "That hair clean yet?" And she might blush and....

"What are you reading?"

You know how whenever you are surprised doing something that maybe you shouldn't be doing, refrigerated blood goes tilt-a-wheeling through your veins? That was what happened to me. It was my mom, calling out from the kitchen, now waiting for my tardy reply.

"Uh, just Sports Illustrated, Mom," I said.

"That's nice. How about another sandwich?"

As they say, Eureka! Wonderful worlds were being opened to me and all of them under the scrutiny of my own mother.

Looking back on it, it seems to me that was the day I banged my nose into adolescence. There I was, thinking about Joe Namath and Bob Gibson and Willis Reed, and all of a sudden I looked to the sideline and noticed the cheerleaders. That was the last day sports meant everything in the world tome.

The swimsuit issue must have that kind of life-history hold on a lot of friends my age, for we have powerful memories of it. For instance, I have asked this question of probably 15 friends: "What is the swimsuit picture you remember the most?" Their answer, without delay, has always been: "Cheryl Tiegs. White fishnet one-piece. Late 1970s."

But where most men's SI swimsuit fantasies stop there, mine went one step further this year. In writing the swimsuit issue travel story—traditionally the most unread words in the magazine industry—I met some of the models themselves. I sat down for dinner one night in Careyes, Mexico, with four of them—Stephanie Seymour, Kara Young, Maria von Hartz and Rachel Hunter. Here they were, right before me. my teenage symbols of womanhood itself. Digestion was out of the question.

By the end of the evening, what I had found was that SI models are 1) more stunning, 2) thinner and 3) richer than I had dreamed. Also, younger. Lots younger. A couple were, in fact, very 19. They talked about Guns n' Roses and the latest Depeche Mode video, and you mean Joni Mitchell used to be good"?

At 30, I suddenly felt old. As I sat there, I thought. Where have you gone, Roman Gabriel?