It's amazing what a little fishnet will do.
At the height of Tiegs's modeling career—that is to say, in 1978, when she appeared on everything from the cover of TIME magazine to the lockers of infatuated schoolboys—she was the most recognizable model in all the land. Her demure pose in a simple white (and, um, wet) fishnet bathing suit called forth paroxysms of love, appreciation, fear, loathing and cancellations through the households of SI readers.
"I guess it was sexy...in a pretty sort of way," Tiegs says of the famous photograph (SI, Jan. 16, 1978, page 43, for those heading immediately to the nearest library). "But I never thought there would be such a reaction. My breasts didn't even show through when the suit was dry. But then I got soaked in there with the iguanas and.... SPORTS ILLUSTRATED had been one of the first publications to use my name. The impact of the magazine was that the male population found out who I was."
Though on the surface a model's existence may seem somewhat frivolous, Tiegs says that in her early days as a teenage model for Seventeen and Glamour, her working day went from 8 a.m. to midnight. But as she moved inevitably from mannequin to "personality," Tiegs's razzmatazz life-style inspired one writer to predict that she was "about to waft off into celebrity, that peculiar state of matter that is like fame, only without responsibility. Celebrities do not have to do anything." And for a while, apart from looking merely fabulous, nothing is exactly what Tiegs did.
Oh, she tried television. A five-year contract with ABC ended in the early '80s by mutual agreement. She tried acting. "But acting was not in my heart," says Tiegs. "Asking me to act was like a person asking me to watch them make butter. Thanks, but I'm not interested. In my heart I always wanted to be a librarian." She tried being married—twice (to Dragoti and Beard). She tried cooperating with the public perception. "I never wanted my life so...so...out there," she says. "But I left myself open. It was the party era, so I went to the zoos [the discos] just like everybody else. The thing was, they saw my face, but nobody knew what was behind the face. When people dug deep to find out, to dissect me, it was painful. Celebrity, stardom, all that rings a bad bell. I never wanted to be labeled anything."
How about survivor? Though she says she doesn't really model anymore—"I do what we call 'editorial' posing and some other stuff out of loyalty [amen, says SI]," she says—Tiegs has been at the top of her profession for an astounding 23 years. Who else has ever done this? Why, nobody, that's who. For a comparison, not even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar does stairs anymore.
Spurning show business once and for all, Tiegs signed a contract with Sears in 1980 to design a line of women's sportswear. "And I'm still hanging in," she says. "That's what I'm most proud of." At the time, the concept of the elegant Tiegs sharing a catalog with washer-dryers and tractor tires seemed bizarre, even tacky. But Tiegs turned out to be a pioneer. Since she wandered full-force into blue-collar mercantilism, Halston signed with J.C. Penney and Jaclyn Smith with K Mart.
"Every day models and actresses, people you couldn't imagine, come up and ask me if there's another Sears out there," says Tiegs. Small wonder. Her signature line has now expanded to include all sportswear and shoes, and her offices cover an entire floor of a building in Manhattan's garment district; projects for the future might include Cheryl's own lines of home furnishings, cosmetics and perfume. For her association with the 800-store chain, Tiegs earns a smooth $4 million a year.
"And it wasn't luck," she says firmly. "I didn't just bob to the surface. I'm German. A Libra. I always planned out my life, organized it both personally and professionally. I'm not one of these people who wake up in the morning and just let things happen." No, from her girlhood, when she would gaze at the pictures of the glorious Jean Shrimpton sashaying through the pages of Vogue and glide across her bedroom in imitation, Tiegs knew what she wanted.
"I've always had a brain," she says. "I hung in where others failed. I'm glad that people now know I can run a business."