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Baywatch made its premiere on Sept. 22, 1989, ushering in a legion of sculpted, outrageously photogenic TV lifeguards clad in soon-to-be-iconic blazing red trunks and tank suits that seemed to hug every curve and amplify every muscle.
Exactly 30 years later, plugging “Baywatch swimsuit” into a search engine turns up lookalike one-pieces — some of which feature a “Bae Watch” tagline in a particularly millennial update — from Amazon, Etsy, Target and other online retailers. Pop the #Baywatch hashtag into Instagram and a flurry of influencers and beach-goers flood your feed with swimwear in that vibrant hue — which, by the way, Pantone has just officially decreed be called “Baywatch Red” in a nod to the show’s 30th anniversary.
It’s a testament to the show’s legacy that people still just can’t get enough of those red swimsuits cut high at the hip and low at the chest — unless those people happen to be Nicole Eggert and Alexandra Paul, two of the show’s most memorable onscreen lifeguards.
“I would never wear a red bathing suit,” Eggert, who played Summer Quinn in Seasons 3 and 4, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I just couldn’t anymore. Even though I love the color and I think it actually looks good on me. No more. No more. I love it on other people, but on me, like, I might as well be wearing a Baywatch T-shirt.”
“I would definitely not wear a red swimsuit,” agrees Paul, the show’s ill-fated Lt. Stephanie Holden. “It would immediately bring up the Baywatch moniker. I’m not on the show, I’m not pretending to be on the show. That suit was great and it was great to wear it in the ‘90s — but in 2019, I’ll let everyone else wear the red suit. I’ll just support them and tell them how great they look in it.”
But David Chokachi, who starred as Cody Madison for four seasons, has no such qualms. While neither Paul nor Eggert actually own the stretchy suits they helped make famous, the actor not only keeps his old trunks, lifeguard jacket and rescue buoy in his “man cave,” he’s even trotted them out for a Baywatch-inspired Halloween costume.
And who can blame him? As series costume designer Karen Braverman Freeman tells Yahoo, “it was a very sexy look, and it still is.” While showrunners were originally inspired by the bold yet sensible red gear worn by real-life lifeguards, complete with an official-looking yellow stamp on each suit, by the time the series hit syndication, Freeman was tasked with tweaking the costumes “to make it more sexy, and fashionable and look prettier on the girls.” In a sea of Day-Glo bikinis and thongs, a simple low scoop-neck and revealing-but-not-racy high leg line managed to stand out as “sexy, athletic and graceful,” she says.
Manufactured by a range of brands — including Kiwi, Speedo, TYR, Jag and Birdwell Beach Britches, who made the board shorts favored by original cast member Billy Warlock — the suits were sometimes altered to enhance a star’s figure; a nip here to highlight a curve, a hiked-up hem there to visually lengthen the legs. Freeman says that Paul was ultimately given a “more athletic look” with slimmer straps and a slightly higher neckline to better suit her sporty physique.
“I had a different body type than any other actress who was hired for the show because I was not curvaceous and I didn’t have large breasts and I was built very athletically, with broad shoulders,” Paul says, noting that onscreen sister Yasmine Bleeth requested a cross-back variation when she joined the show in 1993. “The Holden sisters just changed it all.”
As it happens, Paul wasn’t even meant to wear a swimsuit on the show.
“It’s funny because my contract had said I didn’t have to wear the suit if I didn’t want to because I had been acting for 10 years and I was playing a lieutenant and there was actually a skirt and shirt combo that looked smart,” she recalls. “It was a white shirt with epaulets and a slim skirt. And it was nice, but I wore it for that first episode and I was like, ‘Heck no, I’m not wearing this anymore, I want a bathing suit. I’m not wearing heels, none of that.’ And I never wore that outfit again.”
Eggert jokes that the black suit she originally wore before her character became an official lifeguard on the show had a “lot more room for error.” But she, too, eventually upgraded to the famed red one-piece.
“I was quite comfortable in the black one and doing athletic things and running around and jumping, all of the stuff,” she says. “And when I put on the red one, it was really quite intimidating, to be honest. It’s intimidating but empowering at the same time.”
Though Chokachi had done a swim test as part of his audition, he didn’t slip on his suit for the first time until he’d been cast and needed fittings.
“I was so looking forward to stepping into those shorts,” he says. “I was just full of zest and passion to get going, but along with those feelings are the feelings of, ‘I hope I live up to what they’re looking for, and can deliver.’ The red bathing suit is basically like the gold standard.”
