Slinking in at number 6 on Google’s list of the most searched people in the United States this year is model Kate Upton. Surprise! Maybe. It’s somewhat difficult to gauge the probability of her meteoric climb to ubiquity this year. Looks, reputation and career span aside, she’s joined Cindy Crawford, Gisele Bundchen, Kate Moss and the like in name recognition in less than a year. In a matter of months, the 20-year-old bombshell has gone from Sports Illustrated Swimsuit’s reigning Rookie of the Year to its 2012 cover model, from pretty face to omnipresent magazine cover girl, from a potential blip to a Google Search mainstay. How did she do it? We combed through her golden locks to untangle her secret to success, and ended up with a convincing case for her domination to continue into 2013.
- Magazine Covers: It’s easy to pinpoint the start of her big year at Feb. 13, 2012, when Sports Illustrated unveiled their 2012 Swimsuit Issue on the Late Show with David Letterman. There, in the photo shoot heard ’round the world, in bronzed skin and (ironically) very little bikini, was the Missouri-born Kate the Great, a woman who was hardly a no-name, but not previously as exposed, for lack of a better word. Her Twitter presence, something of a barometer of influence, was modest—she had some 170,000 followers in early February 2012—but the quality was far more important than the quantity. Most of her followers were males, many of whom had seen her “Dougie” video and were conveniently the target demographic for SI’s yearly bathing suit extravaganza. A July GQ profile summed it up as such: “[Kate is the] Premier Spokesperson for Dude-Friendly Products. A quick stroll through her Twitter stream has her playing Ping-Pong with Jason Pierre-Paul (on behalf of AXE body spray), hanging with James Harden and Kevin Durant (to promote Skullcandy headphones), and joking around with Justin Verlander (for the gaming company 2K Sports).” That likely played a large role in elevating her from “body paint girl” in 2011 to “the girl who will sell a lot of covers” in 2012. Other glossies took note: since February, she has graced the covers both British and Italian Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and Carine Roitfeld’s CR Fashion Book, among others. Her stylized ‘50’s pinup-gone-bad look has a certain je ne sais quoi that lures in men and intrigues (read: infuriates) women, but gets people talking nonetheless. If the stories are as interesting as her sex appeal, then she can count on more titles to dress her up for newsstands in the coming year.
- YouTube Videos: It (mostly) started with a Dougie. Her seated, seductive dance at an April 2011 Clippers game was the first thing that made people care about Upton (or the Clippers, for that matter). Vogue called it a “cinema verité classic gone viral.” It now has over 9.5 million views, and it was the tip of the iceberg. A video of her performing the Cat Daddy dance in her stalwart string bikini for photographer Terry Richardson posted on May 1, 2012, was only 20 seconds long, but sparked conversation that lasted much longer. YouTube promptly removed the clip because of its “sexual content” that violated community guidelines,” before reinstating it two days later; it now has almost 12 million views. Richardson followed up with another, titled “The Many Talents of Kate Upton” in June; YouTube banned and reinstated that one, too (it now has disclaimer). Removing the videos made them forbidden fruit, and people wanted to see them more. The backlash was more of a reflection on sexuality than Upton herself, and it only elevated interest in what was beneath her sultry exterior. It turned out that online videos, which had practically turned her into a martyr for curvy women, were also the best conveyor of her personality. She is as bubbly and game for a good time as she was when she Dougied, with a smile and demeanor as bright as her hair. A Bruce Weber-directed video tie-in with her CR Fashion Book cover showed her frolicking with babies and small animals, clad with a baby blue dress and a permagrin. While so many models leave it all on the runway or at the photo shoot, Upton has proved through the magic of film that she has personality and positivity to spare, a testament to the trope that blondes have more fun. This is a YouTube generation that gives anyone with a camera and a username their 15 seconds of fame, a timeframe that Upton has multiplied many times over. She’s undeniably sexy, but also substantial, so Googling her photos and videos can be as much out of curiosity as perversion. As long as there are online videos and eyes to watch them with, she’ll remain relevant.
- Haters to the Left: Models are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. “This one’s too thin!” “This one’s too tall!” “This one’s just right.” Except that there has rarely been one that has satisfied both the clothes hanger needs of designers and the body realism wants of the public. Upton has been a lightning rod for the eternal debate this year. Some girls said she was “a little flat.” Her ads for Carl’s Jr. were banned and her appearance as a scandalous nun in “The Three Stooges” was met with outrage. Other influential figures cast unflattering judgment on her, as well. “We would never use” Upton for a Victoria’s Secret show, Victoria’s Secret insider Sophia Neophitou told the New York Times in February. Upton had modeled for a few Victoria’s Secret catalogues, but Neophitou called her look “too obvious” to walk their runway. “She’s like a Page 3 girl,” Neophitou continued. “She’s like a footballer’s wife, with the too-blond hair and that kind of face that anyone with enough money can go out and buy.” The saying goes that any press is good press, and this has been the case for Upton. No matter how many jabs are thrown her way, she has a fit physique with which to defend herself. The skinny/fuller-figured model debate will likely never end, and Upton should be at its center as long as she’s willing to strut her stuff. She also knows that she can ride out the negativity in the long run, noting that social media has helped her become a new brand of versatile celebrity model. “People told me I couldn’t be fashion, that I’m just an old-fashioned body girl, only good for swimwear,” Upton said. “But I knew that I could bring back the supermodel. What can I say?” she added. “I’m relatable.”
- Mixing it Up: Luckily for Upton, others agree with her—she was the face for Guess’ 2010-11 campaign, has walked the runway in numerous swimsuit shows, and has secured all of those magazine covers. Though her reverse crossover is an inverse of the usual “famous on the runway, slowly creeps into the public eye” model trajectory, it’s been no less influential on beauty standards. Her twin Vogue covers are part of their “healthy model” plan, and her disclosure of struggles to fit into sample sizes have posited her has a role model for curvy figures. Her silhouette is challenging what the New York Times called the “coolly robotic Eastern European beauty ideal that has dominated the catwalks for many seasons,” a phenomenon that similarly happened when Gisele Bundchen’s healthy figure turned the tide against Kate Moss’ heroin chic prototype in the early 2000s. With this, she sets herself up as the new face of wholesome models, the standard to which younger, similar catwalkers will hold themselves. What says longevity more than that?
- 2013 Will Be Bigger: Upton’s end-of-year performance solidifies that 2012 was her year. Aside from her sky-high Google search frequency, she’s up to 613,317 Twitter followers, she recently inked her first luxury campaign (for Mercedes-Benz), and her cleavage-free January British Vogue cover signals that people will be interested in her, with or without a bathing suit. She has room to grow in the coming year—her sights are firmly set on a high-end fashion campaign. With that, she will find more publicity and, more importantly for her, more legitimacy in the fashion world. In the meantime, she can enjoy the spotlight with her rumored boyfriend, Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. The supermodel and the baseball player? Sounds like the start of a busy 2013 for Upton, indeed.