— Supermodels don't necessarily grow on the same trees they used to, and proof positive is Kate Upton, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition's newest cover girl whose rise to fame came from the Internet instead of the catwalks of Paris or New York City.
The leggy 5-foot-11 stunner was a virtual unknown in modeling circles until she posted a YouTube video last April doing the hip-hop "Dougie Dance" at an L.A. Lakers basketball game. Three million views later, the fashion world was knocking on her door, including modeling heavy hitters IMG, who signed her up.
Now, it's led to what might be the highest-profile modeling gig in the world, gracing the 49th annual Sports Illustrated edition that's eyeballed by about 70 million people each year.
"In my opinion, everybody talks about how the age of the supermodel is dead, but I don't think it's dead," the 19-year-old Upton told Matt Lauer, Ann Curry, Natalie Morales and Al Roker live on TODAY Tuesday.
"I just think people want more; we have new technology, so people want to see personalities, not just someone walking down a runway or just a face. That's why campaigns go to actresses now."
Upton began her modeling career in 2008; at the time, the most famous member of her family was her uncle Fred Upton, the 12-term U.S. congressman from Michigan. But with a healthy exposure boost from YouTube, Upton's career exploded in the past year. She's been the face of Guess jeans and lingerie and worked with fashion merchandisers from Dooney & Burke and Beach Bunny Swimwear.
But following in the footsteps of former Sports Illustrated cover gals Christie Brinkley, Ellie McPherson and Heidi Klum is a dream come true for Upton regardless of whether she ascends the dizzying heights of those supermodels.
"Honestly, being on the cover was my dream, so I just want to live in this moment, and know it's a huge career boost, but I'm just going to ride it out, see where it take me," she told TODAY.
For now, it's landed her on the cover of the New York Times newspaper right along with her revealing Sports Illustrated cover shot. The Times examined Upton's unique rise to the top of the fashion world - in the article, modeling super agent Ivan Bart told of how he took a flyer in signing Upton to IMG despite her untraditional modeling background.
"When Kate first came in, everyone at the agency thought I was crazy," he told the Times. "She wasn't 'fashion' enough." And fashion editor Sophia Neophitou said she believes Upton's look is "too obvious" for high-profile runway work.
Such talk certainly hasn't slowed the Upton Express: she's delving into acting, landing a small role in 2011's film "The Tower Heist" and playing an, er, nun in the upcoming "Three Stooges" film reboot.
But she still basks in the limelight of being tabbed Sports Illustrated's new cover girl, leading a group of 18 models and six athletes who grace the issue's pages. The magazine sent the models to exotic locations in Australia, Panama, Seychelles and Zambia for the shoots, which covered some 51 days and 250,000 photos before the final glitzy shots were selected.
Upton noted it's not necessarily a day at the beach. "A lot of people don't know that; the hours are long and sometimes it's not summer," she told TODAY.
"You can even see on the cover, the wind is blowing, this high wind. But no complaints!"