Two years ago Michelle Lombardo was a freshman at the University
of Connecticut, taking courses in nutrition but thinking, This is
ridiculous. I don't belong here. I should be on a beach
somewhere. I can spend my days wallowing in textbooks when I'm
older, but I can only be young now. So a few days after the
semester ended, she attended her sister's graduation ceremony at
Central Connecticut State and then, at one o'clock the following
morning, she and her father climbed into a car parked in front of
the family's home in Glastonbury, Conn., and drove west, headed
for Los Angeles. She had visited L.A. only once, but she knew it
was where she wanted to live. Her dad helped her get an apartment
and then went back to Glastonbury. She got a job as a hostess at
a restaurant and played as much beach volleyball as she could. ¬∂
Early this summer, Lombardo heard about the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
Fresh Faces contest. She was one of 2,787 women who entered,
submitting photos of herself and a short essay about her
involvement in sports (she captained her high school volleyball
team). She was one of 40 who made the initial cut, as selected by
a panel made up of representatives from SI and Next Model
Management. In August she flew to Chicago for the next step: a
quick face-to-face meeting with judges and a catwalk competition
between matches at an AVP beach volleyball event on the shores of
Lake Michigan. With her mom in the stands, Lombardo was picked as
one of the eight women to move on to the next round. "I was so
happy, I thought my face was going to rip," she says.
Lombardo and the rest of the Elite Eight then appeared on The
Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn, acting in a skit with Danny
DeVito. It was then, Lombardo says, that life started to feel a
little surreal--not just because she was sharing a stage with
DeVito, but because she and her brother had been in Kilborn's
audience just a few months ago. "It was like, Wow, now I'm on the
other side," she says.
The eight hopefuls then advanced through brackets on the basis of
Internet voting and another round of judging. The two finalists
were Lombardo and Maggi Caruthers, a 21-year-old waitress from
Wichita, Kans. In November both women went to a beach near Dana
Point, Calif., where each was the subject of her own full-scale
swimsuit shoot. It was the first time Lombardo had been at the
center of such an elaborate operation--with makeup artists and
art directors swirling around her as the sun rose--but whatever
nervousness she felt quickly dissolved when the camera started
clicking. "What surprised me was how well it went," she says. "It
felt very easy. Even though it was freezing in the morning ...
and I was in the water a couple times."
After that shoot, Lombardo and Caruthers went up against each
other in a final Internet vote, the result of which was one
factor the judges considered in choosing a winner. Lombardo
received regular updates on the Internet vote tally from her
grandparents back in Connecticut, who don't have a computer but
would visit the public library each day to go online. "My
grandfather was a U.S. Marine," Lombardo says. "He's 80 now, and
I know that he and his old Marine buddies were all voting."
The Corps can now stand down and enjoy the fruits of its labor.
In a segment on Dateline NBC, scheduled for Feb. 6, Lombardo
would learn that she was the winner--and that her pictures would
run in these pages. "This is a dream come true," Lombardo says.
"I would always pick up my brother's copy of the Swimsuit Issue.
I always thought that if I ever did get into modeling, I would
love to make it into SPORTS ILLUSTRATED."
With this Fresh Faces win, Lombardo receives a car and a contract
with a model agency. While she intends to go back to school
someday, and also to move back East--she misses the winters, of
all things--she hopes to make a career in front of the camera. In
her previous stabs at modeling, people in the industry told her
she wasn't thin enough and that her chest was too large. "I don't
think they really knew what to do with me," she says.
Perhaps these photos will give them a few ideas. --Bill Syken
Go to si.com/modelsearch to find out how you could become an SI
swimsuit model in next year's issue.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE ERLE SWIMSUIT BY DONE AUSTRALIA ($74)
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF THE LOMBARDO FAMILY GO WEST! In 1999 Lombardo was too, too far from a warm sandy beach.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE ERLE SWIMSUIT BY NAUTICA ($88)
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY STEVE ERLE SWIMSUIT BY NAUTICA ($175)
MAKEUP BY VICKY STECKEL FOR ART DEPARTMENT, USING SHU UEMURA
HAIR BY JOHN RUGGIERO FOR MERCURY ARTIST GROUP, USING BUMBLE &
ACCOMMODATIONS BY THE ST. REGIS MONARCH BEACH RESORT & SPA
Michelle says that when she found out she was one of the Fresh
Face semifinalists, "I was so happy I thought my face was going
Modeling agencies told Michelle she wasn't thin enough and her
chest was too large. "They didn't know what to do with me," she