With the suit came a considerable amount of grooming and physical maintenance.
“There was taping of the boobs,” says Eggert. “But there’s really not that much you can do. You can see everything. I was 19, 20 years old, so there wasn’t a whole lot that I had to cover up or hide, you know what I mean? I still looked so young and genetics were on my side.”
Chokachi credits his background as a college athlete for keeping him in shape and says he felt a “healthy pressure” to have his six-pack abs on standby.
“I figured out real quick that the [better] shape you were in, the more episodes they were going to write for you, and the more money you would make and the more popular your character would be,” he tells Yahoo. “I just used it as a motivation ... and it worked.”
He also wasn’t “afraid to do a little manscaping.”
“I used the excuse that my character was an Olympic swimmer, so I just shaved my chest, because my chest hair never grew in properly, kind of like a 13-year-old pre-pubescent kid,” he laughs. “So I just trimmed that down, manscaped that and did a little other manscaping when it was time to wear the Speedo. You want to be looking good, you know?”
But he says the experience was “definitely harder for the women.”
“I remember there were days when you felt fat, we all had those days where we felt fat,” says Paul, though she notes that “we never talked about diets.” “We did have a notice that came out every autumn that said even if it’s cold — there were some seasons that we shot through December — you have to wear a bathing suit. You cannot wear a jacket. You have to pretend that it’s warm and sunny in California. And so that’s what we did. We were tough.
“Once you wear it a lot you just get used to it and you don’t agonize over it as much,” adds the actress, who credits co-star David Charvet for teaching her to stand up straight in her suit for an instant confidence boost.
There were other challenges associated with the suit — and not just the craft service “wagon” Chokachi remembers being laden with Twinkies and donuts, or Eggert’s recollection of huddling under dry towels and heavy lifeguard jackets while shooting beach scenes in cold weather.
“They really fit well and we didn’t have a lot of problems with stuff hiking up in the back or being too low,” Freeman says of the suits she had built, along with lifeguard jackets and special skin-toned wet suits which would be worn underneath white T-shirts for rescue scenes.
And while everyone agrees with that assessment — with the stars calling their outfits “cut to be active” and “durable” — wardrobe malfunctions did occasionally happen.
“We all definitely lost a shoulder [strap] and flashed the crew, that’s for sure,” says Eggert, while Paul recalls a sound guy struggling to put a mic in her suit without it looking obvious.
“Because I was so flat-chested it was hard to put a mic in there, in the cleavage,” she laughs. “Maybe that why they never cast any small-breasted women before me or after me.”
“Those things would come flying off right your ass if you’re jumping off the speedboat,” Chokachi says of the Speedos he’d sometimes wear for certain rescue scenes. “So you’d just see this white ass kind of pop up in the water. We were all pretty tan and you’d see this white blur go by.”
Even so, he’d be willing to do it all over again and is hopeful that Baywatch will follow other ‘80s and ‘90s shows in getting a reboot.
“I’m holding on to my red shorts because I hope they reboot the show, I want to be the new Hasselhoff character,” he says. “I’m actually in better shape now than I was on the show, so I’m raring for something like this.”
Paul is simply proud of the show’s legacy — even though many wrote it off because of its sex appeal.
“When people say that we showed a lot of skin, I say, ‘Well yeah, we were lifeguards, what do you want us to wear?’” she says. “That show was, I feel, very much a feminist show. In the ‘90s you really did not see shows where women had the same jobs as the men, and as many lines as the men, that passes the Bechdel test. We did exactly what the men did — jumping, saving, all that. And I don’t know that there’s any show out there that did that. We were in so many countries around the world, including ones where women were oppressed. I felt that it was a good role modeling of who women could be to the folks in those countries.”
Paul says she wept when she left the show in Season 7 — and was then doomed to regularly drive past the set “and feel such melancholy” because she lived nearby. Eggert says her work on the show makes her feel “complete,” while Chokachi is wistful about his exit from the show, and the moment he took off his costume for the final time.
“I remember being just really sad,” he says. “For four years I’d been wearing the same red trunks — and of course they update them here and there — but a lot of things happened in those red trunks.”
The show may be gone — for now, anyway — but, with apologies to a certain theme song, its iconic swimsuit is always here. Paul’s hung up her own red one-piece, but she sees its ongoing status as a global phenomenon as the most pleasant of surprises.
“I’m amazed that the bathing suit’s gone from being something where people sort of rolled their eyes when we were actually shooting,” she says, “to now being something that people sort of cherish and appreciate.”
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