Hannah Jeter likes to win. After years of struggling to make a name for herself in the notoriously high-turnover world of modelling, the former tennis champion is now squarely front and centre.
She’s the star of arguably the most controversial swimsuit cover of all time, the popular host of Project Runway: Junior and recreated the iconic role of the girl in the Ferrari in National Lampoon reboot. Spend a minute with her and it’s obvious why the 28-year-old has risen so high.
We met at Long Island City’s Circus Warehouse—her choice—because she wanted to try aerial acrobatics. I arrived early, but she was even earlier, happily sitting in the waiting area without handlers like any twenty-something from the neighbourhood, ready to start her Sunday hanging upside down.
Even in casual workout clothes and no makeup, she is ridiculously beautiful. Her eyes are an unusual shade of blue-green, and her skin is the colour of toasted sand. But what strikes you immediately is her warmth, her quick smile, her easy laugh.
Eyeing the people spinning above us near the ceiling, without a net, I ask “Why trapeze?” hoping for a bit of reassurance from the former athlete. “I like to try new things,” she says with her slender arms crossed. “I thought this would be fun.”
Our instructor, Summer Lacy, begins the lesson by showing us how to hold a trapeze bar, telling us to trust that our harnesses will work as we leave the comfort of earth.
“I’m not a worrier,” Hannah says. “There’s no point. My philosophy is to let everyone else worry.”
Davis’ parents moved to St. Thomas on their honeymoon and raised their three children with the same kind of centred island mentality that characterises influencers like Barack Obama and Rihanna. In St. Thomas, Hannah fell in love with tennis young. The same family which instilled a healthy perspective when it comes to worry also drove home the value of hard work and practice, which eventually led to her reaching the top 50 of U.S. Tennis’ youth division. She grew up accustomed to long hours on the court running drills, repeating her serve and volley, getting better and better still. By age 12, though, scouts were already approaching her to model. She put them off until she was 14, when the thought occurred to her that a little modelling might pay for more court time. “I remember asking my mom, ‘If I get $200 an hour, how many rackets could I have and how many lessons could I buy?’ That was really my idea of modelling.”
After graduation, she moved to New York. “It was terrifying because I didn’t even have a credit card,” she says. “I was just a kid.” She was still thinking she would find a way to balance the two callings, but it quickly became apparent that she’d have to leave tennis behind. “If you take three weeks off, there’s someone else who’s training during those three weeks. You take six months off and feel like you’re four years behind. From one day to the next, I said I can’t do this anymore. Because I didn’t want to be mediocre at everything, rather than just picking one thing and working really hard at that.”
After years of rejection and harsh criticism in high-fashion modelling, where her curves were more of a liability than an asset, she was on the verge of quitting. Then Sports Illustrated came calling. Two years later, she made the cover. When I ask her about the controversy that raged, which had everyone including the New York Times weighing in on the infamous image of her sliding down her bikini bottom to reveal nearly her entire hair-free mons, she shrugs it off. “That will be every year with the cover. They’ll say, ‘It was photoshopped too much, or those aren’t her real boobs, or those aren’t her real arms.’ Look, if they weren’t talking about it, I’d be concerned. I’d say, ‘What did we do wrong?’ ”
When first approached by Project Runway: Junior, which features aspiring designers aged 13 to 17, she had misgivings. “I told them, ‘I’m shy. It takes me a while to get my groove and feel comfortable in front of people. I don’t know if I’m the girl for the job.’ ” Once they convinced her, she immediately wanted to know, “Should I take a hosting class? How do I prepare for this?” But the producers didn’t want her to train; they were attracted to her authenticity, and that’s what audiences responded to. “I love kids, so that was sort of the saving grace. You couldn’t come in with a bad attitude, because the minute you walked in, they were waving to you, so excited to be there.”
Where we’re currently less excited to be is upside down. But we get to talking about her personal life, given that she’s married to Derek Jeter, one of the biggest former sports stars in the U.S. The couple is famously private. “I never talk about my relationship, only because I feel like I have to share every other part of my life. It’s that one part that’s a little bit of a mystery to people, but that’s the way we want it. The only way to protect it is not to talk about it.” What she will say, however, is what she was looking for in a guy before she met him. “Personality is everything,” she says. “Having someone you can trust, someone who is an overall honest person, someone who’s down-to-earth. Trying to impress you with material things? I think that’s lame. I wanted someone whose family is a big, important part of their life.” Of course, he’s also someone who understands being driven to be the best at something.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GILLES BENSIMON
STYLING BY CHAROLINE CHRISTIANSSON
MAKE-UP BY QUINN MURPHY FOR DIOR AT THE WALL GROUP
HAIR BY BRYCE SCARLETT FOR HAIR SHOP
LOCATION: THE PRESERVE AT BOTANY BAY, ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS