Standing in front of the Westwood Marquis hotel in Los Angeles, waiting for Stacey Williams to arrive, I am joined at the curb by three suitcase-clutching children. They are, unmistakably, the pop group Hanson, and to my horror they regard me—in shorts and sneakers, holding notebook and pen—as an aging, unbalanced, autograph-seeking groupie. The drummer arches an eyebrow, as if to say, "How sad." He's, what, four years old?
"A lot of them stay here," Williams remarks, rescuing me in her Range Rover. She is referring to rock stars. Her husband, Evan Strauss, is an executive with the Interscope record label, and the couple has housed many a room-trashing act at the Marquis. Two summers ago, when she called to book rooms there for her wedding guests, the wary reservations desk demurred. "But these are my relatives," she protested. "They're from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania!"
We're winding our way up to Topanga State Park, in the Santa Monica Mountains, where Williams went hiking on her first (blind) date with Strauss. He, too, is a native of southeastern Pennsylvania. "We had so much in common," she says, mentioning a shared passion for Tastykakes. "As kids, we had both been to Dutch Wonderland." (It is, believe it or not, a Pennsylvania Dutch amusement park.)
When they fortuitously got a flat, the couple discovered that their families had a common background in the tire industry. "At the service station we walked into a roomful of tires and did this," says Williams, spreading her arms and inhaling deeply. "Ahhh. I love the smell of those tires."
For a world-class model, she is far more Pa. than L.A., which maybe why Williams—despite having appeared in Elle and Vogue, catwalked in Milan and lived in Paris—has a fan base that is more frat house than art house. "I'm not a waif," says Williams, six feet tall and wearing vertically striped sweatpants that make her appear even taller. "I'm not emaciated. My look is not always going to be in."
But it has always been "in" in our swimsuit issue. This year Williams, 29, is making her seventh consecutive appearance, back by popular demand. Last spring, when she arrived on the beach in Santa Monica for an Upper Deck trading-card shoot with the NFL's top draft choices, several dozen admirers were waiting. "They were the kind of guys," recalls photographer Walter Iooss Jr., "who listen to sports radio." The card company brought a large number of executives to observe. Five video crews rolled tape. Williams's first pose was in a white bikini with a fully uniformed, 350-pound Orlando Pace of the St. Louis Rams. Says Iooss, proud to re-create this bizarre tableau, "Even Orlando looked ill at ease."
Williams, who precedes many sentences with "I don't want to sound like a bitchy model...." is red-eyeing to Puerto Rico tonight for Bain de Soleil, going to work straight off the plane and returning across the continent 24 hours later. "Modeling is not digging ditches for $2 an hour," she points out." I think you have to be grateful every day for what you have."
So she doesn't moan that she's never made the cover of SI? "I've found my niche," she reasons. "And it's outboard motors and beer. I can sell outboard motors."
The truth is, she could sell skin cream to a skeleton, to judge by the reaction when she enters an outdoor market in Brentwood. "No one recognizes me around here," she insists. " Arnold Schwarzenegger lives around the corner, so I'm kind of tertiary." (I nod knowingly, then look it up later: The word means "of the third rank.") "But when I go to the mall, or a Lakers or Kings game, then I get recognized," Williams concedes. "And it's usually from SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. SI put me on the map."
And put her all over the map. While she was in South Africa for the 1996 issue, a Zulu chieftain offered two cows for her hand in marriage, while photo assistants on the set were commanding as much as 20 bovines apiece. ("I didn't look like I could reproduce," she sighs.) At UC San Diego she posed for the 1994 swimsuit issue with members of the U.S. water polo team. "Shooting on a college campus," she says, "was like being thrown into the shark tank. These are the guys who put the pictures on their walls." Sure enough, students quickly breached police barriers and began brandishing swimsuit issues for her to sign. Which is not unusual: Readers of the swimsuit issue, clearly, have a lot of issues.