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ESPN Magazine's Editor-In-Chief Talks End Of 'Body Issue'


We're going to talk about bodies now, athletes' bodies. We look at them all the time in motion, of course - running, climbing, jumping, throwing, skating, hitting - but maybe we don't stop to think about how varied athletic bodies really are. And that's exactly what The Body Issue, ESPN The Magazine's annual feature, sets out to celebrate. The Body Issue features athletes from across the sporting world and across gender in carefully composed nude photographs, from the super-famous to the less well-known.

This week we have the final print edition of The Body Issue. Henceforth the issue will become part of a multimedia ESPN platform. We wanted to mark the moment, so we called Editor-in-Chief Alison Overholt. And she explained where ESPN got the idea of creating a body issue in the first place.

ALISON OVERHOLT: There were some conversations that came actually out of the action sports and X Games world, where some of the athletes had done an art project where they took nude photos. And they are actually very beautiful. I mean, you started to get a sense that body types were very different depending on sport. Then there was, you know, the annual conversation around swimsuit and whether that really had anything to do with sports and, you know, how we felt about that in our field.

Then there was sort of perpetual conversation around training and fitness. And, you know, body has never actually gone so explicitly into that space. But this felt like, you know, a way for us to begin to talk about, you know, what do athletes do in order to make their bodies into the machines that they are?

MARTIN: Well, it's a thing now. I mean, it's the kind of thing that as, you know, people who follow sport or, you know, at all probably know about but, what about at the beginning? Did you have trouble at the beginning persuading people or did the athletes kind of get it right away?

OVERHOLT: Oh, absolutely. My first year was crazy. You know, I mean, we openly had conversation about how this might be completely impossible. We also knew that it would hinge on one or two influential people saying yes and that making other people feel safe. And it actually hinged on Serena Williams. Our editor-in-chief at the time approached her on the red carpet at The ESPYs and asked her if she would do this and, you know, had an elevator pitch ready and explained to her what he thought it could accomplish. She was a star, of course, but she was building, you know, her public image and, you know, her reach with fans beyond tennis.

And she looked at him and, you know, asked him a couple of questions and then said, would you put me on the cover? And he said, yes. And she said, I'm in. But she was our first body cover, and to have somebody like Serena Williams, I mean, that cover is still just one of the most iconic that we've ever published. For her to do that made other athletes say, you know, all right. This is something.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of feeling safe, We are in a #MeToo moment. And many people in various fields, particularly women, but I would have to assume not exclusively women, are being very vocal about their working conditions and being vocal about making sure that they have dignity in these sensitive moments. Are there special steps that you take to ensure that people have a dignified environment? You know, I was just fascinated by some of those behind-the-scenes videos like, for example, like the Philadelphia Eagles lineman. They just seemed - they seemed very comfortable.

OVERHOLT: They were hilarious, absolutely. When they decided they wanted to do this, you know, they just said, you know, we would like to have a tailgate. So we threw a tailgate for them, and it was a naked tailgate. And it's the strangest thing to imagine that, but they had a ball. But absolutely, we take a lot of special steps. And one of the earliest conversations that we had specifically about body was the need to bring it, you know, into focus around a mission statement that we developed that's very simply everybody has a story.

And so every single piece that we did, every time we approached an athlete, we wanted to know first, what's your body story? You know, what is the story that they want to tell? And then we work with them to figure out what would be the creative expression visually of that story. And based on that, we're pairing people with photographers who can bring that vision to life.

We're talking to them about, you know, do you feel more comfortable with an open set or a closed set? Do you want to bring people with you who are going to make you feel more comfortable? They're looking at images on screen as they're coming through, which is something that, you know, we don't do at every single shoot. But for something like this, you need to be comfortable with the material.

MARTIN: Would you mind picking one or two stories that you thought was really special for this final print edition?

OVERHOLT: Absolutely. So there's a young woman in the issue named Scout Bassett. And she is a paralympic track and field athlete. She was born in China, and she was abandoned and an orphan and was actually caught in a terrible house fire at a very, very young age. And as a result, she lost her leg. So she wasn't adopted by her American family until she was, you know, probably middle elementary school and didn't begin running until she was into her teens. And she became an incredibly accomplished track and field athlete. She now competes at UCLA.

And when she decided she wanted to do The Body Issue, she was very specific with us and said, I want to make sure people can see my scars because I want them to understand that scars are part of what makes you who you are. And you can have strength and beauty and power even after overcoming an experience like what I went through.

MARTIN: That is Alison Overholt, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine. September is the magazine's last print edition. It is The Body Issue. Alison Overholt, thanks so much for talking to us.

OVERHOLT: Thanks for having me.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, says Scout Bassett competes at UCLA. In fact, she is no longer a college athlete.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: September 8, 2019 at 9:00 PM PDT
This story says Scout Bassett competes at UCLA. In fact, she is no longer a college athlete.