Remember your first time in heels? Now imagine trying to do that on a Ralph Lauren catwalk with flashbulbs popping and hundreds of fashionistas watching your every move. Thus was Hannah Davis’s introduction to fashion shows (and heels) at the young age of 16.

That New York Fashion Week moment in front of the entire fashion and media world was a far cry from her tomboy childhood on the sandy island of St. Thomas—barefoot on the beach, flip-flops for excursions into town, not much to do but learn how to surf, wakeboard, or ride a unicycle (she still can). Her high school class had just 25 kids in it, and she’s still friends with most of them. Yet today, Davis is quietly putting together one of those epic supermodel runs: Not only has she snagged a coveted spot as one of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue models, but Davis can also be seen multiple times a day as DirecTV’s sultry genie in its latest commercial campaign. There’s also the rumors she’s dating a certain Yankees shortstop by the name of Derek Jeter. “I would rather go to a Yankees game than a Mets game. That’s my final answer,” she laughingly tells Ocean Drive.

Although the 5-foot-10 stunner was courted by modeling agencies at 14, her fame in this arena was not something she could have predicted. Davis was actually first scouted while playing on the US Tennis Association’s junior tennis circuit and was also a member of the Caribbean national volleyball team. And while she’s now hung up her racquet and put away her knee pads for catwalks and photo shoots in exotic locales, her physicality and grace are a sign of her former life as an almost-professional athlete. On a gorgeous Miami Beach day, Ocean Drive and Davis teamed up from sunrise to sunset at the iconic Fontainebleau Miami Beach hotel to showcase the hottest trends in swimwear and to talk about being raised on the beach, her hidden talents, and what really happens behind the scenes of a swimsuit shoot.

What was it like growing up on St. Thomas?
A lot of beach time! We were really into water sports: wakeboarding, surfing, skin boarding. There’s not a whole lot to do on this island besides being at the beach and all that. [Laughs]

Your first winter in New York must have been hard.
I was miserable and so depressed in my apartment. I was like, “How do people live like this? This is horrible! It’s cold!” Now I’ve got the hang of it, but it was very hard in the beginning.

That first runway show must have been nerve-wracking!
Thank God the runway wasn’t that long and I was wearing wedges. I didn’t know how to walk on a runway; I didn’t know how to do that runway walk. I just went out there and I walked naturally—how you would on the street—and turned around and came back. And I remember my agent saying, “Everyone’s obsessed with your walk! It’s so natural and effortless.” And I’m like, “That’s because I don’t know what I’m doing! Because I’m just walking!”

Now you’re a pro. Is shooting Sports Illustrated a dream come true?
Coming into the fashion industry, I definitely had some goals from the get-go. Sports Illustrated was the ultimate for me because it’s a sports magazine. I grew up as an athlete, [so] it’s the coolest thing ever, the best of both worlds. It’s been a dream of mine since I was 14. I remember telling my agent [at the time] that I wanted to be in Sports Illustrated. He was kind of giggling because I had no boobs—I looked like a little boy, really.

How was the shoot?
I shot in Guilin, China, and I was in the middle of nowhere. So hopefully, maybe next year, I can be by the water or at the beach. I feel more like myself, and I take even better pictures when I’m in my element. In China, the whole experience was awesome, but I definitely had to really act and be someone else for a minute—it’s hard to be sexy when you have tourists walking around this park in China!

What about your favorite and least favorite shoots?
My favorite was SI because that was something that I always wanted to do. As for locations, I’ve shot in the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Turks and Caicos; it makes me feel like I’m closer to home. The worst shoots are probably when you have to fly to Europe for a day. You fly in in the morning, you shoot, and then you fly out. I really haven’t had any bad experiences with photographers or clients; I’ve been pretty lucky. I’ve heard some horror stories.

Do you have moments where you say, “I can’t believe I’m getting to do this”?
Every single time! Any time I’m shooting, I always have that moment where I’m like, “Are we really doing this?”

What is it like behind the scenes?
You only see the final product in the magazine, and you don’t realize all the funny things that are going on: The dress doesn’t fit and you have a hundred pins down the back; you’re actually standing on an apple box in the middle of a field; you’re in a bikini and you’ve got 10 “chicken cutlets” in [there]. You’re like, “This is not normal.” Or you’ve got someone pinning the back of your suit to make it look even tighter and sexier, and you’re like, “Oh my God.”

Do you get down to Miami for shoots?
I go there for jobs quite a bit. I love Miami. There’s something just really warm and sexy [about it]; it’s the ultimate vacation spot.

You must be the authority on swimwear.
I definitely want to design a line of bathing suits. I have some really cool ideas, and I know what fits the best because I’ve worn hundreds and hundreds of them. I know the best strapless styles, what doesn’t fall down, which types of white bathing suits are see-through and which aren’t. So, hopefully, in the future....

In a career focused on beauty, what are your views on plastic surgery?
I’m not at a point where I would be ready to do any of that, but never say never. It’s not something I’m looking into at the moment.

What’s something surprising about you?
I’m such an oddball when I’m not working. I know how to stilt walk, and I also have a unicycle. I’m basically like a circus clown. These are things I learned when I was younger, but my parents like to point out that I still know how to do them. At parties they’ll say, “Well, Hannah can [ride a] unicycle. You should see her on it!” And I’ll be like, “Mom!” But then I’ll say, “Okay, fine. Where is it? I’ll show you.”

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