It's that time of year again. Started in 1964 as a way to fill a winter lull in sports coverage, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue has become one of the most eagerly anticipated magazine issues of the year. Sports Illustrated (which, like TIME, is owned by Time Inc.) estimates that the franchise reaches some 66 million people, including 4 in 10 adult American men. As befits such a massive enterprise, the cover is a closely guarded secret; even the model featured on it isn't informed until the last minute. TIME caught up with this year's cover girl, Israeli model Bar Refaeli, just an hour after she found out. (See pictures of pinup queen Bettie Page, 1923-2008.)
How did they tell you that you were going to be on the cover?
They just invited me to the agency and told me I had an audition. My agent got me into his office, and everyone was here, and a camera crew and posters of the cover. My first thought was just like, you know, Why is this here? Why are you tricking me? I was speechless for a few long minutes. Which doesn't happen often.
Did you think they were going to choose you?
You know, the competition is so big and all the girls are so amazing and all the photographers are so good I'm sure each and every picture is just incredible. I knew I was probably in the running, but I had no idea. (See fashion photos from New York City's International Center of Photography.)
This was your third year in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. The previous two years, were you sitting there with your fingers crossed?
The first year I didn't expect it at all. Last year, when they came to Israel, I thought, Hmm, they came to my home country maybe, you know, there's a reason for it. But I didn't get the cover, and it's O.K. because working with Sports Illustrated is such a big compliment anyway that it's not even a disappointment. Now that I am on the cover, I understand how exciting it is.
Who was the first person you told?
The first person I called was my mom, because she knew already. So I called to shout at her. She'd known for a few days. I'm like, "How can you do that?" She always tells me everything.
Is it true you've been modeling since you were 8 months old?
Yes. Since I was 8 months old, till I was 12, I did commercials and ads and cute little stuff for kids. Then I had braces on my teeth. They took them off when I was 16, and then I started modeling more seriously and doing more fashion.
What was your first job?
I don't remember what the word is in English, but you know those things they put around babies' necks when they eat? A bib? Those things. But the ad is still on, to this day. It's really weird. They're still using that, 23 years later.
You're Israeli. Are you voting in the elections?
I am in New York, so I can't.
How do you think they're going to go?
I actually don't know who I would vote for. If I knew I was going to, I'd probably research more. I think I'd probably go for [Foreign Minister Tzipi] Livni, but I don't know.
So I guess you've got a big day planned.
Oh my God, they've got a few days that are nonstop press, which I am delighted to do. I wouldn't care if they'd asked me not to sleep for 72 hours. When they tell you you're on the cover, you're not going to sleep anyway. Basically, the celebration starts in New York and then goes on to Vegas, which is a huge thing.
And you're actually pictured on the side of the plane that you're flying to Vegas in?
>I'd heard that, but I don't know. I don't know yet. These Sports Illustrated people, they know how to hold a secret. Let's wait and see.
Would you rather have the Sports Illustrated cover or be on the side of a plane?
Oh, Sports Illustrated. That's something that is there forever, you know? It's like a collector's item. And the plane, they would take it off probably after a few days. But both are really cool.
So what are you doing next after this?
I'm shooting a show for MTV; we're starting right after all the parties for Sports Illustrated. And then I have work, work, work, work. The show is called House of Style. They used to do it before, and now they're bringing it back. So it's very exciting. The year hasn't started yet and it's already been the best I've ever had.