National Geographic Reveals Swimsuit Issue

Forget the Pyramids: That stately, sand-dusted figure on the National Geographic cover is a babe - and she's wearing nothing but three strategically placed shells.

Margaret Mead never looked like this. Then again, neither did the Geographic, whose first swimsuit issue hits the stands Saturday, 18 days ahead of Sports Illustrated's annual bikini blowout.

Showing all that skin may be a stretch for a magazine whose usual cover lines run to "Indus: Clues to an Ancient Civilization" and "The Magic of Snowy Owls."

Nevertheless, the editors of the venerable Geographic believe they've remained true to their mission.

"If you look through the magazine, you'll see that there are people in all stages of dress and all kinds of bathing costumes, so it's very much in keeping with the whole cultural history of the world, which is what National Geographic portrays," says editor-in-chief Bill Allen.

Besides, he adds: "We just wanted to have a little fun."

Aside from a few new pictures, like that fetching cover shot - in which a tawny Hanna Hobensack, a fashion design student in Sydney, Australia, poses in a three-shell bikini - most of the photos are drawn from the 112-year-old magazine's archives.

And they're nothing if not geographic.

The magazine's range stretches from the beaches of Western Australia - where camels plod past nude bathers on a "clothing optional beach" - to the North Pole, where a scientist bravely skinny-dips in Lake Kharpicha.

Unlike those infamous Geographic pics of yore - those bare-breasted native women that generations of young men found so, um, educational - the photos here are far from titillating, though there's a fetching shot of a sultry Dorothy Lamour in her sarong, and two topless Polynesian women who look like the ones Paul Gauguin painted and pined for.

Some of the women pictured - like the American Red Cross instructor from the 1900s, shown in her knee-length, cotton-wool bathing dress, complete with bloomers and tie-up booties - seem downright overdressed.

Then again, one wishes those elderly sun-worshippers flaunting their flaccid flesh on a Brazilian beach had covered up a little.

And while there are some true beauties in this issue - check the bikini-clad roller skaters on page 72 -the folks at Sports Illustrated are taking this upstart swimsuit issue in stride.

"As the pioneers of the swimsuit genre, we welcome National Geographic to the fold," Sports Illustrated's Rick McCabe said.

Was he sorry the Geographic scooped them by 18 days?

Hardly, he snorted: "We're ahead of them by 39 years."