Elsa Benitez: 1977—: Model Biography
Mexican-born model Elsa Benitez graced the cover of Sports Illustrated's famous swimsuit issue in 2001. Her career seemed off to a promising start, but she took a break from the fast-paced fashion world to study acting and become a mother. She and her husband, former Miami Heat player Rony Seikaly, became parents to daughter Mila in 2003.
Born in 1977, Benitez is a native of Hermosillo, capital city of the northwest Mexican state of Sonora, about an hour's drive from the Gulf of California. Hermosillo, which lies on the Sonora River, is home to a Ford Motor Company manufacturing plant where the Escort model was once made, and is a thriving agricultural center as well. Growing up, Benitez idolized one of the top models of the 1980s, Linda Evangelista. As a young woman, she reached five feet, ten inches in height, and won a model-search contest in Costa Rica in 1995. She soon began finding work in Latin America, and then signed with Elite Model Management, the agency founded by John Casablancas and later run by Evangelista's husband, Gerald Marie.
Benitez first came to international attention modeling in Europe, and her nascent career was boosted immensely when influential photographer Steven Meisel began working with her. In 1996 she appeared on three covers of Italian Vogue. She also became a favorite of Italian designers Dolce e Gabbana, and appeared in their spring/summer collections shown in Milan in October of 1996. Stefano Gabbana told a writer for London's Observer newspaper, Roger Tredre, that he and Domenico Dolce felt that Benitez "embodies the Mediterranean woman," Gabbana enthused. "Her beauty reminds us of the actresses of the neo-realist Italian cinema, like Anna Magnani." At the time of the interview, Benitez still spoke just rudimentary English.
Benitez went on to work for designers Oscar de la Renta, Valentino, and Rena Lange; she has appeared in ad campaigns for Episode, J. Crew, and Nine West. Her biggest career coup, however, came early in 2001 when she appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue. Under the heading "Goddesses of the Mediterranean," the model's sultry photo was captioned, "Elsa Benitez Heats Up Tunisia." The issue—a February tradition—is centered around an immense promotional blitz, and sales ordinarily hit the $50-million mark. Some of the world's top models had graced the SI cover before Benitez, among them Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks, Elle MacPherson, Christie Brinkley, and Cheryl Tiegs. Launched in 1964 as a way to lure readers during a slow sports-story month, the swimsuit issue grew racier over the years, and the exotic locales of its shoots are usually kept top-secret. "No matter where the magazine drapes its models, though, the issue manages to do one thing no other feature can: it gathers sports fans of every stripe beneath a single umbrella," noted a Financial Times report. "With the swimsuit issue in hand, no one complains that baseball lacks action, that hockey is too violent, that football is for those too fat or too dumb to play hockey."
Benitez's career for the rest of the year seemed promising: she became the spokesperson for Budweiser and Bud Light, and also appeared in ads for the Taco Bell fast-food chain and its new stuffed burrito menu item. One television commercial for the product featured a dream sequence of her walking past two men, who are enamored of the burrito she is carrying, not her. "Agency creatives said the Mexican-born Benitez will help the product earn quick recognition with fickle fast-food customers," wrote Justin M. Norton in AD-WEEK Western Edition. A representative of the San Francisco-based advertising agency involved, Tom O'Keefe, told the trade journal that Benitez "is the ideal spokesperson, because she perfectly embodies the essence of the product."
Benitez appeared again in the 2002 SI swimsuit issue. The New York Post reported in March of 2002 that Sports Illustrated had struck a deal with the Playboy magazine empire to publish some of the other photos from the shoot in the German edition of Playboy. Some of the models—Klum and Eva Herzigova among them—objected to the deal, claiming that the models had not been consulted, and had not signed waivers allowing the publication of outtakes from the shoot in which they were nude in some cases.
Benitez seemed to drop out of the public eye afterward, however. She wed Rony Seikaly, whom she had met in 1997, and was dividing her time between their homes in Miami and New York City. The basketball player, who retired from the New Jersey Nets in 2000, was the first Lebanese player in NBA history, and stands at an impressive six feet, eleven inches. Seikaly was nonplussed by the attention his wife usually received in public. "I've always said I'm the luckiest guy in the world, not because she's beautiful on the outside, but because she's beautiful on the inside, too," Seikaly once told the New York Post. Benitez gave birth to daughter Mila in February of 2003. She has begun taking acting lessons and harbors an ambition for a film career, in both Spanish- and English-language productions.
ADWEEK Western Edition, April 30, 2001.
Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), May 9, 2002, p. 30.
Financial Times, March 16, 2002, p. 24.
Hispanic, April 2003.
Independent (London, England), December 2, 1999, p. 13.
National Petroleum News, June 2001, p, 58.
New York Post, February 21, 2001, p. 22; February 22, 2001, p. 79; March 5, 2002, p. 10.
Observer (London, England), November 3, 1996, p. 25.
Olympian (Olympia, WA), February 24, 2001, p. B3.
"Model of the Week," Ask Men, www.askmen.com/women/models/20_elsa_benitez.html (July 3, 2003).