For years, Natalie Gulbis relished a chance to appear in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Little did she know, the feeling was mutual — SI’s swimsuit editors had long been interested in featuring the LPGA pro in the magazine. But a photo spread in nothing but body paint? That happened almost by accident.
Shortly before the 2012 issue went to print, Gulbis, 29, discussed body-paint jitters, how her fellow golf pros might react and whether she’d do it all again.
This is your first appearance in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. You’ve previously modeled in Maxim, FHM, your own calendars … why SI?
Well, I was really grateful to be a part of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. I mean, anyone who has ever done swimsuit or fashion modeling, or as an athlete, just to be invited is a huge honor. It’s something I’ve wanted to be a part of for quite a few years, and I was so excited when they asked me to be a part of it.
Whose idea was it to ditch the bikini in favor of body paint?
As I was walking into the elevator after my first meeting at the SI office in January of last year, I asked them if they had ever body-painted an athlete before, and as the door was closing on the elevator, [senior editor] M.J. Day was like, “No we haven’t. Would you do it?” And I said, “I think so…let me see…I think so!” So, from that, SI came back to me sometime after and said, “O.K., we’ve decided we’re going to body-paint athletes. Does that sound like something you’d like to be a part of?” It was an honor, and it was exciting.
Did you have any reservations about posing naked?
Not with Sports Illustrated. When you see the pictures, it looks like I have a bathing suit on. It’s pretty incredible. I had seen [body-paint artist] Joanne Gair’s work in the past. One that came to mind was when they body-painted Marisa Miller in the Sacramento Kings jersey. They also shot her in a Rolling Stones t-shirt. I remember thinking how cool that looked. They were works of art.
Where did the shoot take place?
New York. It was shot in December, and when we had the first conversation in the [SI office], they were looking at quite a few spots all over the world. We were originally talking about locations in Asia, because of golf’s popularity there. The body painting was all done in New York.
Couldn’t you request Tahiti, or Bora Bora? They sometimes go tropical with these shoots.
[Laughs] I mean, I’ve been a fan of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue for many years, and the locations are absolutely incredible, always in beautiful spots. We had a beautiful studio that we shot in, right in SoHo in Manhattan.
Did you meet the other athletes when you were in the studio?
No, we all went in individually. I shot by myself, so I had no idea who else was in it. They keep that information really quiet.
How long did it take to paint the bikini?
It took about 13 hours to paint the suit on me. It’s an unbelievable process. It had a golf theme too, and, I mean, it’s art. We didn’t start shooting until 11 at night. When I was done, it all came off in one shower.
More pressure: standing over a five-foot putt to win an event, or standing still while a team of strangers paint your naked body?
The most pressure was when they were taking pictures [laughs]. I was so nervous. You’re up there, and they’re playing club music and everyone is having fun and dancing around. They might forget that you’re naked, but you don’t forget that you’re naked. And everybody’s watching you.
I was trying to think of a way to compare body-paint modeling with golf. That was the best I could do.
The golf is much easier; I’ve been playing that since I was 5. But in terms of modeling, I haven’t done anything of the magnitude of Sports Illustrated. Everybody there has such a great time and is so unbelievable to work with. I was really nervous, but we shared a lot of laughs.
Besides the paint, how was this experience different from modeling in other magazines?
This was the best, by far the best. The people are so grateful and excited to work with SI, and to be part of the Swimsuit Issue. It’s such a big deal, and you really feel that. Everybody is just very excited to be on set with you and contributing to the issue. You really sense that energy. Everybody’s having fun, and there’s great food, and they blast music, and we’re in this really cool studio… I just had a great time.
What do you think the reaction will be from your fellow golfers on the LPGA?
I think they’re going to be excited. I understand why at first you’d think the tour might say, “Why is she doing that?” But I’ve never gotten that sense. In the 10 years I’ve been on tour, whether it’s myself, or other players who have done cross-marketing events or shows, there’s always been support. The LPGA gets excited when a magazine like Sports Illustrated wants to include one of our own. It’s always good for our tour, and I think our players recognize that. And the Tour has always been supportive of me. I think they’ll be very excited.
What about friends and family? This was a secret, right?
It was hard to keep it a secret. They knew that during the holidays I was getting ready for a shoot because I was running a couple of times a day. They knew something was up. But my family and friends know that Sports Illustrated was something I’ve always wanted to be a part of. It’s respected all over the world.
If you have a career-best season on Tour this year, you almost have to pose in SI again next year, right?
I hope so. That would be one more motivating reason.
Just so we’re clear, you would pose in SI again?
Yes! If they invited me! I would sign up again, for sure.